Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pulled Pork and Purple-Hull Peas - Reese's

After a four days of Thanksgiving food I was ready to get back to eating ribs when I stopped in Reese’s Bar-B-Q on Monday. I didn’t get my rib fix since Reese’s was out, but I did get some really good pulled pork. The barbecue dinner came with three sides. They were out of potato salad and I didn’t want fries, since the last thing I needed was starch fried in vegetable oil when I was already recovering from Thanksgiving. So I scanned the list of the day’s sides on a dry erase board next to the cash register and selected purple-hull peas. The restaurant is located on Winchester next to Perkins in the Parkway Village neighborhood near the airport, and they offer southern-style meat and veggie plates as well as barbecue.

The peas ended up being much better than the regular baked beans, which didn’t surprise me since I love southern-style black-eyed peas. They didn’t need any salt, pepper or hot sauce. I just ate them as-served and enjoyed every bite. Although I only had a few bites of the baked beans there was nothing wrong with them. They were fairly standard example of the baked beans I’ve had at most of the barbecue places I’ve been, they were just overshadowed by the peas. The slaw was really good and provided the needed crunchy contrast to the extremely juicy pork. The sauce was good in a Memphis average sort of way.

Half the people in the restaurant were eating plate lunches from the non-barbecue menu of daily specials. All the food looked good, so I’ll have to return to sample some of the southern cooking. While searching for barbecue joints I’ve noticed that the area around the airport is full of small, independent soul food places offering meat and veggie meals. As I work my way through all the area’s barbecue establishments I may have to start sampling different soul food next. It would be interesting to see how hard it is to find healthy choices at soul food dives. I noticed that Reese’s followed the proud southern tradition of offering macaroni and cheese on the vegetable menu. 
Reese’s has the same interior design scheme that seems to be a standard for older, non-alcohol-serving barbecue joints. The front of the restaurant is all plate glass and there is a giant red brick order counter surrounded by wood-paneled walls. I’d never been there before, but the layout is so familiar if you visit a lot of local barbecue places that it still seemed instantly familiar. They did offer the additional services of a "Check Your Love Meter" and a "Check You Sex Level" machine, but both devices were out of order so I left without knowing how much of an effect the pulled pork dinner had on my mojo.  

Reese's Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 28, 2011

Brisket Tacos - Local Gastropub

One of my favorite barbecue dishes in Memphis is a nontraditional one. We met some friends Downtown at the Local Gastropub on Main Street for brunch on Sunday. As soon as my wife told me where we were going I knew I’d be getting an order of the barbecue brisket tacos. The first time I had them at Local they were a special, but obviously I’m not the only one who loved them because they found a home on the regular menu. Local is a really nice space that is a little north of Beale Street, so you don’t have to deal with Beale Street crowds, and relatively cheap and casual.

The three tacos you get with an order each have a very generous serving of shredded barbecued beef brisket topped with chipotle barbecue sauce, jack cheese, pickled red onion, braised red cabbage and cilantro sour cream. They come with a side of black beans that I largely ignored because they were so bland compared to the tacos themselves. It’s enough food that if you were really concerned with eating healthy you could just eat the filling, toss the tortillas and still have plenty to eat. 

As you would expect from a place calling itself Local Gastropub, the restaurant has a good selection of local beers on tap and a pint of Ghost River Octoberfest was a perfect companion to the tacos on a cold, drizzly afternoon. It may seem odd to order a Tex-Mex rendition of Texas-style barbecue at a Downtown Memphis restaurant, but good cooking is good cooking and these tacos are superb. 

UPDATE: On a return trip to Local yesterday the brisket tacos had been replaced on the menu with braised short rib tacos that are cooked with traditional barbecue seasonings. It's a different slow-cooked cut of beef, but still delicious. Also, the side of black beans that I said were bland in this post? They've been replaced with macaroni and cheese made with green chilies and bacon that tastes as good as it sounds. It certainly isn't health food, but no one will ever accuse it of being bland.  

Local on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

America - Baking a Homemade Apple Pie

With Thanksgiving tomorrow, I spent tonight making an apple pie to take to my parents’ house in the morning as a dessert for our feast there. I normally try to limit my intake of sugar and flour, since all the modern “diseases of civilization”, ranging from obesity to diabetes to heart disease, are caused by chronically elevated blood sugar and insulin. But I am also a big proponent of real, traditional food. So when Thanksgiving comes around, my theory is to ignore the packaged convenience foods and go all-out with the kind of apple pie people would have been eating 100 years ago. When you stick to real sugar and natural fats in place of industrial products like corn syrup and soybean oil the results are outstanding. Also note that if you cut the crust recipe in half it makes an excellent crust for a homemade quiche.

