1762 Lamar Ave.
Good barbeque often involves a bit of danger.
No, not the kind that involves a trip to the local Urgent Care with a bad case of food poisoning.
(Smoking meat for a dozen hours over hickory usually compensates for bacteria-laden lapses in FDA regulations.)
The danger I’m talking about is physical danger.
You know. Like getting shot or mugged.
Stuff like that.
Just like every other big Southern city, Memphis has its share of shady neighborhoods.
But any traveler worth his suitcase knows that the best barbeque can always be found in the worst ‘hoods.
So in a city as inextricably linked to good barbeque as any other in the world (with apologies to Lexington, Lockhart and Kansas City), it was no surprise that my research led me to a rundown joint in the “bad” part of Memphis.
Just to reassure myself, I met up with a couple of my cousins from Memphis who happen to be in the restaurant business.
If anyone is going to be intimately aware of both the smoky virtues and dangers of Payne’s, it’s got to be them, right?
“So, have you ever been to Payne’s?”
Cousin 1 – “Never heard of it. Have you ever heard of it,” turning to her boyfriend.
“Nope. Where is it?”
Knowing glances all around.
“Oh, well, yeah… We don’t go to that part of town.”
Well that wasn’t helpful.
I had more confidence in my other cousin who’s a bit more adventurous.
“Have you ever heard of Payne’s?”
“Oh, sure. It’s on Lamar.”
“Ever been there?”
Not the reassurance I was looking for.
“But someone did bring me a sandwich from there once. It was good.”
My cuz wasn’t kidding.
Payne’s serves up one of the greatest ‘que sandwiches that’s ever slid past my taste buds.
Having wrapped up a meeting across the river in Arkansas, stomach growling, I raced my rental car with anticipation to this former auto repair shop turned BBQ joint.
I’m not saying I’d return at midnight to hang with the locals, but Payne’s neighborhood didn’t seem too dangerous at lunch hour.
Sure there were a few sketchy dudes loitering the empty lots across the street, but once I opened Payne’s front door and entered the heavenly smoke-filled confines, any concerns about personal safety melted away like the fat off a smoked pork shoulder.
The atmosphere at Payne’s can be summed up with one word: smoke.
There are no decorations on the walls — unless you count the window-mounted air conditioners from the 1970s.
Even if there were decorative touches, you couldn’t see them through the fog of sweet smelling hickory smoke.
A few bare lightbulbs hang haphazardly from a ceiling of water-stained tile and plywood.
Mismatched chairs and benches, and tables with red checkerboard tablecloths.
Each table is topped with nothing more than a dispenser of those cheap tiny napkins that are too small to stay on your lap.
The mid-day southern sun barely penetrates through the soiled window coverings and hazy interior.
There’s no background music except for the hack of a cleaver hitting the cutting board.