Family. Tradition. Soul. That’s what sets the Memphis BBQ apart. Ronald Payne of Payne’s Bar-BQ says most barbecue restaurants in Memphis are family-owned, and barbecue here just has a certain “soul.” The restaurant he runs today was started by his father, and their mustard coleslaw, which they make every day, has been in his father’s family for four or five generations. “My dad’s family was a big barbecue family,” he says, joking that his mom “never planned on being at Payne’s every day like she was.”
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, another iconic family-run barbecue restaurant in Memphis, is one of the only other establishments to offer mustard coleslaw. “Our mustard and vinegar coleslaw is a 100-year-old family recipe,” says her granddaughter, Anna Vergos-Blair. “Charlie’s dad had a hot dog stand on Beale Street around 1910. He put this coleslaw on the hot dogs. It’s the same recipe we use today (and it’s still great on hot dogs).
Personally, Ronald prefers a mayonnaise salad, but says their mustard salad goes best with their hot sauce. “The combination just works,” he says.
Anna asked her father, John Vergos, why the people of Memphis put coleslaw on their barbecues and he replied, “It’s the perfect combination of flavors, textures and temperatures. The first place John remembers putting coleslaw on a barbecue sandwich was at Leonard’s, which dates back to 1922.
Ronald doesn’t eat a lot of barbecue, other than an occasional bolognese sandwich, but he still enjoys a backyard barbecue because of the personal touches and different tastes. It’s these traditions that keep the barbecue scene alive in Memphis and make it one of the best in the country. “People try different things. Eventually, somehow, someone might even make it healthier,” he laughs. “There might be a lot of tofu barbecue going around.”
Until then, use this list to sample the big dogs (hogs?) of the city: long-time off-the-beaten-path spots and local favorites — all are essential restaurants in Memphis.