The former Martini's did a makeover and now calls itself Memphis Joe's, home of "the best BBQ on the South Shore." Its entrance is a little confusing, with a few different doors to choose from, but only the leftmost one works, putting you in the bar room whose wraparound bar has seating and TVs on all four sides, plus ledges against walls and a few small hightop tables. A larger dining room to the right has larger round high tops, lower elevation tables as well and a few booths, all within close proximity of another half dozen large flat screens. A closed-in deck allows outdoor dining in warmer months.
Aside from some of the tabletops resting on whiskey barrels and the female servers wearing western style plaid shirts, the would-be cowboy kitsch is wisely avoided in favor of a sports bar focus.
Some Yelp reviewers have questioned whether the meats are truly smoked, but there's a Cookshack smoker onsite. (Of course, that choice only continues the debate of whether the meats are truly smoked, but that's another debate for another day.)
Barbecue selections include St Louis cut spareribs, pulled pork, brisket and pulled chicken. Burnt ends are available as a sandwich only, and there's also a brisket chili. Wings are a big part of the appetizer menu, with several different selections, none smoked. Other appetizers are chicken fingers, nachos, jalapeno poppers, warm potato chips, warm soft pretzels and three different salads. Steaks, steak tips, burgers, fried chicken and seafood round out the offerings for the non-barbecue folks. Sorry, there's no Chinese.
I was in the area on Super Bowl Sunday, so I stopped in for a late lunch to take advantage of both my rare proximity and possibly a rare weekend lunch when traffic and quality might be higher than normal. It was still fairly quiet.
I was solo that day, so appetizers gave way to a single entree. Had I had reinforcements, I surely would have opted for the chili and wings.
To maximize the sampling I went with a 3-meat combo ($19), choosing my go-to trio of ribs, pulled pork and brisket. The meats come sauced by default; I elected to keep it that way on the ribs and pork but leave the brisket unadorned.
Brisket: Two things caught my eye before the plate hit the table, and both of them were brisket related. The first was how monotone brown the meat looked, as if it couldn't possibly have been smoked—but better than gray, I suppose. The other was how much meat there was. Each slice was a little less than a quarter inch thick, but the stack was nearly 2 inches tall. Speaking in sandwich terms, there was enough brisket to make one monster sandwich or two modest ones. The slices had decent moisture, as if they had come out of a pool of liquid during what was a probable reheat. Fat content helped as well—the edge fat on some slices needed trimming, but was still welcome. Crust would have been more welcome but wasn't there. The "accordion test" from my competition judging days tore the brisket in half with the slightest of tugs (it's supposed to stretch without breaking) on three tries, and under the apparently added liquid, the meat was slightly dry. The slicing was thick enough to differentiate it from deli meat but thin enough to enhance the soft, easy bite even while brittle. Flavor was pleasantly beefy with only the faintest traces of rub and smoke. Overall, this brisket would have been fine between two slices of rye and some kick ass mustard, but on a barbecue platter, it left a little to be desired.
Ribs: Two of the same observations were true of the ribs as well, though just a little less noticeable: much quantity (a half dozen ribs on a 3-meat combo is generous) but not much color, especially on top. There were little hints of pink along the cross sections, but the would-be crust just wouldn't be. It was hard to tell whether the surface fat never rendered at all or was congealed during refrigeration. What wasn't hard to tell was that this was a reheat. The lengthiest ribs were moist and had (too) much tenderness—and so did the bones, which were as mushy as the meat. Ribs from the shorter end of the rack were dry and chewy. Flavor on all was stale and vacant, with the sauce carrying most of the load. Whether from a steam table or immersion in sauce, these ribs felt droopy and stewy, wet for sure but not from any juiciness. They're the type of ribs more typical of a soul food joint than a hard core barbecue joint, but for those interested in soft and saucy, they might do the trick.
Pulled Pork: Served in a large ramekin (nearly 4 inches across by about 2 inches deep), this presented another large portion (again enough for at least a large sandwich) and might have been the best of the three meats. Though heavy on sauce and mushy in spots, it seemed fresher and juicier than the rest, and might have been smoked that day. Smoke and rub levels were no higher, unfortunately, but there was a good amount of bark with enough crunchy crust to stand up to the sauce and contrast with the looser parts. Flavor came mostly from the sauce.
Cole Slaw: A simple, crisp mix of cabbage and carrot had good crispness and a thinned-down mayo condiment that crept into watery.
Mac and Cheese: Served in the same size ramekin as the pulled pork, this yielded yet another large portion and probably the best item of the day. The ribbed elbows were neither too firm nor too mushy, the creamy cheese neither too mild nor too sharp. Breadcrumbs on top added some crunchiness to contrast the smoothness of the creamy cheese sauce.
Cornbread: Two thin pieces had a Twinkielike texture and flavor typical of Northeast cornbread.
The server described the two tables sauces as homemade ketchup-based and mustard-based, and that's fairly accurate. Though both get an assist from wet and dry ingredients that make them a little spicier, they both taste a litte too much like their base product. There might be liquid smoke in the red one, which I'm not so fond of, but it tastes a little better warm than straight out of the squeeze bottle. The mustard one would work better in a sandwich. Neither are all that inspired and they could use a couple more.
This joint reminds me of what barbecue restaurants were like in the 1980s.
Though clearly not my type of barbecue and nowhere among the best (nor even above average), this wasn't the horror show I expected based on Yelp reviews and two personal accounts via emails. The service, value and menu diversity were enough to warrant a few visits a year here if I lived in the same town.
The Bottom Line
Arguably not barbecue and inarguably not destination barbecue, Memphis Joe's is a local joint that's best treated as a saloon and sports bar that happens to have meats by the mountainful. Expect to feel welcome and expect to leave full. Just don't expect competition caliber, list topping 'cue, or anything close.
Yelp reviews of Memphis Joe's
Urbanspoon reviews of Memphis Joe's
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