Fast Food 'Que
A while ago, the Memphis Flyer wrote an article about the five best barbecue sandwiches in Memphis, decided by a poll of the newspaper's staff from among twelve contenders. In reading the article, I noticed an obvious omission: Tops Bar-B-Q, a well known barbecue establishment famous for its pork shoulder sandwiches. After reading the article, I sent a letter to the editor that criticized Tops' exclusion and pointed out that despite the Flyer's opinion, many Memphians love eating Tops' barbecue sandwiches. I still stand by that opinion, for Tops is a barbecue institution that has earned its loyal following of customers by putting out good (but not great) barbecue and excellent hamburgers.
Recently, Tops' barbecue has branched out beyond the pork shoulder and is now serving ribs and beef brisket at most of its locations, so I decided to give their new offerings a try. On my first visit (at the Union Ave. location), I got the "Ribs ⅓ Slab" plate with a double order of French fries. As I was eating it, a revelation hit me: Tops' barbecue isn't as good as I thought it was. While the ribs sans sauce is decent, they don't have the smoked flavor that most expect from barbecue. This is not to say that it isn't "barbecue", I am saying that in my opinion, the ribs seem like they were simply roasted in an oven without the benefit of smoke. The barbecue sauce applied to the ribs was Tops' "mild" version that I believe is vinegar based, producing an aroma strong enough to mask the ribs' shortcomings. In eating this, I didn't get any more pleasure out of it than from its pork shoulder plate that cost half as much. The only positive that I gained from this is that I got the ribs immediately after I ordered them. Although this may be a benefit to some, this doesn't impress me enough to order them again.
A couple of days later, I ordered the Beef Brisket plate to see what it was like. To make a long story short, it was nothing more than roast beef topped with mild barbecue sauce. If the meat was smoked, I couldn't tell. This is not to say that the entrée was bad, for it wasn't, but it definitely lacked that "brisket" flavor. However, I was able to get my meal quickly so kudos to Tops for that, but the tradeoff was the lack of quality in the preparation of it. Just pouring BBQ sauce on meat doesn't make it barbecue, but somehow Tops has managed to get away with it for decades. I definitely can't see myself ordering this again.
Now I see the logic, though flawed, in the Memphis Flyer not including Tops in it's comparison of barbecue sandwiches. The paper should've included it in order to point out the characteristics of the sandwich and how it measured up against the competition. I'm guessing that the Flyer's conclusions would've been the same as mine. To sum it up, Tops Bar-B-Q is great for those who are in a hurry and need a quick bite to eat, but for true aficionados, I would recommend going elsewhere for the smoky goodness.