Memphis Style BBQ

If you could capture the soul of Memphis, it would croon the blues and ooze the aroma of succulent, smoky BBQ. Memphis style BBQ dates to World War II when small restaurants, called Joints, opened offering slow-smoked meats. Most American BBQ traditions are regional, but Memphis and Kansas City offer distinct enough BBQ cultures to earn globally beloved and self-titled BBQ styles. From its sauces and cuts of meat to its pioneers and festivals, we dispel the smoke around Memphis style barbecue.

What Is Memphis Style BBQ?

Plated BBQ sandwich with coleslaw and sides of baked beans and corn on the cob

Memphis style BBQ is one of the four major American barbecue traditions. Its dry rubs, sauces, and sides are imitated internationally. Locally, it defines the culture of its namesake city, Memphis, Tennessee. While you’ll certainly see chicken and cuts of beef on menus, the hallmark meat of Memphis style BBQ is pork: pork ribs and pulled pork shoulder. Whether you're just learning how to smoke meat or want to branch out into a new style, we explain everything you need to know about Memphis style BBQ.

Memphis BBQ Fast Facts

Gain some quick knowledge about what makes Memphis style BBQ unique.

  • Memphis Style Pulled Pork - Traditionally, Memphis style pulled pork is pit-smoked pork shoulder meat. While it's delicious on its own, Memphis style pulled pork is usually served in sandwiches piled high with creamy coleslaw.
  • Memphis Style Smoked Ribs - Served either wet or dry, Memphis style smoked ribs are always pork.
  • Memphis Dry Rub - Memphis dry rub is a spice blend pitmasters apply to their meats before smoking them. It is composed of salt, brown sugar, white sugar, paprika, garlic powder, black pepper, ginger powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, and rosemary powder.
  • Hickory Smoke - Memphis style BBQ relies on the smoke from hickory wood to cook and flavor the meat.

Difference between Kansas City and Memphis BBQ

The largest differences between Kansas City and Memphis BBQ are their preferred cuts of meat and the flavor profiles of their signature sauces. Pork ribs and pulled pork shoulder define Memphis Style BBQ. While Kansas City style BBQ includes pork ribs and pulled pork, it is known for its burnt ends and traditionally offers a wider variety of meat choices, including chicken, sausage, and brisket. Now, let's talk about the sauce. Memphis style BBQ sauce is thinner, spicier, and less sweet than the almost syrupy, ketchup and molasses-based Kansas City style BBQ sauce.

What Is Memphis BBQ Sauce?

Painting Memphis BBQ Sauce on chicken

Memphis style BBQ sauce is a tomato-based sauce that contains ketchup, brown sugar, garlic, mustard, hot sauce, spices, and vinegar. It’s tangy and thin, making it perfect for drizzling atop pulled pork or dipping meat. When used as a glaze for wet ribs, it caramelizes as it cooks.

What Does Memphis BBQ Sauce Taste Like?

As complex as blues music, Memphis BBQ sauce is at once tangy, spicy, and sweet. It’s the perfect finishing sauce for pork ribs, pulled pork, and poultry. Memphis style BBQ sauce bridges the gap between dense and overwhelmingly sweet Kansas City BBQ sauce and fluid, astringent North Carolina BBQ sauce.

What Are Memphis Style Ribs?

Dry and Wet ribs

Memphis style ribs are slow-smoked baby back ribs. There are two types of Memphis style ribs, wet ribs and dry ribs. We explain the key differences between them below.

  1. Memphis Style Dry Ribs - Memphis style dry ribs are coated in a dry rub before they’re added to the smoker, which creates a toothsome BBQ bark. They do not sauce dry ribs after they’re cooked, allowing the unadulterated meat flavor to shine.
  2. Memphis Style Wet Ribs - Memphis style wet ribs are brushed with barbecue sauce before, during, and after cooking. This produces moist meat, caramelized BBQ bark, and a messy rib-eating experience.

Barbecue Spaghetti

Plated BBQ spaghetti

While anyone can copy the spices and sauces of Memphis style BBQ, only a true Memphis BBQ restaurant will serve barbecue spaghetti. Barbecue spaghetti blends Memphis style BBQ sauce and Italian tomato pasta sauce, creating a unique pasta sauce unto itself. Barbecued pork, peppers, and onions are simmered in the sauce, infusing it with a smoky flavor. Then, chefs stir the spaghetti noodles into the mixture, coating each strand in the sauce. A local Memphis staple, Southern Living called Memphis barbecue spaghetti “iconic” and "perhaps the city's most unusual creation.”

