Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Country Bar with Ribs - Mean Gene's

I wasn’t sure what I was going to find at Mean Gene’s Bar-B-Cue. I was going to be working along Highway 51 in the North Memphis/Frayser/Millington area today so I searched for barbecue restaurants on Google Maps since I was running low on new places to try in that area. The lack of barbecue places in North Memphis and Frayser has been surprising to me, since you’d assume the area would be home to a number of little mom and pop joints. They have plenty of hot wing places, but very little barbecue besides a couple of Tops locations.

I noticed Mean Gene’s on the map west of Highway 51 on Wilkinsville, just north of Millington and across the county line in Tipton County, but there were no reviews. The restaurant had an entry on Urban Spoon, but it also contained no additional information besides a phone number that no one answered when I called. I decided to chance it, since it was close enough to the Pig ‘N Whistle in Tipton County for me to have a solid back-up option in case it ended up being a dead end.

What I found was a plain red metal building, surrounded by farm land, with a sign in the parking lot identifying it as Mean Gene’s Bar-B-Cue. It looked like a plain, country dive bar, and a sign on the door identified it as a 21-and-up establishment, but when I stepped inside there was an order counter and a barbecue menu tucked into a corner behind a pool table in the front room. I was welcomed by a man in a camouflage t-shirt and jeans who turned out to be Mean Gene himself. The prices were cheap -- $6.10 for a pulled pork dinner and $11.99 for a half-slab rib dinner -- so I asked which one he thought was better. He assured me that both were good so I went with the ribs.

There was a bigger room to the side that had a bar, tables and a jukebox. I looked through the selections on the jukebox and voiced my approval of the good selection of outlaw country tunes that included plenty of Hank Williams III to go with the old classics by guys like Hank Senior, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and David Allen Coe. Mean Gene answered “yes” and “yes” when I asked if the bar was beer-only for alcohol and if they sold setups for people who brought in liquor. He also said that the 21-and-up rule was due to the Tennessee law that only allows for smoking in restaurants that don’t let in anyone under 21.

I'm always interested to see what the bread servings look like even though I never eat it.

When my half-slab arrived at the table I was impressed by it’s size and the pieces of red pepper flakes I could see on its charred exterior. There was no actual dry rub, but they sauce was served on the side in a big squeeze bottle. The sauce was a little sweet and a little spicy in a way that balanced well with the extremely meaty ribs. The rib meat wasn’t pink all the way to the bone, but there was a very noticeable pink layer on each side of the slab indicating some good smoke penetration. There was no solid fat visible in the meat. Instead deliciously rendered liquid fat ran down my fingers as I was eating, meaning they had been cooked to perfection. They weren’t fall-apart tender the way novices often expect good ribs to be. However the well-textured meat did pull clean from the bones and the only toughness was in the deeply-smokey charred edges that were like chewy little treats.

The beans were pretty standard while the slaw surprised me with it’s appearance. It looked more like homemade sauerkraut, with no visible hint of mayonnaise or mustard. It tasted great but there was also very little of the tart, acidic bite that would have signified a lot of vinegar. Mean Gene didn’t offer any answers when I quizzed him about what went into the stuff but it was so good that I made sure to ration some to go along with my final bite of ribs. 

His restaurant is off the beaten path, and as much as I enjoyed it, it definitely won’t appeal to everyone. Apparently the hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 until, "at least eight, but we stay open as long as the crowd is good." If you’ve read this far key words like “dive bar,” “pool table,” “21-and-up,” “outlaw country tunes,” “smoking,” and “meaty ribs” have probably already told you if it is your kind of scene. It’s a place where you can put some money in the jukebox and hear Hank III sing, “Not everybody likes us, but we drive some folks wild.”

Mean Genes BBQ on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Healthy Soul Food" - At The Bistro

My blog served me well when I visited At The Bistro soul food restaurant on Brooks Road last week. The cheerful staff noticed me taking pictures of the building, located just west of Airways next to the airport, before I came in. They jokingly asked why I needed pictures and I told them about the blog while I ordered my food. I was photographing my heaping plate of delicious Cajun baked chicken, candied yams, purple hull peas and greens when the extremely friendly owner, Terra Smith, came by to introduce herself, talk about her food and offer me a free order of fried green tomatoes to go with my meal.

