Monday, February 27, 2012

World Famous Fried Chicken - Gus's

Since today was an absolutely beautiful 70 degree day and I was working Downtown, at lunchtime I parked at the eastern edge of the Beale Street Historic District at Fourth and Beale for a leisurely four-block stroll to Front Street where Gus's Fried Chicken is located just a couple blocks south of Beale.

Seeing people enjoying the weather on various patios as I walked down Beale made me wish I could ditch work for the rest of the day. If you live in the Memphis area, make it a point to occasionally take off work on a weekday just to hang out Downtown while the sun is out and the crowds are gone. Sightsee, eat, drink, visit places like Sun Studio and the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art, and generally act like a tourist doing whatever interests you most at the moment. It's easy to take the city for granted if you never slow down and enjoy it on your own terms

So many restaurants throw around the "world famous" adjective that it can start to seem meaningless. But at Gus's I heard the couple next to me tell the server, in an accent I couldn't identify, that they were wanting to try an American beer with their meal. This caused me to ask and find out that they were visiting from Zimbabwe and had heard how great the chicken was at Gus's. So "world famous" is no exaggeration at the humble-looking little fried chicken joint.

The prices are cheap for place with so much renown. My three-piece dark meat plate was only $6.50 and a white meat plate is $8.15. It amazes me that our phobia of natural fat has gotten so bad in this country that people will pay extra money for drier, less flavorful meat. 

It's actually not as fattening as you might think. To keep it reasonable I didn't eat the white bread served with the plate and just drank water. Despite the batter and the sweet slaw an hour after eating my blood sugar was 137. It's not health food, but it isn't near as fattening as a lot of the grain-heavy junk that gets billed as health food by processed food pushers either.

Does Gus's serve the best restaurant fried chicken in the world? I don't know, but the only restaurant I've been to personally that could compete is Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans. Both restaurants got their names and secret recipes from now-deceased founding owners. At Willie Mae's the chicken has an extremely delicate, crispy crust that makes it a wonderful, crumbling mess to eat. And it is usually fittingly served with a side of red beans and rice. At Gus's a standard order of fried chicken comes, also fittingly, with the traditional barbecue restaurant sides of baked beans and cole slaw.

The slaw had an overly sweet taste to it and the beans seemed like plain old pork and beans from a can, but chicken it what draws people to Gus's from around the globe and it lives up to its reputation. It is fried in peanut oil while it has a much more substantial, chewy crust than the chicken at Willie Mae's, the skin isn't remotely tough and it still packs a satisfying crunch. Both restaurants have a great, subtly spicy kick to their batter that leaves you craving more after the bones have been picked clean. Which one is better? It's a waste of time to argue about it since the two places are 400 miles apart. They are definitely different, but in a way that makes "better" hard to qualify. Anyone who loves fried chicken should be in heaven at either place, and anyone who thinks that fried chicken isn't their thing should gain a new appreciation for it.

Of course, to really appreciate excellent fried chicken you have to experiment with cooking your own. I'm not sure what the secrets to the batter are at Gus's and Willie Mae's. I make some damn good fried chicken myself at home, and while the seasoning and crust taste great, the crust never has the uniform perfection of either restaurant's. I do like that Gus's uses peanut oil in place of the toxic, processed oils that are chemically extracted from the seeds of plants like corn, cotton, soy and canola. Peanut oil has about half of the heart-damaging polyunsaturated fats, which become trans fats when heated, as those oils. But when I fry chicken at home I use healthy, natural unhydrogenated pork lard, which only has a third of the polyunsaturated fat of the peanut oil.

Some of these got a little burnt on one side, but they still tasted great. With Gus's prices so affordable, it is hard to justify frying chicken at home in Memphis unless you just enjoy the hassle.

I soak my chicken pieces overnight in enough buttermilk to completely cover them (you can make buttermilk by adding a tablespoon of lemon juice per cup of regular milk to make it curdle).  After I drain them, I generously season them with a mix made from two tablespoons of kosher salt, two tablespoons of smoked paprika, two teaspoons of garlic powder and a teaspoon of cayenne pepper before dredging them in unbleached all-purpose flour. Then I fry them in pork lard in a cast iron dutch oven for 10 to 12 minutes per side. You can get the same results frying chicken in a cast iron skillet, but the higher sides on the dutch oven make things a lot less messy. While the resulting chicken is delicious, when all is said and done the kitchen is a wreck and I've spent more money than if I'd just gone to Gus's.

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

Ribs and Eggs - More Tops

I've blogged about the perfect double cheeseburgers from the Tops on Jackson near my house in the past. But that was before I started my sidequest of eating at every single Tops restaurant so I didn't include a photo of the restaurant. The corner of Jackson and Watkins has had a Tops there for decades, but the current building is also the newest one in the chain. The company recently bought the property behind the cramped, old Tops building that used to occupy the corner and built a larger, nicer store there before demolishing the original store to create more parking space.

I eat at the Jackson Avenue Tops more than any other barbecue restaurant in the city. It doesn't serve the best ribs in town, but for somewhere minutes from my house where I can grab a full slab for just $15.95 from a drive-through window, I frequently end up there when I get a hankering for some ribs.

