I hadn't tried the Hickory Hill location across the street from Big Daddy's Pawn Shop until fairly recently. It is only half a block from the only remaining Southern Hands restaurant and I try to never miss an opportunity to enjoy the Southern Hands meatloaf.
But when my friends Rob and Dan from the Manic American blog visited Memphis a few months ago they declared the ribs from the Hickory Hill A&R were the best they encountered during their time here. These guys know their barbecue so I decided it was time to give the restaurant a try.
Then I got hit by another major distraction. My beloved Emerald Thai Restaurant decided to move from its location nearby on Mt. Moriah out to Lakeland. So for the last couple months it was on Mt. Moriah I was eating there every time I was in the area.
A couple weeks ago, with Emerald Thai finally gone, I was ready to try the Hickory Hill A&R, which was also the only location I hadn't been to yet. Rob and Dan had mentioned the intense smoke flavor of the ribs there and when I pulled into the lot the first thing I noticed was the cloud of smoke pouring from the chimney at the back of the restaurant.
With a similar set up to Big Bill Bar-B-Que in Whitehaven, the Hickory Hill A&R doesn't let a strip mall setting keep it from embracing real smoke cooking. There was no question what I was going to order. I got a rib dinner with beans and slaw. I requested the spicy sauce and when I saw the restaurant also offered Delta-style hot tamales for a buck I added one of them to my order as well.
The beans and slaw were great, which I've come to expect from any A&R. The tamale was also excellent with a perfect balance of texture and spice. A great tamale can't be too soggy or too dry and this one was just right. The ribs were indeed packing a good smoke flavor but the meat was also tough. Thankfully it wasn't as tough as the ribs I tried at the Wolfchase location, which has since closed and reopened as Ty's Bar-B-Q.
I remembered the Wolfchase location having good pulled pork despite the tough ribs so I made a follow-up visit to the Hickory Hill store to try a pork plate. It was solidly good in the Tops-style Memphis average sense. I also got another tamale on my second visit and it was just as good the second time around.
I noticed that Full Custom Gospel Barbecue Blogger Daniel Vaughn made a stop at the Hickory Hill A&R on a trip to Memphis. Vaughn is one the ultimate blogging authorities on barbecue, eventually parlaying his blog into a full-time gig as the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly magazine. His post echoed my sentiment of the ribs carrying good smoke flavor while being overly tough.
Vaughn eats so much incredible barbecue from across the nation that he is an understandably tough critic. For me it had more to do with my mental association of the A&R name with the ribs from the South Memphis location, which packs a not-so-secret weapon that gives it a serious advantage over most urban barbecue joints.
While all the other A&Rs are cooking inside buildings they share with other tenants, the one on Elvis Presley Blvd is the only restaurant cooking in an old-school, rural-style detached smokehouse I know of within the city limits.
Yesterday I stopped back by the South Memphis A&R. I was curious if the ribs were really that much better there or if the image of the smokehouse behind the restaurant was clouding my judgement.
It wasn't a trick of imagination or memory. The ribs at the South Memphis location have the kind perfect texture combined with pink-to-the-bone smoke penetration you normally have to travel to rural places like Latham's Meat Company in Jackson, TN, to find. I applaud the other A&R locations for their devotion to smoke, but the in-store cookers they are using make it much harder to get that smoke into the meat without drying it out.
Keep in mind that real barbecue varies from batch to batch and what Dan and Rob enjoyed could have come out far more tender than what I had at the Hickory Hill store. Consistency is one of the main reasons people go to the trouble and expense of building a smokehouse. Steady, consistent low heat and smoke provide consistent great results in the right hands. In other words, I'm certainly not saying Dan and Rob were wrong to love the Hickory Hill A&R. I'm saying that the next time they pass through Memphis a trip to Elvis Presley Blvd has to be included on their agenda.