I generally avoid foods that are battered and fried in vegetable oil, but I wasn’t going to turn down free fried green tomatoes. It turned out to be a worthy indulgence. The batter was perfectly flaky and crispy and, just like everything else I ordered, they were perfectly seasoned. I didn’t eat the cornbread pancake that came with my meal since I try to avoid grains in order to keep my food quest healthy, but I ate every bit of everything else I was served without ever touching my salt and pepper shakers or requesting hot sauce. 

“I was blessed with a gift for seasoning,” is the laughing explanation I got from Terra, who also gave me a Christmas card on my way out. I know I was getting some special treatment due to the food blog, but I also saw everyone else in the restaurant getting friendly service and my Christmas card came from a stack of them by the cash register so I think the inviting atmosphere really is a part of the restaurant’s identity. 

I was curious to ask Terra about the “healthy soul food" claims on the sign next to the street in front of the restaurant. Like most soul food restaurants the menu was heavy with fried options and the list of “vegetables” offered with the lunch specials included dressing, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and garlic mashed potatoes. So I wasn’t surprised to hear that “healthy” means they don’t use any pork, pork lard or other meat with their vegetables. Since a four veggie plate is only $5.99 it does make At The Bistro a great place to eat if you have vegetarians dining with you.

However, as any regular reader of this blog knows, my diet is usually based around large quantities of healthy animal fats like pork lard. What I try to avoid are the sugars, refined grains and vegetable oils that primarily cause the diseases of civilization like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s (there is a growing push among scientists to refer to Alzheimer’s as Type III diabetes), depression and even acne and tooth decay. I was happy to hear that the vegetables are cooked with real butter, just in limited quantity with the real focus on the seasonings used to add flavor. The cajun baked chicken was particularly good. It was crusted with spices and herbs yet extremely juicy. I ended up making up for the lack of animal fat in my vegetables by requesting dark meat and devouring every bit of the the chicken skin along with my leg and thigh.

The pork fat in soul food gets a bad rap due to the same faulty logic behind what I call the “Big Mac fallacy” that causes people to condemn red meat. A large Big Mac combo includes a three-piece bun, a big pile of potatoes fried in garbage vegetable oil and a 32-ounce cup full of high fructose corn syrup for a total of 194 grams of carbohydrates with 95 grams of that coming from sugar. But if someone eats a lot of Big Mac combos and ends up being a fat diabetic with heart disease people will point to the two little patties of ground meat from worn-out dairy cows on the sandwich and say that all their problems were caused by red meat.

Soul food uses a lot of pork fat, but it also traditionally uses a lot of starch. And that's before you even get to the sweet tea, Kool-Aid and soda that are all staples at soul food restaurants. Cornbread, cornmeal and flour batters, rolls, flour used to thicken gravies, potatoes; soul food was originally food for poor people, and just like the food that is making poor people fat yet malnourished today it used a lot of cheap carbs to stretch the food out. No matter what your definition of healthy eating is though, there is enough variety on the At The Bistro menu to fit with just about anyone’s diet.

At the Bistro on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mexican Barbecue - Burrito Meal

Burrito Meal is a Tex-Mex restaurant occupying a space on Airways in Jackson, TN, that used to be a little country diner. The diner had a barbecue pit so Burrito Meal put it to use cooking “Mexican barbecue” that they offer as a filling for their burritos and quesadillas.

Airways is the name for Highway 70 in Jackson, the same way it is named East Parkway or Summer Avenue in Memphis depending on what stretch you are referring to. Summer Avenue is known for its selection of independent Mexican restaurants so it’s interesting that Burrito Meal is actually on the same road.

The spartan restaurant offers a short and simple menu of cheap, filling food like giant burritos, quesadillas, nachos and some impressive looking “choreez-burgers” all starting at around $5. For as little extra money you can upgrade. For example, I spent $0.50 to get the Mexican barbecue on my burrito instead of the standard chicken, steak or chorizo options. Then I spent $1.50 for double meat and $0.25 each for adding guacamole and sour cream. Even after piling on the options, I spent less than $9 after tax for a burrito so big that I unfolded it and just ate the filling without the flour tortilla and was still full when I finished it.

The tender Mexican barbecue looked like traditional pulled pork but there was a definite Tex-Mex flavor to the seasoning with a really good mix of smokey and spicy flavors. I’ve tried the standard steak burrito at Burrito Meal in the past and there was a lot of rice used as filler in it, which isn’t surprising with a giant $5 burrito. So the $1.50 for double meat was well-worth it. Pinto beans and lettuce are also standard items included in the burritos. 