Here are the ingredients. Don’t get scared:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
13 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
8 tablespoons pork lard
Cold ice water as needed

6 cups Granny Smith apples (roughly six average sized apples after peeling, coring and chopping)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons cold butter cut into small cubes
1 tablespoon milk for brushing top of crust
1 tablespoon sugar and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon for dusting crust.

That's over one and a half sticks of butter plus eight tablespoons of pork lard in the crust.

 Start out by cutting the butter for the crust into 1/2 inch cubes. Place them in the freezer. Then scoop out your 8 tablespoons of pork lard and place them in the freezer too. You want your fats to be cold. While they chill, mix the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor, then add the butter cubes and mix them in using five or six one-second pulses. Add the pork lard and mix it with an additional four or five one-second pulses. All the fat bits should be no bigger than small peas. Put the mixture in a big mixing bowl. If you still have some big chunks of butter and lard, break them up with a fork. Add four tablespoons of ice-cold water and stir with a fork. Keep adding ice water a couple tablespoons at a time and rotate between stirring with a fork and squeezing the dough together with your hands until you form it into a large ball. Split the ball into two halves, one slightly bigger than the other. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and place them in the fridge.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Cut your peeled and cored apples into small, bit-sized pieces and place them in a medium-sized bowl, then mix in the teaspoon of lemon juice. In another bowl, mix the sugar, brown sugar, flour and spices, then pour that mixture in with the apples and gently mix everything.

Now get the bigger of your two balls of pie crust dough, roll it out and use it to coat a reusable pie pan. It helps if you roller is a little damp. Place the filling in your crust. Spread the small cubes of butter around on top of the filling.

Roll out the other ball of pie crust dough, cut it into strips and law them out on the pie in a criss-crossed grid. Use a fork to press the outer edges together. Now brush the top of the crust with the milk, then sprinkle on the sugar and cinnamon mixture.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until it looks like a perfect apple pie. Place a metal baking sheet on a shelf under the pie while it cooks to catch all the excess grease that bakes off.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Catching a Game in the Tiger Room - Central

I’d never been to the Central BBQ location on Summer Avenue before today, but I’ve heard their radio ads promoting their “Tiger Room” with big screen TVs, a bar and University of Memphis memorabilia on the walls. So as a Memphis alum, when the Tigers ended up playing in-state rival Tennessee in the Maui Invitational Tournament at 1 p.m. today while I was working near Summer it seemed like a great time to take an extended lunch there. I had no way of knowing I was sitting down for an excruciating three-hour, double-overtime nail-biter that Memphis eventually won 99-97.

Central is a fairly new addition to the Memphis barbecue scene. I’ve eaten at the original Midtown location near my house multiple times over the ten years it has been in business and have found the pulled pork there to be very hit or miss. Sometimes it is really good but it has also been dried-out, rubbery garbage on several occasions. I’ve heard several people praise Central’s ribs, but I’d never tried them so that’s what I ordered today.

The Summer Avenue location opened five years ago is in a huge former Red Lobster. Besides the dedicated Tiger Room, every other one of the building’s multiple dining rooms also had at least one big TV turned to the game. I ended up watching it on a large projection screen in the front dining area. When I first walked in I spent a minute waiting on a hostess before realizing that you are supposed to order your food at the cash register where you receive a number. Then you sit down and wait for someone to find you with your food order. The Midtown location also uses an order counter, but it seems natural at a small store where the staff can call out order numbers. The Red Lobster building was obviously designed to use to hostess and table service so it seems odd for Central to avoid using them there, especially with a $15.25 pre-tax price tag for a half slab of ribs.

The ribs themselves were excellent. They had a tastily-charred outer surface, a delicious, smoke-flavored pink interior and a good dry rub that went well with the wet sauce I had on the side. The sides were disappointing. The beans were topped with a generous portion of pulled pork, but both the beans and the pork were relatively flavorless. I avoid bread on the quest and there was never any temptation with the cold, straight-from-the-package brown-and-serve roll that accompanied my meal. The extremely dry cole slaw was almost laughably bad. It was like someone just roughly chopped some cabbage and stirred in a minute amount of mayonnaise with no additional seasoning of any kind.

