Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Name in an Old Location - Delicious Soul Food

Back in May I mentioned that I had seen signs of activity at the old Frayser Maid building on Thomas and that I was hoping another soul food place would be moving into the place. I first discovered the Frayser Maid over a decade ago thanks to a Southern-food-loving co-worker who was a loyal patron of the decades-old restaurant.

The always-fascinating Memphis Barbecue Restaurant Ghost Pit Chronicles blog has some pictures from when the building was still the Frayser Maid. I would love to meet whoever is behind that blog, especially since they apparently live in my neighborhood in Vollentine-Evergreen.

On my first visit to the Frayser Maid I got an order of meatloaf with greens and yams. Everything was good and the side portions were huge. It is one of a very small number of soul food lunches I've been unable to finish.

That isn't a tiny serving of meatloaf. Those are big bowls of greens and yams.

One of the reasons I love eating in places like Delicious Soul Food is open conversations you experience between the staff and the customers. Everyone talks to everyone in a way that would seem downright bizarre in a typical chain restaurant. In little family-operated barbecue and soul food places there is generally a welcoming sense of community that makes you want to come back. It's something I've witnessed countless time in restaurants in both the city and in rural areas with both mostly white and mostly black crowds.

In fact, at Delicious Soul Food all the friendly servers are family and friends of the owner who are just pitching in to help out and enjoy the sense of community at the restaurant. If you go, tip accordingly. Your meal will still be cheap. During my first visit conversation ranged from the Tigers and Grizzlies to a woman talking about charitable giving in the city and how "they can talk bad about Memphis but when push comes to shove Memphis has heart." It was an address to the entire restaurant that I wish I had recorded.

On my second visit I had pork chops with buttered corn and green beans. The plate came with two large chops and as soon as the plate was in front of me I knew that they were going to be good. When fried pork chops are really seasoned and cooked right the smell alone is enough to tell you. Once again the side portions were big enough that I wasn't able to finish them. This time there were several kids in the restaurant so the staff set up a TV for them to watch cartoons while the adults chatted. One of the biggest benefits of my barbecue and soul food quest, besides all the great food I've enjoyed, is the opportunities I've had to enjoy the character of the city I love.

I've made numerous return visits to my favorite finds along the way and Delicious Soul Food is another place I'll be visiting when I find myself nearby and hungry. Not every time, since I'll still have to get the occasional giant barbecue sandwich from Kelvin's down the street from them. Kelvin's and Delicious are only a couple blocks apart with a McDonald's, a Taco Bell, a Wendy's and a Church's Fried Chicken in between them. But when you open your eyes to all the great little independent eateries in town the fast food chains quickly just become an almost invisible part of the background scenery.

Delicious Soul Food on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Big Game, Big Beers, Big Portions - Kooky Canuck

On Saturday I had an old friend roll into town with lower level tickets to the Memphis vs. Louisville game at the Forum. This friend, who I attended college with in the late 90s, is one of those human forces of nature who turns up and you know you've just got to just go along and enjoy the whirlwind and live with the epic hangover when he is gone. 

The day started out perfect with great seats, an electrifying atmosphere for the 1:30 tip-off and a nice early lead before the game fell apart in a mess of epically one-sided officiating.

By the time the game ended we'd had several beers apiece and ended up at the Flying Saucer for additional drinks while planning our next move. We found out our mutual friend Jamie, one of the owners over at the Blind Bear on Main Street, had put together a pub crawl down Main for that evening. We knew we needed food if we were going to make it to the end of the night so we headed to the Kooky Canuck, which is right down the block from the Saucer on Second Street.

The unfortunately-named Kooky Canuck used to be called the Big Foot Lodge before a lawsuit from another Bigfoot Lodge on the West Coast forced a name change. Despite the awkward name on the outside of the building the restaurant and bar is still as devoted to big drinks and big portions of food as it was when it had the Big Foot moniker. It is most well-known as the home of the Kookamonga burger, containing four pounds of beef, which has been featured on Man Vs. Food on the Travel Channel.

The 34-ounce draft beers at the Kooky Canuck are also appropriately large. They seemed like a perfectly reasonable beverage choice for a group of people transitioning from a basketball game to a pub crawl.

