If you are a fan of pork ribs like I am a fan of pork ribs, then Tennessee is one of the places you really have to go. Good Tennessee ribs get a dry rub of spices and are then slow smoked over a wood fire. Back in the 1950s in Memphis, Charlie Vergos combined his father's Greek spices with some New Orleans style cajun seasoning and turned scrap-meat into something altogether magical. Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous still sets the standard for ribs in Tennessee and is definitely one of my favorites. In my travels around Tennessee, I stopped into a few different rib-joint though and found some great spots around the state. While Rendezvous ribs still tops my list, some of these places gave them a run for their money.
The ribs at Archers were excellent. They had excellent flavor with a good smoky taste to them. They gave a perfect pull, meaning they weren't falling off the bone sloppy, but weren't tough either - it was just the right amount of pull to get the meat off the bone. The outer smoky crust, or bark, was also really good. Archers ribs were good on their own, no sauce needed, which is another really good sign. While the sides at Archers left a lot to be desired, the ribs themselves were top-notch. With several locations around Knoxville, I would definitely recommend you drop in for a half-rack. This isn't Memphis, but the ribs were darned good.
You can find this immaculate family-run soul-food joint on University Avenue in the Mechanicsville neighborhood of Knoxville. BJ&S serves wet ribs, cooked with and brushed in a really delicious barbecue sauce. These were too tender for me, as I mentioned above I like a little pull, but they were delicious and flavorful nonetheless. The people running this restaurant were friendly and welcoming and while I preferred Archers ribs, the sides at BJ&S were way better. Their greens were to die for.
Prater's was a cool spot with a nice outdoor patio and live music on the weekends. Their ribs are dry rubbed and then finished with a brush of their signature sauce. Right off Interstate 24, this might be a good stop if you are cruising through Tennessee, but I thought their ribs were just so-so. I liked their happy hour beer prices, and the ribs weren't bad, but they weren't up to my high Tennessee standards.
Martin's is a Nashville institution, and an absolutely massive place. Skip the line downstairs and head all the way upstairs and order from the bar. Barbecue goes better with beer anyway. I went for the dry rubbed spare ribs when I was here which were massive and delicious. They were just a little dry for me, but some of Martin's signature spicy sauce livened them right up. The dry rub was excellent as was the flavor, and their mac and cheese and broccoli salad were both really good too. I think if I went back, I might go for the babyback ribs instead, but these were pretty darned good ribs. I made a good effort, but I couldn't finish mine.
I have sung Helen's praises before. She is one of the few female pitmasters in the state, and one of the best. She served me up a delicious half-rack of wet ribs with some obviously homemade and delicious sides. Her restaurant is a little shack with the smokehouse attached, but it is definitely worth leaving the interstate for. If you're ever in or near Brownsville, be sure you stop in for some serious home-cooking at Helens Bar B Q.
You have to be both bold and sure of yourself to try and open a new barbecue place in Memphis. Memphis doesn't have a lot of barbecue restaurants, it has barbecue institutions. Everyone has their favorite(s), and you can ask just about any non-vegetarian in the city and they'll have an opinion and at least one recommendation. My last time in Memphis, I decided to try the "new guy" out, and I'm sure glad I did. Elwood's Shack is a tiny little place off Summer Avenue and tucked away in the Lowe's parking lot. Their dry-rubbed ribs were classically Memphis-style and right on par with my favorites around the city. Their blue cheese and jalapeno slaw, though, was off the charts and better than any slaw I can remember anywhere. The employees were knowledgeable and friendly and incredibly proud of the food they serve. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days a week, I will definitely be back. This off-the-beaten-barbecue-path shack is well worth going out of your way to get to.
This is my absolute go-to place in Memphis and one of my favorite barbecue places in the whole country for ribs. If I'm downtown on Sunday or Monday and Rendezvous is closed, I have no problem going to delicious Central BBQ. The rest of the week, though, I'm with Charlie. The original Memphis dry rub I mentioned in the introduction to this post, and still going strong after 70+ years. The restaurant is cavernous and they turn tables quickly so don't worry if there's a line when you get there, there usually is. If it wasn't worth waiting for, people wouldn't wait for it every night. Once you're seated, the ribs come out fast so you won't be waiting for them long. A half-rack is good enough for me everywhere else, but I always get a full rack at Rendezvous. Not because I need it, but because I can't resist. Rendezvous has made its way onto many lists of Best Ribs in America, and is a great place to see what Tennessee barbecue is all about.
I'm off to get some exercise and work off all of those ribs. If you're a rib fan, this list should give you some good ideas if you're ever passing through Tennessee. Where are your favorite ribs, in Tennessee or elsewhere? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below. Bon Appetit!