After my whole hog lunches at the very good B.E. Scott’s and spectacular Ramey’s, I was thinking of going on to Nashville — actually Murfreesboro — to try Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, another whole hog place, chain, actually. (The original is in Murfreesboro.) But that would mean a lot more driving and the danger of not getting back to Payne’s Bar-B-Que, the one spot in Memphis proper that I definitely planned to hit. It was now Day 3 of the Great Memphis Region Barbecue Tour, and it was Day 3 or never.
As I mentioned in my post on Central BBQ, I had tried to go there on Tuesday, the first day of the Tour, for one of Southern Living‘s “South’s best barbecue sandwiches.” Jim Shahin talked it up when I asked where I should eat in Memphis, and a search of the invaluable Barbecue Bros site led me to a glowing review at Marie Let’s Eat. Alas, Payne’s was closed on Tuesdays. Wednesday I had arranged to go to the Dixie Pig, with plans to go to Helen’s on the way back to Memphis, and probably Payne’s for supper; but unplanned sandwiches at the Kream Kastle and Chubby’s intervened, and the odds of getting to Payne’s before they closed at 6:00 were long indeed; and a fifth sandwich was probably not a great idea anyway. So Thursday was do or die, and I was hell-bent to get to Payne’s. I hit B.E. Scott’s and Ramey’s early, and was back in Memphis in good time.
Payne’s is an attractive place, at least in terms of buying and eating barbecue. It’s in a former auto shop — you can see the exterior in this Memphis Commercial Appeal video (which is followed by an interesting video on stump removal). The decor of the large-ish interior tends toward minimalist, a far cry from the over-decoration of many places. Some things, such as photos of Bear Bryant in Alabama, or of one of the Earnhardts or Dean Smith in North Carolina, give a reassuring sense of local roots to a barbecue place; vintage sign reproductions do not, and after a couple of dozen pigs, you’re into clutter. At Payne’s, there isn’t a lot to distract you from your food.
That’s a family of four from New York who were eating their way to New Orleans. What a great gift for the kids! They were on their way out before I could talk to them, which is a shame. I do know they loved their meal.
To get your own meal, you order at the counter from Ms. Flora Payne, who’s been there since 1972, and who is as friendly and pleasant as can be. If you go at 4:30, as I did, she may have a little time to chat a bit about how she cooks pork shoulders over wood, but customers do keep coming.
As per usual on the Tour, I ordered a regular pork sandwich with hot sauce and slaw, and a bag of Lay’s potato chips.
Let’s get a closer look.
There’s a lot going on in that sandwich. Seeing how much sauce there was, I turned the sandwich upside down — very, very carefully — and lifted the bottom bun to get at some pork that hadn’t been touched by sauce or slaw. So good. The meat is tender, smoky, and delicious. The abundant sauce is both tangy and fairly sweet with a good mix of spices. It doesn’t have so much sugar or so much heat that it completely drowns the flavor of the pork. Payne’s is easily the best sauce I had in Memphis proper.
The slaw is easily the most mustardy slaw I’ve ever encountered anywhere, a quantum leap beyond, say, the mustard slaw at Parker’s. Your reaction to the slaw is likely to control your overall reaction to the sandwich. I for one am a big fan of mustard. I put mustard rather than ketchup on french fries, and I recently caught myself eating Dijon mustard by itself. I like many South Carolina mustard sauces. Payne’s may have the perfect slaw to put on a hot dog or a sausage, if you use slaw rather than or in addition to mustard, chili, jalapeños, and raw onions on your hot dog.
With all that going on, it’s a busy sandwich, with a lot of competing flavors — pork, smoke, sweet, hot, tangy, spices, and mustard — and the sandwich has a big bold mouthful of each of those flavors. Personally, I prefer barbecue sandwiches to be pork-forward, a pork soloist with the sauce as the backup. Payne’s sandwich is more like a group of divas, all trying, con brio and fortissimo, to lead.
But it works. With that caveat, Payne’s is excellent. I will return to Payne’s on my next trip to Memphis. Next time, I’ll try their ribs with a lot of their sauce and some white bread to soak up every drop of their sauce. And a side of their slaw. I have great expectations for the ribs. If I’m really hungry, I might get a sandwich without slaw to see how that works. Go to Payne’s and experiment for yourself. And tell me what you think.
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