I did have to wait at a table for about ten or 15 minutes for my food after ordering at the counter on both my visits. Both times were during the lunchtime rush and the staff was obviously working frantically to get everyone’s orders out. Obviously word is getting around about the humble little store's big burritos. 

The Burrito Meal on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q

I’ve driven past Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q plenty of times over the years, but I’ve never stopped there despite their great reputation. But after being impressed with the ribs at Jim’s son’s place, Ken Neely's Hickory Bar-B-Que, I knew it was time to try the restaurant that originally caused the Neely name to be associated with barbecue.

The cavernous restaurant is, unsurprisingly, just north of Interstate 55 on S. Third Street in South Memphis near Downtown. Third Street is what Highway 61 is called as it travels through Memphis. Highway 61 follows the Mississippi River from Minnesota all the way to New Orleans, LA. It is also known as the “Blues Highway” since its path along the river takes it directly through the Mississippi Delta as it travels from Memphis to New Orleans. The intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, MS, is the legendary crossroad where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his skill as a blues guitarist. The highway also intersects with Beale Street in Downtown Memphis and connects the city to the casinos located just to the south in Tunica County, MS. 

Jim Neely opened his restaurant in the late ‘70s, well before the rebirth of Beale Street to the north as a cleaned-up tourist district. The success of the restaurant and the nearby revitalized Downtown area prompted the multiple expansions that brought Interstate to its current size. I saw a lot of out-of-state license plates in the parking lot, since a lot of the customers are tourists. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, like his son, Jim Neely gives his customers a very generous helping of barbecue for their money. The regular half-slab rib dinner was less than $10, and the pulled pork and rib combination dinner I ordered was only $14.50.

While that price is only $0.45 less than the meal I recently called overpriced at Blues City Cafe on Beale, it is important to compare the actual quantity of food. If you look at the pictures I included with the review of Blues City, you’ll see one plate with a little half-slab of ribs surrounded by fries, bread, beans and slaw. At Interstate, the same size plate is completely covered with meat while the sides are served separately. The outstanding barbecue sauce at Interstate gets most of its seasoning from herbs so it just seems naturally flavorful instead of the taste being dominated by sweetness, vinegar or heat like a lot of sauces. The same thing can be said about the thick, hearty baked beans that came with the dinner. The beans are an afterthought at a lot of barbecue restaurants, so it’s always nice to find somewhere that makes them stand out. The slaw was also well-balanced.

The pulled pork was extremely tender and juicy and the ribs were also fairly good, but both lacked flavor outside of what they were getting from the barbecue sauce. They were still good, since the sauce was so good, but after the complex, delicious taste of the dry ribs at Ken Neely’s little hole-in-the-wall carryout place, I’d come to his father’s restaurant with big expectations. Overall the pulled pork had a better taste and consistency than the ribs, and I’m sure it makes a great sandwich when paired with the crunchy slaw.  

Another menu item that Interstate is famous for is their barbecue spaghetti. It’s found its way onto a lot of area menus these days, but Interstate is supposedly the place that made it a regional staple. It is also one of the cheaper items on the menu, along with barbecue nachos, which are also a common site at Memphis-area restaurants. I could actually save a lot of money on this quest if I stuck to cheaper carb and barbecue combinations instead of ordering such meat-heavy dishes, but my health and waistline would pay the price. There is a reason that there is such a strong correlation between poverty and obesity in our country. Real food is expensive, compared to junk like corn chips and pasta noodles that are subsidized by our government, but it’s usually well worth it in the long run. However, if you’re not from around Memphis and have never had barbecue spaghetti, the tasty regional curiosity is worth trying.  

Interstate Barbecue on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Trucker's Special - Ray's

Memphis is a major distribution hub for the United States. Trucks on both I-55 and I-40 cross the Mississippi River as they travel between Memphis and West Memphis, AR. I-40 is a major east-west route that goes all the way from North Carolina to California, frequently along the same path as the legendary old Route 66. Meanwhile I-55 travels from southern Louisiana all the way up to Chicago. The two highways cross paths just west of the Mississippi River in West Memphis and the triangle they form with the river is filled with truck stops. Ray’s World Famous Bar-B-Que sits in that triangle and the big “CB CH. 16” on their sign is to let truckers know what channel to radio in if they want to have barbecue delivered to them at any of the surrounding truck stops.

