Memphis has always been known for its slow-cooked, dry rub barbecue ribs. While they may be reason alone to visit the city, don’t write Memphis off as a barbecue town—the local food scene is about so much more than pork. In the three years that I’ve run I Love Memphis, my blog about the best things to see, do and eat in town, I’ve experienced Memphis’ culinary diversity fork-first, everywhere from street-side tamale stands to James Beard Award-winning restaurants. Local chefs do a lot of things well, but they really shine when elevating a regular food (like a simple doughnut or a burger) into something revelatory. Here are several regular foods turned incredible that you can only get in Memphis. —Kerry Crawford
1. Homeroom Chicken and Grids from Lunchbox Eats
Chef Kaia Brewer’s school cafeteria-themed diner is popular for its selection of soul food inspired sandwiches, like the Homeroom Chicken and Grids, her take on the classic Southern combination of chicken and waffles. The sandwich, which is made of battered and fried chicken strips covered with cheese and sweet relish or honey mustard, sandwiched between two halves of a fluffy Belgian waffle, is delicate despite its density. Order a side of Brewer’s secret recipe mac’n’cheese and a glass of the lemonade of the day to complete the experience.
288 S 4th Street
2. Barbecue Nachos from Central BBQ
In a city known for its barbecue, it only makes sense that Memphis is also a hotbed of pork innovation. You can find slow-cooked pork atop pizzas, spaghetti, and even burgers at various barbecue shops, but Central Barbecue’s nachos are one of the best examples of what Memphians can put together with pulled pork and a dream. A nest of tortilla chips topped with tender pulled pork shoulder, spicy sweet sauce, and nacho cheese, sprinkled with a handful of shredded cheese and a pinch of dry rub, these bad boys are best enjoyed with a friend and washed down with a locally brewed pint of Ghost River beer.
2249 Central Ave
3. Maple Bacon Donut from Gibson’s Donuts
Gibson’s, Memphis’ only 24-hour doughnut shop, knows a few things about appealing to local tastes. They carry doughnuts inspired by everything from red velvet cake to the local university basketball team, complete with frosting in the exact right shade of blue. They also carry the Lord God King of all Southern doughnuts, a fried yeast doughnut topped with maple frosting and crumbled bacon. For something so completely, exuberantly unhealthy, it’s surprisingly light. Grab one from the East Memphis shop, where they’re served hot out of the fryer and you can enjoy some of the best people watching in the city.
760 Mt. Moriah Road
4. McCarter’s Coffee
You could call Memphis the Seattle of the South—there are tons of bands, an established do-it-yourself culture, and a handful of local coffee roasters that keep us all caffeinated enough to make it to work the day after that rock’n’roll show at the Hi-Tone. Of all of the local beans, my favorite is McCarter’s Coffee, made just north of Memphis in Millington, Tenn. The family-run company sells their single-origin coffees at specialty groceries, farmers markets and cafes all over town.
Available at Maggie’s Pharm, Memphis Farmer’s Market, Miss Cordelia’s, and Otherlands Coffee Bar, or order online at and via mccartercoffee.com
5. Stoner Pie from the Cove
The name says it all. The Cove’s stoner pie is the late-night fantasy food of the munchies gods: two handmade beef tamales topped with cream cheese Rotel (as opposed to the usual kind of Rotel, which is a can of Rotel tomatoes mixed with melted Velveeta cheese), and baked until the whole thing is a warm, gooey, meaty mess. Skip using a fork—the stoner pie comes with Fritos for dipping. Chase it with one of the nautically-themed bar’s handmade specialty cocktails while you watch a vintage monster or pulp movie on the big screen.
2559 Broad Avenue
6. Sonny Salt
Memphians prefer their ribs dry, which means that they’re seasoned and smoked and don’t come bathed in sauce. A handful of local barbecue joints sell jars of their house dry rub seasoning, but there are few more versatile than Sonny Salt. Colored a bright orange by paprika, this tangy, smoky blend of salt, spices, and herbs goes well with most meats (barbecue or otherwise), in soups, and sprinkled on french fries or grilled vegetables.
Available in most Memphis grocery stores or at sonnysalt.com
7. Soul Burger from Earnestine and Hazel’s
The soul burger is the best thing on the menu at Earnestine and Hazel’s (nevermind that it’s the only thing on the menu). It’s a smoky, inseparable mess of beef, cheese, grilled onions, pickles and mustard—if you don’t want one of the ingredients, be sure to let the cook know before he gets started, because once the bun gets involved, it’s too late—the cheese, onions and sauce act as a gooey, greasy, delicious glue that fuses meat to bread. They taste best late-night, paired with a bag of plain potato chips and any Otis Redding song on the jukebox.
Earnestine and Hazel’s
531 South Main Street