"Mawl medium hot?" asked the server at Craig's Bar-B-Q, a white clapboard shack with church basement furniture, smoke-tinted walls and a cash-only policy in DeValls Bluff, Ark., about an hour and a half west of Memphis, Tenn.
"Yes," I said. Wrong answer. Other customers took pity on my Northernness, and intervened: It was multiple choice, and "mawl" meant mild. I chose hot and had my first example of this region's perfect frugal meal: the barbecue pork sandwich with coleslaw for the beautiful (if disconcertingly unrounded) price of $3.93, $4.34 with tax.
It was just a lunch stop en route from Louisiana to Memphis, where finding good, cheap barbecue was one of three goals I had set for myself. But thanks to Craig's I realized cheap was as much a function of the right order as the restaurant. So a pork sandwich, served hot, with slaw, would become my order for the next three days. It never cost me more than $5. Add a bottomless iced tea, some sides even, and I rarely broke $10.
My other two goals? With tours of Graceland starting at an astonishing $33, I'd search instead for the best -- by which I mean tackiest -- Elvis souvenir for under $10. I'd also skip the blues clubs of Beale Street to look for local spots where Memphians outnumbered tourists (see below).
But the barbecue task is what shaped my days (and possibly my waistline). In about 60 hours, I had eight sandwiches in places both famous and not. I could focus on the sandwiches themselves: Bar-B-Q Shop's meat was particularly moist; Brad's had the spiciest sauce; Central's was packed with both meat and slaw; Payne's was the messiest and sweetest.
But to a barbecue amateur like me, culinary differences did not matter quite as much as atmosphere. And Craig's, an hour and a half outside of Memphis, had set the minimalist bar: if a smoky kitchen, some bare tables and a no-nonsense one-person wait staff would do, why aim higher?
That's why I found myself giving demerits to the slicker, more commercialized operations, no matter how good the end product. When I sat at the bar at Corky's (corkysbbq.com), the bartender who served me couldn't stop talking about how they ship their ribs everywhere and how well their book sold on QVC. I'm not sure whether that took the zing out of the sauce, or whether it was lacking zing to begin with.
Signs outside the Bar-B-Q Shop (dancingpigs.com) obnoxiously trumpeted its product as "Best in Memphis" (twice); inside I was greeted with "I'm Jim, and I'll be taking care of you today" -- a bit too Olive Garden for me. But this was largely made up for by the zippy, almost Buffalo-like sauce on the sandwich and the Texas toast they served it on, replacing the traditional hamburger bun. Central BBQ (cbqmemphis.com) kept it realest: you order at the counter, where a quarter-slab of ribs was just $6. I greedily broke my sandwiches-only plan to take advantage of the great deal.
But the finest example of the sort of atmosphere I found at Craig's in Memphis proper was at the much-celebrated Payne's, in a former service station across the street from a tire shop called L'il Gipson (or L'ill Gipson, depending on which sign you believe). The menu board showcased an absurd lack of variety: side dishes include only beans and chips (60 cents, in the bag), and they don't even have tea. The kitchen, if you can call it that, consisted of a stove behind the counter with a simmering pot of beans and two bedraggled yellow refrigerators.
The sandwich itself was a $3.95 mess, heaped with chopped pork, showered with "hot" sauce more sweet than hot, and overflowing with yellowish-green, mustard-laced coleslaw. It may not have been the Platonic ideal of a Memphis barbecue sandwich, but if it was good enough for the guy grabbing a bite with his cement mixer parked outside, it was good enough for me.
Those spots have all achieved some level of fame, but the farther out I drove (and Memphis is one sprawled-out city), things got friendlier. The young woman behind the counter at Three Little Pigs, a shack in the parking lot of the Quince Station Shopping Center, a 20-minute drive southeast of town, was chatty and seemed interested in hearing why I was in town; an older man on his way back from his bowling league was open to chatting. The pork was just O.K., but I did appreciate their motto: "We Will Serve No Swine Before Its Time." Even better were Tom's Bar-B-Q and Deli (tomsbarbq.com) and Brad's Bar-B-Q, the first near the airport and the second just across the border in Bartlett, Tenn.
At Tom's, on a nondescript corner on State Route 176, I ordered the pork sandwich platter, which came with two sides and a drink for $8.49. But something told me I should also try the rib tips -- perhaps it was the multiple oversize posters showing Guy Fieri posing with the owner and the rib tips. The rip tips were $8.99 a pound, so I asked the smallest amount I could order; a man behind the counter overheard me and said, "I'll put some in there for you."
