Spotlight on Memphis: What makes the barbecue here so good is a closely guarded secret

A pulled pork, Texas toast sandwich at the Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.
Jennifer Chandler
Southern Kitchen

In Memphis, the pig rules supreme, with butts, shoulders and ribs taking center stage on the menus of barbecue joints throughout the city.

While almost every pitmaster starts with the same cut of pork, what makes each barbecue sandwich and slab of ribs unique is the finishing touch. Every Memphis-style pulled or chopped pork barbecue sandwich has a sweet and smoky tomato-based sauce with just a hint of tanginess. The secret to Memphis barbecue is in the sauce.

Sauce recipes are long-held family secrets. Don’t dare ask for the recipe. That’s considered sacrilege in these parts.

At The Bar-B-Q Shop, only four people have ever made the restaurant's 70-year-old sauce recipe, served on everything from its famous Texas toast chopped pork sandwich to its barbecue spaghetti, which originated at this establishment.

“I have been the only person making this sauce for the last 20 years or so,” said Eric Vernon, who owns The Bar-B-Q Shop with his parents, Frank and Hazel Vernon. “Before that, my dad was the only person that made it. Before that it was Mr. Brady (Vincent) — he started the restaurant, which was originally called Brady & Lil’s. His wife may have known the recipe, but that’s it.”

Eric Vernon runs the day-to-day operations of the bustling Bar-B-Q Shop where they do everything well — from pulled pork to tender ribs.

It’s a similar story over at Payne’s Bar-B-Q.

“It’s my grandmother’s family recipe,” said Candice Payne-Parker, who runs the restaurant alongside her mother, Flora, and brother, Ron. She said that over the 50 years their family business has been open, only her family members have made the sweet barbecue sauce that can be seen simmering over a simple stove behind the order counter.

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“We add love to it. That’s what makes it special,” said Payne-Parker when asked about the ingredients. “I can tell you this: It’s a simple recipe, but as much as people try guessing, they never get it.”

Payne's Bar-B-Que, a Midtown Memphis favorite and family operation that has been in business since 1972 serving truly old-school barbecue, on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

The same secrecy surrounds the dry rub seasoning blends of Memphis’ iconic dry ribs. At the world-famous Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, the recipe for the dry rub (and the signature mustard slaw) is kept under lock and key in a safe.

“That recipe started with my dad,” said second-generation owner John Vergos. “His is the original dry rub. Before him, no one ever cooked ribs like that."

Eric Vernon runs the day-to-day operations of the bustling Bar-B-Q Shop where they do everything well — from pulled pork to tender ribs.

In addition to the sauces and dry rubs, every bona fide Memphis barbecue restaurant is just as secretive about another key component of every barbecue sandwich and plate — the coleslaw.

Payne-Parker laughed when asked the ingredients in the one-of-a-kind neon yellow sweet mustard slaw at Payne’s Bar-B-Q.

“I can tell you it gets that color from the mustard, but I won’t tell you what mustard it is,” she said.

Payne's Bar-B-Que, a Midtown Memphis favorite and family operation that has been in business since 1972 serving truly old-school barbecue, on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

The Rendezvous also serves a mustard slaw, but instead of being sweet, its version has a vinegary bite.

“That recipe is over 100 years old,” Vergos said. “My grandfather had a hot dog stand in downtown Memphis back in 1915, and this was the slaw he used.”

And, no surprise, the list of folks who have ever made what Vernon calls “the most balanced slaw you will ever taste” at The Bar-B-Q Shop can be counted on one hand.

How to make a Memphis-style barbecue sandwich

The bread: A classic white bread hamburger bun is best. The simpler the better. Whether you toast it is a matter of preference. We prefer lightly toasting it so it doesn’t get soggy.

They do everything well, from pulled pork to tender ribs, at the bustling Bar-B-Q Shop

The pork: Slow-cooked pork shoulder or butt should be well seasoned and smoked “low and slow” until fall-off the bone tender, yet still juicy. You can either shred the pork by hand or you can follow the lead of iconic Memphis restaurants such as Payne’s and The Bar-B-Q Shop and chop your pork.

Central BBQ, started in 2002 and with locations all over Memphis, has become a hometown favorite.

The sauce: The sauce must be “Memphis-style”: a sweet tomato-based sauce that is balanced by the additions of vinegar and smoky spices. The sauce should be warm, not cold.

The coleslaw: A crisp and creamy coleslaw is the final touch. It is acceptable for it to be either mayonnaise- or mustard-based. It is best when kept chilled and added right at the last minute before serving the sandwich.

Jennifer Chandler is the Food & Dining Reporter at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at jennifer.chandler@commercialappeal.com and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @cookwjennifer.