Wondering what to eat in Memphis TN? With all the Memphis-only types of cuisine, you don’t want to miss out on even one of them. The Memphis food scene has so many nuances that we asked Memphis culinary guide Cristina McCarter, to give us the lowdown. And what’s more, if you can’t visit Memphis now, she’ll ship you the fixin’s in the new City Tasting Boxes so you can enjoy the best food in Memphis in your home.
The Best Food in Memphis TN
Cristina McCarter knows Memphis food. The owner of City Tasting Tours has worked with local Memphis restauranteurs for the past four years bringing tourists around. The culinary guide understands the backstories of Memphis eateries and is on first-name-basis with family members that own them. But then the pandemic hit. Cristina pivoted her tour business and found a way to bring Memphis food to the visitors who came to the city to hear Cristina’s stories and foodie tips.
Ask Christina what to eat in Memphis, and she’ll tell you, “You can’t come to Memphis and not get your BBQ, your fried chicken and some Makeda’s Cookies.” So ingredients for those Memphis food items is what’s she’s packing into the Memphis City Tasting Box. You see, for those who can’t travel, City Tasting Tours now ships tastes of Memphis right to your door.
Table of Contents
The Memphis Food Scene
“In Memphis, we have our own culture of food,” says Cristina, who New York Times featured in a story about how small businesses are shifting gears due to coronavirus. I have the privilege of talking with her about the best food in Memphis on an IFWTWA* webinar.
“There are over 100 barbeque places in Memphis, and more than 50 hot wings spots here,” the Memphis foodie explains. Hot wings, for those who don’t know, are fried chicken wings smothered in a variety of sauces.
“There are two hot wings sauces that we really love: we love Buffalo, but we also love the Honey-Gold sauce,” she reveals. [Spoiler alert: New Wing Order® Memphis Buffalo sauce is included in the Memphis City Tasting Box.]
Memphis-style BBQ is the Most Famous Food in Memphis TN
Most people know that Memphis is celebrated for its particular BBQ style, but not many know how it all started. Cristina tells us that although barbeque has been around for hundreds of years, it was here in Memphis where Charlie Vergos Rendezvous Restaurant popularized the dry rub style.
“They’re the godfathers of Memphis barbeque,” she says. The Greek family, who owns and operates the restaurant, used Greek seasoning, including oregano, as a dry rub to season barbeque ribs. Charlie Vergos’ dry-rub that came around in the 1940s is what barbeque rib aficionados of today consider to be Memphis-style BBQ ribs.
What are Memphis-style BBQ Ribs?
According to BBQ expert Meathead Goldwin, “Unlike BBQ ribs in other parts of the country that are slathered in sauce, Memphis ribs are dressed with nothing more than a flavorful spice blend that lets the perfectly smoked meat shine through.”
The Memphis City Tasting Box includes Commissary Memphis Style BBQ Seasoning. The Tennessee company promises that the dry rub seasoning is “So good y’ull slap yo’ Mama.”
Memphis has a barbeque sauce, and a version of it is included in the City Tasting Box. The Rendezvous Restaurant’s Rendezvous Mild Barbeque Sauce® is a vinegar, mustard and tomato-based sauce that is not too sweet. What’s more, the vegetarian, gluten-free BBQ sauce does not contain high fructose corn syrup or artificial dyes.
More Memphis-only type of cuisine
“We also do a thing with catfish and catfish and spaghetti that is a Memphis-only type of cuisine,” Christina adds. “Spaghetti is a side dish here; some people would argue that, but we eat it as a side with catfish, fried catfish and fried chicken.”
It makes sense that catfish is part of the Memphis food scene since the city is on the Mississippi River. In 1819 founders put Memphis high above the river on bluffs to avoid floodwaters. In subsequent years, its lofty position earned the name “Bluff City.” Today visitors explore the river on a rails-to-trails walkway called Big River Crossing, the longest pedestrian bridge to cross the Mississippi River. What to eat in Memphis after your bridge walk? Catfish, of course! In Memphis, you can get your catfish fried, grilled or blackened.
“Food represents the culture of Memphis,” Cristine continues.
What's the Difference Between Southern Food and Soul Food?
Before COVID-19, when you joined one of her food tours, she’d take you to places that serve up barbeque, soul food and southern food. “Southern food and soul food are different; southern food is based on geography,” explains the Memphis native. “Soul food is more about the soul being put into the food, so any cuisine in any culture can have soul food. But Southern food is more about the ingredients chicken, pork, collard greens, and what was available in the local area to harvest.”
What to Eat in Memphis: Soul Food
A considerable part of the Memphis food scene is soul food, and you can find many Memphis restaurants that serve up grandma’s recipes with heart and soul. Typically you get a choice of three sides with many dishes like turnip greens, BBQ-drenched spaghetti and baked mac ‘n’ cheese to choose from.
When you open your Memphis City Tasting Box, you’ll find Chef Tam’s Spices of Life. Chef Tamra Patterson appeared on Guy’s Grocery Games, where she beat out three classically-trained chefs with her soul food renditions. In our box, we uncovered Chef Tam’s “Fry Me Up Baby,” a fried food seasoning that you could use when creating sides like fried okra or fried green tomatoes. The container displays a recipe for “Grown Folks Fried Chicken,” which she serves over fluffy butter waffles at her restaurant Chef Tam’s Underground Café.
Dessert Food Memphis TN: Cure for Your Sweet Tooth
Unique desserts can’t be overlooked when talking about the best food in Memphis, TN. Sweet potato pie, corn pudding and peach cobbler are on menus throughout the city. Makeda’s Cookies, a locals’ favorite, are part of what makes the Memphis City Tasting Box special. “Makeda’s Cookies take us back to a great childhood memory – they were served as snacks at the elementary schools,” reminisces Cristina about the three-ingredient butter cookies.
Other surprises in the City Tasting Boxes include Wing Guru’s Memphis Dry Heat fried pork skins, Memphis wood art made by hand and tea bags from My Cup of Tea. The Memphis tea company’s goal, BTW, is to provide women in the community with tools to thrive financially, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Beyond the Rendezvous: Where to Eat the Best Food in Memphis
Cristina, owner of City Tasting Tours and City Tasting Boxes, already mentioned Charlie Vergos Rendezvous Restaurant for dry-rubbed ribs. But the other places not to miss when experiencing the Memphis food scene include:
Cozy Corner Restaurant
Cozy Corner Restaurant, family-owned by the Robinson family known for their Cornish hens and ribs.
Four Way Soul Food Restaurant
All the kings have eaten there – Martin Luther King, Jr, B.B. King and Elvis. Located in Soulsville, this restaurant is operated by a husband and wife team.
The Little Tea Shop
The Little Tea Shop is another family-owned business. “This restaurant is a little different than others because they don’t use pork in any of their soul food,” says Cristine. “They’ve been around for a long time.”
The 99 Cent Soul Food Express
The oxtails are really good at 99 Cent Soul Food Express. And order their sweet potato cornbread.
Order the pork belly sandwich at Central BBQ. The hot wings are delicious, too. They have four locations in Memphis.
What To Eat in Memphis TN Conclusion
So it might be time to visit Memphis. But until we can bar hop the barbeque joints in Memphis again, the City Tasting Box is one way to get our Memphis food fix.
Order your City Tasting Boxes now at Citytastingbox.com
Support local, support women, support minority-owned businesses.
City Tasting Boxes make perfect gifts for the holidays.
As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.
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