I usually get food from Tops Bar-B-Q a couple times a week, but before Friday I’d never tried their ribs. I usually get one of their joyously greasy double cheeseburgers or the occasional pulled pork plate. Since the pulled pork at Tops is the very definition of "Memphis average" to me while the double cheeseburgers are an outstanding value at around $5, I never saw the need to spend $12 to try an order of ribs that I assumed would be pretty average for the area.
On Friday I went ahead and got an order of the ribs from the Tops at 3353 Summer, near National, and realized that I’d been missing out. Like the pulled pork, the ribs at Tops could definitely be used to define “Memphis average.” But also like the pulled pork, that shouldn’t be taken as a criticism. With 14 locations around Memphis, including another one on Summer Avenue a few blocks east of the one I ate at Friday, the consistent quality of all the Tops food I’ve eaten is impressive. There are some local restaurants with quality control that varies so much that you are playing barbecue roulette every time you order. Central BBQ is one of the worst offenders I’ve noticed in this category. They can be excellent, but they can also serve up imitation shoe leather.
Tops operates like a small fast food chain, with fairly low prices, quick counter service and drive-through windows, and they still buy quality meat locally from Charlie’s Meat Market on Summer. And I’ve never had a disappointing meal from a Tops location. In fact, they are a major force in maintaining the quality of Memphis barbecue. There are so many stores around town and they are so familiar to people that if you can’t compete with their barbecue, you shouldn’t be opening a barbecue restaurant around here.
“Memphis average” is an assumed level of flavor and tenderness that we can take for granted. It would be interesting to know how many people throughout the country claim to have “awesome family secret barbecue” that isn’t as good as a standard order of Tops ribs. My order was fairly smokey, fairly tender and the sauce had a good flavor with a little spicy kick to it. It was one of the meatiest half-slabs I've had during my quest. The beans and slaw were both good too. While I was eating I ended up talking to an employee who said his time is divided between cooking barbecue at individual restaurants and being one of two guys who mix up the sauce and cole slaw dressing at the company’s warehouse. Apparently the slaw is made in-house at each store but the dressing, which is obviously a mustard, mayonnaise, vinegar and spice mixture, is made in bulk and distributed to them for more of the consistency that makes the chain so reliable.
He also told me that the restaurant where I was eating was the sixth Tops opened and the first building to be constructed by the company as a Tops instead of being converted from a previous use. The company started in 1952 and the store at Getwell and Rhodes was the oldest one still in operation, according to him. So today I visited that store to try Tops rendition of beef brisket, since it was the last main item on their menu that I hadn’t sampled.
The brisket was so tender that I was able to cut it with the side of my plastic fork, but the flavor was more like a pot roast than what I think of as barbecue. It definitely wasn’t as good as the brisket at Fat Larry's. But for less than $10 for a plate lunch with two very generous slices of beef, it was satisfying and on my table within minutes of ordering.
Brisket is a very fatty cut of meat, but the fat was tender and delicious enough to savor as part of the meal. Fat gets a bad reputation from people who assume it is fattening. It’s just stored energy. Insulin and leptin are the two hormones that control fat storage in your body and fat doesn’t cause trouble with either. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are what cause insulin and leptin levels, and your body’s response to them, to go haywire. So I ate the delicious fat from my brisket but tossed the bread that came with it. This morning I’d stepped on my Wii fit for the first time since starting the quest. In three months of near-daily barbecue feasting, where I’ve fairly consistently avoided junk food like sodas, fries, bread, and deserts, my Body Mass Index has stayed just below 22. I was overweight about a year ago when I still avoided soda and limited sugary snacks but made the mistake of eating a lot of supposedly healthy whole grains on a daily basis. Good, healthy animal fat has been a key element to dropping weight and drastically improving my cholesterol profile.
I am well-aware that BMI is a terrible means of judging health since it only looks at height and weight. LeBron James is morbidly obese according to his BMI, since the numbers don't distinguish between weight from muscle and fat. But since I'm in my 30s and not getting any taller the BMI chart is a good way of showing that my weight is staying stable.
I regularly get food from the Tops near my house at Jackson and Watkins. And I’ve also had double cheeseburgers from the stores in West Memphis and Millington. That leaves nine of the 14 locations that I still haven’t visited. I think I need to eat at all of them before my barbecue quest is over. I don’t expect to find a lot of variation, but it is good to remind myself how high our part of the country sets the bar for “average” with our slow cooked pork.