Edmonton is having a barbecue bonanza. In less than two years, five barbecue joints have lit up the local food scene: Smokehouse BBQ, Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus, Bubba’s; less notably, That BBQ Place in Sherwood Park, and now Memphis Blues. Bubba’s literally lit up the scene in a spectacular blaze March 2012 with a fire that levelled the tiny business on Gateway Boulevard. Probably not the kind of smoke Rand Peterson had hoped for in his trailer. The newest smoker in town, Memphis Blues, is located in a chain-heavy strip on 23 Avenue near 57 Street.
The Edmonton location is the eighth restaurant in the Memphis Blues chain, and the first one outside of British Columbia. Two Vancouverites, George Siu and Park Heffelfinger, started the business in 1999 after having a life-altering pork experience in Memphis. They did their research and their homework, became skilled in the art of barbecuing, and Memphis Blues was born.
A couple of years ago, I discovered Memphis Blues in Kelowna and found that the ‘cue was pretty damn good. I’ve been back a handful of times and it was during one of my visits that I learned they were planning on setting up shop in Edmonton. This was before we had any other barbecue place in town, other than Bubba’s trailer on the south side, so hearing that a sit-down ‘cue joint was coming to our city had me pretty excited.
To be honest, I’ve not eaten any barbecue in Canada, yet, that compares to barbecue found in the southern USA. Face it, Canada lacks the history, the grit, the true smoke and character of American barbecue. Our barbecue restaurants are kitschy – full of reproduced cowboy posters and Beale Street memorabilia in effort to give us that southern experience. Yes, we have on-site smokers and food offerings that mimic those found in the South (beans, pulled pork, ribs, and dishes with gluttonous descriptions), but there always seems to be something missing.
So, how does Memphis Blues in Edmonton rate?
The decor comes from the typical Barbecue Restaurant Decorations R’ Us warehouse that every other barbecue joint orders from, it seems. You won’t find anything unique here. It’s all red, and blues-y, with wood accents and red and white checkered basket liners. Bottles of their own barbecue sauces line the counter and the mood is raucous with no-frills, but what stands out here, initially (other than a great aroma of smoked meat), is the wall of bourbon – by far the largest selection under one roof in this entire city.
As a bourbon fan, that made me very happy, but I was, after all, there for the food.
Off to a good start with bourbon and smoke. The menu isn’t anything original or unique, but standard can be good when it comes to barbecue; it’s the technique that counts. Well, that, plus generations of secret recipes, and outdoor wood-burning oil-drums converted into smokers manned by guys named Big Lou, and where the real topic of barbecue is as hotly debated as politics and religion. Little things like that.
In a nutshell: Memphis Blues delivers. For the most part. It’s good. It’s not life-altering, but it will satisfy our Canadian palates. The chain has won several awards in BC for their product, and deservedly so. Would it win against the big guns in the States? Probably not – because it’s missing that vital ingredient: barbecue DNA.
I’d go back for the brisket. I’d pass on the BBQ butter-bathed shrimp, the cornbread, and the desserts.
But if want a fix of brisket and bourbon, I know where to find it. The brisket had everything good brisket should have: smoke, juice, texture and flavour.
More details about what we ate can be heard here on CBC Edmonton AM with Mark Connolly.