When the game went into overtime and it became obvious I was going to miss more work than I intended I decided to order a beer. Being able to make decisions like that is a definite benefit of owning your own business. I got up and went back to the cashier to order my beer. After she took my money and I gave her a tip, she told me I needed to pick up my beer from the bar in the Tiger Room. When I got my beer there the bartender looked at me expectantly, but I’d already given my tip to the lady who took my drink order so I just awkwardly returned to my table in the front room. The $5 price for a pint of Fat Tire was reasonable by most bar standards, but combined with the high cost of the rib dinner it made Central a far worse deal than Jack's Bar-B-Q Rib Shack right up the street, which I drove past to get to there.

Central BBQ (East Memphis) on Urbanspoon

A High-Rent Area Hole-in-the-Wall - One & Only

One & Only BBQ is a clean and polished rendition of a little hole-in-wall barbecue joint hiding in a shopping center on the Germantown side of East Memphis on Kirby, just north of Poplar. It’s definitely geared towards carry-out customers, but my wife and I found room at one of the restaurant’s handful of small tables last Friday night to sit down and sample some good barbecue and some spectacular potato salad.

My wife got a two meat plate with pulled pork, smoked turkey, beans and mustard potato salad while I got a half-slab of dry ribs with beans, slaw and the twice-baked potato salad. My wife thought the pulled pork was a little bland since there was no smoke flavor. We both enjoyed the tender, juicy and heavily salted smoked turkey. It's a great menu item if you're dining with anyone who wants to eat something other than pork. The dry ribs had an excellent texture and rub. We were both big fans of One & Only’s hot barbecue sauce on all our meats.

Like the pulled pork, my ribs didn’t have any smoke flavor and they lacked the tell-tale pink coloring that indicates when ribs have absorbed plenty of smoke. I’m sure that is due to location in a large shopping center in a fairly affluent area. They are probably forced to rely entirely on a gas grille since their neighbors would have a meltdown if they enveloped the outside of their store in a glorious pork-scented charcoal haze like the one you frequently see outside of places like Cozy Corner on North Parkway.

The roughly-chopped cole slaw seemed bland, but I think that is because I was trying it beside two different varieties of outstanding potato salad. In fact, I’d call the restaurant’s mustard-based potato salad one of the best in town if it hadn’t been overshadowed itself by the twice-baked potato salad, which was loaded with bacon, sour cream and chives. My wife and I both agreed that ribs with beans and the twice-baked potato salad would be the perfect order for future visits. The menu also listed deviled eggs for $0.30 each, so I’ll have to give a few of them of them a try on a future visit as well.

One & Only BBQ and More on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 20, 2011

High-Volume Barbecue Logistics Experts - Tom's

It’s fitting that a large portion of the huge customer base for Tom's Bar-B-Q works in logistics since the restaurant’s workers have to be experts in the field themselves to handle the crushing volume of their lunch business. Tom’s is at the corner of Getwell and Raines, in the Oakhaven section of Memphis. Memphis is a major distribution hub for the entire United States and that corner, directly in between the airport and the giant railroad switchyard at Lamar and Shelby Drive, sits in the heart of that distribution network. Along with the railroads and the sprawling Fed Ex and UPS hubs at the airport, the restaurant is also surrounded by massive commercial truck lines, warehouses and manufacturing plants.

When you have that much industry piled into one place you end up with an army of hungry workers at lunchtime and on any given day a huge portion of them stop by Tom’s. The restaurant takes its mission of getting people back to work on time with plenty of good food in their bellies seriously. 

When you walk through the front door of Tom’s you enter what looks like an enclosed patio. Then you go through another door to what looks like yet another enclosed patio. Obviously the place has been through several expansions to manage the flood of customers. If you go during lunchtime on a weekday, once you reach the heart of the building you will encounter a staggeringly long line snaking towards an order counter and then on to another counter with a cash register where people pick up their food.

The staff keeps the surging mass of humanity moving with a speed and efficiency that is amazing to watch. The total wait from taking your place at the back of the line to ordering to picking up your food is only a few minutes. Behind the counters you can see the well-rehearsed dance of organized near-chaos that keeps everything flowing.

