In March 2013, we spent a week embedded in Memphis, befriending the locals while hitting the bars, music venues, and barbecue joints. The goal: to get a true sense of the city, its people, and its culture.
People in Memphis will warn you about an area they think you should avoid, then they’ll go there for lunch anyway. Payne’s Bar-B-Que on Lamar is one restaurant on the locals’ lunch-only list, maybe because of its post-apocalyptic ambience, maybe because of the gritty surrounding neighborhood, maybe because the restaurant is not open past six. Regardless, Payne’s charcoal-smoked fare is such a standout example of the city’s barbecue craft that no trip to Memphis would be complete without a stop there. And visiting Payne’s is a trip in itself.
The first thing you notice about Payne’s is that IT’S A F*CKING GAS STATION. This isn’t barbecue sold from a gas station parking lot, as is common in the rural South, but a restaurant that clearly was a gas station in a not-so-former life. A raised sidewalk now prevents cars from driving into the three bricked-over auto service bays; those now form the dining room. Covering the old garage door openings are decorative concrete blocks, the kind you might use in front of a basement window. Those blocks, painted the same immaculate white as the building itself, allow just a little light to seep into the bare dining room.
The second thing you notice about Payne’s is the guy perched on a plastic lawn chair in the parking lot. He is bearded and disheveled, a survivor of something, and he is wearing at least two hoodies. He is reading a thick, tattered, yellowed, and possibly coverless paperback. He might have all the time in the world; sometimes he takes breaks from his book to greet those who stop by on foot to say hello.
Once you enter Payne’s, the third thing you notice is that IT’S A F*CKING GAS STATION. A short hallway forces you to turn left into the dining room. The ceiling is too high, built to accommodate cars on lifts. Assorted parts of the roll-up garage door tracks are still there. The room itself is too dark; those ornate concrete blocks lining the façade don’t let in enough light, at least not in March. There is no cartoonish barbecue bullshit: not a single porcelain pig, carved wooden pig, watercolor pig painting, or neon piglight. In fact, there is no bullshit at all.
Instead: red-checkered picnic tablecloths on four-top tables, mismatched wooden chairs. Fat white salesmen chomping primally and speechlessly through oversized sandwiches; motorcycle deliverymen grabbing lunch, helmets still on; people from the neighborhood dressed in gray wintry layers; occasional itinerants like ourselves. Bare white walls. Beneath the paint, evidence of the building’s age: mismatched textures of plaster and brick. Rust stains where water penetrated the fortifications.
Once you’ve stepped into the dining room, you can glimpse the kitchen through a rectangular opening in a wall that’s now behind you. A nice wooden countertop runs along the bottom of the aperture. Above it, a menu board whose plastic letters probably haven’t moved in a decade. These are your options: sliced or chopped pork, ribs, sausage, bologna, or hot dog. You know that you don’t have to ask what’s been smoked and what’s been grilled. That’s because, on the other side of the kitchen wall, the charcoal pit sits at the base of a huge brick chimney. In the chimney’s side are two huge steel doors for meats and fuel.
From somewhere within the building comes the sound of one cleaver chopping.
In the kitchen itself, which is as dark as the dining room, a lone household stove, looking too small for the job, stands next to a small griddle in the center of the room, one gas burner warming a pot of sauce. The analog clock built into the stove does not quite display the correct time. In the background, two mustard-yellow refrigerators, looking like they were salvaged from the same ruins, work side by side. A piece of wooden latticework separates the front of the kitchen from the back; it looks eminently flammable.
Payne’s utilitarian (and no-BS) principles get applied consistently and successfully, from the interior decor to the kitchen equipment. And when the low winter sun casts long shadows into the dining room, it looks like a bunker peopled with ravenous survivors of the outside world — though, to be fair, the diners don’t look anything like the guy reading in the parking lot.
In other words, if Cormac McCarthy ever writes a scene in which his protagonists eat post-total-nuclear-war barbecue, Payne’s during midwinter would be the perfect place to shoot the film adaptation.
After we took in the dimly lit scene that welcomes all to Payne’s, we approached the opening in the kitchen wall. A few days or nights prior, at Alex’s Tavern, The Bar That Never Closes*, we accidentally started a whose-bbq-is-best shouting match. Someone screamed very loudly that Payne’s pork was the best in the city. So we ordered a chopped pork sandwich, and then, after scanning the menu board one last time, asked for a smoked sausage on a bun.
Like A&R’s, Payne’s was smoking with charcoal, not gas, not wood. I asked the young dude behind the counter what kind of charcoal they were using. He looked a little nervous. He turned to a beautiful, regal-looking older woman to his right, and asked her the same question.
“Would you believe it,” she said, “we just used the last bag. We’ve been using it thirty years, and I don’t even know what brand it is.”
“The kind that works,” I suggested, smiling.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” she replied, in a friendly but non-encouraging way, and went back to her work, not allowing either of us to get any further into conversation. (We later found out that the woman was proprietress Flora Payne, who took over the restaurant after her husband passed away. The younger gentleman was her son.)
Almost immediately, lunch appeared on the counter, plated on thin Styrofoam. Just as we’d requested, each sandwich came cleaved in half for easier sampling.
Just holding an order of Payne’s barbecue was a welcome assault on three senses, thanks to the symphony of smells, the bodacious colors, and the sheer heft of each plate. We sat down at the closest table to take the next step in the Payne’s experience.
The first thing you notice about Payne’s sandwiches is the layer of neon-green-yellow slaw popping out at your eyes, daring your pupils not to constrict. It’s the brightest thing in the room, and you will soon find that it’s a mustardy cross between relish and cole slaw. The second thing you notice is the magnitude of each sandwich: with lunches like these, who needs dinners?
Most importantly, though, the first time you chomp into a Payne’s sandwich, you realize what has just happened to you.
Payne’s utilitarian simplicity has disarmed and decentered you. You’re in a dimly lit, bare room in an unfamiliar ‘hood, and you don’t know anyone around you. You’ve unwittingly prepared your mind for the true journey, which begins as soon as you’ve fit a sloppy sandwich between your jaw and palate. You bite slowly, laboriously, through it all. The peppery smokiness of each meat; the biting-hot, vinegary sauce; the harmonizing textures of slaw, simple bread, and coarsely chopped pork or smoke-ringed sausage — it feels rapturous. Like being energized by mythic lightning to do your life’s work. This is the flavor and the feeling you drove three days to search for, and you didn’t even know exactly what you were looking for in the first place. Maybe you didn’t expect to find it here; maybe you thought this was just the place.
This is just the place. Payne’s smokes as-Memphian-as-it-gets barbecue. In fact, this crew and their unnamed, probably hickory charcoal might be setting the bar for the city’s craft every time they show up to work. Theirs is an alchemy of talent and skill, smoke and spice, patience, fortitude, and tradition. And the end result is something that the Soul City should be proud of. The whole, or the whole sandwich, is greater than the sum of its parts.
When you’re at Payne’s, it’s just you versus your sandwich, and you love every second of it. You worry about this feeling being fleeting, and then you realize how much sandwich you have left.
Photos: Rob Bellinger & Dan Meade
Visited: March 27, 2013
Published: September 30, 2013
*To read our Decalogy of Memphis Dive Bar Adventures, go here.