So, to get the lowdown on the state of the city's barbecue, I ordered dishes common to the menus of the city's three top joints Big Nate's, Johnson's, and Memphis Minnie's for a head-to-head tasteoff. Where possible, given its limited menu and tendency to run out of things, I also compared dishes from sort-of newcomer Lilly's, the former Brother-in-Law's, now owned by another family member.
Pork ribs, in order from tenderest to chewiest: Johnson's meat is soft like pot roast, so the meat falls off the bone, though it has some crispy edges like carnitas. There's a visible smoke ring, but no smoky aroma or flavor they must use neutral wood in the pit. Big Nate's have a very smoky aroma and intense smoky flavor, are still tender but not falling apart, nice and juicy at the big end but a bit dry at the small end. Winner: tie. Memphis Minnie's are short and meaty, pink and moist from fat end to skinny, with medium smokiness. Lilly's have light but noticeable smoke, tender but with great "gnaw" factor, and a salty dry rub gives great flavor even without sauce.
Beef brisket: Lilly's is like shredded dry pot roast, not good. Big Nate's is juicy, beefy tasting, chopped into cubes, with less smoky flavor than the ribs despite a thicker smoke ring. This serving was marred by a few bitter burned pieces. Johnson's is lean, smoke-free, but tasty like the ribs, and belie the "you don't need no teeth to eat our beef " slogan with an excellent texture that allowed for traditional thin slicing. Winner: Memphis Minnie's super-smoky, unctuous, crisp-edged slices, oozing with their delicious juices definitely no need for sauce, which is wisely served on the side.
Pulled pork: Johnson's is a bit dry, with flavor very similar to the ribs but not as good. Same for Big Nate's, only more so. Memphis Minnie's is moist and has good porky flavor. There's just one big problem: Pulled pork demands an ample portion of good sauce, which brings us to the next category. Winner: none.
Sauce: At Memphis Minnie's, every order comes with a mild, thin, cloyingly sweet tomato-based sauce with a ton of cumin, and an equally sweet mustardy salad dressing. Luckily, they're served on the side, which is where you'll probably want to leave them.
The other three places offer the conventional thick tomato-based sauces with your choice of mild, medium, or hot variations. Big Nate's are decidedly sweet and vinegary and all taste similar: Even the hot is pretty mild. Johnson's medium is well balanced and has just the right amount of heat for my chili-calloused palate; their hot is overdosed with black pepper and has a bitter edge. Winner: Lilly's hot has the best overall savory-sweet-sour-spicy balance. Mix it with some of the mild for less spice (that's how they make their medium).
Beans: Lilly's have a nice texture but are swimming in syrup. Big Nate's are OK but bland and mushy. Johnson's are good: smoky, firm, and taste like they're tossed with some of the barbecue sauce. Winner: Memphis Minnie's al dente beans get deep flavor from onions, bits of meat, and spices.
Greens: Big Nate's are bland. Memphis Minnie's are a bit of a shock at first bite sweet and sour, much like German red cabbage but tasty. Winner: Johnson's delicious, simple mix of turnip and kale or collard greens, just like homemade.
Potato salad: Johnson's is too sweet, too chunky, and the potatoes taste canned. Big Nate's is passable but nothing special. Winner: Memphis Minnie's simple homemade-style with mayo, onion, and no sugar.
Coleslaw: Lilly's has a nice texture, but it's dessert-sweet. Johnson's is creamy, very slightly sweet, with a nice strong cabbage flavor, but it's chopped so fine it's not crunchy even though the veg is actually fresh and firm. Winner: tie. Big Nate's is fresh-tasting and the least sweet of the three normal coleslaws. Memphis Minnie's is again on its own planet with a mix of cabbage, carrot, red onion, and green and red bell peppers marinated in salt, vinegar, and sugar long enough that they turn out like good homemade sweet pickles.
Bread: Big Nate's, Johnson's, and Lilly's meals each include two slices of indistinguishable supermarket plastic-bag sponge bread. Winner: Memphis Minnie's fresh house-made corn muffin, too sweet but with good corn flavor and a nice gritty texture. (I usually pick up a crusty loaf of Acme for sopping.)
Sweet potato pie: Big Nate's tarts are so heavy on the mace that they taste like doughnuts. Memphis Minnie's cuts slices from a house-made pie: good buttery crust, great color, and creamy texture, but there's an incongruous tropical fruit flavor, like banana or mango, that I found off-putting. Winner: Johnson's tarts have a crisp, crunchy, golden-brown crust, and a delicious, perfectly spiced filling.
Service: Things are well organized at Big Nate's and Memphis Minnie's, and orders get processed quickly. Johnson's and Lilly's are laid back don't expect to get in and out in a hurry. Only Memphis Minnie's is set up for pleasant in-house dining: nine tables (no table service) with around 30 seats, heating, decent lighting, a restroom, even beer on tap. Big Nate's can seat 20 at four tables and a counter, but this time of year the room can be cold. Johnson's and Lilly's each has a few seats, but they're clearly an afterthought to the main takeout business.
Bottom line: Nothing at Big Nate's is stellar, but it's all decent, and with free delivery throughout the city it's the laziest fix for your barbecue craving. At Johnson's, get the brisket with medium sauce on the side, plus the beans and greens some of the best sides I've ever had in a barbecue joint and you'll be eating high on the hog. Lilly's is your best bet if you like to gnaw pork ribs in spicy sauce unless they run out of ribs, as they did while I was in line on my first visit. If you want to sit down, Memphis Minnie's is the place: great meats, eccentric but sometimes good sides but you might want to bring your own sauce.