My order of dry ribs with sauce on the side came in a big styrofoam clamshell that was speared shut with a toothpick to keep the overflowing pile of food inside it. The ribs definitely weren’t the best I’ve tried. The were fairly tender and had an okay flavor but they also had plenty of unrendered fat attached to them. The sauce tasted like the examples you can find at an average supermarket and the beans seemed to be undoctored, canned baked beans. Plenty of barbecue restaurants use canned beans but most add some pulled pork, barbecue sauce and other seasonings to step them up a notch. The realities of dealing with a teeming lunch business like Tom’s has means it would be totally impossible to make everything from scratch and worry about perfection. The roughly chopped cole slaw was really good and I’ve heard the rib tips are a specialty there so I’ll have to try them on a future visit. The portions were generous on everything I saw people eating during my trip and my meal was only $10.99. So while the ribs weren’t amazing it is obvious that the people at Tom’s know their niche in the local barbecue world and are making sure that they remain a reliable choice for hungry area workers.

[UPDATE: During return visits to Tom's I've discovered that I ordered completely wrong on my first visit. I ordered the spare ribs. The restaurant does a much better job with babybacks, and the flavorful rib tips are a signature item coated with Mediterranean seasoning that are unlike any other rib tips in Memphis. the place also make great barbecue bologna, which is calls "Tennessee round steak." The sauce I complained about was the mild. Tom's also offers a sweet and spicy jalapeno sauce that is outstanding and a habanero sauce if you want to get even hotter than that.]

Tom's Barbecue & Deli on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

As Good as I Remembered - More Reggi's

[NOTE: This restaurant is now closed and a new BBQ place called Pure Glaze is now occupying the space. The main Reggi's location in Jackson, TN, is still open.]

I’ve been thinking about the ribs at Reggi's Bar-B-Q on Houston Levee ever since my first trip there a few weeks ago. Were they really as good as I remembered, or did my low expectations based on their location in a suburban strip mall cause me to be overly impressed? So I stopped back today for lunch to try an order of dry ribs with hot barbecue sauce on the side and am happy to report they still lived up to my greatly increased current expectations.

They are tender in some sections while charred and crispy in others. But the crispy sections still aren’t tough and the tender sections still hold onto the bone with the right amount of texture. With no sauce you can really enjoy the smoke flavor while an occasional splash of the Reggi’s hot sauce gives you a burst of spicy intensity that makes you instantly crave more. They are very comparable to the legendary spicy ribs at Cozy Corner.

The mustardy potato salad they include with the dinner is so good that I’m glad they give you a fairly small portion. It would be nearly impossible for me to exercise much self-control with a large order. The stuff is delicious. If you find yourself in the northeastern suburbs of Shelby County do yourself a favor and check this place out.

Reggi's Bar-B-Q & Wings on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Just Another Chain Near Wolfchase - Jim 'N Nick's

On Sunday night we gathered at my parent’s house to celebrate my brother’s birthday. When we got there I was happy to here that my dad was out picking up a big order of pulled pork and ribs from Jack’s Bar-B-Q Rib Shack for everyone to eat. We were beginning to wonder what was taking him so long when he finally arrived with a large bag from Jim 'N Nick’s Bar-B-Q. Apparently Jack’s was closed so he’d gone to the nearest place he could think to grab some barbecue.

I’d been intrigued by Jim ‘N Nick’s since they opened a store in the giant, big-box-retail-dominated area around the Wolfchase Galleria Mall several years ago, but I’d never tried any of their food. Bringing a national chain barbecue place to Memphis is pretty brazen, so on one hand it seemed like they were confidant in their food. On the other hand, the Wolfchase area’s food choices are dominated by bland chain restaurants like Olive Garden, Chili’s, TGI Fridays, etc., so maybe the Jim ‘N Nick’s chain was thinking that all they really had to do was compete in that sea of garbage.

After tasting the barbecue, I’d say that the good local places have nothing to fear. The sauce wasn’t bad, but there was nothing special about it. The same thing could be said about the pork shoulder, which was sliced not pulled. The tough, fatty ribs were the worst part of the meal. On great ribs the fat should pretty much dissolve into the meat, not sit on top of it in gooey lumps like it did on the Jim 'N Nick’s ribs. None of the meat had any noticeable smoke flavor. By the standards of a chain restaurant near the Wolfchase mall the food would be considered pretty good. By the standards of a Memphis barbecue place it doesn’t measure up.

