Tuesday, May 14, 2013
A Memphis Barbeque Brush with Danger
1762 Lamar Ave.
Good barbeque often involves a bit of danger.
No. Not the danger that you’ll be making a middle of the night trip to the local Urgent Care with a bad case of food poisoning.
(Smoking meat for a dozen hours over hickory usually compensates for bacteria-laden lapses in FDA regulations.)
The danger I’m talking about is physical danger.
You know. Like getting shot or mugged.
Stuff like that.
Like every other big Southern city, Memphis has its share of shady neighborhoods -- places where white guys in suits just don’t go.
But that’s why we call this website “Suits in Strange Places.”
Any Suit worth his brief case knows that the best barbeque can always be found in the worst ‘hoods.
So in a city as inextricably linked to good barbeque as any other in the world (with apologies to Lexington, Lockhart and Kansas City), it was no surprise to me that my research led me to a run-down cinder block joint in the “bad” part of Memphis.
Just to reassure myself, I met up with a couple Suit757 cousins from Memphis who happen to be in the restaurant business.
If anyone is going to be intimately aware of both the smoky virtues and dangers of Payne’s, it’s got to be my culinary expert local kin folk, right?
“So, have you ever been to Payne’s?”
Cousin 757 #1: “Never heard of it. Have you ever heard of it,” she asked turning to her boyfriend.
“Nope. Where is it?”
Suit757: “On Lamar.”
Knowing glances all around.
“Oh, well, yeah. We don’t go to that part of town.”
Well that wasn’t helpful.
I had more confidence in cousin 757 #2, who tends to be a bit more adventurous.
“Have you ever heard of Payne’s?”
Cousin 757 #2: “Oh, sure. It’s on Lamar.”
“Ever been there?”
Cousin 757 #2: “Heck no!”
Not the reassurance I was looking for.
“But someone did bring me a carry out sandwich from there once. It was good.”
My cuz wasn’t kidding.
Payne’s serves up one of the greatest ‘que sandwiches that has ever slid past my taste buds.
Having wrapped up a meeting across the river in Arkansas, stomach growling, I raced my rental car with anticipation to this smoky former auto repair shop.
I’m not saying I’d return at midnight to hang with the locals, but Payne’s neighborhood didn’t seem too dangerous at lunch hour.
Sure there were a few sketchy dudes loitering around the empty lots across the street, but once I opened Payne’s front door and entered the heavenly smoke-filled confines, any lingering concerns about personal safety melted away like the fat on a slow smoked pork shoulder.
The atmosphere at Payne’s can be summed up with one word: smoke.
There are no decorations on the walls -- unless you count the 1970s-era window-mounted air conditioner puncturing the cinder blocks.
Even if there were decorative touches, you couldn’t see them anyway through the fog of sweet smelling hickory smoke.
A few bare bulbs hang haphazardly from a ceiling consisting of a quilt-work of water-stained tiles and ply wood.
Mismatched chairs and benches are pushed up under red checkerboard vinyl table coverings.
Each table is topped with nothing more than a dispenser of those cheap tiny napkins that are too small to stay put on your lap.
The mid-day southern sun barely penetrates the stained window coverings and hazy interior darkness.
There is no sound track except for the hack of the cleaver on the cutting board.
Five anticipation-filled minutes after I placed my order and handed the friendly lady at the counter my cash, she slid me a monstrosity of a sandwich on a Styrofoam plate barely big enough.
Between the oversized buns was a mountain of chopped pig meat drenched in a rich red BBQ sauce.
But that’s not all.
On top of the meat and on top of the sauce was a glob of neon yellow cole slaw.
That’s the way a classic pig sandwich is done here in barbeque capital of America. In Memphis, slaw is a barbeque condiment -- not a side dish.
That’s just fine with Suit757.
Cole slaw on the sandwich is how they roll in Virginia and North Carolina too, where Suit757 has spent many a happy afternoon unwrapping the wax paper off of various ‘que sandwiches and chowing down.
But as I stared at the colorful pile of pork, cabbage and sauce before me, I knew it would be challenge just to pick the darn thing up off the plate, let alone keep the various components off of my suit and tie.
By the time I finished half the sandwich, it was reduced to something out of an overly gory horror movie -- slaw, sauce and pork drippings scattered across the plate and table cloth.
It was mess, no doubt.
But a gloriously delicious mess.
A kaleidoscope of textures, flavor and color, the pork was smoky and sweet with the kiss of hickory, some parts soft and white and some crunchy and dark.
The yellow slaw added crunch too in addition to a mustardy/vinegary tang that perfectly complimented the meat.
The tomato-based peppery sauce was advertised as “hot”, but as the counter lady told me, “most folks don’t find it too crazy hot.”
All three flavors together added up to one of the best barbeque experiences of my life.
In fact, I would risk my life to eat here.
Even if I didn’t REALLY feel like I was risking my life, maybe the anticipation of a brush with danger added to the whole Memphis barbeque experience.
Just think, now I can brag to my friends and cousins about how I ventured into the part of town they won’t go to get the best barbeque sandwich in Memphis.
In fact…I think I just did.
Rating: Bought the Shirt!