You can see the evolution of The Memphis King, each incremental improvement, each baby step, on owner Bob Canton’s Facebook page. He started two years ago working to develop recipes to get them just the way he wanted them. The Schenectady building was renovated and the kitchen cleaned out, the cooler arrived, then the barbecue photos started. The restaurant opened in September.
Canton learned proper barbecue during the 10 years he spent in Memphis, and when he came back home to Schenectady, decided there was a need for Southern food. He has filled it, enthusiastically.
It’s a modest place in a converted wood frame house, bright and clean, and painted his favorite color, purple. Mom and I could see right away that the effort and emphasis here is on the food, not the decor. They have their priorities straight.
The Memphis King Southern Smokehouse BBQ
WHERE: 1902 Van Vranken Ave., Schenectady. 372-5464, thememphisking.com
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
HOW MUCH: $19.49
MORE INFO: Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, Discover. Not wheelchair accessible. On-street parking.
There are only two tables, but Memphis King’s other customers came for take-out while we were there. There are framed photos of Memphis barbecue joints on the wall, and, of course, of the King himself, Elvis Presley.
The menu has everything you’d expect from a barbecue joint. There are specials for lunch: chicken, pork, beef. You can get it on a platter, with a square of cornbread or on a roll with homemade coleslaw. Add a few bucks and you get a drink and a side, too.
Meal combos include a choice of meat, two sides, and cornbread. Combos start at $11 for chicken, up to $24 for The King’s 4 Meat Sampler of chicken, beef, pork, and ribs.
Specials and sides
Specials like black-eyed peas, London broil, pork chops, and smoked chicken salad, come and go but the sides stay the same: coleslaw, baked beans, mac salad, potato salad, mac and cheese, greens, and kettle fries. Everything is homemade.
Mom and I seated ourselves at the big table for six, and waited. She sipped her Jarritos pineapple soda from the glass bottle, as there were neither cups nor straws. Memphis King gets points for offering Boylan drinks and Jarritos Mexican soda, as well as the usual stuff.
Canton brought out Styrofoam boxes and dropped them onto the table with a slight thud. Lifting the lids, our eyes widened at the prodigious portions of food. “We believe in feeding you,” he said dryly, an understatement.
The meats are dry-rubbed; you can add the sauce later. Once I tasted the barbecue sauce, I was converted. I tasted both sweetness and tang from vinegar, but all balanced so well that neither dominated. It’s another of Canton’s recipes, and it is perfect. “There is no artificial smoke flavor,” Mom pointed out. You can buy a jar for $6.
Mom worked her way through the heroic pulled pork sandwich ($10, with soda and a side). The meat was falling out around the sides, and after forking it up, she hoisted up the sandwich. “Out of this world,” she said, and added, “I like that it tastes like meat, not smoke.”
The right roll
You can’t use just any roll for barbecue: It needs to be sturdy, but not heavy or doughy. It has to hold everything together until you reach the end, and it has to soak up the sauce.
Memphis King’s rolls have a chewy crust and soft, fluffy center, perfectly suited to the task, because they’re made to order by Canton himself, another special recipe.
We liked the cole slaw, thick slices of red and green cabbage and shredded carrot in a light mayonnaise dressing. The kettle fries were soft, thin russet potato slices, curled up a bit and browned, but I’m guessing they probably should have been crisp. They tasted just the way I like them, though, like straight-up potatoes.
My lunch consisted of four or five big, thick slices of brisket and a cute square corn muffin ($8). The plastic knife sliced easily through the meat, which fell apart on its own in places. The edges were blackened and crispy and there was just enough fat to make things interesting. It’s the same cut you’d use for corned beef, and you’ll recognize the thick grain, which turns tender from long, slow cooking.
The brisket was absolutely delicious. The flavor was especially strong around the crispy edges, but not so much that I couldn’t taste the beef. I applied barbecue sauce liberally, and only with effort kept from eating the whole thing in one sitting.
I nibbled the corn muffin, which tasted just like the ones I make at home, maybe a little sweeter, but left it for later when I could slather it with butter.
The tab for lunch came to $19.49, not including what I put in the tip jar.
Leftovers stay fresh
Sometimes I find smoked leftovers unappealing; these were delicious. That’s because the flavor of the smoke was never overwhelming. The brisket was still fairly tender, hadn’t dried out, and tasted good the next day, although I had second thoughts about eating the fat, which turned white from being refrigerated. I buttered the corn muffin liberally and polished that off, too.
Memphis King is a work in progress, one you can participate in by visiting. It is clearly a labor of love, there’s an earnestness about the place that is very appealing.
Canton puts it this way, “It’s about putting the soul in the food.”