I don’t remember much about that Friday morning in Memphis. Mainly I remember pacing the floor of our hotel, waiting for the minutes to pass until it was finally time to leave and go get some lunch.
See, on our previous trip to Memphis, I made the mistake of thinking that Payne’s Bar-B-Q was open for dinner, and came here with Marie after they’d closed their doors for the day. As one of the last remaining barbecue joints in the southeast on my bucket list – I mean, there are hundreds and hundreds more to visit, but only a handful with the “you must eat here” press that Payne’s commands – I was not going to make that mistake again.
Payne’s is no longer on my bucket list. It’s on my top ten list. This is one of the most amazing sandwiches that I’ve ever had. Every word of all the considerable hype about Payne’s is true.
This building used to be a garage and service station. It was retrofitted to become a restaurant in 1972 when Horton and Flora Payne opened this place, selling sausages, ribs, and beans, but the sandwich is the legendary thing here. It doesn’t matter what you normally order in a barbecue restaurant, even if you’re like me and a chopped plate with stew and slaw is your go-to, or if you are one of those people (I often am) who asks for the slaw on the side rather than under the bun. Don’t do that. Just get the sandwich, with hot sauce and slaw. It’s not really that hot; you’ll be fine.
You will lose a good portion of it as it collapses. That’s fine; scoop a little out from under the bun to make it a shade more manageable if you need to. The meat has an amazing texture, with a nice bit of outside char. The mustard slaw is possibly the finest I’ve ever had. The sauce is the best in the city. Everything blends together flawlessly. This is just an astonishingly great, great sandwich.
Horton Payne passed away in 1984. Flora and their son Ron run the place these days, and it’s become legendary. It’s one of the must-visit joints among all the many in Memphis, and we’ve received multiple suggestions and recommendations from readers and other people who love traveling the country for good food that we must stop by. Make no mistake: there are some good barbecue restaurants in Memphis, and a couple of great ones, but Payne’s eclipses them all.
Marie and I had sandwiches; the children had strawberry cake. You see this at many Memphis barbecue joints. Somebody sells them individually-clamshelled slices of cake. That Friday, there were no four happier people at any restaurant in the country. That was not repeated the next day. You see, the plan had been to leave Memphis around noon Saturday and get on the road for home. But in the first place, it was closer to one before we said goodbyes at Marie’s sister’s graduation, and in the second place, I wasn’t leaving Memphis without a return trip to Payne’s. I will never again leave Memphis without a return trip to Payne’s.
But they didn’t have cake. Whoever brings them hadn’t made it by that Saturday. The children, who had danced together that morning with thoughts of more cake, sat despondently munching on potato chips. The girlchild (seventeen) is so offended by the inclusion of mustard in slaw that she refused the meat, fearing contamination. The little one (five) just slowly mumbled “Why… why don’t they have cake?”
That Saturday, two of the people at this restaurant were among the happiest in the country. If only these fool children would have joined us, it would have been all four again.
Other blog posts about Payne’s Bar-B-Q:
Southern Foodways Alliance’s interview with the Paynes (July 30 2008)
Full Custom Gospel BBQ (May 18 2011)
Dining With Monkeys (Jan. 16 2012)
Memphis Que (May 2 2012)
The Barbecue Fiend (Dec. 19 2015)
Are you planning a barbecue road trip? You can see all the barbecue restaurants that we have visited for our blog (more than 380 !) on this map, with links back to the original blog posts!