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For our third city guide, we’re takin’ it way down south to “The BBQ Capital of the World,” Memphis, Tennessee! Memphis BBQ is all about history… from the dry rubs to the classic Memphis pork, the scene has deep roots. Sauce might not be boss, but that’s no problem: the rich flavors created by decades of BBQ history pull their weight and create some of the best flavor in the States. 

We at AC Barbeque wanted the FULL Memphis experience, so we got a real life barbeque historian, Dr. Howard Conyers, to give us the city’s true BBQ experience. He took us everywhere from Memphis in May (aka “The Super Bowl of BBQ”) to family-run classics to hidden gems in Bluff City. Follow along… Memphis is the place to be!

Memphis in May

375 S Riverside Dr, Memphis, TN 38103

Known as the “Super Bowl of Swine,” the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is a four-day competition held in Memphis, TN and has since helped to solidify Memphis’s place as a barbeque powerhouse. Pitmasters from all over the world come to Memphis each year hoping to become the next BBQ World Champion. The Contest features championship pork categories of Ribs, Shoulder, and Whole Hog, as well as the ancillary competitions of Hot Wings, Sauce, and “Anything But Pork.”

Payne’s BBQ

1762 Lamar Ave, Memphis, TN 38114

Since Horton and Flora Payne opened Payne’s Bar-B-Que in 1972, the restaurant has become a local obsession. Housed in a humble white cinderblock building (which happens to be a former gas station), Payne’s Bar-B-Que smokes its meats in a custom pit built right into the wall. They’ve been doing barbeque the same way for decades – and that’s just how the people of Memphis like it. One of the most popular dishes, the jumbo chopped pork sandwich, is made with slow-roasted pork shoulder slow-roasted in the recessed pit over hickory charcoal. Payne’s is also known for their tangy, mild barbeque sauce spiked with mustard and slow-simmered in-house. There’s no doubt the food is delicious, but it’s Payne’s family-run track record that makes it an ideal representative of Memphis BBQ culture.

Helen’s BBQ

1016 N Washington Ave, Brownsville, TN 38012

You can’t come to Memphis without making the trek to Helen’s in Brownsville! Helen Turner flipped the BBQ scene upside down when she became owner of Helen’s BBQ in 1996, after years of working in the same building as an employee for another restaurant. Helen took this opportunity and ran with it, creating a cult-classic restaurant where history meets in-your-face flavor. Helen is famous in the barbeque community because of the way she prepares her meat, using an “open pit” method that’s as old as American barbeque itself. All she needs are bricks, metal fencing, hot coals, plenty of smoke, and some slabs of meat. You’ll be able to find Helen on most days, raking hot coals with a shovel in her screened-in porch-turned-smoker. It’s this commitment to tradition and excellence that makes Helen’s such a special place.

Cozy Corner BBQ

735 North Pkwy, Memphis, TN 38105

Since 1977, Cozy Corner BBQ has not only served the fam some fantastic BBQ, but a true taste of Memphis culture! An authentic family owned Memphis institution, they have welcomed thousands of people from around the world to enjoy their cozy hometown vibes and top tier cuisine. They have been featured in national platforms, from Southern Living to Food to Food & Wine, wrote numerous cookbooks and earned a spot in American Royal’s BBQ Hall of Fame. Check em out!

Credit: Central BBQ

Central BBQ

2249 Central Ave, Memphis, TN 38104 & 147 E Butler Ave, Memphis, TN 38103 & 4375 Summer Ave, Memphis, TN 38122 & 6201 Poplar Ave, Memphis, TN 38119

Central BBQ was born and raised in the fires of barbecue competition— where only the absolute best was good enough. Founders Craig Blondis and Roger Sapp met on the barbecue circuit in the mid-80s and after competing in Memphis in May’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and many other BBQ competitions, they made the leap from friends to business partners. The pit at the first Central BBQ on Central Avenue was fired up in 2002 and has been stoked ever since. Over the years, Central BBQ has expanded far beyond Central Avenue, reaching four spots in Memphis and multiple outside the Memphis city limits. In their own words, “no matter how much we grow, we will still always deliver one-of-a-kind BBQ served by friendly faces. That’s something we will never outgrow!”

Credit: Pollard's BBQ

Pollard’s BBQ

4560 Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis, TN 38116

In 1995, Tarrance Pollard founded Pollard’s as a mobile catering business, but little did he know what was comin’. The people loved the spot’s unique southern style of Memphis BBQ, leading Pollard’s to reopen in 1996 as a small carry-out catering business. In 2011, Pollard’s answered the overwhelming demands and took its place in the city as a full-on dine-in restaurant. With this new expansion came bigger and better things, such as an expanded menu and an upscale renovation by Food Network’s Chef, Robert Irvine (Restaurant Impossible). In 2019, Pollard’s embraced the steady momentum as the Dallas Cowboys drafted Tony Pollard, Tarrance’s son, as a running back. Pollard’s has been officially transformed into a major hotspot for everyone to enjoy some great, down South, lip smacking BBQ!