While looking over the menu I noticed barbecue nachos. I'm normally pretty dismissive of barbecue nachos. In fact, if you lead off a discussion of a barbecue restaurant by praising the barbecue nachos I'll take that as a sign that I shouldn't take your barbecue opinions too seriously. It's not that barbecue nachos aren't good. It's that they are so easy to make well that they can be used to hide sub-par barbecue. Good nachos generally aren't something to brag about. Instead, if you actually manage to screw up barbecue nachos you shouldn't even be in the restaurant business.

That wasn't a problem at the Kooky Canuck. The nachos were incredibly good. They had plenty of real shredded cheese, diced tomatoes and onions, jalapenos and baked beans included with the pulled pork, sauce and chips. Those things are all expected to be considered "good" barbecue nachos. But what really elevated them to the next level was the cilantro sour cream they were topped with. And, as one would expect from the Kooky Canuck, it was a generous portion that kept hunger from being an issue on the pub crawl and later return to the Blind Bear that followed.

Beale Street is mainly for tourists, but I have a lot more fun visiting the restaurants and bars on Main Street. On a related note, in a recent post on Downtown resident Paul Ryburn's blog he mentioned the free Taxi Magic app for smart phones. It's a handy app that is simple to use and highly recommended for anyone planning foolishness like a 1:30 p.m. basketball game followed by bar hopping and an eventual  pub crawl.

Kooky Canuck on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pork in Paradise - Sayulita

Last week two close friends of mine got married in Sayulita, Mexico. The beautiful little surfing village is located on the Pacific coast, south of the Baja Peninsula, in the state of Nayarit. 

My wife and I spent a week there along with a few other friends and absolutely fell in love with the place. It is a peaceful little village far removed from the cartel violence people often associate with Mexico. We stayed in a rented house and freely walked the streets, even at night by flashlight, without ever feeling any sense of danger.

As someone who loves traditional foods in general, and pork-based traditional foods in particular, finding something to eat in Sayulita was like an ongoing treasure hunt.

This taco pastor stand was only open at night and we stopped there on multiple evenings. That giant mound of pork is rotating around a cannister of smoking charcoal the same way shawarma is prepared in Middle Eastern restaurants. That is a pineapple on top that the vendor is shaving off a piece of.

Everything in Sayulita was incredibly affordable. A plate of three tacos pastor was around $30 pesos -- about $2.50 in the U.S.

One of the restaurants we tried was a place called Don Chow located near the plaza in the center of the village.

Inside Don Chow I was greeted with the familiar sight of a barrel cooker for slow smoking pork.

I ordered the Kalua pork, which was pork smoked while wrapped in banana leaves. It was served with rice, Asian slaw and pico de gallo. It was as good as it looks.

My wife had the pork ribs with Asian slaw, edamame and a spring roll. We debated which of us had a better meal with each of us wanting to declare ourselves the winner. That is a sure sign of a great restaurant experience.

As much as I love pork, the best part of eating in Sayulita was exploring all the places offering deliciously fresh fish tacos. I'm pretty sure we had fish tacos at least once every day we were there.

There were plenty of the traditional Mexican dishes you'd expect to find like this excellent  chicken with mole sauce...

...And some unexpected gems like the Italian restaurant Mangiafuoco.

Inside Mangiafuoco. A woman making handmade pasta while a man works the wood-fired pizza oven.

My wife had the shrimp pasta. Our table of four shared a pizza as an appetizer that we all declared the best pizza we'd ever had. Unfortunately it was devoured before anyone thought to get a picture of it. 

I had the mahi mahi with an incredible tomato sauce.

We were visiting Sayulita during the week-long festival for Our Lady of Guadalupe and ended up with a parade going past Mangiafuoco while we were dining.

You can get anywhere in the little village on foot in a short period of time. This blog spends a lot of time bashing suburban sprawl. But you need a little time experiencing the complete opposite of it to truly appreciate how soul-crushingly awful communities built around long commutes, strip malls, big chain businesses and cul-de-sacs really are. 

