IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN
This year for barbecue cooking contest week, we’re going back to April 14, 1978, and a barbecue sandwich taste-off conducted by The Commercial Appeal. The newspaper solicited reader favorites, and then ate at as many of the restaurants as “time and Di-Gel” allowed. The CA tasters declared their winner, and then commented on and rated (on a scale of four pigs to one pig) the top eight shops in the reader poll.
For the CA staffers, the winner was an apparent revelation. It was named by just a couple of readers, “but one was particularly persuasive.” The rest of the story: “But after two weeks of sneaking sauce-stained notebooks in and out of restaurants known for their barbecue, we were just about ready to pick up a hamburger and call it quits. Then we ate lunch at Payne’s… . The unpretentious little restaurant served the best no-fuss, no-frills, honest-to-goodness barbecue we tasted.”
The scene of this discovery was not the Payne’s location that is known and loved today, at 1762 Lamar, but a bit farther down Lamar, in a converted garage at 1897. The Payne’s business model was pretty much in place then – “There’s no atmosphere, at least not in the contrived sense of coordinated wallpaper and laminated menus. Nine bright orange booths surround a wide expanse of flooring that looks like it’s just been polished for a high school sock hop. Bamboo shades hang over the old garage doors. Clearly, the interest is behind the counter” – and entirely on the pork. There were no side dishes, just a drink machine, a rack of potato chips and a pile of chocolate marshmallow pies. A sliced shoulder sandwich was $1.40, a chopped shoulder $1.10.
Here are the readers’ picks, starting with No. 8 – Brady & Lil’s — and No. 7 – Rendezvous – which tied in the reader poll. Said the CA: “Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, the well-known beer-and-barbecue-rib place at 52 South Second downtown, received the same number of votes as a tiny little restaurant called Brady & Lil’s at 601 South Parkway East. Since most letters singled out the Rendezvous for outstanding ribs rather than for barbecue sandwiches we decided to try the smaller place of business.” The tasters said the texture of the meat “is a little strange, and the flavor of the grated onion in the slaw seems to crowd out a true barbecue tang.” A side of barbecue spaghetti was deemed “too greasy to be palatable.” One pig.
No. 6 – Little Pigs at 671 South Highland, got a three-pig rating, as did No. 5 Leonard’s at 1140 Bellevue, but the CA tasters found Leonard’s consistently good in all respects – meat, sauce and sides. It also didn’t hurt that a Leonard’s sandwich was the least expensive in the taste test, at 99 cents. Though by this time Leonard’s had three other locations in Memphis, “the voters were very particular to name the first Leonard’s as the best.”
An interloper finished No. 4 – Bozo’s in Mason, Tenn., which received nine votes: “But those nine voters were adamant: Bozo’s has the best barbecue in the world, they said.” The CA tasters gave the restaurant four pigs, and noted that you might have to wait an hour to get served. Part of Bozo’s attraction was the drive, a peaceful trip out U.S. 70 (now, of course, it’s one speed trap after another). Half the cars in the lot during the CA’s visit had Shelby County plates.
No. 3 – Bar-B-Q Lodge, 3333 Winchester at Tchulahoma, was the recipient of some suspect ballots, but the CA focused on one ballot by eight guys who said they ate there every Wednesday night. They said they had eaten barbecue all over the Mid-South, and the Lodge had the best. The CA liked it too, and gave it tops for barbecued beans and attractiveness. The Bar-B-Q Lodge was a converted residence, with a country-farmhouse ambience. Three pigs.
A stack of ballots in the same handwriting helped to put Cozy Corner No. 2. Still, the CA panel found that the restaurant delivered the goods. The tasters liked everything about the sandwich, but passed on the barbecue spaghetti after the Brady & Lil’s experience. They were glad they followed the suggestion to try the homemade cake: “For 50 cents, it was probably the best purchase of our barbecue tour.” Four pigs.
The reader poll was topped by Gridley’s Fine Bar-B-Que, at 4101 Summer. The CA tasters, dining at a packed house for lunch, generally enjoyed the food, but noted a couple of service issues and that it was the most expensive on the tour ($1.60 for a sandwich). Still, the pork barbecue plate ($3.25) brought a lot of food, enough for leftovers.
So, where are they now? The sad deterioration of Brady & Lil’s has been noted here, but its spirit and recipes live on at the Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown, No. 1 at our house. The Rendezvous will probably be the last restaurant standing in Memphis. Little Pigs, a place I miss, is a Quiznos ghost pit. The original Leonard’s is gone, replaced by a Walgreen’s. Bozo’s, another favorite of mine, thankfully remains in its time warp in Mason. The Bar-B-Q Lodge (also Smoky Ridge Barbecue in the 1980s), has fallen to development. The Cozy Corner, despite its gritty location, still packs its parking lot at lunch. Gridley’s has been here and there in town and is now out on Stage Road.