Monday, November 19, 2012

Downtown's New Barbecue District - More Central

It is easy to find barbecue in Downtown Memphis. But most of what you find will be the pricey, mediocre, tourist-oriented fare available on Beale Street. That is why the Double J Smokehouse was such a welcome addition to the Downtown restaurant scene when it opened earlier this year on G.E. Patterson in the South Main District just south of Beale.

The Double J backs up to the parking lot of the National Civil Rights Museum, which is located in what used to be the Lorraine Motel. Local barbecue powerhouse Central BBQ recently threw its glove down in the world of Downtown Memphis barbecue by opening a new location directly across the museum's parking lot from the Double J.

Although I don't try to actually grade any of the barbecue places I visit I want to make sure that people understand that my reviews of places are always influenced by factors like price and expectations. I mention that because I have had people question me for being critical about Central BBQ for some past issues with inconsistency and underwhelming side items while I've showed a lot of love for the various Tops Bar-B-Q locations. I've occasionally had people ask, "How can you think Tops is better than Central?" I don't. I love Tops for what it is -- cheap, fast, available all around town, and always "good enough."

Central frequently wins awards for having the best barbecue in town. It's one of the pricier non-Beale Street barbecue joints in town and you can end up waiting in a pretty long line at the original location. I hold Central to a higher standard. That being said, when it comes dry pork ribs, which I consider the Holy Grail of Memphis barbecue, I have never had a serving from Central that wasn't outstanding.

When I stopped by the new Central location last Monday I ordered the pulled pork plate specifically because it has been more inconsistent in the past, making me curious how it would be at the new place. This time the meat had a perfect texture and juiciness to it. I had it topped with Central's hot barbecue sauce and it added an excellent extra kick to the meat. I usually visit the original Central Avenue location and that is where the occasional dry servings I have experienced over the years have come from. That location also deals in such massive volumes of pulled pork going through its relatively small kitchen that total consistency of quality would probably be nearly impossible on a day-to-day basis. 

While Central is known and praised for its smoked meat, the sides still seem like an afterthought. The slaw was bland but better than the ultra-dry renditions I've had from the other locations. The beans still just seemed like canned baked beans with a token serving of meat tossed on top of them. Neither was bad but I expect a little more effort from a restaurant that enjoys so much acclaim. 

I visited during the middle of a work day and only drank water but I noted the well-thought selection of quality draft beers I've come to expect at Central BBQ including local examples like Ghost River, which is brewed right down Main Street from the restaurant, and Yazoo from Nashville. I also saw a spacious front room with a big screen TV so the new location seems to be following in the Summer Avenue store's footsteps as a great place to catch a Memphis Tigers or Grizzlies game. Given its proximity to the FedExForum I'm sure it also enjoys plenty of fans grabbing pregame food and drinks before home games.

When it comes to atmosphere, my first visit to the neighboring Double J was during a Tigers game and I had a great time there. But during a recent visit to the Double J with my wife the food was still great but we were subjected to blaring top-40 country music being piped in over the radio. I don't know how regular of an occurrence that is, but people visiting Memphis shouldn't be subjected to the canned garbage currently being pumped out by Nashville. If the Double J wants some country music to go with its saloon theme it needs to spring for satellite radio so it can play something like the Outlaw Country station that features music from the days when Nashville still mattered to the music world on an artistic level. Meanwhile, while I was at Central on Monday I enjoyed hearing a nice mix of blues and soul music that seemed very appropriate for the restaurant's location and vibe.

So should you go to Double J or Central when you are in the neighborhood? Because barbecue involves large cuts of meat cooked for long periods of time some inconsistency is unavoidable. In my original post about Double J I said the pulled pork was perfect while the ribs were just a hair overcooked. On a recent visit with my wife I encountered the opposite; perfect ribs and slightly overcooked pulled pork. I can't tell you which of the two restaurants will have better barbecue on any given night, but even on a slightly off night I'm confident that either place will be better than any of the barbecue being served on Beale Street. If you are a serious barbecue fan staying Downtown for a couple days try to find time to sample both.

Central BBQ on Urbanspoon


  1. Central BBQ is still my favorite in town. It's where I take customers and vendors to lunch, and I enjoy their reaction after having been to Rendezvous the night before (despite my firm objections). Central's turnip greens are still my favorite, and although I doubt that they're anything beyond an opened & reheated can, their seasoning is just right. I really enjoy their numerous sauce selections, and their hot BBQ is my favorite, as well.

    Ditto about the Nashville pop country commentary. It's the sole reason I no longer listen to what's billed as "country music" nowadays.

    1. I went back and added to the post that I had the hot with this order of pulled pork and it was great. I prefer the vinegar with the Central ribs.

  2. Most of my friends make fun of my preference for the East Memphis Corky's ribs. I tell them that no, Corky's ribs aren't the best, but they're consistent and that's what keeps you coming back.

    I have yet to eat a consistent meal at Central, regardless of location, time of day, etc... I judge most Q spots by their ribs and central's are just not consistent enough. Just 2 weeks ago I was served shoulder that was cold at one location, and then a week later at the downtown location I was served lukewarm ribs that were a tad under cooked judging by the "give" that it took to get them off the bone. Mix that with sub par sides, and you have a new Rendezvous in the making. What's crazy though is that their smoked wings are better than any of the smoked pork products on their menu. If they could deliver the same pink smoke ring goodness of the wings and apply it CONSISTENTLY to the pig, then I could see why they'd be a contender for the best Q in town.

    1. I still haven't tried the wings but everything I've heard about them has been positive.