Sayulita is a perfect mix of public spaces, retail businesses, restaurants and residential buildings. Plenty of the businesses have owners living in residences on their upper floors. At night the plaza fills with locals of all ages hanging out together. Human beings are social animals and this is how we evolved to exist together. Not alienated, unhealthy and eating fistfuls of antidepressants the way far too many people end up in U.S. suburbs.  

The tranquil setting in Sayulita makes the brutal cartel violence to the north along Mexico's border with the U.S. seem even more tragic and infuriating. We will never be able to fully put a price on the misery caused by the devastating failure of the drug war.

While we haven't done ANYTHING to reduce the price or availability of illegal drugs, we have devastated communities from Mexico...

...To back home in Memphis.

Your barbecue blogger out on the Pacific on a surfboard. I wish I could teleport back there right now. After a week spent mostly in swim trunks adjusting to the weather in the 20s earlier this week in Memphis was rough.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Little Soul Food Country Diner - Heavenly Diner

I first tried the recently-opened Heavenly Diner on W. Main Street near downtown Jackson, TN, a couple months ago. The diner is a small space with just a handful of tables. Like the Four Sisters Soul Food on Winchester in Memphis,  Heavenly Diner features a short list of specials each day that makes visiting the place similar to eating diner at someone else's home. "Here is what we cooked today, pick something."

The restaurant does offer burgers, fish sandwiches and barbecue sandwiches each day along with whatever plate meals are being offered but I was in the mood for a soul food plate lunch the first time I visited. There were two vegetable options that day; green beans and turnips; so there was no choice involved there. For my main choice I was offered either pig feet or a beef roast. I'd had a beef roast cooked in my Crock Pot for dinner the night before so I decided to give the pig feet a try.

As much as I love pork I'd never had pig feet before. I wasn't particularly impressed. They have too much skin and connective tissue, and too slimy of a texture, for even my tastes. Keep in mind that I love eating pork rinds, neckbones and chitterlings but I am still saying that. The seasoning on them tasted good so I don't think the preparation was the problem. I think I've just finally found a part of the pig that I don't care for.   

The vegetables seemed a little bland when I first tasted them. When I asked about getting some hot green pepper sauce the young man working behind the counter told me they didn't haven any. Then an older man who ran the place offered me a bottle of his homemade vinegar pepper sauce. It was red and there weren't any peppers in the bottle but the stuff was great on the vegetables.

While I was eating I overheard the older man say he is thinking about offering breakfast in the mornings. The customer he was talking to said, "Oh, you can do breakfast too?" The man responded with shocked indignation, "Of course I can cook breakfast! I've been cooking for 60 years. How could I not know how to fix breakfast?"

The two men weren't there the next time I stopped in a couple weeks later. instead there were several women working behind the counter together. This time I ordered a barbecue sandwich with baked beans so I could sample something I knew I liked when done right. The meal only cost $5 and it featured a solidly good sandwich with a generous bowl of beans in a thick, satisfying sauce.

Unless they just want a sandwich I wouldn't recommend Heavenly Diner to anyone who is a picky eater since their choices will be limited. But I like seeing a place just cooking a couple of random good things from scratch each day. If you like genuine soul food and are willing to try most any food offered to you as long as the cook seems competent stopping by the little restaurant should be a rewarding experience.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Downtown's New Barbecue District - More Central

It is easy to find barbecue in Downtown Memphis. But most of what you find will be the pricey, mediocre, tourist-oriented fare available on Beale Street. That is why the Double J Smokehouse was such a welcome addition to the Downtown restaurant scene when it opened earlier this year on G.E. Patterson in the South Main District just south of Beale.

The Double J backs up to the parking lot of the National Civil Rights Museum, which is located in what used to be the Lorraine Motel. Local barbecue powerhouse Central BBQ recently threw its glove down in the world of Downtown Memphis barbecue by opening a new location directly across the museum's parking lot from the Double J.

Although I don't try to actually grade any of the barbecue places I visit I want to make sure that people understand that my reviews of places are always influenced by factors like price and expectations. I mention that because I have had people question me for being critical about Central BBQ for some past issues with inconsistency and underwhelming side items while I've showed a lot of love for the various Tops Bar-B-Q locations. I've occasionally had people ask, "How can you think Tops is better than Central?" I don't. I love Tops for what it is -- cheap, fast, available all around town, and always "good enough."