UPDATE: The ribs I originally tried for this post were spare ribs. I ended up eating at the Wolfchase Jim N' Nick's with some of my family on August 18, 2012. I noticed on the menu that the sirloin ribs are brined before cooking while the baby backs receive a dry rub. I prefer a dry rub and since baby backs are naturally leaner than sirloin ribs they can be cooked in less time time without having the same issues with unrendered fat. They ended up being far better than the spare ribs. They weren't the best in town or anything, but they were perfectly serviceable.

My wife had the dark meat chicken with collard greens and mac and cheese was very pleased with every part of her meal. So there are some good items on the Jim 'N Nick's menu despite my initial experience with the chain's barbecue. 

Jim & Nick's BBQ-Germantown on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Explaining my Cholesterol Numbers - More Brad's

I continued working to improve my cholesterol numbers today with a half slab of good old "Memphis average" ribs at the Brad’s Bar-B-Q in the suburban speed-trap town of Oakland, TN. I’d had a physical recently and I  got my cholesterol numbers back today.

The last time I had my cholesterol checked was in the fall of 2008. Back then I was 20 pounds heavier than I am now and trying to be healthy by eating the kind of diet you’ll hear recommended by “the experts.” My normal breakfast was a bowl of cheerios with one percent milk and a glass of orange juice. A normal lunch was something like a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with reduced-fat “mayo,” American cheese and some kettle chips on the side. For dinner we tried to cook healthy by using plenty of canola oil, olive oil and Smart-Balance margarine. We routinely ate things like grilled boneless, skinless chicken breast. My cholesterol reading then was 164.

I’ve tried to eliminate as much processed food as possible from my diet over the last couple of years. My standard breakfast almost every morning is several fresh eggs from the farmer’s market, cooked in either real butter or coconut oil, with a side of either bacon or sausage also from the farmer’s market. I also have a glass of farm-fresh whole milk that’s unhomogenized so there’s plenty of cream floating at the top of it. I frequently top my eggs with some homemade guacamole. As any regular reader of this blog knows, a typical lunch is barbecue pork with beans and slaw. For dinner we’re more likely to cook bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs than breasts these days. You won’t find any canola oil or Smart-Balance in our house (How did the processed food industry ever get people to believe that healthy foods are created in labs and bear patent numbers?). We still use the olive oil, mainly for salad dressings, but we mainly cook with real butter, coconut oil and pork lard. I eat whenever I’m hungry and make no attempt to count calories or limit fat intake, although I do try to keep myself under 100 grams of carbohydrates a day and severely limit the sugar and corn syrup I consume. My last cholesterol reading was 197.

Plenty of people would just look at those two cholesterol numbers and say that my current diet has made me less healthy, but let’s take a closer look. In 2008, my “bad” LDL cholesterol number was only 76 but my “good” HDL was a mere 35. HDL levels under 40 are said to promote heart disease while levels over 60 actually protect against it. My HDL is now at 61. My “bad" LDL did go up to 113,  but my ratio of LDL to HDL still dropped from 2.18 to 1.87. A ratio less than 2 is considered ideal.

This is the heart-healthy lunch I enjoyed today. Brad's uses 
a slightly different sauce  for their ribs than they do 
on their pulled pork, but both are excellent.

Also, the hard science suggests that we’re paying too much attention to cholesterol anyway. As stunning as it may seem, there is NO actual research supporting the hypothesis that an elevated total cholesterol number increases your risk of heart disease. The “healthy limit” of 200 is mainly a a creation of pharmaceutical companies pushing statin drugs. On top of these drugs' damaging side effects, there is no clinical evidence that they will actually increase the average person with “high” cholesterol’s lifespan.
The biggest real-life indicator of potential heart disease is your ratio of triglycerides to “good” HDL cholesterol. A ratio under 2 is considered ideal, over 4 is bad and over six indicates a serious risk. In 2008 I had a triglyceride level of 264 that divided with my then-HDL level of 35 to create a horrifying ratio of 7.5. I was headed towards a future of heart disease partially because of, not in spite of, my low cholesterol. My triglyceride levels were down to 111 on my last test, which divides with my current HDL of 61 to give me a ratio of 1.8. So I drastically improved my health by replacing Cheerios with eggs and bacon.

