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Barbecue Nation

There's the city, there's the image, and then there's the marketing.



It's the Sunday Afternoon Gospel Lunch, and a singer is belting out a stirring rendition of "I'll Fly Away." The walls are adorned with pictures of B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Memphis Minnie. Folks are chomping pork ribs, and owner Bob Hodges is taking it all in with satisfaction.

It's Beale Street, all right -- in Portland, Oregon.

Every major city has a best barbecue contest. And it would seem that in every city, somebody is working the Memphis angle.

There are several barbecue categories considered legitimate around the country: Texas, Kansas City, Carolina, and Memphis. Hodges went with Memphis for his first restaurant, Beale Street NW. It's an interesting choice, since he's never been to Memphis. But as a former Memphian now living in Portland, I can assure you it's a fine taste of home.

"I've always liked barbecue, and I've always liked the blues," Hodges says. So, after 15 years in the banking business, and with some restaurant management experience behind them, he and his wife, Margaret, did their Bluff City research and opened the place up for New Year's Eve 2004. (A delicious irony: Beale Street NW is in a former bank building. The old vault is the musicians' green room, and the safe-deposit room is the liquor storage.)

Hodges' restaurant, like others across the country, are variations on a formula: How To Open a Memphis Barbecue Place. You call it Beale Street, or Memphis something or other, and you get pictures of Elvis, Memphis, and a bunch of blues people. If possible, you claim some connection to Memphis, or at least Tennessee or the South. Then you give half the menu some goofy Memphis names, find somebody to say you're the most authentic 'cue around, and voila! "Memphis barbecue."

Beale Street NW, for example, serves "Memphis Fries," tossed in the dry rub they use on the ribs. Another example, Max's Memphis Barbecue in Red Hook, New York -- voted "Best in the Hudson Valley," no less -- offers "Memphis John's Barbecued Pulled Pork Plate" and "Ozark Cheese Grits."

Mike "The Legend" Mills grew up in Illinois, but after becoming the only three-time grand champion of Memphis in May, he moved out to Las Vegas to open Memphis Championship BBQ. There he serves "Memphis Skins" stuffed with barbecue pork topped with cheddar cheese and green onions. He's got four locations now and serves thousands of people a day.

Denver has all sorts of "local" options. There's Tennessee Hickory Smoked BBQ (on Mississippi Avenue), which is "in a strip-mall space that looks a little like an Appalachian cabin," according to a recent review. The same reviewer said the Yazoo BBQ Company serves "artisan flesh" with a "spice-spangled, lacquered mahogany surface." Then there's Joe's West of Memphis BBQ, run by Joe and Carolyn Stuckley, formerly of West Memphis. (So, in the marketing lingo, they're from "West of Memphis," since nobody's heard of West Memphis.)

There's a place in Virginia Beach that hits all the buttons: Beale Street Memphis Barbecue Boogie and Blues. In Maine, there are three Beale Street Barbecue locations, where they call their Caesar salad a "Beale Street Caesar." The restaurant Red Hot and Blue, basically a re-creation of Corky's, now has 34 locations around the country, serving "Memphis Tea" and "Memphis Fries." I once ate at their store in New Jersey, and my Jersey friends asked if the fried strips of potato on our plate were like the fries in Memphis. I had to allow that, by golly, they were!

Not everyone is impressed. The online magazine Slate sent a guy around the country to eat barbecue, and he wrote, "I left Memphis not at all sure why it counts as a world-class barbecue town. Perhaps it's Memphis' deft boosterism. This city has genius marketers. Memphis is very grungy, yet the marketers have managed to enshrine Graceland as a national monument and to convince tourists that Beale Street -- a rowdy boozefest -- is a major cultural landmark. Perhaps they have done the same with Memphis barbecue, an illusionist's trick to make it seem more appealing than it is."

Well, maybe, maybe not. But it appears to be working. You tell people in Oregon or anywhere else you're serving Memphis-style barbecue, and they raise their eyebrows and nudge each other as if to say, "Let's go."

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