Sunday, December 4, 2011

An Authentic Disappointment - Payne's

[UPDATE: While I wasn't very impressed by my first trip to Payne's I also didn't try the restaurant's most beloved menu item -- the jumbo pork sandwich. I had one on a return visit and now I understand what brings people back to the place.]

The Payne’s Bar-B-Q on Elvis Presley has become a bit of an enigma to me. Every time I go by the restaurant is closed, but there is usually an old man sitting inside the place. I’ve heard good things about the barbecue from Payne’s, so when the Elvis Presley location was closed again when I tried to stop by last Thursday I went to the location on Lamar near McLean and grabbed a to-go order of chopped pork and ribs to share with my wife for dinner.

Both of the Payne’s locations are in old, run-down buildings in low-income neighborhoods. However, the Payne’s on Lamar is just a few blocks from the western edge of the relatively hip and gentrified Cooper-Young neighborhood in Midtown Memphis. I think the restaurant’s location is a key part of its popularity. Cooper-Young residents feel coolly in-the-know when they eat barbecue from such an “authentic” dive.

The ribs that came with our order were simply bad. They were extremely rubbery and the only flavor was from the sweet, ketchupy sauce. The chopped pork was better, at least the meat had a good mix of charred and tender textures, but it still lacked smoke flavor and was swimming in the sugary sauce. Payne’s offers their barbecue with either mild, medium or hot sauce and I’d requested hot with both the dinners so we were shocked by how sweet and non-spicy it was.  

The finely chopped cole slaw was swimming in mustard and vinegar. It looked similar to the bold, tasty slaw at Leonard’s, but with way too much vinegar overwhelming the taste. I’m not sure how the overly-sweet sauce and the overly-vinegary slaw would balance out on a sandwich, which is the Payne’s menu item I usually hear people praise, but I wasn't a fan of either when they were served separately on a plate. I’d be willing to go back and try a sandwich sometime, but our first experience with the oft-praised restaurant left my wife and I disappointedly wondering what all the fuss was about.


  1. Well, like my grandmother always said. "You can please most of the folk, but not all of the folk". Payne's customer base extends far pass "cooper-young" and midtown. People come from all over the world actually. Time and time again. Thanks for your criticism. Maybe we can add 40 more years under our belt to the 40 we already have. Thanks again for stopping by.

    1. The reason I didn't link this post to Urbanspoon the way I do most of them is because I didn't try the sandwich, which is what I hear most people rave about. I still plan to go back and try one. Everyone was so friendly on my first visit that I didn't want to make a final judgement without trying the signature menu item.