 As soon as a pulled into the parking lot I could smell the hickory smoke pouring out of the little shack where the meat is cooked behind the store. It immediately made me hope that I was in for a treat like the ribs I had at Latham's Meat Company .

 The delivery service for truckers seems to account for a huge portion of Ray’s business. The restaurant was fairly empty when I stopped by today, but I could hear them taking orders over the CB and see drivers steadily making runs. Since Arkansas sits directly between Oklahoma and Texas to the west and Tennessee and Mississippi to the east it wasn't surprising to see that Ray's offers both beef and pork barbecue. I told the extremely friendly woman behind the counter that I was trying to decide between the pork ribs and the chopped pork when she told me about the “trucker’s special” for $13.95. The special is ribs, chopped pork, baked beans, green beans, potato salad and cole slaw. At first I thought I was supposed to choose a couple sides from that list, but you actually get all four. It seemed like a nice bargain that would let me try a little of everything. I was unprepared for the ridiculous quantity of food that got delivered to my table a few minutes later. It completely filled two styrofoam clamshells, plus there was a basket with several slices of white bread included.

If you get food from Ray’s don’t bother with the special, just order the chopped pork shoulder as either a dinner or a sandwich. There is no reason to get the ribs. They were tough, fatty and swimming in an overly-sweet sauce. I ate less than half of the rib meat with my order. On the other hand, I ate every single scrap of the chopped pork. It had a noticeable smoke penetration line on some of the pieces and a great mix of textures from the charred outer sections and the more tender inner meat. It used the same sauce, but in a far more conservative amount that let the sweetness from the sauce compliment the smokey meat flavor instead of overpowering it. I was surprised by the drastic difference in quality between the ribs and the shoulder.

The slaw was good. The rest of the sides were obviously store-bought, which is probably necessary for any restaurant doing so much volume from such a little space. And if most of your customers are used to subsisting on truck stop food, no one is going to complain about excellent chopped pork being served with canned green beans. All together I ate all my chopped pork, baked beans and slaw, about half my ribs and potato salad and about a third of the green beans. The lady working the counter seemed impressed.

They also offer an outrageous selection of cake in case you're somehow still hungry after your meal. It should probably be mentioned that a large portion of truck drivers are obese.

Finding Ray’s can be a bit of a challenge. If you look the restaurant up on Google Maps it will tell you to go where the red A is pointing to just south of I-55. I’ve marked the correct location, just north of I-55, with a green mark. It's easiest to just take the Martin Luther King Jr. exit from either I-55 or I-40 then head east on the service road.

Ray's World Famous BBQ and Catering on Urbanspoon

Cornish Hen - More Cozy Corner

People have been telling me good things about the Cornish hen at Cozy Corner so I decided I needed to make a return trip to try one. I’d also heard that it is better to eat it at home, since there is no way to look like a civilized human being while devouring one, so I got it to-go. It turns out that everything I’d heard was true. They are a delicious, glorious mess. I couldn’t stop eating until I’d thoroughly cleaned every bit of meat from my leftover pile of bones.

I would caution against ordering one with the hot barbecue sauce unless you are really a fan of spicy foods. The heat builds steadily as you eat and by the time I finished an entire bird I had a burning mouth and running nose. It was similar to a really great serving of hot wings, but with a lot more meat and a natural smoke flavor underneath the sauce. It would be a great meal to eat at home with a few cold beers while watching a game on TV. The breast meat seemed a little dry and bland compared to the legs, thighs, wings and back, but that’s a problem inherent to chicken breast. Eating an entire bird in one sitting lets you really compare the differences in flavor between all the different white and dark meats, and it really drives home the realization that chicken breast is an inferior cut of meat that has done nothing to deserve its current popularity.
I would still consider the ribs I had on my previous visit the best thing on the menu, but the hen made for a great change of pace. And as shocking as it may seem, not everyone loves pork ribs so it's always good to have other options if you're dining with a group.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Good Ribs and Okay Brisket - More Tops

I usually get food from Tops Bar-B-Q a couple times a week, but before Friday I’d never tried their ribs. I usually get one of their joyously greasy double cheeseburgers or the occasional pulled pork plate. Since the pulled pork at Tops is the very definition of "Memphis average" to me while the double cheeseburgers are an outstanding value at around $5, I never saw the need to spend $12 to try an order of ribs that I assumed would be pretty average for the area.

