Burger King isn't just calling its new limited-time offering "barbecue." It is specifically marketing it as Memphis-style sandwich. So on Thursday I stopped at the Burger King at Park and Getwell to try one.
During the past decade or so my Burger King experience has been limited to a Whopper I purchased due to a random craving a couple years ago while driving past one of the restaurants. Since fast food items are usually industrial products that have had all their natural flavor, texture and nutrition processed out and replaced by chemical additives a craving for for one isn't the same as a craving for the items they are mimicking. Anyone who has eaten a Whooper and a Quarter Pounder could tell the two apart blindfolded, even if they were dressed identically, just based on each sandwich's unique mix of flavoring chemicals. Neither tastes like an actual cheeseburger.
While I try to stick to real food these days, back when I was a broke college student I was actually somewhat partial to the Burger King on Park, which is why I picked it for my barbecue taste test. The young lady who took my order smiled and told me I'd made a good choice when I asked for the pulled pork sandwich, which she said described as "really good."
In the cashier's defense, I'm sure she was comparing it to the rest of the Burger King menu when she said it was a good choice. At $3.81 after tax it was certainly the cheapest barbecue sandwich I've had in Memphis. But it's puny size means it still isn't a bargain compared to something like a jumbo sandwich from Payne's, which is only about $2 more (compare the above photo to the sandwich pic in my Payne's post using my hand as a size reference). The taste was so dominated by bread and sauce that I removed the top bun and ate it open-faced to get a better taste for the contents.
The pulled pork was topped with barbecue sauce, onions and a strange neon yellow sauce that tasted sort of like a tangy honey mustard with some spices added to it. The barbecue sauce just tasted like an overly sweet store-bought sauce from a bottle. There was so much sauce everywhere that it was hard to form much of an opinion on the meager serving of pork. It certainly seemed more like actual barbecue than a McRib but the sauces overwhelmed any taste that the meat had and there was no reason to think it had been cooked in a actual barbecue pit.
The combination of onions and the unidentified yellow sauce made me wonder if anyone involved in the Burger King marketing department had ever eaten a barbecue sandwich from somewhere in the Memphis area. Hopefully no one from any other part of the country will try one and think it is representative of the wonderful culinary tradition this blog is devoted to. It's "Memphis barbecue" in the same sense that Taco Bell sells "Mexican food." On my way out the door I stopped by the counter to ask about the yellow sauce.
"You mean the cole slaw?"
"They call that the cole slaw. It's supposed to be like the slaw on a regular barbecue sandwich."
I don't know what the stuff on my sandwich was but it wasn't cole slaw. The sandwich wasn't very filling either. In fact, between the bread and the sugary sauce I think I was actually hungrier when I left the restaurant than when I arrived. Since I ate real ribs following my McRib, I decided to find myself some real pulled pork.
If I'd wanted pulled pork back when I was a student at the University of Memphis I would have gone to Little Pigs; a real barbecue joint on Highland within walking distance of the school. Today it is a Quizno's. I'm curious if students today are observant enough to stop and wonder why there is a barbecue pit on the side of the sandwich shop?
I noticed smoke pouring from the top of the pit at the Tops Bar-B-Q off of Getwell about half a mile south of the Burger King but I wanted to try somewhere new to me. About a mile further down the road I stopped in at the Boss Man Pit Stop on a section of Getwell that has the same type of blight I mentioned in my recent post on Lamar Avenue. The restaurant was sitting in between a car title pawn shop and an adult video store but the staff was inviting and the place smelled like real barbecue.
A pulled pork sandwich plate was $9.82 after tax at Boss Man. That's over double what I'd spent at Burger King but it was still a better deal in every conceivable way.
The pork plate came with slaw on the sandwich and two extra sides so I got baked beans and onion rings.
I discarded all the bread this time around. It was still a massive pile of food. And the meat was topped something any Southern person could readily identify as cole slaw.
The sauce on the Boss Man pulled pork had a good combination of spice and vinegar tang. The meat had plenty of tasty bark from the outside of the shoulder and pink, smoke-infused meat from beneath that. I did notice some unrendered fat mixed in with the chopped pork, which is one of the biggest reasons I prefer pulled meat. The onion rings tasted like regular commercially-purchased ones from a frozen bag but the beans were nice and thick with a good helping of barbecue sauce in them.
While I was eating the friendly staff came around several times to make sure I didn't need anything else. The owner, Eddie "Boss Man" Patterson, asked if I'd eaten there before and when I told him I hadn't he wanted to know what I thought of the barbecue. When I complimented the smoke ring and told him about Burger King's Memphis barbecue impostor he invited me over to take a look at the pit he cooks in.
I hadn't mentioned having a barbecue blog when he showed me the barbecue pit. He was just an outgoing guy who took pride in his work.
While I was looking at the barbecue pit Patterson mentioned that he has a mobile rig that he takes to local clubs at night to sell barbecue, turkey legs and catfish in the parking lots. When I mentioned that I blog about barbecue he invited me out back to take a look at it.
You can see that Patterson is standing at the back of the motor home pointing at something on the back window.
It's his score from the mobile setup's most recent health inspection, which he is justifiably proud of.
Patterson runs a Twitter account at http://twitter.com/bossman901 where people can see where the truck will be next. If you aren't familiar with Memphis and want to get something from the truck I would highly recommend practicing some due diligence in checking out some of the locations where he sets up to make sure its a scene you're comfortable with. He mentioned taking the truck to Yo Gotti performances so I asked if he sold barbecue when the famed Memphis rapper was at the Level II club.
"Oh yeah," he said.
Level II is located in a sprawling, mostly desolate shopping center on American Way near Mt. Moriah. The large nightclub sits in between an abandoned Wal-Mart and an abandoned Circuit City. I frequently travel past it during the day at work and I knew it was featured heavily in Gotti's video for the song Bang Bang. I've generally stressed in this blog that Memphis isn't anywhere near as dangerous for the average person as sensationalist media reports and fearful suburbanites would lead people to believe. There are a lot more safe, beautiful places and fun, interesting things to do than the city's detractors would lead you to believe.
Most of the violent crime in Memphis isn't random. If you aren't involved in the drug trade, avoid areas and situations where people are obviously looking for trouble and don't identify yourself as a target your odds of being a victim of violent crime plummet. On the other side of that equation, if it's after midnight and you decide to visit a large nightclub in a blighted area where rival gang members are getting thoroughly intoxicated your odds of being involved in a "random" violent altercation can increase exponentially.
Level II during the day is peaceful and quiet. The desolate shopping center it inhabits is what happens when local governments continually subsidize outward sprawl with no ultimate plan.
Level II during a late-night performance by Yo Gotti. Gotti makes incredible music but his shows aren't what most people would refer to as "safe."