Food festivals with a specific focus are fun events, and in Memphis this is smoky eats. The World Championship BBQ Competition, part of Memphis In May, brings together teams from all over the world for the event.
The general admission ticket gets you into the grounds, but not into the competition booths. You get in the door, can stroll around, and can purchase food and drinks. The 220 plus teams have their tents and cooking facilities closed for team members, sponsors, and friends. A VIP ticket, which was $595 for the 2016 event, which gets you more access, is another option.
Everything in this event seems to get a trophy. There is a booth competition, a Miss Piggy Idol tribute and of course various food categories. Team names like Swine & Dine, Boardello’s, Aporkalyspe Now, Dang She’s Swine, and Pigs in Space tell you there is even more pork-based revelry if you can get into a booth. Teams from around the world compete, with teams from Denmark and Canada. Most of the booths are ornate spectacles in theme-based decoration and layout.
The festival uses Wednesday for set up, where teams often invite friends and families to the booths and tents. Thursday starts the cooking with corporate groups getting entertained for lunch and dinner.
Friday, it gets smoking as competition begins for sauces, sides, exotic meats, combinations, and the best booth. Saturday is the main competition day with whole hog, ribs and shoulder as the featured items. Only one item can be entered by each team, so all the resources and culinary creativity go into that one entry. Judging is first set by blind taste boxes to line up the top contestants, whose booths are then visited by the judges.
Winning one year rarely ensures a repeat crown the next. Brad Orrison, of The Shed in Mississippi, was the grand champion in 2015 and Kingsford award winner in 2016. However, his whole hog in 2016 didn’t make it to the finals. Booths like The Shed have constant activity from the team, sponsors like Vision Grills (used to cook everything except the whole hog), and even other chefs. It might be serious competition, but southern hospitality rules competitor relations.
The whole hog starts early on Saturday and is considered the pinnacle category. Most of these pit masters have some slick rig that actually a giant BBQ for the 22-23 hours where the hog gets slow cooked. In the case of The Shed, it is an old Willis Jeep with the inside replaced with a giant BBQ.
Malcolm Reed of Killer Hogs is an architect by training, but his first love is BBQ. He parlayed his win in 2006 into traveling with his rig over 20 times per year. He sees himself as a BBQ educator, and has his own line of rubs, sauces, and other products.
Orrison and his sister, Brooke, took a different route to grilling stardom. His family was in the grocery business, where he learned the meat industry from the inside. With his win in 2015, Orrison and Brooke have a line of sauces and a bevy of television shows to their credit.
This year, top whole hog honors went to Myron Mixon of Jacks Old South, who has won three previous times. Mixon is a whirlwind of country charm, cooking skills and business savvy that had lead to his own line of just about everything.
Memphis has some smaller hotels that blend interesting features and locales with southern hospitality. If you want the ultimate in a European boutique hotel with impeccable service, look no further than the River Inn of Harbor Town on Mud Island. The premier rooms here are the Natchez and Admiral Suites, on the 4th floor, with both a spacious bedroom and parlor.
Memphis is different than other towns in the dining connected with specialty hotels are surprisingly good. The River Inn has 28 rooms, but has three great restaurants. Tug’s is casual food that gets a southern twist, while the Terrace rooftop bar has creative cocktails and a full menu as well as a great river view. Roll up your sleeves for a seriously good meal at Paulette’s, their French-inspired restaurant. Signature elevations include the Filet Paulette (cracked pepper and butter-pepper cream sauce) and the ginger-crusted salmon.
The Madison Hotel has a great musical scene motif as there are notes, record jackets and guitars here and there that get you into a positive vibe. Rooms can best be described as funky musical inspiration and downright fun. 83 is the musically-inspired restaurant in the Madison, and the unique bar setting bangs out the musical theme with food that plays like an encore set. Once again, hotel food is far beyond the norm with Chicken & Waffles, where the waffles are made with mac & cheese.
If all that meat at the BBQ festival gets you ready for wild side pursuits, consider the Big Cypress Lodge inside the former NBA pyramid. Each of the rooms is like a hunting lodge with country comfort. The Bass Pro superstore is also inside the pyramid, so you never lack for diversions. The Lookout, perched at the top of the pyramid offers a great view of the Mississippi and has a unique bar and restaurant.