On Friday I went ahead and got an order of the ribs from the Tops at 3353 Summer, near National, and realized that I’d been missing out. Like the pulled pork, the ribs at Tops could definitely be used to define “Memphis average.” But also like the pulled pork, that shouldn’t be taken as a criticism. With 14 locations around Memphis, including another one on Summer Avenue a few blocks east of the one I ate at Friday, the consistent quality of all the Tops food I’ve eaten is impressive. There are some local restaurants with quality control that varies so much that you are playing barbecue roulette every time you order. Central BBQ is one of the worst offenders I’ve noticed in this category. They can be excellent, but they can also serve up imitation shoe leather.

Tops operates like a small fast food chain, with fairly low prices, quick counter service and drive-through windows, and they still buy quality meat locally from Charlie’s Meat Market on Summer. And I’ve never had a disappointing meal from a Tops location. In fact, they are a major force in maintaining the quality of Memphis barbecue. There are so many stores around town and they are so familiar to people that if you can’t compete with their barbecue, you shouldn’t be opening a barbecue restaurant around here.

 “Memphis average” is an assumed level of flavor and tenderness that we can take for granted. It would be interesting to know how many people throughout the country claim to have “awesome family secret barbecue” that isn’t as good as a standard order of Tops ribs. My order was fairly smokey, fairly tender and the sauce had a good flavor with a little spicy kick to it. It was one of the meatiest half-slabs I've had during my quest. The beans and slaw were both good too. While I was eating I ended up talking to an employee who said his time is divided between cooking barbecue at individual restaurants and being one of two guys who mix up the sauce and cole slaw dressing at the company’s warehouse. Apparently the slaw is made in-house at each store but the dressing, which is obviously a mustard, mayonnaise, vinegar and spice mixture, is made in bulk and distributed to them for more of the consistency that makes the chain so reliable. 

He also told me that the restaurant where I was eating was the sixth Tops opened and the first building to be constructed by the company as a Tops instead of being converted from a previous use. The company started in 1952 and the store at Getwell and Rhodes was the oldest one still in operation, according to him. So today I visited that store to try Tops rendition of beef brisket, since it was the last main item on their menu that I hadn’t sampled.  

 The brisket was so tender that I was able to cut it with the side of my plastic fork, but the flavor was more like a pot roast than what I think of as barbecue. It definitely wasn’t as good as the brisket at Fat Larry's. But for less than $10 for a plate lunch with two very generous slices of beef, it was satisfying and on my table within minutes of ordering. 

 Brisket is a very fatty cut of meat, but the fat was tender and delicious enough to savor as part of the meal. Fat gets a bad reputation from people who assume it is fattening. It’s just stored energy. Insulin and leptin are the two hormones that control fat storage in your body and fat doesn’t cause trouble with either. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are what cause insulin and leptin levels, and your body’s response to them, to go haywire. So I ate the delicious fat from my brisket but tossed the bread that came with it. This morning I’d stepped on my Wii fit for the first time since starting the quest. In three months of near-daily barbecue feasting, where I’ve fairly consistently avoided junk food like sodas, fries, bread, and deserts, my Body Mass Index has stayed just below 22. I was overweight about a year ago when I still avoided soda and limited sugary snacks but made the mistake of eating a lot of supposedly healthy whole grains on a daily basis. Good, healthy animal fat has been a key element to dropping weight and drastically improving  my cholesterol profile.

 I am well-aware that BMI is a terrible means of judging health since it only looks at height and weight. LeBron James is morbidly obese according to his BMI, since the numbers don't distinguish between weight from muscle and fat. But since I'm in my 30s and not getting any taller the BMI chart is a good way of showing that my weight is staying stable.

I regularly get food from the Tops near my house at Jackson and Watkins. And I’ve also had double cheeseburgers from the stores in West Memphis and Millington. That leaves nine of the 14 locations that I still haven’t visited. I think I need to eat at all of them before my barbecue quest is over. I don’t expect to find a lot of variation, but it is good to remind myself how high our part of the country sets the bar for “average” with our slow cooked pork.

Tops Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Tops Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Old-Fashioned Excellence - Latham's Meat Company

Latham’s Meat Company is a combination butcher shop and barbecue restaurant on the northern edge of Jackson, TN. As soon as I stepped out of my vehicle into the parking lot I was greeted by the smell of smoke and slow-cooked pork. The outstanding ribs I got inside the restaurant showcased everything dry ribs have the potential to be, and looking around outside the restaurant after my meal demonstrated why it would be nearly impossible to recreate such perfect barbecue in a more urban setting.

