Dining » Cafe

Oh, Mickey's: 'Cue so fine, it blows food critic's mind



The first time I visited Lil' Mickey's Memphis Barbeque, I got in trouble with Mom. Specifically, the mother of Charles Butler, who with his wife, Robbie, owns this St. Peters barbecue joint. Butler's mother works there, too, tending to the cash register and the front of the house, and on this particular day, after giving her my order and finding a seat, I broke one of Mom's rules: When she called my order number, and I returned to the counter to get my lunch, I didn't bring the numbered ticket I'd been given.

With the guilt-inducing blend of admonishment and concern that only a mother can manage, Mom told me I had to exchange that ticket for my meal because a customer recently had walked off with someone else's meal.

I went back to my table for my ticket.

Family is at the heart of Lil' Mickey's, both the restaurant and its barbecue. Robbie Butler is a Memphis native whose extended family owns barbecue joints in Tennessee, Mississippi and California. Her uncle Jim Neely runs Memphis' acclaimed Interstate Barbecue; her cousin Patrick Neely and Neely's wife, Gina, are hosts of the Food Network program Down Home With the Neelys.

The Butlers opened Lil' Mickey's in 2005. Last year they moved from the original location on Mexico Road to a former Taco Bell two and a half miles east, near Interstate 70. The space retains the basic fast-food layout (not to mention the signature Taco Bell architectural silhouette): a counter, a soda fountain, seating for three dozen or so. The décor consists of framed articles about the restaurant on one wall. On each table sits a roll of paper towels, which you'll need, and a bottle of ketchup, which you won't.

Charles Butler is similarly unaffected when I ask him about his barbecue: "We don't do anything different than anyone else does." The proof, in other words, is in the meat, which is dry-rubbed and then smoked over hickory wood: pork ribs and shoulder; beef brisket; turkey breast; chicken. You can order each by itself as a "dinner" (with two sides and a slice of white bread), and most are available in sandwich form. In accordance with Lil' Mickey's Memphis roots, the pork-shoulder sandwiches are topped with coleslaw.

Before Mom calls your number, the kitchen slathers your barbecue in the restaurant's signature sauce. If this runs counter to your personal method of barbecue worship, the staff will happily supply the sauce on the side. Either way, do try the sauce: This is as close to a one-size-fits-all (or most) sauce as I've encountered locally. It has a rich, molasses-like sweetness, not at all cloying thanks to a piquant vinegar note, and a slowly building heat on the finish.

Pork spare ribs come with the tips still attached, so even a half-slab provides a tremendous amount of meat. These are appropriately tender. The meat pulls away from the bone but doesn't fall from it, as the old cliché wrongly has it. The flavor is pork and woodsmoke. What more do you need? The rub adds a slightly peppery note, though its various spices are balanced enough that no single one makes itself apparent.

Pork shoulder is available either pulled or chopped. I opted for the pulled variety and was rewarded with a generous pile of tender meat. The brisket is served chopped, and this I ordered with some trepidation. In my experience, brisket is best when sliced gossamer-thin. I shouldn't have worried. The brisket provided Charles Butler with a stage from which to exhibit his true chops as a pitmaster, and exhibit them he did. He'd smoked the beef to the absolute perfect point: infused with hickory flavor but still tender, with just enough fat that every bite was downright luscious.

Butler pulled off a similar feat with the chicken. That most fickle of barbecue fodder was incredibly moist, dark (drumstick) and white (a breast half) meat alike. The skin had retained just enough fat to supply an indulgent extra layer of richness without crossing over into fattiness. The turkey breast was less than sublime — it was by no means dry, but it lacked the silken tender texture of the other meats. Then again, "tender" is a lot to ask of a turkey breast, smoked or otherwise.

Lil' Mickey's offers four sides. Thanks to a strategic deployment of the aforementioned sauce — and a less-than-restrained ration of pulled pork — the baked beans are the standout. The fries aren't especially distinctive, but they're hot and crisp, and if you like your barbecue unadorned, they provide the perfect vehicle for your ladleful of sauce. Both the slaw and a mustard-based potato salad are conventional. And that's OK. You're here for the meat, and at Lil' Mickey's, whether you order a sandwich or a plate, you receive a lot of 'cue for your buck.

Whatever you order, make sure you hold onto the ticket the cashier hands you. At Lil' Mickey's, as in life, you do not want to mess with Mom.

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