Wednesday October 13th 2010
Interstate Barbecue, S 3rd and Mallory, Memphis, TN
When I would ask former residents and frequent visitors of the city of Memphis what barbecue place to check out on my visit to town, usually an entire list would be presented, but Interstate Barbecue was the only place that seemed to make it onto every one, so naturally that’s exactly where we went. Earning its name, we only travelled a few blocks north of the exit from I-55, through the desolate neglect and disrepair that Memphis is so famous for before arriving at the destination. I almost turned into the wrong parking lot at first because that one was full of cars, luckily I caught the mistake in time and sprawled the van out alone in front of this magnificent mural.
For a place that had come so recommended, sported such a nice exterior painting, and seemed to hold some level of fame judging by the People Magazine and USA Today awards boasted about on their menu, I expected more of a crowd. The huddle of waitresses around the front door learning about October being popcorn popping month from the news on TV (a good news topic for a city with one of the highest murder rates), instructed us to sit wherever we’d like. A nightmare for anyone too indecisive as every table in the rather large dining area remained wide open, but somehow we managed, settling comfortably into a booth and reading up on what we could eat.
The easiest and safest bet seemed to be the pulled pork sandwich, initially I thought about ordering the small and getting a side of cole slaw, but I furthered the convenience by saying “me too” after Crom ordered his large. We passed a few moments with some more local news absurdity (“…authorities believe he is no longer wearing his orange prison jump suit…”) before the food was delivered. It was the kind of sandwich that needs to be sized up first, you must view it from all angles, you have to invision picking it up in a variety of positions, a game plan on how to start eating it must be deduced before action is taken. And so I did, rotating it by the plate, treating my eyes to 360 degrees of molten pork decadence, while my brain did the number crunching in an attempt to figure out the most effective way to get it off the plate. In what proved to be incorrect I held the top bun in place with the four fingers of each of my hands while my thumbs acted as a support for the already sauce moistened bottom. This operation should have been reversed, as on lift off a good portion of pork, sauce, and slaw spilled out onto the plate. That’s right, slaw right there in the sandwich.
The first time I had a BBQ pulled pork sandwich I remember feeling a little slighted, like ‘This is is? It’s just some sloppy pork chunks in a roll?’. I wasn’t like ‘Wheres the lettuce and tomato?’ or anything, but I’d expected at least one other ingredient, although I wasn’t sure what. As the years passed I forgot about that attitude and grew to love pulled pork sandwiches just like that, nice and simple, but then as soon as I tasted it mixed in with the creamy and unexpected crunch of the slaw additive, I remembered exactly why I had felt that way. There was a reason after all why I’d wanted to order a side of slaw, thankfully I hadn’t. I’m not sure if slaw right there in the sandwich without even asking for it is a Memphis thing, but I approve.
Utensils needed to be applied eventually as the sandwich deteriorated with each bite into a pile of barbecue rubble and refuse smeared haphazardly across the plate. In time I was able to leave the plate decorated only with streaks of sauce and overlooked bread crumbs, finishing up my iced tea before the two of us sat in a period of reflection on our meal. The sheer amount we’d eaten didn’t exactly register until we stood up, at which point the sandwich which felt as if it sat whole inside my stomach, sunk from whatever higher plane it sat on, plunging deep into the depths of some inner pit. A good pummeling of the gut.
While paying at the register we noticed that the restaurant had an entire other half, more like a to go area with some bench seating that wasn’t full, but busy with customers. It dawned on us that we were the weirdos eating on the other side.
Life and health insurance advertisements, previously unseen, decorated the parking lot where we aimlessly strolled for a few minutes, sighing and breathing heavily before returning to the comfortable seating of the van and setting out to find Bruce St without directions or knowledge of the city, which ended up working. It was hours before I recovered, and I didn’t go without a seat all night long.