There is nothing fancy about Latham’s. Once you go through the front door you are in an aisle that takes you past a row of drink coolers and freezers full of produce along one wall, then past the large butcher section occupying the back of the store before you finally reach the barbecue counter on the opposite corner of the building from where you entered. The food comes on a styrofoam plate with plastic utensils. I was happy to see that I got the same 32-ounce cup for my ice water as the people who ordered fountain drinks. I hate when restaurants treat you like a second-class citizen for ordering water and give you the equivalent of a child’s sippy cup.  

A real, no-fooling, old-fashioned country butcher shop. That's ham hocks on the left, fat back in the middle and hog jowls on the right. 

My ribs were served dry and when I asked about sauce the cashier told me that there was hot and mild on some of the tables if I wanted to track some down. When I tasted the ribs I understood why the sauce was an afterthought. They didn’t need any. Both the vinegary sauces were good, and I used some of the hot to give some extra kick to my relatively bland baked beans. But the ribs had such a great, complex smokey flavor that it seemed like a waste to add any sauce to them. They were charred crispy on the outer edges and tender and juicy in the center with perfectly rendered fat and the pink coloring that comes from absorbing plenty of smoke. The slaw didn’t appear to have any mayonnaise or mustard in it. It looked like it was just a damp pile of shredded cabbage and carrot, but the taste was amazingly complex. It had a good vinegar kick, balanced with sweet and spicy elements.   

I’ve referred to the place as Latham’s Meat Company since that is what the front of the building says. However, the sign out by the road says Latham’s Old Fashion Butcher Shop and Whole Hog Bar-B-Que. Meanwhile, the front door calls it Paul Latham’s Bar-B-Que Restaurant. The multiple names reminded me of the Bill Latham's restaurant I ate at recently in Henderson, TN, so naturally on my way out I asked if there was any relation. I was told that he is supposedly a relative but they don’t really know each other. I was intrigued by the idea of two distantly-related men, sharing a last name, who ended up owning humble-looking restaurants with outstanding barbecue, totally independent of each other, that are less than 30 miles apart. 

When I left the restaurant I saw one of the key elements to creating great barbecue. Like many barbecue restaurants, they have a large, cinder-block building that they use for cooking. Outside of the building there were multiple stacks of wood and several 55-gallon barrels, with smoke billowing out of them, that were being used to create lump charcoal. That's an old-school approach to real barbecue that requires plenty of space and is totally impractical for most restaurants, who are frequently forced to accept the often necessary evil of gas cookers. From the butcher shop geared towards real, from-scratch cooking to the traditional barbecue, Latham’s Meat Company is a living glimpse at the genuine southern culture that is slowly disappearing to make way for Wal-Marts and Cracker Barrels.

Latham's Meat Co. on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 4, 2011

An Authentic Disappointment - Payne's

[UPDATE: While I wasn't very impressed by my first trip to Payne's I also didn't try the restaurant's most beloved menu item -- the jumbo pork sandwich. I had one on a return visit and now I understand what brings people back to the place.]

The Payne’s Bar-B-Q on Elvis Presley has become a bit of an enigma to me. Every time I go by the restaurant is closed, but there is usually an old man sitting inside the place. I’ve heard good things about the barbecue from Payne’s, so when the Elvis Presley location was closed again when I tried to stop by last Thursday I went to the location on Lamar near McLean and grabbed a to-go order of chopped pork and ribs to share with my wife for dinner.

Both of the Payne’s locations are in old, run-down buildings in low-income neighborhoods. However, the Payne’s on Lamar is just a few blocks from the western edge of the relatively hip and gentrified Cooper-Young neighborhood in Midtown Memphis. I think the restaurant’s location is a key part of its popularity. Cooper-Young residents feel coolly in-the-know when they eat barbecue from such an “authentic” dive.

The ribs that came with our order were simply bad. They were extremely rubbery and the only flavor was from the sweet, ketchupy sauce. The chopped pork was better, at least the meat had a good mix of charred and tender textures, but it still lacked smoke flavor and was swimming in the sugary sauce. Payne’s offers their barbecue with either mild, medium or hot sauce and I’d requested hot with both the dinners so we were shocked by how sweet and non-spicy it was.  