Memphis local, Brady Vincent, invented barbecue spaghetti while working as a railroad cook, and he perfected it when he opened his barbecue restaurant, Brady & Lil’s. Other barbecue restaurants around Memphis have imitated it, and it is now a popular menu item both as a side dish and an entree. Barbecue spaghetti is a great way to use leftover pulled pork and reduce food waste.

Memphis BBQ Sides

While the meat is the main event, Memphis style BBQ boasts a wide variety of delicious side dishes to accompany its cuts of smoked pork. Fried items ranging from French fries and onion rings to fried pickles and hushpuppies are popular choices. Memphis style coleslaw is served both on the side and atop pulled pork sandwiches. The crispy texture and creamy, mayo-based dressing of Memphis style coleslaw complement the tender pork and tangy BBQ sauce. Located on the Mississippi River, soul food staples like collard greens and mac and cheese are also popular BBQ sides in Memphis.

  • Creamy Coleslaw
  • French Fries
  • Corn on the Cob
  • Macaroni and Cheese
  • Hushpuppies
  • Greens

Famous Memphis BBQ

Streets of Memphis at night

From Beale Street to the back roads, Memphis style BBQ was and is developed in the BBQ Joints that birthed it. Discover some of the most famous Memphis BBQ spots that define the style.

  • The Bar-B-Q Shop - Renamed The Bar-B-Q Shop in 1980, we once knew this Memphis staple as Brady and Lil’s, and it is where barbecue spaghetti was invented. The new owner still uses the recipe created by the restaurant's founder.
  • Charlie Vergos Rendezvous - The originator of Memphis style dry-rubbed ribs, the Vergos family has served their local community since 1948. The Rendezvous has grown in fame but not in frills. It is still housed in a basement accessible through a downtown alley across from the Peabody Hotel.
  • A&R Bar-B-Que - A&R Bar-B-Que emerged in 1983 as a takeout-only restaurant. It gained such a following they now offer multiple dine-in locations as well as catering. They're beloved for their tender chopped pork and rib sandwiches. Unlike many modern barbecue spots, they still use charcoal-fired pits, and it shows in the rich and smoky flavor of their meat.
  • Central BBQ - Central BBQ is consistently ranked as one of the best places for BBQ in Memphis and has appeared on national TV shows and publications such as Pitmasters, USA Today, and The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Its founders met in the mid-80s while competing in Memphis in May’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. They opened their first location in 2002.
  • Corky’s - This Memphis BBQ staple pioneered shipping local Memphis style BBQ across the country. Corky’s visionary shipping services popularized the local Memphis BBQ style nationwide, cementing it as one of the four major American BBQ styles. They started bottling their barbecue sauce and selling their ribs and pulled pork in grocery stores to further spread the gospel of Memphis style barbecue.

Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is a four-day competition that takes place in Memphis, Tennessee as part of the month-long Memphis in May festival. It was recognized by USA Today as the “most prestigious barbecue contest.” It provides experienced pitmasters the opportunity to compete for the title of World Champion. Being a true Memphis competition, the contest offers 3 pork categories: ribs, shoulder, and whole hog. It also features small “side” contests for hot wings, sauce, and “anything but pork.”

When Is Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest?

In 2023, the annual Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest will take place from May 17th to 20th. It will be held at Tom Lee Park in downtown Memphis. This year's festivities mark the 45th anniversary of the world's most prestigious BBQ competition.

Whether you’re starting a barbecue restaurant or diversifying your menu, Memphis style BBQ is a renowned meat smoking tradition. While Kansas City style sauce is too sweet for some and sauce from the Carolinas is too astringent for many, Memphis style sauces and rubs are the perfect middle ground. Perfect your recipes and who knows, maybe you’ll even compete in the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest one day.

Posted in: Kitchen & Cooking Tips|Menu Tips|By Corrinn McCauley
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. Please refer to our Content Policy for more details.
External Link

You are about to leave the security of

We are not responsible for the privacy policy or any content, links or software, or any consequences from your access to or use of the technologies, websites, information and programs made available on this new site.

Do you want to proceed?