Chow Town

Memphis in May barbecue contest sets off culinary excursion

A&R Bar-B-Q’s classic pork sandwich, topped with coleslaw, lightly sauced.
A&R Bar-B-Q’s classic pork sandwich, topped with coleslaw, lightly sauced. Special to The Star

I met Florida friends Phil and Karen at the Houston airport to hop aboard a connecting flight to Memphis for the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Our first stop was Uncle Lou’s Southern Kitchen for fried chicken seasoned with Sweet Spicy Love. It’s a friendly dive, nothing fancy, but the signature spicy-sweet-seasoned fried chicken and biscuits are so good they could almost distract you from Memphis barbecue.

When the doors at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis opened on Thursday night for swine dining, we were ready for a nostalgic experience of Rendezvous ambiance and memorable cuisine, and to pay tribute to Charlie’s legacy since his death in 2010.

The place is still very much alive with Charlie’s spirit. Loads of Memphis/Southern artifacts and memorabilia and signed/framed tributes from celebrities filled the dining rooms, and friendly servers in black slacks, white shirts and black bow ties waited tables. Our all-time Rendezvous favorites — dry ribs, pulled pork sandwich, slaw and beans, all infused with Charlie’s signature seasonings — were so spot-on delicious that I could imagine Charlie standing next to us, smiling with pride as we totally enjoyed the Rendezvous experience.

Our Friday morning breakfast at Arcade was worth the wait. Packed with early bird barbecue teams, locals and tourists, this Memphis favorite was busy living up to its reputation for classic South-kissed breakfast cuisine and friendly service.

An inclement weather warning and security concerns about a “suspicious package” doused our plan to visit with teams and take in the barbecue contest scene in Tom Lee Park. Instead of waiting for the all-clear, we set out for metro Memphis fun:

Young Avenue Deli: We stopped in for breaded fried cheese sticks with marinara dip to eat, and High Cotton Scottish draft, Jack Daniel’s and animated visits with local patrons at the bar. Brick walls, wooden floors and dim lighting created a casual ambiance. We’ll come back to share Young Avenue’s famous muffuletta another time.

Burke’s Books: This book maven’s paradise of new and used books and postcards, which dates back more than 140 years, engaged our attention for the better part of an hour.

House of Mews: Adorable cats in need of loving homes lured us across the street from Burke’s; the house was closed, so we could only exchange looks and mews.

Huey’s: The midtown location on Madison Avenue is one of eight in the metro area. A casual, friendly setting and some of the best burgers and brews in town draw an intergenerational customer base.

Tops Bar-B-Q: One bite of a Tops pork shoulder sandwich (the jumbo is less than $5) explains why more than a dozen Tops locations thrive in metro Memphis. Tops’ hardwood charcoal/green hickory smoked pork shoulders rival the best anywhere.

A&R Bar-B-Que: We complimented the pitmaster on A&R’s chopped pork sandwich topped with coleslaw. “They call me ‘Suey,’” he replied. Of the many mouth-watering pork sandwiches I have loved in Memphis barbecue establishments, I give the edge thus far to A&R on Elvis Presley Boulevard. The fried peach pie was excellent as well.

Congratulations and kudos to Chris Lilly, Don McLemore and the entire Big Bob Gibson team, this year’s Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest grand champion winners. Kudos also to Bad Pig BBQ, the Patio Porkers grand champion.

Happy 40th anniversary to Memphis in May!

Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. He is author/co-author of 11 published barbecue books and is a 2016 inductee into the Barbecue Hall of Fame.