Tom's Barbecue: Where the Flavor is Memphis and the Meat is Halal

Aug 9, 2019

Diners at Tom's Bar-B-Q in Memphis can order any of the BBQ joint classics, including brisket, mac and cheese, baked beans and slaw and also have a halal dinner.
Credit Hira Qureshi/WKNO

Known the world over, Memphis-style barbecue is synonymous with pork. But it's also synonymous with multi-cultural greatness. And that's why some Memphis barbecue can even find its way into the homes of those who don't eat pork.

Tom's Bar-B-Q & Deli, at 4087 Getwell Road just east of Memphis International Airport, specializes in barbecue for people with certain dietary restrictions, religious or otherwise. 

The former is how Saad Ghafoor, a practicing Muslim, first heard about Tom's. When he moved to Memphis from St. Louis, he wanted the full Southern culinary experience.  But he also eats halal, which is a tradition of eating clean, blessed meat. That means no pork products. 

"One thing I really wanted to try was barbecue because it was famous here," Ghafoor said. "And I was extremely excited that there was one that I can actually go to and try out. So I'm getting the real taste of it, so I'm not missing out."

Now Ghafoor makes the 20 minute drive from his house to Tom's twice a month. 

The owner of Tom's is not Tom.

Adam Ityem behind the counter at Tom's.
Credit Hira Qureshi/WKNO

It's Adam Itayem, a Palestinian Muslim-American. He bought the restaurant in 1995 from Tom Stergios, a Greek immigrant who had family ties to another Greek-American Memphis barbecue legend, Charlie Vergos, of Rendezvous fame. 

For the last 25 or so years, Itayem has put his own stamp on the business, the most unique being his transformation of the menu. Making it halal hasn't cost him any customers, but it has increased the number of community tables his food can be served on. 

"I think the best way to break a lot of misconceptions is to sit down and eat with each other," Itayem said. "I have friends at the barbecue that are Jewish. We eat together. Caucasians, Asians, the Black community, if you want to break down borders, sit down and have some barbecue."

For halal offerings, he built two extra pits in order to smoke meats separately. He still serves pork, but he prepares it at an off-site location nearby. 

"While we were building the pit, I changed the baked beans to halal baked beans," Itayem said. "We had no complaints. I kept my fingers crossed. And that was the first change. And then all the side items, I made sure it was halal. There was no pork or bacon inside. [We] didn't have any objections." 

Itayem has made a few changes to Tom's original Greek-style rub, adding some Arab influences such as Italian oregano, cumin, basil and zatar, a Mediterranean spice mixture. 

It's a menu that has garnered fans not just in the Muslim community. His rib tips, according to Guy Fieri of the show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives are "like the hub on the flavor wheel of life."

Amber Crenshaw and her family first found the restaurant in a quest for pork-less baked beans. 

"We came here first because they have vegetarian beans, and my husband and I, we don't eat pork," Crenshaw said. "That's how we found it, and then we just found that they had really good meat, like the meat is falling off the bones. That's how we found it, but that's why."

With each plate of ribs, brisket or baked beans, Adam Itayem's food is, for some, a rite of passage, introducing them to Memphis's legendary barbecue culture. 

"I tell 'em, well, you're here at Tom's Barbecue and we're gonna baptize you," Itayem said. "Your taste buds were lost and they're gonna be found. Your taste buds were blind and they're going to be able to see now."