Let’s establish a few things right off the bat: first of all, Memphis is probably the best food city in America, and dare I say, one of the very best in the world. Second of all, even though I may have the bias of being a Memphis native, the fact I have traveled so much and the fact that I’m a vegetarian in a town of barbecue definitely offsets the bias.
As with any place in the Mississippi Delta and the Deep South, Memphis has its fair share of problems — but more worthy of our attention are the ways it rises to meet them and how its community celebrates life. Only some of our food falls strictly in the category of “soul food,” but all of the food here is made with soul. The best part? It’s Italian soul, Egyptian soul, Cuban soul, and so much more. I’d say buckle up your belt, but you’ll really need to loosen it a few notches if anything.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll organize Memphis restaurants by what they serve, and include a word or two about budget on a case-by-case basis. Generally speaking, it’s much more affordable to eat out in Memphis than in many other American cities, so if you do decide to splurge, it’s worth it.
There’s a never-ending debate over whether America’s best barbecue is from Carolina, Texas, Kansas City, or Memphis. Memphians like myself will tell you that the other competitors are not even close, but ultimately, that’s up to you — in totally unrelated news, we’re the home of the annual world barbeque championships. Do what you will with that information.
First of all, while most restaurants usually only offer beef and chicken, pork is the champion meat of Memphis-style barbeque and tastes best with our specific style of smoking and seasoning. Before I went vegetarian, I had pulled pork sandwiches, ribs, barbeque nachos, and brisket. That said, different barbeque joints typically do one better than the other.
A constant contender for the best pulled pork sandwich in Memphis can be found at the simply-named Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown. It’s an unassuming spot on Madison Avenue next to a dry cleaner’s and an Ethiopian restaurant. For ribs, the world-famous Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous is divisive amongst locals, but worth a visit for their sauce nonetheless. Some Memphians would tell you that the very best ribs are at Cozy Corner in Uptown, and I’d be inclined to agree. The place burned down while I was in college four years ago, but has been revived and returned to top form. Two local chains that also do great ribs are Corky’s and Tops.
A surging chain in recent years, Central BBQ has several locations around the Memphis area and makes a very convincing argument for having the best BBQ nachos in town. Pro-tip: you can ask to replace the tortilla chips with french fries, making a signature dish that might not technically be nachos, but sure is damn delicious. Central is also a great place to get acquainted with Memphis brews: the two best and most ubiquitous are “Wiseacre Tiny Bomb” and “Ghost River Gold.” The former is an American pilsner, and the latter a golden ale. They’re two of the easiest-to-drink beers anywhere, let alone in Memphis, and just taste like they were made to wash down BBQ nachos on a hot summer day.
On the subject of nachos, those at Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-b-q deserve a special mention, too. The place itself is a little off-the-beaten path, but it’s old school Memphis barbeque through and through. If all else fails, there’s even a location in the Memphis airport terminal that’s just as good.
Memphis, much like the rest of the Mississippi Delta, has long had a diverse immigrant population that is often overlooked in the overall story of American multiculturalism. The areas around Uptown and Midtown, in particular, were shaped by Italian, Russian, Greek, and Jewish immigrants from different areas of Europe. Arguably the best restaurant group in town belongs to Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, two born-and-bred Memphians who went to study Italian cuisine in Italy before coming back and opening a string of award-winning Italian and Southern fusion establishments.
In total, they’ve opened five restaurants, but the original two are still the most acclaimed by critics and locals. Andrew Michael and Hog & Hominy are located directly across the street from one another on Brookhaven Circle in East Memphis. They’re well-worth the trek from the more touristy areas of the city. The former is more traditionally Italian and the fancier of the two, where a reservation and an appetite for three courses are necessities. But the dining experience is still familiar and warm with dishes like “Maw Maw’s Ravioli” a must-try.
Meanwhile, Hog & Hominy have even more fun with their food and throw in all sorts of American and Canadian-inspired dishes, from poutine to collard greens. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in the world simply because you have to revisit it to really enjoy it– between the size of the menu and the seasonal changes they make, it’s impossible to cover everything good in one visit. The “John T. Burger” has been named the best in America by Food & Wine, while their pizzas are delicious, unique, and consistent. Special shout-outs to the “Thunderbird! Forty Twice!” and the “Red Eye,” both of which go down very nicely with cocktails from their exceptional bar. You won’t find a better Old Fashioned in Memphis, and the “Astrothunder” is one of those drinks you won’t forget any time soon (so long as you have just one).
Elsewhere in Memphis, Italian is typically more casual and authentic, while also going a tad easier on the wallet. The Italian royalty of Midtown are Dino’s and Fino’s, separated by a little over a mile on the very same street. A hearty hole-in-the-wall in Vollintine-Evergreen, Dino’s is a family-owned place with all-you-can-eat spaghetti on Thursdays and the best ravioli in town. Fino’s is a deli-style dive that actually closed down for awhile before reopening under the guidance of chef Kelly English, who runs cajun spots Restaurant Iris and The Second Line in Midtown, too.
