Right-on ’Cue

Memphis regains its crown as the best barbecue in town, with T.C.’s and B.B.’s both worthy contenders

Fourth of July is around the corner, and that means barbecue. I prefer the classic definition: slow cooking foods over a hot, smoky fire. (Grilling, done quickly, is the opposite.) By that standard, Vegas is not quite a great ’cue town.

Many places use smokers, such as the J&R smoker box at The Mirage buffet, Cravings. These are boxes in which you can place the hardwood of your choice, or get away with using wood chips. Still others, especially chains such as Tony Roma’s, bake their ribs in the oven, before basting them with house barbecue sauce, usually a jazzed-up ketchup.

Anthony MairThe brisket sandwich at Lucille’s Smokehouse.

But there is some top-notch barbecue in town. Top honors go to the Memphis Championship Barbecue restaurants, where pit master Mike Mills—he’s from Murphysboro, Ill., and also did the menu at Blue Smoke in New York City—has yet to give up his crown.

I stopped going for a while because I felt quality had slipped. But I went back recently and had a terrific meal—perhaps because the boss had just spent two weeks in town. I started with a three-rib sampler: beef, St. Louis-style pork ribs and baby backs. All three had the classic smoke ring, and they were flavorful and fall-off-the-bone tender.

Then there was the burnt-end brisket sandwich, which is not on the menu but I asked and they made it. It didn’t come up to the greatness of the one you get at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, Mo., and the meat wasn’t as flavorful as you’ll find at Lucille’s Smokehouse in The District at Green Valley Ranch, but it was crunchy, beefy and smoky, with black char on every piece. The flavor of hickory permeated every bite.

The house barbecue sauce is complex here, so I like to get the meats dry and then mix the sauce with Magic Dust, spices in a shaker bottle and a few drops of Tabasco. Then you have the best sauce in the city.

There are three locations: 2250 E. Warm Springs Road, 1401 S. Rainbow Blvd. and 4379 N. Las Vegas Blvd.

Later, I was at The Mirage to taste the ’cue at the Cravings buffet and noticed B.B. King’s Restaurant and Blues Club. Soon I was face to face with his Lip Smackin’ Ribs.

I’ve been to the original B.B. King’s in Memphis, Tenn., a city famous for dry-rubbed baby backs at a place called the Rendezvous. They’re the best ribs I’ve ever tasted. In Las Vegas, chef Oscar Pena uses a similar taste profile when preparing these ribs. They come crusted with spice after being finished over an open flame. At $18.95 for a half rack, and $29.95 for a full rack, they aren’t cheap, but they are worth it. (FYI: He makes a mean gumbo, too.)

I’m also a fan of local favorite T.C.’s Rib Crib, 8470 W. Desert Inn Road, despite the fact that he uses mesquite chips, as opposed to hardwood, in his smoker. Still, these meats are slow-cooked and they taste like it. The chicken, a meat that often turns rubbery in a smoker, is wonderfully moist and tender. The beef hot links are excellent, and the ribs firm, meaty and smoke-flavored to the bone.

T.C.’s also has an array of good side dishes and desserts. The greens with turkey is delicious. Better Than Sex, an upside-down pineapple cake, is a matter of opinion.