The finely chopped cole slaw was swimming in mustard and vinegar. It looked similar to the bold, tasty slaw at Leonard’s, but with way too much vinegar overwhelming the taste. I’m not sure how the overly-sweet sauce and the overly-vinegary slaw would balance out on a sandwich, which is the Payne’s menu item I usually hear people praise, but I wasn't a fan of either when they were served separately on a plate. I’d be willing to go back and try a sandwich sometime, but our first experience with the oft-praised restaurant left my wife and I disappointedly wondering what all the fuss was about.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Packaged Snacks from Bartlett - Brim's Pork Rinds

We love pork here in the Dirty South, and while the rest of the country may be content to snack on corn and potato chips, down here we’re just as likely to reach for a bag of pork rinds. A pork rind is a tasty piece of fried pig skin. They are called ChicharrĂ³nes in Spain, where they originated, and the Spanish-speaking countries to our south where they are also a popular snack.

The Memphis area’s locally-made pork rinds come from Brim's, a snack food company located in the suburb of Bartlett that also sells products like chips, pretzels, popcorn and cheese puffs. Due to the peculiar overlap of the Dirty South and the Bible Belt, every product Brim’s sells comes with a Bible verse printed on the bag. It is interesting to note that they never seem to select verses dealing with the sin of gluttony. If I’m going to snack on a pork rind I stick to the regular Brim’s due to the refreshingly short and simple ingredient list -- fried pork rinds, salt. That’s it. 

Another interesting thing you will notice on any bag of pork rinds, regardless of the manufacturer, is that the nutrition label always lists a relatively high amount of protein per serving followed by a disclaimer that says, “Not a significant source of protein.” This is because their primary ingredient, skin, is mainly composed of low-quality, incomplete protein made mostly of collagen. So they're mainly protein, but that protein is still mostly empty calories.

Born to Barbecue - Ken Neely's

[NOTE: This restaurant is now closed.]

While visiting Ken Neely's Hickory Bar-B-Que for lunch Wednesday I had the lady who took my order fill me in on the Neely family tree after looking over the paintings of assorted family members and their restaurants hanging on the walls. She told me that Ken is the son of Jim Neely. Jim is the owner of the legendary Interstate Bar-B-Q on S. Third Street and the uncle of Patrick Neely, of Down Home with the Neelys fame, who owns Neely’s Bar-B-Que.

So I wasn’t surprised when the ribs at the humble-looking restaurant were outstanding. Ken Neely was obviously born with barbecue wired into his DNA. His restaurant is a small place with just a handful of tables that seems to mostly focus on carry-out orders and catering. It sits on Winchester near 385 where Hickory Hill transitions into Germantown. You can even see the transition in the shopping center where Ken Neely’s is located. The restaurant’s neighbors are a real bank on one side and a check-cashing, payday advance place on the other.  

I thought my order of ribs looked overcooked when I got them, but the texture ended up being perfect. They didn’t have a smokey flavor but the fat was perfectly rendered into the meat and and the dry rub was so good they would have been fine without any additional sauce. I had ordered spicy barbecue sauce on the side though and once I tasted it I couldn’t stop adding generous quantities to the meat. I had a definite kick, but you could still taste a great mix of barbecue seasonings as well. The baked beans were some of the best I’ve had on my quest. They had a thick, flavorful sauce that reminded me of the baked beans at Leonard's. The vinegar bite of the slaw also reminded me of Leonard’s, which means the sides at Ken Neely’s all measure up well against some of the best I’ve encountered.    

The value for your money at Ken Neely’s is almost as impressive as the cooking. The place isn’t fancy. My ribs came in a styrofoam clamshell and all the barbecue sandwiches I saw people eat came wrapped in foil. If you want a soda it will come in a can and when I asked for water I got a styrofoam cup and directions to the water fountain. But for $10.99 the generous pile of ribs, beans and slaw I got was one of the most satisfying meals I’ve had during my quest. The sandwiches I saw people eating looked enormous and were only $5.39. The menu also listed a Nathan’s hotdog for $2.99, a 16 oz serving of barbecue spaghetti for $3.05 and a full catfish dinner for $7.50. If you're looking for table service and atmosphere, this isn’t the place. But if you’re looking for one of the best bang for your buck food experiences in local barbecue Ken Neely's will be hard to beat.
Ken Neely's Hickory Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon