Thursday, April 3, 2014

Pit Fire at the A&R Smokehouse

I got a bad surprise while driving down Elvis Presley Boulevard today when I noticed the smokehouse behind the south Memphis location of A&R Bar-B-Q was gone. Well, not completely gone. The steel pits and chimneys were still there, along with the foundation. But the rest of the building was missing.

I've posted about my love for the old smokehouse in previous posts, so while I was upset to see it demolished I was happy to hear from longtime pitmaster Damon Briggs who told me it is being rebuilt following a major fire.

Before the fire I'd taken a lot of photos inside the smokehouse and interviewed Briggs for my recently-completed book Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce and Soul, which will be coming out June 24 from the History Press. The book uses barbecue to tell the story of the Memphis area and is packed with photos and interviews. It isn't just a rehashing of material from the blog, it is almost all new material combined with historic photos.

Briggs at his new temporary work station.

Briggs has worked for A&R for 30 years, since he was a teenage student at nearby Hamilton High School. He was out of town recently when another employee "decided to teach himself to cook" in the smokehouse, he said. The results underlined one of the major advantages of a detached smokehouse. The restaurant was unharmed. Briggs is currently cooking out of several large barrel cookers while the smokehouse is rebuilt.

I went inside the restaurant to try the ribs he was creating on the temporary set up. They were still pink to the bone with a great flavor, but they did have some unrendered fat and tough spots. A lot of people obsess over wanting fancy, high-priced gear for producing barbecue so let that be a lesson. The custom smokehouse makes noticeably better ribs than the barrel cookers in the right hands. But a talented pitmaster with three decades of experience can still wing it with a newly-improvised cooking rig and turn out pretty good ribs. On the other hand, a novice working with a well-seasoned, custom-built smokehouse can literally burn everything to the ground.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Photo Tour of the Crosstown Sears Building

A friend who works for the Church Health Center recently invited my wife and I to take a tour of the old Crosstown Sears building before it undergoes its major renovation. I've always been fascinated by the building, which I hadn't been inside of since I was a kid, so I naturally jumped at the opportunity. I had my camera with me so follow along on a photo tour from the ground floor to the roof of the main tower.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Spotting Good Barbecue in the Country - Macon Country Store

While working in the Oakland, TN, area east of Memphis today I enjoyed a great barbecue plate from the Macon Country Store at the rural three-way intersection of Highway 193, Macon Drive and Oakland Road.

It is a little, easy to overlook building and I was unfamiliar with the business but I was already certain the food would be good when I ordered it. So consider this your short guide to spotting good rural West Tennessee barbecue.

 The sign identified it as a "country store." That term means you can usually count on some sort of barbecue or other fresh-made plate lunches.

There was a large barrel cooker in front of the store on a trailer. Also important to note, the cooker had a firebox separate from the main cooking chamber for indirect heat. That means real barbecue.

When I got out to investigate I took a look behind the store where I saw several large piles of hardwood.

Sure enough, all the food was great. The vinegar-based slaw matched well with the homemade sauce on the hardwood-smoked pork. I talked to owner Emmet Kimble, who runs the place with his wife, and he told me he avoids charcoal and cooks with pure wood. The store didn't have baked beans so I got some of the excellently-seasoned fries instead.

I also noticed a book titled How to Clean Your Smokers and Grills For Dummies on the counter, so naturally I inquired about it. It was a one page book that read, "1. Make sure your fire is out! 2. Make sure your fire is out! 3. See first two!"
Kimble explained that he cleans the cooker by using a large quantity of lighter fluid to burn out all the accumulated grease. About a year ago he tried to clean it not realizing that there were still embers in the firebox. The fluid drained down into the firebox creating a blast that knocked him 12 feet through the air. He was proud of his new eyebrows, which had finally grown back in shortly before my visit.

Another recent find for me occurred Monday during a visit to Kroger. Since the recent passing of Newman Farm patriarch Mark Newman I've had to largely rely grocery stores for the bacon I eat most mornings for breakfast since the family is no longer a common fixture of the local farmer's markets. Of the brands available in grocery stores the Wright Brand is usually the best option.

So when I saw Wright had a new "Memphis BBQ Flavored Bacon" it went straight into the shopping basket. I was happy to see that it was standard Wright bacon seasoned with a handful of Memphis standards like vinegar and paprika. When I cooked some the next morning the extra seasoning added a nice little Memphis touch to the already-wonderful smokey bacon flavor with none of the funky artificial taste common in many "barbecue flavored" packaged goods. And surveying the cast iron skillet after I finished breakfast I realized I had an additional new kitchen staple for future cooking -- Memphis barbecue flavored bacon grease.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Barbecue Restaurant Inside Whole Foods - BBQ Shack

As soon as the massive new Whole Foods on Poplar near Mendenhall opened up I started getting messages about the barbecue restaurant inside the store. Everyone spoke highly about the quality of the food there so I stopped in a little after 1 p.m. on Monday, hoping the catch the store at a time when it wouldn't be completely overrun with customers.

