“We could be the longest continuously operating real barbecue restaurant in the northeast, and definitely in New York,” says Max’s Memphis BBQ owner David Weiss. In fact, when a monster smoker from Louisiana was installed in Max’s newly opened kitchen in 1995, it was the first time the company that manufactured it had sold one in the Northeast. To this day, when hardcore New York City barbecue lovers are deciding what kind to get, they often take the trip to Max’s to see how it’s done.
When Weiss opened this venture, he was already the owner of Santa Fe, the Mexican restaurant in Tivoli that he started in 1987, right after graduating from Bard. Weiss took road trips to Mexico, but would often dally in the South, enchanted by an unfamiliar beast known as barbecue. “I was so intrigued by this method of cooking,” recalls Weiss. “I spent time in these smoke shacks down South meeting old men turning the meat with pitchforks. I fell in love with the food.”
Weiss was especially fascinated by the cooking style’s beginnings as a poor man’s feast, a way of transforming tough or otherwise undesirable cuts of meat into something sought-after. Likewise, side-dishes like collard greens, cornbread, and grits had humble beginnings, as the ingredients were cheap or free and always plentiful. “Barbecue is America’s only real cuisine,” says Weiss. “Steak, burgers, and fries are not American — they’re German and French.”
Let the ’cue pedants argue which style is best. Weiss put Memphis front and center in his restaurant’s name because of his fondness for that city’s tradition of very slow smoking and minimal sauces. You’ll see that love reflected in Max’s famous slow-smoked wings, on special for 50 cents each on Tuesday nights. “It’s a scene — people come in for that.” He also serves up St. Louis-style smoked ribs either sticky or dry.
They’ve got all the bases covered here, with slow-smoked chicken, pulled pork, spicy sausages, and even beef brisket served with a horseradish dipping sauce for an extra kick. Customers love the cedar-planked salmon, dry-rubbed and slightly smoked, topped with red pepper aioli.
The mixed grilled vegetable dinner salad actually competes with barbecue as a customer favorite: mixed greens topped with squash, peppers, mushrooms, corn — and don’t forget the candied pecans, y’all. Oh, and do order the grilled-cheese grits with Vermont cheddar.
Even the building exudes Southern hospitality. Weiss designed it to evoke an antebellum home with grand columns (spliced with Colonial revival as a nod to the Hudson Valley). Instead of the typical roadhouse look, Max’s boasts high beamed ceilings, vintage jadeite-green walls, a limestone bar with oak details from his parents’ barn in Vermont, and plenty of artwork, including a swooping fantasy creature sculpture hanging over the bar who guards the pitmaster’s secrets.