Processed vegetable oils cause HDL levels to drop while healthy, natural fats cause them to go up. Triglycerides levels go up in response to carbohydrates, particularly the fructose that is abundant in cane sugar, fruit juice and high fructose corn syrup. Carbohydrates also raise insulin levels, and insulin is the hormone that tells our body to store fat. That’s why my current way of eating caused me to effortlessly drop 20 pounds. If our government is serious about getting sky-rocketing healthcare costs under control, the solution is simple and obvious. Stop subsidizing the crops like wheat, corn and soy that are making people sick. And stop telling people that a healthy diet is based around 6 to 11 servings of grain per day. That lie is what gave us a nation full of people who are simultaneously overweight and malnourished.

An Abandoned Dragstrip Behind an Abandoned Shopping Mall

I included pictures of the Raleigh Springs Mall in a recent blog post where I remarked that the mall’s decline had been driven by suburban sprawl luring away most of its tenants and customers. There are a lot of people in the Memphis area who would insist that I am wrong and that the mall’s major problems are Memphis property taxes and changing demographics as the Raleigh population has shifted from majority white to majority black over the last two decades.

However, the Southland Mall in Whitehaven is in a predominately black neighborhood inside the city of Memphis and it still has plenty of tenants and shoppers. Meanwhile there is the Belz Factory Outlet Mall in Lakeland. That mall, built in the late ‘70s, is just two Interstate exists away from the Wolfchase Galleria Mall and it’s surrounding big-box retailers. The Wolfchase area was developed in the late ‘90s and it drew customers away from the older mall in Lakeland, just like it drew them away from the Raleigh Springs Mall.

According to census data, Lakeland is 91.56 percent white with a median household income of $58,897. It currently has no municipal property tax. And its mall is abandoned.

As a gearhead, it’s hard to have too much sympathy for the Lakeland mall’s fate. When it was being built during the late ‘70s, it was the new sprawl that killed off a piece of Memphis-area history -- the Lakeland International Raceway. If you know where to find it, you can still park on the southern edge of the mall’s parking lot and take a short walk through the woods to the overgrown ruins of the old dragstrip that was once “the traction capital of the South.”

National drag racing legends like “Jungle” Jim Liberman and Larry “The Hawaiian” Reyes once roared down the track. Parts of the cult-classic car movie Two-Lane Blacktop take place there. In the mid-‘90s the strip was long abandoned but still accessible to vehicles so my dad taught me to drive a stick shift on it in his ‘57 Chevy step-side pickup.

The Lakeland dragstip appears briefly at around the 0:35 mark in the movie's trailer.

The former dragstrip was slated to be completely cleared several years ago to make way for a large residential development and some of the work was even started before the housing market crash put the project on indefinite hold. But for now the weed-choked strip and crumbling walls are still there to remind people of its former glory.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Little Overpriced, A Little Overrated - Blues City Cafe

Today was an absolutely beautiful day and I was working downtown so I decided to park East of Fourth on Beale and walk to the Blues City Cafe at Beale and Second. People familiar with Beale know that the official Historic District between Second and Fourth is closed to traffic. Walking down a quiet, uncrowded Beale Street on a sunny, lazy Monday afternoon is a relaxing experience that is very different than being there at night or on a weekend day.

I’ve eaten at the Blues City Cafe, but I’d never tried their ribs. Unfortunately, the restaurant’s food seems to be a victim of it’s great location and history. The list of musicians, politicians and other celebrities who have been to the restaurant, both to eat and to perform, is long and impressive. But when you’re primarily serving food to tourists, a large portion of whom have been drinking in the many bars that line Beale, there’s a tendency just shoot for good-enough with your food. In fact, astute readers will notice that I’ve also been in no hurry to include the Rendezvous on my barbecue quest. There is a reason for that.

The ribs I ate at Blues City were certainly good enough. They definitely weren’t bad. But they were only offered with a wet glaze of blandly sweet sauce, and the meat lacked the smokey flavor and charred-outside, melt-in-you-mouth-inside texture of the best ribs I’ve encountered. On top of that, at $14.95 before tax and tip, the half slab I ordered was one of the more expensive half slabs I’ve seen so far despite its puny size.  Granted it came with a huge order of steak fries along with the beans, slaw and bread. But with my lunch routine the fries are mostly  just 'carbage’ to be left behind with the bread and the rib bones.

