Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dirty South Barbecue - Papa Chuck's

If you frequent barbecue joints throughout Memphis you come to recognize elements that indicate the type of establishment you are visiting. Table service with well-dressed waiters and waitresses tell you that you are at a place at the fancier end of the spectrum. Meanwhile a handgun permit class qualification target taped to a wall of bullet-proof glass encasing the order counter signals that you might not be in one of the city's nicest neighborhoods. That is what I encountered when I walked into Papa Chuck's on Airways in between Lamar and the airport.

I'd noticed the spot, tucked behind a liquor store, during taxi rides home from the Memphis airport. The way it sits back from the street makes it hard to spot when you are heading south on Airways. And even headed north it is easy to miss if you are driving and paying attention to the road. But during cab rides home after trips away from the city I am always extra attentive to soaking in the sights of home and I had been meaning to try the little restaurant since I first noticed it over a year ago.

Unfortunately I'd always forget about it on days when I was actually working nearby in the area around Airways and Lamar. But a few days ago I was driving down Park and stopped to photograph the old Big Bluff BBQ building in nearby Orange Mound with its iconic "The Mound" graffiti. That put me in the mood from some Dirty South barbecue, which caused me to remember Papa Chuck's and make a quick detour for lunch.

If anyone knows any of the history of Big Bluff Bar-B-Q I'd love to hear it.

Despite the ominous bullet-proof glass I never felt threatened in any way during my visit to Papa Chuck's. In fact, the homeless woman who greeted me outside the restaurant and attempted to sell me batteries, socks and candy held my hand and prayed for God to bless me back with $2,000 after I gave her $1.

The inside of the restaurant was fairly spartan, with just a handful of tables and chairs in the dining area beside the glass-enclosed kitchen. I asked the woman behind the counter if she thought the rib plate or the pulled pork plate was a better option. She said the ribs, so that is what I ordered. The $8.99 price tag made it one of the cheapest rib plates I've found.

The beans and the slaw were both store-bought. I saw the tubs. The ribs were ulta-tender to the point of falling apart. I prefer a firmer texture to my rib meat, but these were still plenty enjoyable. They were also swimming in a sweet barbecue sauce. Once again, not my preference, but for $8.99 I was still happy with my lunch. Anyone who likes fall-off-the-bone ribs with a lot of sauce would consider them exceptional. And while it wasn't what I usually prefer, it was exactly what I was in the mood for at the time.

At one time, when I would encounter fall-apart ribs like the ones at Papa Chuck's I'd wonder if they'd been boiled before cooking. After some experimenting with cooking ribs on my own I now suspect that ribs like this have been inadvertently boiled at the end of the cooking process. It is common in the barbecue world to  wrap meat in foil when it is nearly done and let it cook for some additional time to continue breaking down the fat in them. Since meat is most receptive to smoke when it is raw, by the end of the cooking process it is hard to get much additional smoke into it. So wrapping meat at the end of a cook doesn't really sacrifice smoke flavor while it does allow it to keep breaking down, and becoming tenderer, without drying out.

A lot of cooks also add a generous amount of sauce to meat at the same time that they wrap it. Keep in mind that barbecue is typically cooked between 225 and 250 degrees while water boils at 212. If meat is sealed up and immersed in liquid while it cooks, it is being boiled. Even without sauce, if fatty cuts like ribs are cooked for too long wrapped in foil the steam and rendered fat in the foil is enough to effectively boil them.

The are different opinions on the best way to cook barbecue because their are so many different opinions on what constitutes great results. Whether or not to wrap, how long to cook in foil if you do, and whether or not to use liquid sauce while you cook are all topics that can inspire huge debate among even the oldest and most experienced of pitmasters. The best way to determine what you think is best is to simply eat barbecue from as many places as possible.

Papa Chuck's BBQ on Urbanspoon

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