What do I mean by curse and cringe? In this year's Memphis Most poll Pete & Sam's was declared Best Italian in a city with options like Bari and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen. Best Hot Wings went to Buffalo Wild Wings while Best Deli went to Jason's Deli and Best Coffee Shop went to Starbucks. Seriously, if you are unfamiliar enough with local options for hot wings, deli food and coffee to vote for those chains, just don't vote. Also, the Cupboard won for Best Vegetarian. The Cupboard is a meat and three country cooking place, meaning it serves the kind of food I eat all the time. It is 10 minutes from my house. I haven't eaten there in years. It doesn't even have the best vegetarian country vegetables on that particular block of the Medical District. For that, go to Peggy's Heavenly Home Cooking.
Not all the winners were dumbfounding selections. Restaurant Iris took Best Fine Dining, Gus's Fried Chicken took Best Southern Fried Chicken and Brother Juniper's took Best Breakfast; all of which were completely deserving choices. But it was still a poll were a Best Shopping Center award went to Collierville's Carriage Crossing; a design nightmare that someone manages to combine the absolute worst elements of dense urban design, suburban strip malls and indoor shopping malls into one terrible experience.
The award for Best Barbecue Ribs went to the Germantown Commissary. I've had plenty of pulled pork from the Commissary over the years but I'd never sampled the ribs there so I decided I needed to make a special trip to see how they measured up. I went with a skeptical but open mind. The pulled pork at the Commissary has always been good, but not exceptional. And the ribs won, but in a poll where the Rendezvous got enough votes for an honorable mention while Leonard's didn't appear on the list at all.
The restaurant is located inside a converted old general store next to the train tracks in old Germantown. The historic location definitely adds to the dining experience.
I had to plan a special trip to eat at the Commissary. It is on the opposite side of the county from my Midtown home. And while I usually try restaurants while I am working, the Commissary is in a heavily residential area that I never travel to for work. So last week I took a ride out there with a friend to try some ribs for dinner. My friend recently moved to Memphis and had heard enough about the Commissary that he was already curious to try it before it appeared on the Memphis Most list.
We arrived a little before 8 p.m. as the main dinner rush was just starting to clear out. All the staff members we encountered were friendly and there was only a short wait before we were seated and ordered a round of Ghost River beers while we looked over the menu.
We may have gone a little overboard with our ordering. We got two full-slab rib dinners, onion rings, chicken wings, and a tamale.
We ordered the wings expecting hot wings, but they were actually just breaded and fried chicken wings served with honey mustard sauce. Not bad, just not what we expected. I guess we just assumed chicken wings are tossed in hot sauce and butter and served with blue cheese or ranch dressing. The onion rings were ordered on a whim and were okay, but they were mostly breading without much onion.
The single tamale was surprisingly filling. It was a Delta-style tamale and came topped with chili and cheese. I enjoyed it overall, but the tamale itself under all that topping was a little dry and bland.*
After sampling all the sides we were ready to tear into the main course. The slabs of ribs at the Commissary are served dry, with no sauce or rub. Dry rub and mild and hot barbecue sauce are all available at the table. The restaurant still includes a tasty deviled egg with its barbecue dinners, which makes for a nice little extra treat. The beans and slaw were both solidly good, as they have always been when I've had food from the Commissary. The rib meat demonstrated great smoke penetration with pink coloration running all the way to the bone.
The ribs themselves are good. I can see where someone who had only tried the lackluster ribs from some of the big names like the Rendezvous or the now-defunct Neely's, along with the "fast food ribs" from Tops, could think they'd found the best in town. It is also important to note that people who live in Germantown are generally not the kind of people who are going to spend a lot of time exploring the rest of the city. That isn't me bashing Germantown. It is one of the nicest suburban areas in the city because it has always shunned the kind of poorly-designed, future-blight, commercial development that the rest of the city's suburbs have never had the foresight to avoid.
But while the ribs at the Commissary are certainly better than average, we were there to see if they were worthy of being crowned the Best Ribs in the Memphis area. As I've noted in the past, I prefer my ribs with dry rub instead of sauce. But even if you prefer sauce, the sauce at Commissary is underwhelmingly mild and flavorless. Even the hot is like someone just added an element of heat to the mild sauce, which has no other flavor elements to make it interesting.
So that brings us to the dry rub. The dry rub is what adds that extra dimension of flavor that takes the ribs to the next level at places like Leonard's, the Bar-B-Q Shop, Jack's Rib Shack, Alex's Tavern and Memphis Barbecue Company that serve truly outstanding ribs. So I had high hoped when I took a section of my commissary ribs and dusted them with the dry rub that was on the table. It tasted like candy. Seriously, it tasted like something that would get sprinkled on an apple on a stick at the fair. It looked like dry rub, but you could get the same result just dusting ribs with brown sugar. There was no other flavor profile to the rub other than overbearing sweetness.
While the sauces and dry rub at the Commissary failed to impress, the ribs are good enough to be enjoyed on their own. They aren't exceptionally juicy or flavorful, but there is a good smoke presence. They are solidly above average. Before anyone complains that, "truly great ribs don't need sauce or rub," I'll say that I agree completely. The ribs at Latham's Meat Company in Jackson, TN, are served without any sauce or rub, and they are truly outstanding. But there is still a complex element of flavor there that the Commissary lacks. If I lived in Germantown, I'd probably eat a lot of Commissary barbecue. It is certainly better than the Tops a few blocks from my house that I frequent out of convenience. Combine convenience with above average quality and it is probably the best place for the demographic it is drawing its customers from. After all, Alex's Tavern may have much better ribs, but good luck on convincing the average Germantown housewife to drive across town to eat there.
*Since I mentioned the tamale being a little dry and bland I'd like to point out that hitting the perfect balance of spice and fat in a tamale is an art. I recently tried this place at Winchester and Kirby Parkway in Hickory Hill were the tamales had a nice spicy kick to them but were a little to soggy and greasy. It is also interesting to note that Hattie's Tamales had an actual store near this intersection for years that I never made it into before it closed. So once I saw they were available from the little shack on a trailer I made sure to get some while I had the chance. The best tamales I've found in the Memphis area are still the ones at the South Memphis Grocery.