Saturday, October 29, 2011

Polar Opposites on Old Summer - Jack's versus the McRib

For Friday I felt compelled to do a taste comparison test. The McDonald’s at Summer and Old Summer had a sign out front announcing the return of the “big, bold McRib.” So I parked at Jack’s Bar-B-Q Rib Shack on Old Summer and walked to McDonald’s, using a pedometer to measure the distance between the two places as a mere one-tenth of a mile.

Jack’s has been my gold standard for dry ribs for a couple decades now, and I’ve always wondered why anyone would order the McDonald’s version of “ribs” in a city with so many places offering outstanding renditions of the real thing. But since I’m attempting to try all the variations of barbecued pork in Memphis, and the McRib is currently being sold here, I decided I needed to try one. Especially if they were going to show the disrespect for their customers necessary to offer the thing one-tenth of a mile from rib heaven.

Of course, the McRib isn’t actually barbecue. The word barbecue implies an identifiable piece of meat that has been slow cooked over low heat. A McRib sandwich is an industrial product manufactured from roughly 70 ingredients:

McRib Ingredients
McRib Patty: Boneless pork (Pork, water, salt, dextrose, citric acid, BHA, TBHQ).
McRib Bun: Flour (wheat flour bleached and enriched with thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, iron, folic acid, malted barley flour), water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, vegetable oil (partially hydrogenated soybean oil, cottonseed oil). Contains 2 percent or less of dextrose, fumaric acid, calcium sulphate, salt, acetic acid, soy flour, monocalcium phosphate, ammonium sulphate, cornstarch, fungal protease, natural culture, ammonium chloride, ascorbic acid, azodicarbomide, mono- and diglycerides, propionic acid, phosphoric acid, corn flour, calcium peroxide, calcium propionate, dicetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides.
McRib Sauce: Water, high fructose corn syrup, tomato paste, distilled vinegar, molasses, natural smoke flavor, modified food starch, salt, sugar, soybean oil, spices, dehydrated onion, mustard flour, dehydrated garlic, xanthan gum, caramel color, sodium benzoate (preservative), natural flavor (vegetable source), corn oil.
Pickle Slices: Cucumbers, water, vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, alum, natural flavorings (vegetable source), polysorbate 80, turmeric (color).
Slivered Onions

 "Ribs" in the same sense that Taco Bell serves "Mexican" food.

The patty is actually a mix of various pork scraps, that may or may not contain any actual rib meat, that have been formed into the shape of a small slab of ribs. It has small ridges that are supposed to represent bones molded into it. Someone in McDonald’s marketing department must have assumed that would help with the “rib" illusion, but all it really does is serve as a reminder that there is nothing natural about what you are eating.

My standard ordering rules call for me to try the meat, slaw and beans with no bread. Since McDonald’s doesn’t offer beans and slaw, I took a bite of the McRib in its as-served sandwich form before removing the bun and eating the patty as an alleged serving of barbecued pork. As a sandwich, the bun dominates the taste to a point that you barely notice anything else. Even when eating just the little meat patty, the McRib is surprisingly bland for something that combines so many ingredient. "Big, bold McRib" is wrong on three counts. Like most McDonald’s menu items, the majority of the ingredients are either preservatives or flavor additives that are attempting to mimic natural flavors that have been processed out of the food.

The sauce was too sweet, but still extremely bland. Bites that included some pickle and onion in them had at least a little of the tang you expect from real barbecue, but the result was still underwhelming at best. The meat patty itself had a soggy texture and a flavor that resembled a bland, unseasoned pork chop. A McRib patty by itself is also a very unfilling meal, so I was ready to head back to Jack’s.

One of the reasons I love Jack’s, beyond the excellent barbecue, is the cheap beer. A 16 oz. draft Bud Light is only $1.75, which I needed to cleanse my palate before diving into some real ribs. If you prefer liquor, they don’t mind you bringing in a bottle to mix with your drink. A lunch order of ribs, which includes beans, slaw and bread, is only $5.69. So While the $7.64 pre-tax and tip price for my meal may have been more than the $2.75 McRib retail, it was still a far better bargain.

A single McRib is $2.75. All this costs $4.89 more.

I always order my ribs at Jack’s dry with sauce on the side, and like always, they hit all the perfect notes of taste and texture. As I’ve noted before, “dry” means coated with a paprika-based rub but no liquid sauce. The meat itself is tender, juicy and delicious. In fact, by the end of the meal I had an equal number of dirty paper towels and clean rib bones in front of me.

