We like barbecue. We like cheeseburgers. In Memphis, the Tops Bar-B-Q franchise is known as the place to go for a barbecue cheeseburger that is actually barbecue on a cheeseburger, and not the much more common cheeseburger deluged in barbecue sauce.
There are eleven Tops locations in Memphis. We targeted the one at 3023 Thomas Street, in the Frayser neighborhood, because it was midway between a park we wanted to hike and our Midtown base. We thought this was a good plan, but within hours of our Tops visit we were told otherwise. What started as a friendly(-ish) bar conversation took a turn when we mentioned that we had gone to Frayser for barbecue cheeseburgers.
Our interlocutors reacted with the kind of incredulity normally reserved for the actions of fools and innocents. They used phrases like, “The wrong side of the tracks” and, “You guys were lucky to get out alive” to describe where we had been. All we had seen were auto dealers, auto-part shops, and dollar stores. That conversation soon devolved away from the dangers of exploring Memphis on an empty stomach (read the lowlights here!), but we remained nonplussed by what they said. The area they described didn’t match the Frayser that we saw. Could they have had the wrong neighborhood in mind?
Yes, yes they did. There are two Tops locations in Frayser. The second is located much closer to Raleigh in what they described as the “dangerous” Fraleigh area. We eventually made it to Fraleigh, and while that’s a story for another day, we can say that the most dangerous thing we saw was this:
Zarn Cat 1, Bar Patrons -2. Now, about those barbecue cheeseburgers…
Pulling up to the Thomas Street Tops the first thing we noticed after their sign was their glass-encased brick pit facing the street. We stopped and stared at it like fish aficionados at an aquarium. Eventually an employee came outside to see if we were OK. We were. We followed her inside.
Once inside, we liked the barbecue cheeseburgers, and we liked the people. We liked how the people made the barbecue cheeseburgers. They prepared the meats separately, only topping the single-patty burgers with one ounce of pulled pork right before serving, thereby keeping the pork moist, the burger firm, and both flavor distinct.
We even made the Thomas Street Tops one of the few places we visited on both the 2013 and 2014 Memphis trips so we could try their non-cheeseburger based barbecue. While talking with the crew about barbecue and barbecue websites during that second visit, they asked if we could respond to recent poor review they had gotten on TripAdvisor. After they were kind enough to give us a pit tour and talk some shop, it was the least we could do (even if we were tardy in doing so).
Looking back, had we known that visiting this Tops would lead to so many misperceptions, miscommunications and message boarding, would we have even gone in the first place? Probably, yes. After all, a good barbecue cheeseburger is hard to find.
Photos by Dan Meade & Rob Bellinger
Publication date: 8/26/15
Dates of visit: 3/25/13 & 6/27/14