Memphis Minnie’s

Here is what there is to say about the brisket: it’s fucking incredible

Go to the front lines of the battle against the tendency of everything to suck worse than it already does, and you know who you’ll find in the trenches? Cranks. Ideologues of the trivial. It takes a crank to fight for the small things that global capitalism is busy stuffing into the trash compactor in the name of efficiency. Barbecue, for instance.

Barbecue, by definition, is not efficient. True barbecue consists of meat cooked in a wood fire for hours on end. There are cheaper sources of fuel than wood, and there are ways to cook meat more quickly, but none of them give the meat that distinctive, complex taste that is often oversimplistically described with the word smoky.

Which is why we need cranks like Bob Kantor. Kantor, the genial, walrus-mustached visionary behind Memphis Minnie’s, is devoted to preserving proper barbecuing technique—defending it against those agents of efficiency who would stick a side of pork in the oven, cover it with sauce, and label the result “barbecue.”

Kantor and his staff will cook many meats for you: brisket, pork butt, pork ribs, beef ribs, turkey, chicken, sausage. I think I’ve tried all of them at one point or another, and I decided some years ago that the brisket was what it was all about, and I’ve never seen any reason to go back. Here is what there is to say about the brisket: it’s fucking incredible.

If your mother made brisket when you were a child, you may think of it as tough and chewy. This is because, unless you were unusually fortunate, your mother did not cook brisket by bathing it in the heat and smoke from white oak logs for 16 to 18 hours, as Bob Kantor does. As a result of this process, Kantor’s brisket is beyond tender: it’s soft, and it somehow tastes soft too. The lean meat flakes into juicy shreds that explode their flavor into your mouth like the liquid-filled pustules inside a segment of orange; the veins of fat that marble through it give each bite a buttery slickness and warmth.

Take-out customers will be tempted to get the brisket on a sandwich instead of in a Styrofoam carton for downloading onto a plate. I have no animus against sandwiches—sandwiches are my life—but I strongly recommend against the sandwich option in this instance. The bread tips the wet/dry balance of the meat conclusively toward dry; the slices of brisket are crammed on top of one another too densely to fall apart the way they want to. On the sandwich, you wind up chewing the brisket effortfully; off a fork, you just slide it into your mouth and let it do its magic victory dance in there.

The off-a-plate meals come with a choice of two side dishes; the sandwiches come with one. Quick side-dish roundup: The greens are less tough and stringy than most, and less bitter; they taste strongly of vinegar. The potato salad, very mayonnaisy, is great. The beans taste like they’ve got some barbecue sauce in them, which is a good thing in and of itself but maybe makes them a poor choice for purposes of contrast. The coleslaw is good and pickly.

Memphis Minnie’s offers three kinds of barbecue sauce: Texas (red and tomatoey), South Carolina (mustard-based), and North Carolina (vinegar-oriented). As a Texas red-sauce partisan I will say that the red sauce at Memphis Minnie’s as good as any I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve driven across the south three times, and eating barbecue was central to my purpose every time. I’m not really qualified to pass judgment on the others—partly because I didn’t go through the Carolinas, and partly because it’s hard for me to forego an opportunity to eat the Texas red sauce for more than a bite or two.

But waxing rhapsodic about the sauce runs counter to Kantor’s whole project. My comrade-in-takeout Brian L. Perkins tells this story: He orders the brisket over the phone, and he shows up to pick it up, and he says Can I get a few extra things of sauce with that? Kantor won’t give it to him. “Barbecue’s not about the sauce!” Kantor says. “It’s about the taste of the meat! Why do I cook it for 18 hours if you’re just going to drown it in sauce?”

Brian is always ready with a quick reply, so he says: “Then why do you make the sauce so delicious?”—perhaps the only time these words have ever been uttered in anger. I can’t tell you how Kantor responded to this question because Brian didn’t actually think of this quick reply until later, when relating the incident to me; in real life he nodded and slunk out of the restaurant with only the standard—and, for his purposes, insufficient—amount of sauce.

“I try to educate folks about sauce,” Kantor says now. “I’m reacting to the forces of sauce, the forces of evil, the dark side.” (He really talks like this.) “The capitalists are in the sauce market. They have coopted the idea of barbecue and turned it into sauce. We shouldn’t take these liberties. It’s not right.”

Eat-in customers are free to deviate from Kantor’s uncompromising ethic: there’s a bottle of each kind of sauce right there on the table. For takers-out, though, there’s just a little plastic tub. If you really want to subvert Kantor’s mission, you can buy a bottle of the sauce and take it home. Your counterrevolutionary tendencies will be noted.