Notice that loaf of bread in the picture of my meal? It’s cooked in a deep fryer. That’s right, every meal at Jack’s includes a loaf of deep-fried bread. It is one of the most unhealthy substances on the planet and it tastes amazing. Eating it goes against several of my rules for the quest, but I still ate a few pieces. Unlike McDonald’s, when Jack’s serves up unhealthy junk they make it worth it.

NOTE: The excellent Ken's Food Find blog recently posted a review of Jack's ribs. Ken was disappointed by the ribs available on the lunch buffet but loved the ones he ordered off the menu. I made a note in the past about similar responses to my review of the dry ribs at Leonard's, where I love the ribs I've ordered off the menu but have also heard complaints about the ones on the buffet. Some foods do okay under buffet heat lamps, but dry rub ribs seem to dry out quickly. If they're what you want and you're presented with a choice of ordering them off menu or getting them from a buffet, always get an order fresh from the kitchen even if it means spending a little more. The pain of spending a few extra dollars is quickly forgotten while the heartbreak that accompanies a tough order of ribs lingers in your soul.

Jack's Bar-B-Q Rib Shack on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 28, 2011

He Was A Man - The Four Way Restaurant

This afternoon I had a lunch of neck bones, pickled tomatoes and black-eyed peas at the legendary Four Way restaurant at the corner of Mississippi and Walker in South Memphis. The soul food restaurant is currently celebrating it’s 65th year in business. It’s a couple blocks north of the Stax Museum, a couple blocks west of the historically-black LeMoyne-Owen College and eight blocks east of the infamously rowdy corner of Fourth and Walker that gets name dropped in songs by South Memphis artists ranging from Booker T. (who grew up three blocks south of the Four Way) to Zed Zilla. And it was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite place to eat on visits to Memphis.

The menu selections at the Four Way rotate from day-to-day the same way they do at most Southern meat-and-veggie-combo-plate restaurants. Neck bones are a classic staple of soul food, which is based around making delicious food out of the cheaper, less desirable selections of meat and vegetables that were once commonly reserved for slaves and sharecroppers. What makes people consider neck bones a less desirable cut of meat is the high ratio of bone to meat, which can make eating them a messy and time-consuming process. But it’s worth the effort, since the meat on a pork neck bone is some of the most tender and flavorful you’re going to find. 

Reading accounts of Dr. King’s visits to the restaurant that are posted on the walls provides a thought-provokingly human element to someone who is such a revered icon that it is easy to lose sight of the man himself. Memphis had its name forever tarnished when Dr. King was murdered here by a man from Illinois who became involved with the white power movement while living in Los Angeles. James Earl Ray traveled to from L.A. to Atlanta to assassinate King, but he arrived there to read in the Atlanta newspaper that King was in Memphis.

Since April 4, 1968, Memphis has been associated with the violent death of Dr. King. It’s easy to forget that he was brought here on that final trip by love for our city’s people. King came to Memphis to stand with the striking sanitation workers of the AFSCME Local 1733 and was murdered by an outsider whose name is now forever linked to our home. The problem with turning people into heroes is that we rob them of some of their humanity. In fact, it almost seems somehow wrong to talk about Dr. King in a blog about eating neck bones at a soul food restaurant. He was a black man who was born in Georgia at the beginning of the depression. He didn’t grow up eating foie gras. It’s stunning to sit in the Four Way and reflect on him as a man who loved sitting in the same room and who could never resist ordering the peach cobbler.

The Four Way on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hernando and Henderson - Coleman's and Bill's

On Monday I visited Coleman’s Bar-B-Que in Hernando, MS. Hernando is in DeSoto County, which has mostly become a giant suburb of Memphis. But as the county’s southernmost city, Hernando has been able to keep more of its small-town character than the cities of Horn Lake, Southaven and Olive Branch that directly border Memphis.

Coleman’s, like many barbecue places in the Mid-South, has a crew of aging regulars who use the restaurant as a gathering spot. There was a group of them filling several adjoining tables, drinking coffee and discussing the problems of the world when I stopped in. Coleman’s is mainly a sandwich place offering pulled pork and burgers. They don’t have ribs but they will serve the pulled pork as an “open face plate,” which is how I ordered it. The meat was good in a “Memphis average” way and the sauce had a very smokey flavor.

On Wednesday I went even deeper off the beaten path to Henderson, TN, where I ate some of the best pulled pork I’ve tried from one of the most humble-looking restaurants I’ve seen. Henderson is a small town just south of Jackson with a population of just under 6,000. I decided to just drive around until I found a barbecue restaurant. What I mainly found were churches. Henderson has churches everywhere you look and I’ve had customers invite me to their churches while doing business there. I also drove past the Church of Christ-affiliated Freed Hardeman University, which strives to provide students with a college experience that is very different than the one I enjoyed.

