I wasn’t sure what I was going to find at Mean Gene’s Bar-B-Cue. I was going to be working along Highway 51 in the North Memphis/Frayser/Millington area today so I searched for barbecue restaurants on Google Maps since I was running low on new places to try in that area. The lack of barbecue places in North Memphis and Frayser has been surprising to me, since you’d assume the area would be home to a number of little mom and pop joints. They have plenty of hot wing places, but very little barbecue besides a couple of Tops locations.
I noticed Mean Gene’s on the map west of Highway 51 on Wilkinsville, just north of Millington and across the county line in Tipton County, but there were no reviews. The restaurant had an entry on Urban Spoon, but it also contained no additional information besides a phone number that no one answered when I called. I decided to chance it, since it was close enough to the Pig ‘N Whistle in Tipton County for me to have a solid back-up option in case it ended up being a dead end.
What I found was a plain red metal building, surrounded by farm land, with a sign in the parking lot identifying it as Mean Gene’s Bar-B-Cue. It looked like a plain, country dive bar, and a sign on the door identified it as a 21-and-up establishment, but when I stepped inside there was an order counter and a barbecue menu tucked into a corner behind a pool table in the front room. I was welcomed by a man in a camouflage t-shirt and jeans who turned out to be Mean Gene himself. The prices were cheap -- $6.10 for a pulled pork dinner and $11.99 for a half-slab rib dinner -- so I asked which one he thought was better. He assured me that both were good so I went with the ribs.
There was a bigger room to the side that had a bar, tables and a jukebox. I looked through the selections on the jukebox and voiced my approval of the good selection of outlaw country tunes that included plenty of Hank Williams III to go with the old classics by guys like Hank Senior, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and David Allen Coe. Mean Gene answered “yes” and “yes” when I asked if the bar was beer-only for alcohol and if they sold setups for people who brought in liquor. He also said that the 21-and-up rule was due to the Tennessee law that only allows for smoking in restaurants that don’t let in anyone under 21.
I'm always interested to see what the bread servings look like even though I never eat it.
When my half-slab arrived at the table I was impressed by it’s size and the pieces of red pepper flakes I could see on its charred exterior. There was no actual dry rub, but they sauce was served on the side in a big squeeze bottle. The sauce was a little sweet and a little spicy in a way that balanced well with the extremely meaty ribs. The rib meat wasn’t pink all the way to the bone, but there was a very noticeable pink layer on each side of the slab indicating some good smoke penetration. There was no solid fat visible in the meat. Instead deliciously rendered liquid fat ran down my fingers as I was eating, meaning they had been cooked to perfection. They weren’t fall-apart tender the way novices often expect good ribs to be. However the well-textured meat did pull clean from the bones and the only toughness was in the deeply-smokey charred edges that were like chewy little treats.
The beans were pretty standard while the slaw surprised me with it’s appearance. It looked more like homemade sauerkraut, with no visible hint of mayonnaise or mustard. It tasted great but there was also very little of the tart, acidic bite that would have signified a lot of vinegar. Mean Gene didn’t offer any answers when I quizzed him about what went into the stuff but it was so good that I made sure to ration some to go along with my final bite of ribs.
His restaurant is off the beaten path, and as much as I enjoyed it, it definitely won’t appeal to everyone. Apparently the hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 until, "at least eight, but we stay open as long as the crowd is good." If you’ve read this far key words like “dive bar,” “pool table,” “21-and-up,” “outlaw country tunes,” “smoking,” and “meaty ribs” have probably already told you if it is your kind of scene. It’s a place where you can put some money in the jukebox and hear Hank III sing, “Not everybody likes us, but we drive some folks wild.”