Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Outskirts of Jackson - McKenzie's

Earlier today I tried McKenzie's on Highway 70 outside Jackson, TN. It's an old-school restaurant/grocery that has wood tables for eating food from its kitchen but also sells local, homegrown produce by the basket, homemade canned goods, and Amish products among the standard convenience store fare. The barbecue was good and the sauce had a nice spicy kick to it.

They have pictures on the walls dating back to at least the 1930s judging by the cars in them. There is also seating outside the store, because you don’t have a real country store without somewhere in front for old men to sit and bitch to each other about how the whole world is going to hell. Old men have been discussing the world’s seemingly ongoing descent into hell for thousands of years now, steadily ignoring any and all evidence of progress to the contrary.

But the only old man I saw wasn’t bitching. He was smiling and coming from the kitchen where they had provided him with a box of bones from barbecued shoulders that had already had their meat pulled to give to his dogs as a treat. Before I left I bought a quart mason jar of bread and butter pickles. "Eating local" isn't a trendy new thing at McKenzie’s, it's just how they've always done things.

"Memphis Average" - Brad's

Several people had recommended Brad's Bar-B-Q in Bartlett to me so I gave it a try on Tuesday. Brad's sits next to the railroad tracks at Stage and Bartlett Road in Bartlett's historic area. All the the suburban areas around Memphis started life as small towns so they all have old historic areas, often next to train tracks, surrounded by new development. These historic areas are usually a good place to look for barbecue -- for a perfect example check out the que at the Germantown Commissary, a 19th century general store converted into a restaurant in the old part of Germantown.     

Brad's was slammed with lunch business on my visit, but they still got my order to me in a completely reasonable amount of time. For a little less than $8 I got a huge portion of good "Memphis average" pulled pork with topped with an excellent, well-balanced sauce. Good sauce is all about finding the right balance between the tomato, vinegar, mustard and other spices and seasonings that are always a closely guarded family secret. Some tomato flavor and sweetness is good, but God help you if you try serving “ketchupy” sauce to Memphians.

And calling pulled pork "Memphis average" isn't a dis. To me it means barbecue that is cooked as well as Tops, which sets the standard by having 14 stores spread all over the Memphis area. When you’re in Memphis there is almost always a Tops nearby, so if you want to open your own barbecue place you had better be able to compete with them. Tops pulled pork hits the right mix of tender but meaty, and it has the good smokey flavor that makes slow and low cooking worth all the effort. So our standard for grabbing barbecue from a drive-though is better than anything most people in other parts of the country have tasted.

That's why I'm not going out of my way to rate or judge any of the barbecue I try. For me this is about the experience of getting to try these place and I'm just sharing my general impressions. I don't want to waste time and energy trying to decide who has the 36th best barbecue in Memphis versus who ranks 37th out of some giant list. I just drive past barbecue shops all the time so it seemed like a good idea to start sampling and looking for hidden gems.

Brad's Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Whitehaven - Pollard's

I have been intrigued by the trailer that looks like a giant pig in front of Marlowe’s Ribs on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven for quite a while now. So I pulled in on Monday ready to give the place a try, only to find that they were closed and that their business hours are 4 p.m. until 3 a.m. I am now very curious to make a midnight rib run and see what kind of late-night crowd it draws. It is only a few blocks south of Graceland, so I’m not sure if the customer base is mostly locals or tourists.

Whitehaven, once a wealthy suburb of Memphis, is unfairly characterized as a “ghetto” by a lot of the people who live in the outer suburbs. Jim Crow-era race-restrictive covenants were used to keep black families from buying homes in the area until the 1960s when the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. Unsurprisingly, many of the residents who had chosen to live in a segregated community moved in response to desegregation, setting off an ongoing cycle of “white flight” as suburban sprawl steadily overtakes the small farming towns that once surrounded the city.

The Memphis area is now defined by a growing ring of sprawl surrounding an also-expanding gentrifying urban core. And Whitehaven is now a predominately-black, fairly-stable middle-class community that is home to the hospitals, banks, grocery stores, restaurants and shopping malls you’d expect to find in any suburb.

Since I was in Whitehaven and Marlowe’s was closed I traveled further south down Elvis Presley Boulevard until I came across Pollard’s Bar-B-Q. Apparently until very recently the building had been home to a restaurant named Arnold’s BBQ while Pollard’s had been further east, but still in Whitehaven, near Shelby Drive and Airways. With the closing of Arnold’s*, Pollard’s had moved into the building on Elvis Presley.

Whatever the name on the building, I ordered a rib plate and was rewarded with amazingly juicy ribs so tender they fell apart when I picked them up so that I end up pulling off bite-size pieces and shamelessly licking my fingers. It was good barbecue in all its messy glory, even if the sauce was too sweet for my taste. The ribs also lacked some of the meaty, smokey flavor that you get from the best ribs. I’ve heard that this comes from restaurants boiling their ribs before cooking to make them more tender. Basically, some flavor is sacrificed in the name of guaranteed tenderness and a shortened cooking time. I’m not sure if that’s what Pollard’s had done, but taking a short-cut that gives you tender, juicy ribs that lack a little in flavor and texture is definitely better than spending 12 hours to create the tough, dry ribs you can get slow-cooking without a skilled pitmaster.

