Thursday, March 1, 2012

Barbecue on the Porch - Central

U.S. News & World Report recently ranked Memphis number one in an article on America's top barbecue cities. I was happy to see that the article specifically recommended the Cozy Corner's wonderful Cornish hen. It also gave props to the ribs at Central BBQ, which I recently enjoyed at the Summer Avenue location. Since this year's unusually mild winter provided another sunny, spring-like day today it seemed like a perfect time to sample some more of Central's food on the big front porch of the original Central Avenue location in Midtown.


It's nice to be nationally recognized for our barbecue, even if it is by a magazine that is known for its completely subjective and ill-informed rankings of everything from colleges to popular diets. The magazine recently ranked diets by merely surveying Registered Dietitians about their opinions. Since RDs are usually certified by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly called the American Dietetic Association), which is funded by companies like General Mills, Kellogg's, Mars, Pepsico, SOYJOY, CocaCola and Hershey, it wasn't surprising when the processed-food-friendly Weight Watchers program was ranked the best overall diet.

The barbecue rankings relied heavily on travel blogs and websites like Tripadvisor.com. While still completely unscientific, judging barbecue is an inherently subjective experience anyway. And while it does seem a little odd to rely on tourist's opinions, since they tend to be unfamiliar with local restaurants and only able to try a few places, around here asking a group of locals where the best barbecue is will generally just result in an angry shouting match.

The last time I ate at the original Central BBQ with some friends I had some excellent pulled pork, but I have also had some extremely dry and rubbery servings during the restaurant's decade-long existence. So I was curious to try an order today, but I also wanted some ribs since they impressed me at the Summer Avenue location and earned a mention in the U.S. News article. Looking over the menu I decided to go all-out and order the "combo with ribs." For $22.99 I got a giant serving of ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, beans and slaw. It was a mountain of food but the restaurant is close enough to my house that I knew I could run leftovers home before getting back to work.

I ignored the rolls and drank water. But I ate all the ribs, beans and slaw; about half the pulled pork and a third of the brisket. An hour later my blood sugar was only 106. So this is actually a healthier, less fattening choice than any Weight-Watcher-approved processed junk from Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice or Slim Fast as long as it is part of an overall JERF (just eat real food) approach to eating.  

Don't be scared if you see a long line at the Central Avenue store. You order at the a counter, get a number, then find a table and wait for someone to bring your food. The friendly crew maintains a frantic pace to keep the line moving with food steadily flowing from the kitchen.
 
The rib prices at Central are definitely higher than most local barbecue places. At $15.95 a half-slab of ribs costs there costs as much as the Bar-B-Q Shop, but isn't as big. But there are cheaper options on the menu. A half-order of barbecue nachos is less than $6 and I heard more than one person at nearby tables exclaim, "That's a half order!" when they saw how generous the serving was. A full order is less than $9 and would probably easily feed two people.

While you wait on you food you get your silverware and sauce from an area next to the drink fountain. There are mild, hot, mustard and vinegar sauces that all sport unique flavor profiles. I got samples of each to mix and match with my three meats selections.

From left: The mild sauce had a nice kick to it while the hot was genuinely fiery. I wasn't a fan of the Carolina-style mustard sauce, but the runny vinegar sauce added a great bite to the already-great-tasting ribs. 

The tender, juicy dry ribs were the best thing on my plate and they made everything else seem a little bland in comparison. Of course, they're also the most expensive thing on the menu so its appropriate that they truly stand out. All the meat had a good, natural smoke flavor but the pulled pork was a little dry and the brisket was nearly jerky-tough. The ribs were good enough to eat sauce-less but a bit of the vinegar sauce added an intriguing tang to the flavor. They weren't fall-apart tender like the U.S. News article claimed but instead retained the meaty texture that you want in good ribs while still being infused with deliciously rendered fat.


I thought the mild sauce paired best with the pulled pork, and adding it completely masked the dryness that I noted eating it plain while still letting the flavor of the meat through. I normally prefer hot barbecue sauce, but at Central I think the well-seasoned mild has a better balance of flavors. Of all the combinations I tried, the Carolina-style mustard sauce on the Texas-style brisket was the only one that seemed flat-out wrong. Besides the same flavorless slaw that I talked about at the Summer Avenue location, the chewy brisket was the most disappointing part of the meal, but I'll try the leftovers with some scrambled eggs for breakfast to give it another chance when it isn't being overshadowed by the ribs since I've recently discovered the joys of barbecue and eggs for breakfast.

Central BBQ has a great selection of microbrews on tap to go along with the spacious front porch. Overall I don't think the food is as good as the Bar-B-Q Shop nearby, but if it is a nice day the draw of a cold pint of a good beer combined with a comfortable outdoor seat on a roomy porch can be a major deciding factor.


Central BBQ on Urbanspoon

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