The real attraction in Memphis is how dining has transformed and been upgraded in the past two years. This is now the foodie gateway to the south. BBQ is a claim to fame for Memphis, yet other restaurants are creating their own deserved buzz.
The BBQ is so competitive in Memphis; just about any selection will be a good one. Begin with The Rendezvous, started in 1948, as they are the originator of the dry rubbed meats, which then allows you to add the sauce of your taste. As the only place in Memphis to serve Lambs’ ribs, this southern American gem is still going strong because of the original recipes in a fun and historical atmosphere.
Enter the BBQ time warp right to the future of BBQ with Central BBQ. Started by two of the chefs in the BBQ competition, they have a winning formula as evidenced by three locations, and soon to be a fourth. They marinade all the premium meats for 24 hours, then slow smoke with a dry rub. The ribs are the house specialty, yet be surprised with the BBQ bologna sandwich and banana pudding.
French-inspired cuisine with a southern twist is embodied in Felicia Suzanne’s. This dynamo of creative excellence has been going strong for 15 years in the same location. The gulf oysters of love and buttermilk fried chicken livers over grits are incredible starters. Two of the main courses of renown are duck three ways and shrimp & grits with a creole zing. The restaurant has their own patio/courtyard area that hosts tacos and tunes two nights per week. Chefs who give back and get involved are in better balance with their concepts, and Felicia is a tireless promoter of the restaurant scene in Memphis. Her community involvement and leadership resulted in her being recently named businessperson of the year for Memphis.
If you have to get fueled early in the day, then a trek to Staks in Midtown will wrangle in the kcal. The interior is retro modern and enables you to relax until you have the nitrous oxide infused cold coffee firing the booster rockets. Go interplanetary with a diverse menu which features shrimp and grits, a moon size breakfast burger and apple cinnamon pancakes.
In this land of southern inspiration is Andrew Michaels Italian Kitchen, a combination of two chefs and three restaurants in Midtown. The Italian Kitchen, Porcellinos and Hog & Hominy round out diverse themes. What is unique about all three is they are equally good; none fits the restaurant stepchild role. Porcellinos Craft Butcher provides meats to purveyors and the public as well as small plates. Hog & Hominy serves Italian fare with a southern twist. At the Italian Kitchen, you get that modern taste of Italy with some pop and pizzazz with dishes like the ocean trout with cauliflower, turnips, Swiss chard, potatoes, brown butter, and hazelnuts.
Nestled away on Monroe Street in downtown, the quiet entrance to McEwen’s is a gateway to quality dining in a ritzy atmosphere. Lunch features unique sandwiches such as the seasoned lamb wrap and some grilled entrees. Dinner escalates another culinary step with up a notch in diversity with the BBQ duck enchiladas and the sea bass with mushroom risotto.
If you want more of Memphis to take home and infuse into your dishes, Memphis Flavor has assembled an excellent array of food items, rubs, and sauces. They picked what they considered the notable and worthy, and those products are on the website, and with just a few clicks FedEx delivers to kick it up a notch.
One truly unique attraction is the Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island. You can stroll a scale model of the river from start to finish. 18 different galleries include the geological and agricultural history of the area for the past 10,000 years.
Golf is fun and lush in Memphis because of topography and natural vegetation. Mirimichi, formerly owned by Justin Timberlake, is a stunning design where each hole is its’ own lesson in golf harmony with the topography. New ownership is adding extensive tree planting and vegetation features. Golf that follows the undulating contour of the land, forest and water features makes this visually exciting and challenging golf.
Stonebridge is a former country club course that has improved so much in the last three years it just hosted a U.S. Open qualifier. The holes dart up and down hills and through woodlands, with plenty of twists and turns with each hole.
The TPC Southwind gets the big attention as the site for the FedEx/St. Jude on the PGA tour. When you arrive, you are greeted by an expansive clubhouse, practice area and set of restaurants. Number 11 to the island green is a favorite for tour spectators as it is difficult to hit and even harder to putt. TPC looks like straightforward golf, but like most golf in the Memphis area, there are sloping uphill’s to tiered greens that make it all you want it to be based on tee selection.
If lugging the sticks through the airport doesn’t sound like fun, and it isn’t, get them shipped with Golf Overnight. They use FedEx to ship your clubs anywhere with your specific timing to your course or hotel. They feature packing options so you don’t need a club bag, and have high consumer satisfaction. All done with an online form for click-and-ship.
Stay Southern Style