And I frequently have a hankering for good ribs. In fact, I wanted some with my breakfast Saturday so I grabbed a full slab for my wife and I to share at home with some scrambled eggs. Pork and eggs have a wonderful history together. Bacon, sausage and country ham are all breakfast table staples. But don't forget to include ribs on your list of options for a healthy start to the day. Also, the hot barbecue sauce from Tops tastes great on eggs, and makes the egg and ribs combination seem even more natural.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Excellent Sauce - Arnold's

I've had some bad timing with new restaurants on my barbecue and soul food quest this week. I first tried to visit Arnold's Bar-B-Q on Monday. The restaurant sits in a shopping center on East Shelby Drive, just east of where the heavily industrial section of the road transitions into the suburban Riverdale neighborhood that separates Germantown, TN, and Olive Branch, MS. I arrived to find out that Arnold's is closed on Mondays. Luckily I spotted the nearby La Fogata Centro America Restaurant in the same shopping center, where I enjoyed a plate of beef tongue and spicy pork tacos.

On Wednesday I attempted to try Blocker's Soul Food on Winchester only to discover that they are only open for dinner on Wednesdays. That day I just drove a bit further down the street for a return trip to Ken Neely's Hickory Bar-B-Que where I knew I could get some good ribs based on prior experience. On Thursday I returned to Arnold's.

The restaurant recently moved into its current location from a store on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven that is now home to Pollard's Bar-B-Q. They were out of ribs so I got a pulled shoulder plate. The meat was good, solid Memphis average barbecue while the beans and slaw were both fairly standard fare. The excellent house-made sauce was the star of the show. It had a mix of natural herb flavors similar to Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q but spicier. I ordered it on the side but ended up pouring most of it onto my pork.

Arnold's is only six miles south of the Germantown Commisary, and fans of that restaurant should definitely head down to try the new face in town. While the little restaurant can't match the atmosphere and vibe that the Commissary gets from its cool historic building, I think it does make a better sauce.

Arnold's Bar Bq on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dependable Excellence in Midtown - Bar-B-Q Shop

I decided to try the Neely's Bar-B-Que Downtown on Jefferson last Thursday, but I had a bad feeling as soon as I noticed two large tour buses parked outside the restaurant's full parking lot. Sure enough, the place was slammed with a line of customers waiting to be seated. I didn't feel like waiting, and since this is Memphis there was no need to. I simply turned around and drove the 2.5 miles to the Bar-B-Q Shop on Madison where I was immediately seated.

I've been a huge fan of the Bar-B-Q Shop for years but I haven't been back since starting my barbecue quest. The restaurant is located in the heart of Midtown and combines a cozy atmosphere and extremely courteous and efficient table service with some of the best barbecue in the city. In fact, for traditional Memphis-style dry ribs I'd still put Bar-B-Q Shop in my current top three with Jack's and Leonard's. The paprika-based rub is so good I barely used any sauce, even though the house-made sauces at the Bar-B-Q Shop are outstanding. The hot is truly hot and even the mild has a nice kick to it. I've heard complaints about the overly-sweet glaze on the wet ribs, but since I prefer the dry rub that is traditional to Memphis ribs I wouldn't recommend them anyway. Besides tasting great, a good dry rub is generally far healthier than most wet sauces, which can be full of sugar. An hour after my meal at the Bar-B-Q Shop, which left me completely full, my blood sugar was only 109.

I didn't eat any of the Texas Toast that came with this order, but I used to love the Bar-B-Q Shop's pulled pork sandwich that is served on it back when I ate a lot more bread.

The prices can seem a little high, but my $16 order of ribs had a tremendous amount of meat on them. And they perfectly represent the texture great ribs are supposed to have. They don't "fall off the bone." They are tender, but still meaty and chewy. If the ribs don't seem like enough food for your money you can always spend a little more for the Bar-B-Q Shop Special that is guaranteed to make you feel like a swollen tick. For $23.95 the special brings you ribs, pork shoulder, beef brisket, barbecue spaghetti, baked beans, slaw and Texas Toast and it should leave even the most gluttonous diner in physical pain. Approach it with appropriate respect and fear. 

The beans and slaw at the Bar-B-Q Shop are also solidly good examples and my wife is a fan of their barbecue spaghetti. In fact, I've never had anything from the restaurant that didn't taste great.

Bar-B-Q Shop on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Neighborhood Dive Near Downtown Jackson - Mac's

Mac's Bar-B-Que is a hole-in-the-wall tucked away behind a barber shop, which is shares a restroom with, on Hollywood near Downtown Jackson, TN. Mac used to sell his barbecue out of a trailer at a location next to the current restaurant as well as at the nearby West Tennessee Farmer's Market where Ron's BBQ is currently set up.

Mac's restaurant is a small, one-man operation with just a few tables and some barstools at counters similar to Down South Bar-B-Que near Whitehaven in Memphis. It isn't a place to go if you are in a hurry, but Mac stays in constant motion in the open kitchen that looks residential enough to make you feel like you are visiting a friend who happens to be serving some barbecue.