I was shocked when I failed to find a barbecue place on Main Street, since Main Street is a good place to look for a barbecue place in any small town. After a futile drive around the old town square and the area around the university I eventually ventured south down Church Avenue where I spotted Liz’s Bar-B-Q. At first I wasn’t sure if the place was still in business. The front door was open, but the little old lady inside told me they were closed on Wednesdays. She told me to come back the next day. When I told her I was from Memphis, only in town for the day and wanting to find barbecue in town for lunch that day she eyed me with suspicion and told me there was another place a little further down the road.

Further south I found a plain-looking building with several additions on the back of it that didn’t look like they were constructed with concepts like construction permits and building codes in mind. The hand-painted sign in front called it Bill Latham’s B-B-Q. The hand-painted sign on the side of the building called it Bill’s Bar-B-Q. I did like seeing the defiant “open every day" on the front sign.

Inside I tried to order a rib plate. The old man working the counter between the dining area and the kitchen told me that they were out of ribs so I just asked for a pulled pork plate. They don’t do fries at Bill’s, so my order automatically came with beans, slaw and potato salad. All the sides were good and the meat was excellent. It was served completely dry with regular and hot sauce available at the table. Serving pulled pork dry is a bold statement of confidence that encourages you to try the meat as-cooked before adding any sauce. I used a mix of the two sauces since I couldn’t decide which I liked better.

After I finished my lunch and left my plate and plastic tray at the counter I told the old man, who I assume was Bill, how much I’d enjoyed the food and that I’d tried to stop at Liz’s up the street. “You’re lucky they were closed,” he said with a bit of pride. “You tried the good place.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

New Orleans, Louisiana

One of the biggest problems with visiting New Orleans is that there is never enough time for all the food you want to try. I just spent a three-day weekend there with my wife and several friends revelling in the culinary art of places like Cochon, Commander's Palace, Willie Mae's Scotch House and the Green Goddess.

In a recent column, Commercial Appeal food writer Jennifer Biggs compared the food scenes of Memphis and New Orleans and asked how New Orleans became so much more of a culinary destination for tourists. One of the biggest differences between southern Louisiana and the rest of the country is that down around the bayous a huge portion of the general population still knows how to cook real food from scratch.  And unlike the average American, they readily recognize that while chickens, cows, pigs and seafood are all tasty, there are plenty of other delicious critters like the rabbit, quail, alligator, duck and turtle that also deserve a spot on the dinner table.

Obviously different cultures take different approaches to cooking, but there are basic universal elements you see repeated over and over in traditional diets throughout the world. As Dr. Catherine Shanahan pointed out in her book Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, these traditional elements are the foods we’ve evolved to need in order to reach our genetic potential. This helps explain why these foods have the potential to be delicious on such a fundamental level when prepared according to the food traditions of almost any long-established culture. The universal “four pillars” of healthy eating that Shanahan identified are bone stock and meat cooked on the bone, fresh foods, fermented foods, and organ meats. You can find meals based around these pillars in Memphis at places like the outstanding Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, but you don't see them everywhere the way you do in New Orleans, with the exception of our glorious renditions of meat-slow-cooked-on-the-bone like barbecued ribs and butts.

These foods have been nourishing humans for hundreds of thousands of years, but in most parts of the United States the processed food industry has convinced people that a healthy human diet is something like a boneless, skinless chicken breast on wheat bread with fat-free potato chips and a Diet Coke. New Orleans’s cuisine was blessed with a heavy French influence that made them cling to the wonders of real butter, heavy cream and stock while the rest of the country was poisoning itself with margarine.

Religion also played a role in convincing people to abandon their culinary traditions. New Orleans is Catholic in ceremony, ritual and architecture, but people don’t seem to take religion too seriously in their day-to-day lives. Most of the United States is heavily infested with the type of Christians who consider human sexuality dirty and evil. With their inherent distrust for anything natural that causes people to feel alive and good it is no wonder they were quick to accept the propaganda that butter is bad and needs to be banished from the kitchen.

