Like most Memphians, I've eaten plenty of catered Corky's barbecue at various events, as well as trying the disappointing Corky's station at the Sam's Town Casino. But I had never eaten in the flagship Corky's Bar-B-Q
restaurant on Poplar Avenue in East Memphis before Friday. The recent U.S. News article naming Memphis the best barbecue city in the country specifically mentioned the ribs from Corky's and Central BBQ. Since I ate an enormous feast at Central on Thursday I decided to follow up the next day with a visit to Corky's.
The East Memphis Corky's cramped parking lot can be a little difficult to navigate. Spaces are somewhat limited and there is a constant line of cars for the drive-through window. But having trouble finding a parking spot at a restaurant usually indicates good things within.
As soon as I walked in the door a bartender waved to me before I even reached the hostess and asked if I was dining alone. When I said yes she motioned to the bar and said I could eat there with no wait. I noticed she made the same offer to everyone who came in by themselves and they all took her up on it. It's a shrewd move by the restaurant to keep tables open for groups and cut down on everyone's waiting time.
I'm glad I took a seat at the bar, since it cause me to notice a tap for Corky's Ale. When I asked the bartender, she said it is brewed by Abita specifically to go with the Corky's dry ribs and only available in Corky's restaurants. That eliminated any need for me to look at the menu. As much as I love both dry rub ribs and good microbrews there is no way I was passing up a chance to have a custom paired order.
The large stein of medium brown ale was well-balanced and extremely drinkable. For a local comparison, if you are a fan of the Midtown Brown from Boscos you should like it. The $15.99 half-slab dinner was as pricey as Central or the Bar-B-Q Shop, so it seems like the bigger names in town aren't afraid to charge a little extra for their food. Of course, the law of supply and demand dictates that you can't accuse any restaurant of overcharging when it is full of happy customers.
The ribs themselves were some of the smokiest tasting I've encountered. Like the ribs at Central, they weren't fall-off-the-bone tender as claimed in the U.S. News article. Of course, proper ribs aren't supposed to fall apart, but I'm sure the U.S. News staff just used what they assumed would be an accurate and complimentary description for good ribs. The ribs were loaded with flavor from the smoke, excellent dry rub and rendered fat beneath the meat's crust. However, I like a charred outer crust on my ribs but the exterior of this half-slab was overcooked and leathery. I was sitting between two guys who seemed to be regulars at the bar and they said that the ribs can vary from good to great, which isn't surprising for a place dealing in such volume.
The beans, which had a nice thick sauce, and the roughly shredded slaw were both solidly good. Corky's offers three kinds of barbecue sauce. I preferred the "smokin' hot," which was only a little hotter than the mild original. The third variety was an apple flavored sauce that was too sweet and artificial tasting for me. It was an intriguing idea, since the flavors of apple and pork tend to compliment each other perfectly. One of my favorite toppings for pork dishes we cook at home is made with shallots, butter, wine and sour apples. Just peel and quarter a half-pound of shallots and brown them in a couple tablespoons of butter. Then, on medium heat, add in a half-cup of dry white wine and two granny smith apples that have been peeled, cored and cut into eights. Cook covered for about five minutes, then uncovered for a couple more minutes until most of the liquid is gone. The sweet homemade apple topping is a perfect balance for savory pork dishes. So I understand the thinking behind the apple barbecue sauce, but it tasted more like artificial apple flavoring than actual apple.
Corky's is a local institution with plenty of loyal customers and it's dry ribs will be a revelation to anyone unfamiliar with traditional Memphis barbecue since they are a good standard example. But it is sitting in the middle of a triangle formed by the nearby dry rub trinity of Jack's Bar-B-Q Rib Shack to the north, Leonard's to the south and the Bar-B-Q Shop to the west, so I doubt I'll ever try to squeeze into the East Memphis Corky's parking lot again.