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Photo by Keith MayJay Bee's claims it serves up barbecue "Memphis style," and I can vouch for that. I've been to Memphis. I've eaten barbecue there. I've learned firsthand that Tennesseans love their meat slowly cooked over hickory logs; heavily basted with tangy spices; and served on Styrofoam plates with plastic utensils in small, no-frills, strip-mall restaurants showing trash-TV shows and surrounded by liquor stores, laundries, print shops and shoe-repair stores. That's exactly the way they do it at Jay Bee's Bar-B-Que, where the city-limits signs say "Cypress" but most every other indication—from the stack of hickory logs sitting on a rack in one corner to The Jenny Jones Show blaring from the TV perched high in another—suggests you're just a half-mile from the Mississippi River Bridge.
Jay Bee's has been in this Knott Avenue location since 1998, which qualifies as tradition amid the frequent rotation of strip-mall tenancy. But the roots of the business—and its particular style of cooking and coating meat—extend back even farther, through Southern California locations in Gardena and Compton and more than halfway across the country to a barbecue joint named Neely's, one of the most renowned in Memphis. (In fact, when you type the words "Memphis-style barbecue" into the America Online search engine, the first name that comes up is Neely's.) Tony Neely passed along the recipe for his secret sauce—concocted from 20 ingredients that gurgle for five hours over an open flame—and it has become the essence of Jay Bee's barbecue. It is a substantial sauce, thick and red-brown, but it dances with subtle sparks that alternately sting and soothe the taste buds. Every few mouthfuls, you'll find yourself reaching for your water and then realizing that the fire has put itself out before you can take a sip.
Just as important is the preparation of the meat—be it beef brisket, chicken, links, or pork or beef ribs—which is accomplished slowly over the smoke of those hickory logs. That's Memphis-style, too, and there's something undeniably Southern—old-fashioned and strangely comforting—about the hearty, hedonistic fragrance of hot flesh and wood hanging over the neighborhood.
The menu is basic barbecue: your meat offerings along with side orders of coleslaw, corn on the cob, greens, black-eyed peas, and potato and macaroni salad. But choosing isn't easy, and not just because everything tastes so good; no, there's something so soulful about this food that your choices seem to cast some kind of reflection on you. I felt heady, goofy, a little self-conscious—not to mention distracted by the loud TV, on which Jenny Jones was alternately inciting and refereeing conflicts among her pathetic guests. On top of that, by the time I ordered, my mouth was watering so profusely it impeded my speech. Finally, I ordered the lunch combo—choice of two meats, choice of two side dishes—and opted for hot links and pork ribs along with greens and corn on the cob. And a root beer. The bill came to about $12, but Jay Bee's offers a variety of lunch plates for $5.80 and dinner plates for $7.42 and $8.35.
The links arrived in a swimming hole of barbecue sauce, each slice permeated with flavor. The pork ribs, tender enough to be stripped from the bone without breaking the thin plastic fork, were coated more reasonably, allowing the flavor of the wood-smoked meat to contend with the sauce. The greens were tangy and substantial, not soggy. Only the corn on the cob was a disappointment —a little too soft—although I'd ordered them as a sorry second choice when I learned they were out of black-eyed peas. I like to eat ribs alone—the better to reduce my self-consciousness for all the finger licking and toothpicking that go along with the meal—and the wide wooden tables and generous supply of napkins at Jay Bee's were perfect. The staff left me alone, mostly because they were so engrossed by Jenny Jones. Mmmm, Memphis style!
Jay Bee's Bar-B-Que, located at 11513 Knott Ave., Cypress, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. (714) 799-6222. Dinner for two, $20, food only. MC and Visa accepted.