Central frequently wins awards for having the best barbecue in town. It's one of the pricier non-Beale Street barbecue joints in town and you can end up waiting in a pretty long line at the original location. I hold Central to a higher standard. That being said, when it comes dry pork ribs, which I consider the Holy Grail of Memphis barbecue, I have never had a serving from Central that wasn't outstanding.

When I stopped by the new Central location last Monday I ordered the pulled pork plate specifically because it has been more inconsistent in the past, making me curious how it would be at the new place. This time the meat had a perfect texture and juiciness to it. I had it topped with Central's hot barbecue sauce and it added an excellent extra kick to the meat. I usually visit the original Central Avenue location and that is where the occasional dry servings I have experienced over the years have come from. That location also deals in such massive volumes of pulled pork going through its relatively small kitchen that total consistency of quality would probably be nearly impossible on a day-to-day basis. 

While Central is known and praised for its smoked meat, the sides still seem like an afterthought. The slaw was bland but better than the ultra-dry renditions I've had from the other locations. The beans still just seemed like canned baked beans with a token serving of meat tossed on top of them. Neither was bad but I expect a little more effort from a restaurant that enjoys so much acclaim. 

I visited during the middle of a work day and only drank water but I noted the well-thought selection of quality draft beers I've come to expect at Central BBQ including local examples like Ghost River, which is brewed right down Main Street from the restaurant, and Yazoo from Nashville. I also saw a spacious front room with a big screen TV so the new location seems to be following in the Summer Avenue store's footsteps as a great place to catch a Memphis Tigers or Grizzlies game. Given its proximity to the FedExForum I'm sure it also enjoys plenty of fans grabbing pregame food and drinks before home games.

When it comes to atmosphere, my first visit to the neighboring Double J was during a Tigers game and I had a great time there. But during a recent visit to the Double J with my wife the food was still great but we were subjected to blaring top-40 country music being piped in over the radio. I don't know how regular of an occurrence that is, but people visiting Memphis shouldn't be subjected to the canned garbage currently being pumped out by Nashville. If the Double J wants some country music to go with its saloon theme it needs to spring for satellite radio so it can play something like the Outlaw Country station that features music from the days when Nashville still mattered to the music world on an artistic level. Meanwhile, while I was at Central on Monday I enjoyed hearing a nice mix of blues and soul music that seemed very appropriate for the restaurant's location and vibe.

So should you go to Double J or Central when you are in the neighborhood? Because barbecue involves large cuts of meat cooked for long periods of time some inconsistency is unavoidable. In my original post about Double J I said the pulled pork was perfect while the ribs were just a hair overcooked. On a recent visit with my wife I encountered the opposite; perfect ribs and slightly overcooked pulled pork. I can't tell you which of the two restaurants will have better barbecue on any given night, but even on a slightly off night I'm confident that either place will be better than any of the barbecue being served on Beale Street. If you are a serious barbecue fan staying Downtown for a couple days try to find time to sample both.

Central BBQ on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 12, 2012

Rebirth of Cars and Neighborhoods in Midtown

There are two major reasons why I have been updating this blog a lot less frequently lately. One is that after more than a year on my quest to try as many barbecue and soul food restaurants as possible it is getting increasing harder to find places I haven't been to yet. The other is that I have been getting deep into my project of bringing my '55 Ford sedan back to life.

My '55 at a car show before someone pulled out in front of it in traffic about a year and a half ago.

What started as a decision to fix the car myself has spiralled into a frame-off rebuild where I am using a different, more valuable, Fairlane body in place of my original base-model Mainline body. Last Saturday, before heading over to the Crosstown area to join in the celebration of plans for a dramatic rebirth of the commercial part of that neighborhood, I also reached a major milestone in the rebirth of the old Ford.

I finally pulled the stripped-down original body off the frame on Saturday. Just a little more work to go before this thing can finally start going back together. I want to reuse this frame since I have already done so much work updating and improving its suspension and drivetrain over the years. This is actually my third time redoing the car over the past 20 years, but this is the first time I've gone full frame-off.