* Actually, Arnold's just moved further east on Shelby Drive.

UPDATE: I made a return trip to Pollard's after the restaurant was featured on Restaurant Impossible.

Pollard's Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Rules - Barb-A-Rosa's, Leonard's and Sam's Town

On the second day of my barbecue quest I realized I needed some rules. I’d stopped at Barb-A-Rosa’s on Highway 51 in Millington and gotten a disappointing excuse for a rib plate. Tough, fatty, room-temp ribs and bland beans, slaw and potato salad. And by fatty I mean using a fork to pry off large, cold chunks of gristle to avoid eating them.

I decided that I needed some sort of plan, both to make a fair comparison between the different restaurants and to avoid gaining 100 pounds. My rules are simple: Each day I stop at a barbecue place along my route and eat lunch. I order a plate. For those who don’t understand what a barbecue plate is, it’s a serving of meat with beans, cole slaw, and some type of bread. Sometimes the plate also include an order of fries. I don’t eat any of the bread, and if somewhere offers fries with the plate I sub potato salad instead and generally only eat about half the potato salad. Also, since I don’t drink soft drinks I always order water to drink. So I basically eat barbecued meat with beans, slaw and maybe a few bites of potato salad. That way I mostly avoid the three main evils of the modern American diet -- sugar/corn syrup, processed vegetable oils and grains. I choose between pulled pork and ribs based mainly on whatever I’m in the mood for; if I’m really impressed with one I can always try the other on a future trip.

The rules guided me through what could have been an overwhelming number of choices the next day, when I ate at Leonard’s Pit Barbecue on Fox Plaza Drive near Mt. Moriah in the Fox Meadows area. The restaurant had some cool vintage Memphis photos on the walls, a very courteous staff and a restored ‘54 Dodge panel truck in the dining area. And they offered a big buffet with great-looking catfish and country-fried steak alongside pulled pork and other southern treats. But I just ordered a pulled pork plate off the menu and subbed potato salad for the fries. The friendly people at Leonard’s aren't afraid of strong flavors. The meat had a very smokey flavor, the sauce for the beans was thick and rich and there was plenty of mustard and vinegar in the slaw. The mayonnaise-based potato salad was okay, but not good enough to make me break my “only a few bites” potato salad rule. I left the restaurant very impressed and determined to come back and try their ribs in the future.

I ignored the rules the next day when I attended a car show at the Sam’s Town Casino and ended up in the casino’s buffet, which featured a Corky’s Bar-B-Q station. Casino buffets are nightmarish places where there is a lot of decent-looking food that all ranges from mediocre to crap when you go to actually eat it. Eating at one about once a year is enough to remind me why I try to avoid them. You always end up with a bizarre mix of foods like the crab legs, wonton soup, fried rice, Asian beef stir fry, hashbrown casserole and fried chicken I ended up eating with my pulled pork, ribs and beans. This may sound like a lot of food to someone who hasn’t experienced a casino buffet. You get a big pile of food, but you only take a bite or two of most items before declaring them inedible. The pulled pork was pretty good but the ribs were dry and fatty. I wasn’t brave enough to try the suspect-looking slaw that was sitting in a big tub under the sneeze guard.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Starting the Quest - Canale's and Captain John's

Canale’s Grocery was closed due to a family illness. Anytime I work in the Collierville area I plan my day so that I can hit the intersection of Houston Hill and Raleigh-LaGrange around lunchtime and grab one of Canale’s outstanding ham sandwiches. Canale’s smokes their own hams and the resulting meat is so flavorful it is almost closer to good barbecue in flavor than it is to the ham you’ll find at a normal grocery store. They make sandwiches with it that they sell for a couple dollars each to the lucky people who are passing by at lunchtime and know about the awesomeness contained inside what looks like a run-down country gas station and convenience store.

Then, one day a couple weeks ago, I was walking up to the store for my lunchtime score when I saw a sign on the door that said, “No sandwiches today.” I was disappointed, but I remembered there was a Gus’s Fried Chicken in Collierville that I could use to fill my hunger for southern goodness. Two weeks later I was back at Canale’s and presented with an even worse sight: Canale’s was locked up tight with a big sign out front that said “Closed due to family illness.”

Dejected and trying to think of a way to settle my jones for some smoked pig, I remembered Captain John’s Barbecue on Highway 72 in Collierville. The pulled pork at Captain John’s hit the spot and I was really impressed with their mustardy cole slaw and potato salad. While eating I thought about just how many independent, locally-owned barbecue places there are around Memphis. I have a mobile job that takes me all over the greater Memphis area and I see them everywhere. But when I want barbecue I tend to stick to a handful of places that I already know and love. So, on the fateful day of September 21, 2011 I made a promise to myself that I was going to sample as many barbecue joints as I could find.