And he did: four dry-rubbed, irregularly shaped, leathery, peppery, chewy pieces of rib tips. I gnawed my way through them and then realized I had no idea what rib tips are. So I went back to the kitchen to ask my benefactor. Turns out rib tips are the leftovers you get when separated off when you cut ribs St. Louis style. "They're like jerky," he told me. "I call them game food -- something to nibble on when you're watching the game."
I had a similarly generous experience at Brad's, which, though it was technically just across the border in Bartlett, Tenn., was still only about 20 minutes from downtown Memphis. They were not going for the sort of informality I found at Payne's or Craig's -- there was table service and an effort at décor (a rifle, an old baseball mitt, a lantern on the rafters) -- but clearly were not used to receiving out-of-town visitors.
My waitress, Wendy, brought me the sandwich I had ordered with beans and onion rings for $7.10 -- the sandwich alone was $4.40 -- and asked "Are you new to the area?" (This, I had learned, is a polite Southern way of saying, "There's no way you're from this area.") Confirming her suspicions, she immediately hurried off to get me a generously portioned and complimentary order of creamy potato salad. Later, when I complimented the hot sauce for having some real kick to it, she again hurried off and brought me back a large Styrofoam cup of the sauce to take home. With all due respect to Jim, my courteous greeter at the Bar-B-Q Shop, that's what I call taking care of someone.
LOVING MEMPHIS LIKE A LOCAL
One of my goals as I drive from Louisiana to North Dakota this summer is to dive into local rituals as much as possible. In Memphis, that meant skipping blues clubs on touristy Beale Street and joining Memphians (and the Mississippians and Arkansans who live minutes away) wherever I could find them. So though I did join the tour bus circuit at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (staxmuseum.com) and the National Civil Rights Museum (civilrightsmuseum.org) -- each very much worth a visit -- I also took in these events you're less likely to find in your guidebook.
The Orpheum Theater's Summer Movie Series. The Orpheum, a grand, gilded theater that dates to 1928, hosts Broadway-hewn shows much of the year but becomes a grand old cinema in summer, charging a mere $7 a film for one of its 2,400 seats. Last Thursday, it was "Grease" -- the singalong version, with karaoke-style lyrics on-screen; the theater was full of teenage girls crooning along with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. The three girls in front of me, students at Desoto Central High School in nearby Southaven, Miss., were among the many who had come dressed as Sandy. (Hannah and Laurel chose the prissy version, and Loggan as -- spoiler alert! -- the leather-clad heroine she evolves into.)
A Redbirds game at AutoZone Park. The Cardinals Triple-A affiliate plays at a snazzy downtown stadium, complete with the sort of contests and fans-on-field participation you get when you cross corporate America and minor league baseball. (The Burger King-sponsored race where contestants dressed as hamburger buns make a human burger was particularly ridiculous.) The cheapest seats are not even seats: for $6, if you buy at least a day in advance, you can plop down on the Bluff, as the soft grassy area above the left field fence is known. Last Friday it was full of couples on blankets and families with small kids running around barefoot. You almost didn't notice what was happening down on the field, where the Redbirds were taking on the Oklahoma City something-or-others.
The Memphis Flea Market, a k a The Big One. On the third Saturday of every month -- and luckily, the Saturday I was there -- there's an enormous indoor flea market (memphisfleamarket.com) at the Agricenter International's Expo Center. The $3 entry gets you access to a combination of things you might actually need (I bought a used pocketknife, having lost the one I used to travel with), things you're tempted to buy (jewelry, Elvis records, Trident in bulk) and quirky stuff to keep you entertained (Red Solo Cup wineglasses, Ole Miss dog collars, "Southern by birth, deer hunter by the Grace of God" T-shirts).
The Otherlands Coffee Bar. I had driven by this place (otherlandscoffeebar.com), in the cool Cooper Young neighborhood, about four times when I finally couldn't resist stopping in. And once I did, I couldn't resist asking about the Jakeaccino, which the barista told me was a "very dry cappuccino" -- espresso and foam -- named for a rather finicky foreign customer who asked for his coffee this way. The place is everything a displaced Brooklynite could want -- mismatched chairs, ceiling fans even though there's air-conditioning, tasty cookies -- but it's also a neat gift shop and has live music on weekend nights.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.