Tops has been around Memphis since 1952 and currently has 14 locations around the Mid-South. If you are anywhere in Memphis or the surrounding suburbs, you probably have one fairly close by. So if you want to go into business selling pulled pork around here, you need to be able to compete with Tops. And it isn't easy. The pork dinner I ate at the Winchester location today was only $5.55 before tax, so the food is cheap. And while while some of the stores may seem a little funky and rundown, I think it is part of the chain's charm. Instead of the standard fast-food model, where uniformity at all cost is a constant goal, all the Tops stores have their own unique character and their own barbecue pits where food is cooked on-site. Yet the quality of the food is amazingly consistent from store to store.
The Tops on Winchester shares a building with a bodega that offers a check cashing service, so the parking lot can fill up on Fridays when people are getting paid. But there is additional parking in the back and Tops keeps an employee or two in the parking lot when things get hectic to make sure its parking spots are being used by its customers.
It usually isn't listed anywhere on the menu, but you can get hot barbecue sauce instead of the regular if you request it, which I did. Also, my standard rule for the quest is to always order a dinner with beans and slaw. But I realized I couldn't remember ever trying the potato salad at Tops, so I got an order of it with my cole slaw instead of baked beans.
The chopped pork I had at the Winchester store was actually a lot better than average. I have a theory that the food is better at the older locations, where the grills are seasoned with decades worth of soaked-in sauce, seasoning and grease. It had a great smoke flavor and plenty of charred out mixed in with the meat. The mustard potato salad was about what you would expect from a grocery store deli counter. It wasn't bad but it was a little too creamy and bland. I only ate about half of it and will probably stick to the baked beans in the future. I've now eaten at nine of the 14 locations, so there are only five left for me to complete my side quest of eating at all of them.
I crossed an eighth location off the list when I stopped by the location at 4183 Summer, near Graham, a couple weeks ago for one of the chain's perfect double cheeseburgers.
Perfect. Double. Cheeseburger.
I took a picture of the Marion, AR, location off of I-55 just north of West Memphis while I has on the other side of the bridge yesterday since I've eaten a double cheeseburger there since I stated the blog but I've never posted about the restaurant. I love that Tops is a chain yet every location has its own unique look.