While Memphis enjoys a soulful atmosphere and colorful history that comes from its location at the top of the Mississippi Delta, it is also cursed with a large evangelical protestant population that is deeply ashamed of the area’s rowdy Dirty South vibe. Memphis and New Orleans both have ample poverty, crime and corruption. And both have plenty of good music, artists, bars,  and restaurants. But a large number of people in the Memphis area, particularly in the suburbs, seem angry and embarrassed that the riverport city doesn’t conduct itself like the more traditional Bible-Belt areas in the South. If you love living in Memphis, or even visiting it, people in the suburbs will actively try to make you repent and list reasons that you should “get out while you can.” These people even get angry when good things happen to the city because it conflicts with their belief that we should all be punished by God for our sinful ways. New Orleans has a better image than Memphis in most people’s minds, and a better food scene, precisely because the Big Easy is too busy enjoying life to care what other people think of it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

There Are Differing Definitions of Mild - Germantown Commissary

For dinner I went to the Germantown Commissary, located in a converted 19th century general store in the old section of Germantown just south of the train tracks. Germantown is a relatively affluent suburb of Memphis that has used strict zoning regulations over the years to heavily limit the size and number of big box retailers, car lots and and shopping centers. This has allowed the town to avoid the blight that most suburban sprawl experiences as their large commercial areas age.

I’ve always liked the barbecue at the Commissary, and the pulled pork I had tonight was excellent, as were the beans and slaw. And the deviled egg included with the sides was a nice little added bonus. But I was surprised by how bland the sauces seemed. The restaurant had both hot and mild versions at the table. The mild was relatively flavorless and even the “hot,” while tasty, just seemed like a regular barbecue sauce. At first I thought that maybe my recent experiences dining on truly hot “hot" barbecue sauce at places like Reggi’s and Cozy Corner had shifted my taste buds, but I was eating with my dad and he commented on the same thing while giving his plate a generous serving of the hotter sauce.

Still, it was a satisfying meal that reinforces one of my standard rules for out-of-towners asking where to get barbecue: Just ask around and find the best place within a few miles. I’ve had better all-around barbecue during my recent quest, but for anyone who was unfamiliar with our area’s food the pulled pork at the Commissary would have been a revelation. I’ve seen too many visitors worry themselves over where the best place place to get barbecue is while a group of locals stands around arguing their preferences. Unless you are dealing with a really discriminating barbecue fan, just go to the closest place with an appropriate atmosphere. Besides, sometimes one person’s bland sauce is another person’s “just right,” and your “good and spicy” might be someone else’s “Jesus, it feels like I’ve been tear gassed.”

Germantown Commissary on Urbanspoon

Texas-style in Memphis - Beef Brisket from Fat Larry's

The media loves conflict because it gives a story more of an edge. That’s why news stories that compare the barbecue in Memphis and Texas act like the two areas are locked in a bitter feud of pork versus beef as the proper meat for slow cooking. In reality, although pork is definitely the traditional meat used in the area you’ll find beef brisket on plenty of menus in the Mid-South and serious barbecuers respect the skill it takes to bring out the cut’s potential.

I mentioned in a previous review that you’ll see multiple Memphis In May whole hog trophies at Fat Larry’s. But you’ll also see a couple of first place awards for beef brisket from other barbecue competitions. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with a beef brisket or a pork shoulder, barbecuing uses the same philosophy as traditional French cooking. You use steady low heat combined with a lot of time. Whether you’re smoking meat in a barbecue pit or braising it in a pot of bone stock, wine and shallots, the goal is to turn tough, fatty cuts of meat into delectable servings of concentrated flavor. The beef brisket at Fat Larry’s is a perfect example -- tender, delicious and marbled with fat that melts in your mouth.

The only complaint I had, and I’ve noticed this on several trips to Fat Larry’s, was the cole slaw that was swimming in mayo. I know that slaw is an afterthought when people are deciding where to go for barbecue, but it is always a little sad to have one side item keep a meal from achieving perfection.

Fat Larry's on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 15, 2011

From Brownsville to Olive Branch to Bartlett - Backyard, Bar B Que Pit and Pig-N-Whistle

When I stopped for lunch Wednesday at Backyard Bar-Be-Cue on Main Street in Brownsville, TN, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the sign in front of the store promising sweet potato tots. I’d never had a sweet potato tot before so I ignored my standard ordering rules and tried some with pulled pork and slaw. The tots were exactly what you’d expect if you have any passing familiarity with both sweet potato fries and regular tots.

Brownsville, located in between Jackson and Memphis, is the sort of small town where the local Chevy dealership still hosts a big lunch for all the area farmers every year after harvest time is over. Backyard, like many of the barbecue joints I’ve visited, is heavily decorated with pictures and statues of pigs. These days most restaurants and grocery stores seem to go out of their way to remove any and all reminders that the meat they sell was once part of an animal. But barbecue places don’t shy away from the fact that pigs are their reason for being.