As a local who has tried the ribs at places like Jack's, Bar-B-Q Shop, Cozy CornerReggi's and Leonard's and who was stone-cold sober in the middle of a working Monday I realize I wasn’t the Blues City Cafe’s target customer. There are signs throughout the restaurant reminding you that the kitchen is open late. If I had less experience with true Memphis-style ribs and had been roaming around Beale Street for hours working up a serious buzz and a serious hunger I’m sure I would have devoured the ribs like they were the best thing I’d ever eaten. So if you're bar hopping on Beale and find yourself inside Blues City and hungry, go ahead and order some ribs if that’s what you’re craving. But if you’re looking for examples of the best Memphis has to offer, there are definitely better places to go.

Blues City Cafe on Urbanspoon

Homemade Tofu Vegetable Stir-Fry

I like the taste of tofu. I understand that eating unfermented soy products on a regular basis is bad for your health, but an occasional serving of tofu doesn’t seem to cause me any ill effects.

When we hear stories about healthy Asian populations eating a lot of soy we need to keep in mind that they’ve traditionally eaten fermented soy like tempeh, miso and soy sauce. Fermentation breaks down the toxins and anti-nutrients that are otherwise packed into soy. Anti-nutrients are compounds that block your body from absorbing critical vitamins, minerals and enzymes. In 2003 the state of Illinois began feeding all of its inmates a diet that gets most of its protein from soy. The side effects have been bad enough that the state is currently facing a lawsuit from inmates claiming that being forced to eat so much soy is cruel and unusual punishment.

The process of making tofu breaks down some, but not all, of the toxins and anti-nutrients that occur in soy. You still don’t want to eat tofu on a regular basis, but having an occasional meal with it is generally okay. And since it acts like a sponge for added flavors, it can be very tasty with the right sauces and seasonings.

Frying tofu requires a lot of time and heat, so you need a cooking oil with a high smoke point, otherwise you end up cooking in rancid oil. As ironic as it may seem, the combination of a high smoke point and excellent nutritional profile makes pork lard one of the ideal fats for cooking tofu, although coconut oil would also be a great choice.

For frying, nothing beats pork lard in a cast-iron skillet. 
Once you have your tofu fried, all you need is a wok, whatever vegetables you want and a good finishing sauce for a great meal. I also topped this one with a fair amount of crumbled bacon for good measure.

EDIT: Since this post seems to get a lot of hits I wanted to add some additional warnings about unfermented soy. Since soy primarily attacks the reproductive system it should not be consumed at all by couples attempting pregnancy, pregnant women or women with breast cancer. And infants definitely shouldn't be fed soy-based formulas or soy milk. Unfortunately, our government is using the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program to further subsidize soy formula for low-income parents. Soy formula is the hormone equivalent of three to five birth control pills a day.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Perfect Double Cheeseburger - Tops

A double cheeseburger from Top Bar-B-Q is a case study in simple perfection. Two patties of fresh ground beef from Charlie’s Meat Market on Summer, seasoned with salt and pepper, dripping with grease and covered with cheese. I always order mine “mustard, all the way,” which gives me mustard, lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion. It isn’t some big, fancy steakhouse burger, but it isn’t fast food either. You’re going to be waiting a few minutes while it’s cooked to order, but it will be worth every second of the wait.

There are 14 Tops locations in Memphis, including one a few blocks from my house. It’s my standard go-to anytime I want a grab a burger. At less than five dollars, it makes you wonder why anyone ever orders a fast food burger in this town.

Note: While Googling Tops for this post, I came across this excellent blog by a fellow Memphian who is on a mission to find the city's absolute best burger:  (In my humble opinion, the Spicy Smokehouse Burger at the Half-Shell is unbeatable)

Also, for more information on the Jackson Avenue Tops location, read this later entry from my blog.

Tops Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

The Essence of Traditional Memphis Barbecue - more Leonard's

Leonard's Pit Barbecue has been serving slow-cooked pork in Memphis since 1922. Our most famous resident, Elvis Presley, was a regular who liked to treat his friend’s to after-hours parties there. That was at a different location than the current sprawling, retro cool-looking building located on Fox Plaza, but the restaurant has still certainly earned a place in local barbecue history.  And after trying the pulled pork on a recent visit I was determined to return for some traditional Memphis-style ribs.

The dry ribs are everything excellent dry ribs are supposed to be. They have a charred, deliciously seasoned, outer surface covering rich, smokey meat so good that you have to be careful not to grunt like a caveman while you eat. And there is a tremendous amount of meat on these ribs. A half-slab was one of the most filling lunches I've had on my quest. The sides of beans and slaw were just as bold-tasting as they were on my previous visit. The food, history and atmosphere at Leonard’s combine to make it one of the best barbecue-eating experiences in the city, and it would be one of my top recommendations for anyone wanting to see what traditional Memphis barbecue is all about. 