I used to dread visiting the old Whole Foods store that was located a little further back in the same parking lot. It had a lot of quality products you couldn't find anywhere else in Memphis, which drew crowds that could make it a pain to navigate. Luckily the company responded to the obvious consumer demand with a far roomier new store that offers an even wider range of goods. Even at an off time on a Monday afternoon the parking lot was packed and there were a lot of people in the store, but it didn't feel cramped or crowded. Rather than ask someone where the barbecue restaurant was I simply spent some time wandering around checking out the impressive assortment of merchandise until I came across it.

The BBQ Shack restaurant operates as a separate entity from the rest of the grocery. Once you go inside it you pay for anything you get there before exiting. This allows it to serve beer for on-premises consumption, you just can't take any beer you purchase in the BBQ Shack out into the grocery store area.

Once I arrived at the order counter inside the BBQ Shack I was impressed by the appearance of the meat on display, which included pulled pork, pork ribs, beef brisket, chicken and duck. I chatted with supervisor Jacob Dries about the impressive bark and smoke penetration on the meat and he ended up letting me sample a few bites of everything, along with all the house-made sauces, before I ordered.

The most delicious meat I sampled was the duck, but there wasn't enough of it for me to get a full order. Apparently word has gotten around about how good it is and it sells out quickly whenever it comes out of the pit. The Shack uses a gas-assisted Ole Hickory cooker loaded with enough hickory wood to get some good smoke into the meat.

The quality of barbecue cooked on a gas-assisted smoker depends on the technique being used to cook. Since they are controlled by a thermostat, if they are fired up with no added wood they will simply cook with gas and create the kind of oven-cooked pork with no smoke flavor common on Beale Street. But the cookers can create great barbecue with a real wood fire going in them. Local restaurants like Leonard's and Jim Neely's Interstate cook shoulders in gas-fired pits loaded with a mix of charcoal and wood. Gas is lighting the fire, but the flavor is coming from the smoke.

I ended up talking to marketing manager Emily Lux on my way out of the store and she told me the BBQ Shack sources its hickory wood from Pert Whitehead at the Charcoal Warehouse on Florida Street. That speaks well for Whole Foods' commitment to offering real Memphis barbecue. She said a lot of the bigger locations have area-specific restaurants inside them, so barbecue was an obvious choice for Memphis. All the meats used in the restaurant meet the same standards for humane animal treatment as the ones sold in the Whole Foods grocery for a refreshing alternative to all the commodity pork common in the restaurant industry.

Despite the higher animal welfare standards and the chain's "Whole Paycheck" reputation, lunch from the BBQ Shack was surprisingly affordable. I paid $9 for a two meat, two side combo that provided generous portions of brisket, pulled pork, beans and slaw.

The brisket and pulled pork both had a good enough flavor from the smoke and rub they were seasoned with to be eaten without sauce, but Dries had given me samples of six different sauces; Kansas City, Memphis, South Carolina Mustard, chipotle, North Carolina vinegar, and Au Jus. The Kansas City sauce was too sweet for my taste but I enjoyed the tangier Memphis sauce on my pulled pork with a little of the chipotle added for an extra bit of kick. The mustard tasted like it would have paired great with the duck if there had been enough for me to get a full order. The Au Jus was a perfect match for the brisket. I think the vinegar would go well with the ribs based on my experiences with the vinegar sauce at Central BBQ, although the single bone I tried had a good enough dry rub flavor that it didn't require any accompaniment.

The slaw was overly creamy and had too much carrot in it. A little carrot is nice for some adding a little sweetness and variety to a slaw's flavor and texture but this was like a half-and-half mix of carrot and cabbage. On the other hand I give a hearty thumbs up to the beans for having a half-and-half mix of beans and brisket meat.

It was refreshing to see Whole Foods embracing traditionally prepared meats full of rendered fat since the company has been criticized in the past for promoting a fat-phobic plant-based diet. Ironically, even one of the workers in the BBQ Shack was wearing a button saying "take the Engine 2 challenge." The Engine 2 Diet is a popular book, sold at Whole foods, largely based on the bad science and tortured data found in The China Study, another book sold at Whole Foods.

The Engine 2 Diet and China Study both promote a plant-based diet while vilifying animal products and processed foods. There is no question that processed junk foods are bad for you. Removing sugars, flour, and vegetable oils from your diet will make you much healthier. It certainly did for me. That is why the diets are initially helpful for a lot of people. But there is no reason to shun animal fats, which are also a healthy whole food

Most modern chronic health problems are caused by inflammation and high blood sugar, which are caused by processed foods containing refined carbohydrates and vegetable oils. Avoiding those foods is the easiest way to lose harmful extra weight. The human body does a great job regulating hunger and the storage of fat when its hormones aren't messed up by foods it didn't evolve to handle. Natural animal products aren't one of those foods. In fact, archaeological evidence strongly suggests we evolved the big brains, made almost entirely of fat and cholesterol, that make us human specifically because we where eating so much animal fat, and steadily developing tools to get more of it.

If you watch a documentary like Forks Over Knives where formerly obese people talk about how much weight they quickly lost while not eating processed foods and animal products do a little simple math. There are 1,500 calories in a pound of fat. Take the amount of weight they lost, divide it by the number of days it took to lose it, then multiply by 1,500 to get the amount of fat they were burning each day. They felt so good because by avoiding vegetable oils and most carbohydrates they were getting most of their calories from natural animal fats; their own.

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