The pulled pork at Backyard was excellent. It managed to be tender and juicy yet slightly crispy at the same time thanks to the wonderful charred meat from the outside of the shoulder that was included in the serving. A skilled barbecuer can make the outer edge of a shoulder or butt a glory of concentrated flavor since it gets so heavily infused with smoke, rub and sauce. The smart ones make sure that this meat gets evenly mixed in with the rest so that everyone who orders pulled pork gets some with their serving.

The pulled pork I tried the next day at the Bar B Que Pit in Olive Branch, MS, was the exact opposite of Backyard’s. It was somehow soggy but tough. Olive Branch is yet another former small town outside Memphis being overrun with generic suburban development and the restaurant was located in a strip mall on notoriously overcrowded Goodman Road. But I got my hopes up when I saw three types of homemade dry rub sitting on each table -- regular, spicy and sweet. And when the extremely friendly owner brought out my pulled pork there was a bay leaf sitting in the sauce providing evidence that it was part of a homemade batch that had recently simmered on a stovetop. But the flavor and texture just wasn’t there.

In between Backyard and the Bar B Que Pit, in both geography and quality, was the Pig-N-Whistle in Bartlett where I ate on Friday. Getting to Pig-N-Whistle was far bigger ordeal than I expected, with crazy traffic flowing out of the park next door and police officers everywhere. When I made it to the restaurant, a cheerful collection of Republicans told me that Presidential candidate Herman Cain had just finished delivering a campaign speech in the park.

The Pig-N-Whistle is about a block away from the Brad’s Bar-B-Q I tried in September. Like Brad’s, the food was of good “Memphis average” quality, but the serving of meat was about half the size of what I got from Brad’s. 

UPDATE: The Pig-N-Whistle in Bartlett is currently closed. The Millington location is still open, and I was also more impressed by that store.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Pork Lard is Health Food - Neely's

[NOTE: This restaurant is now closed]

I have a theory that several decades ago the residents of the working-class Fox Meadows neighborhood got together and made an elaborate sacrifice to the gods of barbecue in order to insure that they would always enjoy an abundance of excellent smoked pork. I came up with this theory today while I was eating at the Neely’s Bar-B-Que on Mt. Moriah, which is located about half a block from the Leonard’s on Fox Plaza that I sampled last week.

The pulled pork at Neely’s, which has become famous thanks to the Down Home With the Neely’s TV show on Food Network, didn’t have as much smokey flavor as Leonard’s. But it was exquisitely tender. And while it was fatty, the fat was the pleasant melt-in-your-mouth variety. The beans were good and spicy and the slaw was extremely good with plenty of mustard. I always prefer mustard in slaw and potato salad to variations that pile on the store-bought mayonnaise. Store-bought mayo is usually lousy with soybean oil -- a chemically extracted industrial product that acts as an inflammation-inducing toxin in the body, just like the “vegetable” oils made from corn, cottonseed and canola.

These oils are heavily pushed by the USDA, the government agency charged with convincing Americans to consume large quantities of the subsidized crops like corn, wheat and soy that are the main drivers behind our rising rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The USDA also tells us to avoid the natural fats, like the juicy delicious pork fat on my barbecue plate, that have nourished humans for hundreds of thousands of years. We are told saturated fat is evil and clogs your arteries because it is solid at room temperature. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that all my readers are mammals. This means that the day your arteries are room temperature you are no longer concerned with deciding what to have for lunch. Place a stick of butter outside in the sun the next time we have a 98 degree Memphis day to see how solid it will be in your arteries.

Of course, even pork lard isn’t all saturated fat. As science writer Gary Taubes points out in his excellent book Why We Get Fat and What to Do About it, according to the USDA’s own National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, 47 percent of the fat in pork lard is the monounsaturated variety loved by nutritionists because it raises “good” HDL cholesterol and lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol. Of that monounsaturated fat, 90 percent is the same oleic acid found in nutritionally beloved olive oil. Of the roughly 40 percent of the fat that is saturated, a third is steric acid that actually raises “good” HDL cholesterol with no affect on the “bad” LDL. The other 12 percent of the total fat is polyunsatured fat that lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol with no affect on “good" HDL. So 70 percent of the fat in pork lard is actually better for your cholesterol that any fat-free food. The other 30 percent raises both “good” and “Bad” cholesterol together. So when I skip the bread, soda and fries at barbecue joints in favor of more pork I am reducing my risk of a heart attack.

Skipping the bread, soda and fires also makes sure that your body burns the fat you eat instead of storing it as Tom Naughton explains in these clips from his myth-shattering documentary Fat Head that is available for streaming on Netflix:

Neely's Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon