“Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane.
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues in the middle of the pouring rain.”
Walking in Memphis, Marc Cohn
Well it wasn’t raining when my husband and I landed in Memphis, but I was still excited. As the National Pork Board’s “Pork Passion Pursuits” sweepstakes winner in the Lifestyler category, I was eager to get to know Memphis and eat some barbecue! We arrived on a Thursday, picked up our rental car and headed into downtown Memphis to check into our hotel. I booked us at the Hampton Inn Beale Street because of its central, downtown location, its proximity to Beale Street (less than a block away) and the complimentary hot breakfast included in the room rate. This hotel was the perfect base for exploring the city. The staff were courteous and friendly, and even offered their tips on local barbecue, directing me to Blues City Cafe around the corner for the “best barbecue in town.”
My husband and I were starving after our flight, so we headed for Beale Street. We could hear music as soon as we stepped out of the hotel, and we turned the corner and found ourselves in the middle of this historic entertainment district. From the late 1800’s to today, Beale has a storied past as the birthplace of the blues, but it was also home to the first black millionaire in the United States, Robert Church, in the 1880’s. Mr. Church paid the city to create Church Park, at the corner of 4th and Beale Streets, which later became a haven for musicians from the farms and plantations of the Mississippi Delta who came to the city to perform, including W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Rufus Thomas, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and a female blues singer from nearby Walls, Mississippi, “Memphis Minnie.” I was somewhat disappointed to find that the street has largely been commercialized, with a Hard Rock Cafe now standing where Pee Wee Saloon, a meeting place for local blues artists in the early 1900’s, once did. One of the remnants of Beale’s heyday is dry goods store turned souvenir shop A. Schwab, which even has a museum dedicated to the history of the shop.
As soon as we stepped onto the sidewalk of Beale Street, the unmistakable aroma of smoking meat filled the air. We followed our noses down the block to Blues City Cafe, where a mister spritzed us with a cool spray of water as we opened the door. The restaurant is open and spacious, and its corner location, with big windows on each side, lets in lots of natural light. But the smell is the best part of Blues City Cafe (besides the food itself, of course!). The smokers are along a side wall, and that section of the restaurant, behind a long bar, has been decorated to resemble an old-school barbecue shack, complete with tin roof. The yummy-smelling scent of smoking, cooking meat fills the room and all I could think about was ordering up and devouring a big plate of ribs!
The menu is relatively small – only the front and back of one laminated page – but we quickly found what we’d come for. I ordered a half slab of ribs, which is served with cole slaw, baked beans, fries and Texas toast, while my husband had the skillet shrimp – a dozen fresh shrimp baked in a sizzling skillet of butter and Cajun spices, served with the same sides as the ribs. Our food came out shortly, and I was in heaven! The ribs were delectable – so tender they were falling off the bone. All I had to do was flake the meat off with my fork and it fell apart on my plate. There was practically no fat, as it had all absorbed into the meat itself and left the ribs juicy and full of smoky flavor. I ordered them wet, and the sauce was perfect – not too thick and just the right sweet, spicy flavor. My husband’s shrimp were amazing too (I made him share!). The spice mixture they were cooked in was full of spicy Cajun flavor and they soaked up the butter from the skillet.
The front desk clerk at the hotel had advised me to save some room for an apple dumpling, and I’m glad I did! Our dessert was served sizzling hot in an iron skillet, with tender apples and fried batter topped with vanilla ice cream. It was so simple, and so delicious! Overall, I give Blues City Cafe five stars for delicious, perfectly-cooked barbecue, a delicious dessert, a cool vibe and great staff.
After our meal, we headed back to the hotel and noticed that Autozone Park was crowded – there was a baseball game that night. We walked the few blocks to the stadium (I told you the Hampton Inn Beale Street is centrally-located) and headed inside, where we got to watch the St. Louis Cardinals’ AAA affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds, take on the Tucson Padres.
When the game let out after a walkoff win by the home team, the music enticed us to walk back over to Beale Street. We grabbed some nachos and beers at Silky O’Sullivan’s, a dive bar on the corner, and listened to the “Dueling Pianos” playing Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Journey and even a soulful rendition of “Walkin’ in Memphis.”
Our first day in the city was filled with barbecue, beer, baseball and music on Beale Street!