On Saturday I also pulled the stripped-down body I am going to use off of its frame. Being a gearhead means having friends respond with a nervous, "Why?" when you ask, "Are you going to be busy this weekend?" With enough people pulling the bodies was quick work, especially compared to the months I spent getting them stripped down and ready for this.

Few things in life excite me more than seeing cool-looking old things being brought back to life. So it made for a perfect day when I finished getting the '55 bodies pulled in the early afternoon with plenty of time to head around the corner from my house to the old Crosstown Sears building where the MemFIX event was celebrating the aging commercial district's potential. This event came on the heals of the recent major announcement of plans for the reuse of the giant Sears building involving the Church Health Center, St. Jude, Le Bonheur and others.

The fall leaves around the building made it look even more impressive.

I was surprised by just how large the turnout of both vendors and spectators ended up being. All the vacant commercial buildings surrounding the old Sears tower where opened up too with temporary makeshift retail businesses and music venues occupying them.

Bike lanes had been added to the street similar to the ones used in the "guerilla renewal" of Broad Avenue.

There was a great assortment of bands playing at the event with one stage set up on the side of Sear building in addition to the indoor venues. As the sun went down the Dead Soldiers, one of the best recent additions to the city's music scene, closed down the outdoor stage. The band is a traditional country group made up of musicians from the local metal scene using a wide variety of traditional instruments. Their sound is extremely tight and there is a definite metal sentiment to a lot of the lyrics while the sound is pure real country. The shows are always fun for both the band and the audience. Check out their music here.

People who stuck around outside after the show where treated to a showing of The Princess Bride.

But my wife and I headed down the street to see an electrifying indoor performance by local nerdcore rapper Adam WarRock. Whoever booked all the music for the event did a great job of featuring a wide variety of artists that would appeal to anyone who enjoys good music.

If you aren't familiar with WarRock's work take a minute to listen to his rap anthem devoted to the Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation. Then go to his website to check out more of his work. And to download the Ron Swanson song since it will be completely stuck in your head anyway.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

New Place in an Old Space in West Memphis - Down South Burgers

I had been trying to revisit Willie Mae's Rib Haus on Broadway in West Memphis for several months but the place was closed down every time I'd drive by. I wasn't overly impressed with the ribs there on my first visit but I thought the restaurant showed enough promise that I didn't link my review of the place to Urbanspoon because I wanted to make a return trip to sample the pulled pork before forming my final opinion.

Last Monday I drove past and saw the the space was no longer Willie Mae's. It has been reborn as Down South Burgers and Rib Haus.

Along with burgers, barbecue and catfish the restaurant also serves breakfast in the morning.

The new restaurant already seems to be a hit with local residents. In my previous visit to Willie Mae's I was the only customer there. This time there were plenty of people eating burgers at tables and picking up carry-out burgers. And those burgers looked and smelled good enough that I was tempted to try a double instead of sampling the ribs. But I'm on a barbecue quest so I got a rib dinner. Down South doesn't have baked beans so I an order of onion rings to go with my barbecue and cole slaw.

Like when the place was called Willie Mae's that rib dinner came with just a third of a slab of ribs. But the dinner was less than $10 and the ribs had plenty of meat on them. The sauce was a definite improvement over the syrupy glaze my ribs had been drowning in during my Willie Mae's visit. The had a nice charred crust on them but were still tender and juicy.

The slaw was ultra-creamy, which isn't my personal preference at all. The onion rings were good and should make a great complement to one of the restaurant's double cheeseburgers that I will definitely be trying on my next visit based on the ones I saw other customers devouring. 

The building was cleaned up considerably before it reopened as Down South. There still isn't anything remotely fancy about it; it's just a simple place to pick up some honest Southern food. But from a business standpoint I can easily understand that a lot of potential customers see what I referred to as "the unfakeable, well-earned patina of a true survivor" in my Willie Mae's post as reason to dine elsewhere. A good scrubbing with some fresh paint; new counter and floors; and matching tables, chairs and table clothes definitely creates a more welcoming impression.

Down South Burgers and Rib Haus on Urbanspoon