UPDATE: While talking to people about barbecue and mentioning how much I've enjoyed eating at Leonard's I've had several people mention being unimpressed by the barbecue served on the all-you-can-eat buffet. So I want to stress that I have always ordered off the menu on my visits.

Leonard's Pit Barbecue on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Welcome Back Canale's

As I mentioned in my first post, this blog started because Canale's Grocery was temporarily closed due to a family illness, sending me in search of an alternate lunch. Well today at lunchtime I came across a glorious sight -- the little store outside Collierville is back open and back to selling ham sandwiches.

The sandwiches are made in big batches and kept in a giant refrigerated cooler. They use store-bought bread, American cheese, and mustard or mayo with a little piece of iceburg lettuce and a tomato slice. And the meat on them that the Canale's people smoke themselves is so good that none of that matters. It's sandwich perfection for a mere $2.50.

Nostalgia-Filled Blight - Raleigh Bar-B-Que

[NOTE: This restaurant is now closed.]

Raleigh Bar-B-Que is at the corner of Yale and Ramill in “Rocking Raleigh” in a building that was once home to the Mr. Pig Pit barbecue restaurant. The building holds a definite nostalgia factor for me since I spent the early years of my life, up through junior high, growing up in Raleigh. Mr. Pig Pit used to host cruise nights for area hot rodders and I, as a mullet-wearing 13-year-old, would ride up there with my dad in his ‘32 Ford Sedan to eat barbecue and hang out in the parking lot listening to hair metal on a cassette Walkman while watching the old street rods and muscle cars rumble around.

I’m still an avid gearhead today; with a collection that includes a driveable ‘69 Mustang Coupe, a recently-wrecked-but-being-rebuilt ‘55 Ford Mainline two-door Sedan that I’ve driven regularly for 15 years, and the empty hull of a ‘31 Ford Model A Coupe. I also never lost my love of fast, loud music. And, as you may have gathered, I still enjoy eating a little barbecue from time to time. So the parking lot surrounding that little restaurant is sort of a defining element of my formative years.

The staff was friendly from the moment I walked in the door, but they warned me that they were momentarily out of pork shoulder and ribs. This can be a problem when things get busy at a barbecue place. Since they are dealing with meats that take up to 24 hours to cook, figuring out how much to prepare is always a guessing game. But I’d already been intrigued by the mention of turkey legs and tamales on the signs outside the store, so I ordered a sample of each along with some beans and slaw.

Smoked turkey leg is a Memphis-area dietary staple. At Raleigh Bar-B-Que they give you the option of plain or covered with mild, medium or hot barbecue sauce. I got the hot sauce, which was spicy but not hot. The meat on the leg had a great smokey flavor, but it wasn’t as tender as examples I’ve had at Melanie’s Soul Food in North Memphis.

Tamales have been a dietary staple of the Americas since before the first white people showed up. When African-American workers in Mississippi Delta were exposed to them by Mexican workers they created their own spicy version, using corn meal instead of the traditional masa and often substituting wax paper wrappers for the traditional corn husks. The excellent tamales at Raleigh Bar-B-Que are the Delta-style variety wrapped in wax paper.

To get to the restaurant I had to drive down Yale Road past the Raleigh Springs Mall, which was THE place for a Raleigh youngster to kill time 20 years ago. Today it is almost empty, as newer developments have taken away almost all of its customer base. When the larger Wolfchase Mall was built to the east of Raleigh in the late 90s, it took most of the mall’s customers. The mall tried to adapt with discount and outlet versions of its anchor stores, but Super Wal-Mart and Super K-Mart centers built directly to the north and south of the mall took most of the budget-minded shoppers. Today all the anchor stores are closed and smaller retailers inside the mall are struggling with drastically reduced foot traffic.

While the neighborhood around the mall is still filled with relatively well-maintained houses and lawns, the boarded-up former anchor stores have turned the mall itself into a major eye-sore that, from the outside, looks like a set piece from the movie Judgement Night. It is a depressing sight for anyone who spent their youth wandering the mall’s old music stores, book store, pet shop, video arcade and food court, and a striking testament to the inherent waste of suburban sprawl.