The college I attended in Memphis attracts a large number of Texan students, who tend to know an exceptional taco when they taste one. They pay Mexican eateries here the large compliment of comparing them to those back in the Lonestar State. In the no-frills spirit that these establishments embrace, I’ll get right to the best of them: Maciel’s Tortas and Tacos Shop downtown is the cream of the crop. It’s little more than a hole-in-the-wall for counter service at lunchtime, but it is a great casual dinner spot, too. The food is quality, cheap, and always comes quick — you can’t ask for much else, especially when it tastes this good. The spicy tilapia and spicy chicken tacos are particular highlights and perfect to wash down with a cold Modelo.
My other favorite Mexican spot is a little pricier and farther afield, but it’s worth it for its authenticity and the tacos al pastor alone–the best I’ve had anywhere. Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana is a family-run business where Pepe, the founding father, can often still be found behind the register or running the show in the kitchen. They have two locations in East Memphis and Germantown, the walls of each covered in pictures of the well-traveled owner in famous locales around the world or standing next to a celebrity. Besides the tacos, their queso fundido and elote also deserve a special mention. You won’t regret forking over a little bit more cash for the food here. If anything, the consistency and varied menu will have you coming back.
Of course, we can’t discuss Mexican without mentioning margaritas. The margs at Molly’s La Casita in Midtown are often touted as the best in Memphis, and it doesn’t hurt that the food is pretty good here, too. They have happy hour every day except Sunday. The very best deal is $6 margaritas on Mondays — get the half and half, frozen, and on the rocks. For any fellow vegetarians out there, don’t miss the black bean, spinach, and mushroom enchiladas. For more budget-friendly bites, check out Taco Tuesday at El Mezcal midtown: tacos are a dollar a pop if you order a fountain drink, beer, or margarita.
Last but not least, Summer Ave is home to a number of good taco trucks and the only spots for authentic Mexican popsicles and ice cream in Memphis. Probably the two most famous taco trucks in Memphis belong to La Guadalupana and Tacos Los Jarochos, normally parked outside their respective brick-and-mortar establishments at the Berclair end of the street. The former has a more traditional sit-down diner, while the latter’s interior is dedicated to desserts. Speaking of desserts, La Michoacana is the place for paletas and ice cream, where I always take out-of-towners. It’s all they do, and they do it well!
Of course, not all of the great Memphis eats can be contained in those categories, so here’s what else stands out above the rest. Casablanca is a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurant with two locations in Midtown and East Memphis. It’s perhaps as famous for itsMoroccan tea as any of the food — at any temperature and any time of year, the tea is perfect for washing down falafel, Egyptian hawawshi, or pita “french fries,” all of which are made even better by their homemade hot sauces. Pho Binh is a simple and deceptively good Vietnamese restaurant in Midtown best known for the lemongrass tofu that even carnivores can appreciate. In the newly-renovated and striking Crosstown Concourse, Global Cafe is home to Venezuelan, Syrian, and Sudanese counters where the vegan rice and beans, kebabs, and shawarma steal the show.
Besides just barbecue and the blues, the downtown area is home to some great dives and greasy spoons. You might not have expected to find Cuban cuisine in Memphis, but Havana’s Pilon is much more than just a novelty. The food is fantastic and unlike anything else you’ll find in the city because of the delicious mofongo, empanadas, and cubanos. Grab a drink after your meal at The Brass Door right across the street, an Irish pub really owned by an Irishman named Seamus — the basement is perfect for sipping on beers from around the world while catching a soccer game or just shooting the breeze.
On South Main St., Earnestine & Hazel’s is probably Memphis’s biggest dive and has been for more than fifty years. Formerly a jazz club and now home to two floors of live music on weekends, the juke joint is known for three things: the world-famous “Soul Burger,” the jukebox itself, and the whole cast of ghosts said to haunt the place. Haunted or not, the cash-only PBR and High Life bar upstairs is like stepping back in time, in the best way possible. Once you’ve done all your drinking and dancing here or at any number of spots on Beale Street, another famous burger awaits you at Dyer’s.
Finally, the very best happy hour in Memphis is at Alchemy in Cooper-Young. Monday to Friday from four to six, Alchemy has half-off all beer, cocktails, and appetizers, an already great deal made even better by the fact that their stuff is good — special shoutouts to the “Sweet Nectar” cocktail, the sweetest of happy hour steals at $7 USD, and their delectable grilled cheese with tomato soup.
Do you have any favorite food spots in Memphis not on this list?
Header image by Joshua J Cotten.