Pork rules, but it's a sorry kingdom
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011
On paper, the upstart Memphis Barbeque touches all the bases.
Co-owner Chris George, a former general manager of the Occidental downtown, grew up in Memphis. The restaurateur lured Redrick Rayborn, a veteran of the popular Corky's from back home, to be his pit master in Crystal City. Elvis is part of the recipe for the 162-seat spread.
"Memphis is known for two things," says George, whose father, William, is his business partner. "Great barbecue and the blues."
Alas, Tennessee isn't what leaps to mind when I'm wiping my hands at Memphis Barbeque, which starts swell with a smile at the door and piping-hot hush puppies at the table but rather quickly devolves into my singing the blues.
One of the hallmarks of Memphis 'cue: "Pork is king," says Chris George. Sure enough, the meat finds its way into messy egg rolls, one of the better sandwiches (pulled pork) on the menu, and baby back ribs. The latter pick up a nice fragrance from their time over burning hickory, but their thick glaze emphasizes sugar and smoke over tang.
Beef and chicken are treated like third-class citizens here, at least as far as the flat, dry brisket and the flabby industrial breast are concerned. Tiny skewered shrimp are supple, but the seafood doesn't live up to the menu's promise of "spicy."
Sandwiches come with a choice of one side dish. Entrees are bulked up with two. The recipes for some of the accompaniments are from the boss's file; one of them - George's fresh, creamy coleslaw - suggests a blue-ribbon winner. I can't say the same for the sweet potato fries, which taste as if they came from a freezer bag; the bready fried onion rings; or the macaroni and cheese, which looks like scrambled eggs on a bad whisk day.
Arches separate the dining room, done up with red paint and bricks, from the front bar, animated with suspended flat-screen TVs. The overall effect is tidy - and corporate.
George, who says he's considering other projects if the right location can be found, knows that Washington is experiencing a boomlet in barbecue joints: "My goal is to be consistent with everything and put out a better product than everyone else."
Memphis Barbeque has miles to go.