Tops Bar-B-Q, Memphis TN

Because every so often I am a complete dingbat (or more often than that, or worse), my plans go completely awry. After spending hours looking over the Memphis Que blog, I picked Moma’s BBQ in Bartlett as the third stop on our barbecue day. But then we spent hours shopping in Cooper-Young, putting us late to Interstate, and then we decided to drive over the gorgeous I-40 and I-55 bridges into Arkansas and back to see those – I do so love big bridges – and then we went to Shangri-La Records and were there forever (not difficult) and then we went to Comic Cellar and were there for a while, and when we finally made it to Moma’s, they’d closed, because they’re one of these aggravating businesses that figure people are done eating barbecue at two.

Readers with long memories might note that the last time we were in Memphis, my “wait, this place closes after lunch?” circuit was similarly faulty. When we’re next in west Tennessee, I will try to do better.

But time really was of the essence, because our hotel was way the heck out there (stupid Memphis in May, taking all the close rooms…) and we needed to get there and change and get back to the Memphis College of Art for an important senior show that Marie’s sister wished for us to see. So I said, ah, heck, there’s always a Tops somewhere. Indeed, there are two on Summer, and we ended up at the one that’s not fooling anybody hanging out in a former Roy Rogers building.

On our last visit to Memphis, the kids and I visited the store on Rhodes, which is the oldest surviving store in the chain. The first store opened in 1952, and today there are fifteen open, including two in Mississippi and one in Arkansas.

An aside: you know those “listicles” where people write best-ofs about various towns and cities and always leave something out? Earlier this year, I was asked to write such a list about Memphis barbecue for my former employer, and I left out Tops, deliberately. Why? Because Memphis has something like a hundred and ninety-nine barbecue joints and they only wanted 1500 words. If you want a complete list, get a phone book. But these lists are all about the minor outrage of things being skipped, and so readers will often issue “corrections,” usually in the form of a moronic comment “You forgot…” and that’s just great, because they take the time to write the comment and then, studies show, they’ll come back to the page between three and five times seeing whether anybody responded, and even the people who didn’t write the comment but wish to see whether a response will come will also refresh it after a day or two. It’s nice ad money to have somebody bothered enough to come back. So, to those commenters who were moved to note Tops’ omission, thanks! (Related: Robert Moss on click-bait titles for these silly listicles.)

I think of Tops as absolutely fine baseline Memphis barbecue. It is right at the median, with a few joints falling below it in my book and a few rising above. Average Memphis barbecue is better than most. I do insist that they put too much sauce on their meat, so this time I asked for them to go light and it was just enough. One of these days, I’m going to have to try one of their cheeseburgers, though. Everybody seems to talk about them.

For our actual dinner, several hours later, Marie’s father treated everybody to Benihana to celebrate Marie’s sister’s graduation. It was a fine meal, and it might have been our last in the city before hitting the road, but, as recounted previously, Payne’s was too darn good to leave behind after only a single sandwich. So yes, I’m already thinking about where we might eat on our next trip to Memphis, hopefully in 2017. Perhaps only one new-to-us barbecue joint next time; I really want to visit Payne’s and Leonard’s and the Bar-B-Q Shop again. Maybe I’ll break up those with a Tops cheeseburger. Hmmmm.

Other blog posts about Tops Bar-B-Q:

Ken’s Food Find (Union Ave, May 18 2011)
Memphis Que (Jackson Ave, Feb. 27 2012)
Where Memphis Eats (Union Ave, Aug. 16 2014)
The Pit, Fire, and Smoke Memphis BBQ Guide (several locations, Oct. 27 2015)

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