The meat was moist but surprisingly lean. I didn't notice any fat in my serving. It had a strong smoke flavor as well as a more distinct pork taste, similar to a pork chop, than a lot of pulled pork I've sampled. While it may seem blindingly obvious to say that barbecue tasted like pork and wood smoke, those two flavors are muted in a surprising amount of pulled pork.

 Mac asked if I wanted more sauce, which was supposedly hot but still mild and sweeter than I prefer. When I told him I prefer to taste the meat he nodded and said, "Some people want it swimming in sauce." The portions were generous and cheap. The barbecue plate is only $6.60, and after eating all the meat and the tasty slaw, I only ate about half of the beans, which weren't bad but were nothing special. The menu also featured a wide variety of burgers, fried fish and other dishes you'd expect to see at a southern neighborhood diner.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Stateline Road - More Tops

The Tops Bar-B-Q on Stateline Road in Southaven, MS, is the first location I've visited located in a shopping center instead of a freestanding building. While it lacks the charm of some of the more distinctive stand-alone stores, the food is just as good. In fact, I think the slaw was the best I've had at a Tops. I've been told that the dressing for the slaw is made at a central warehouse, but the individual stores still determine how much dressing to use, which determines their slaw's consistency. It was perfect at the Stateline restaurant.

I've now eaten at seven of the 14 locations.

While I am a longtime fan of the Tops double cheeseburger, I just recently discovered how good the ribs are. They are also some of the most filling in town with an abundance of smokey meat and a dry rub that is so good I barely used any of the hot barbecue sauce that I had on the side. In fact, while I use the pulled pork at Tops as my standard for "Memphis average," I'm starting to realize that the chain's ribs stand up against some of the best in Memphis outside of a few heavy-hitter like Leonard's and Jack's.

And they aren't just short-term filling either. An hour after eating a half-slab with beans, slaw and water my blood sugar was only 103, which is why I felt contentedly full for the rest of the afternoon as my body burned all the healthy pork fat as fuel. It is the exact opposite of high-calorie, carb-heavy meals like pancakes, dressing, pasta, etc., that can leave you feeling sickly full immediately after a meal yet hungry again after just a few hours because they signal your body to store everything as fat, then cause you to get hungry during the blood sugar crash that follows.

Tops Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Frayser is Memphis - More Tops

Today I continued working my way through my sidequest of eating at every Tops Bar-B-Q  location with a double cheeseburger at the Frayser Boulevard location in Frayser. I’ve now been to six of the 14 locations.

The burger was everything I expect from a Tops double cheeseburger. In fact, I think that the burgers always seem a little better at older Tops locations thanks to decades worth of grease and seasoning soaking into the grills. Almost every customer who came in while I was there ordered a burger. I only saw a couple of people get barbecue combos. I was curious to see what impact the jumbo hamburger bun would have on my blood sugar and was unhappy but not really surprised to see that it was 149 an hour after my meal. It did drop to a healthy 105 after another 30 minutes and was at 99 after two hours, so all that wonderfully fatty meat did seem to blunt the effects some. The unhealthy effects would definitely be intensified with a single patty burger or, even worse, adding fries and/or a soft drink to the meal.

Frayser is a working class neighborhood that was once a suburb of Memphis. It is north of what people normally refer to as North Memphis, much like Whitehaven is south of what people refer to as South Memphis, since references for older sections of the city stuck around after later annexations made them confusing. The Wolf River divides Frayser from North Memphis, and the area around the river is home to more lakes than anywhere else in the Memphis area. It is amazing to drive through the southern parts of Frayser and realize how many well-kept lakefront homes are there, often selling for shockingly cheap prices due to the blight, crime and rampant teen pregnancy rates that people associate with area.

There was a period where the Midtown section of Memphis was being promoted with “Midtown is Memphis” bumper stickers. I love living in Midtown with its well-cared-for historic homes; great selection of restaurants, music venues and bars; and landmarks like the Memphis Zoo and  Brooks Museum of Art in Overton Park. But in reality Midtown is not representative of Memphis. On average the homes are older and the residents are more educated and affluent than is typical for the Midsouth.

And while Midtown has a diverse population, so does Frayser. But Frayser is a former small, country town that was annexed by the city. It has suffered economically from the closing of nearby industry like the former International Harvester and Firestone plants coupled with white flight and the ravages of our country’s devastatingly inane “war on drugs.”

Yo Gotti grew up less than two miles south of the Frayser Boulevard Tops location in the Ridgecrest Apartments complex, which sits in front of Sky Lake. So I’ll let him explain what the drug war has meant to the local community.

Frayser is openly mocked by people from other areas as a violent warzone, but if you visit you will mostly see people of various races getting along and going about their business. It’s most impoverished citizens are struggling to get by while the rest of society wishes they could be swept under the rug. Generations of poverty, teen pregnancy and fallout from the drug war have created failing schools that keep the cycle perpetuating. Midtown isn’t Memphis. Frayser is. It’s problems are the problems that we; as the Midsouth, not just the city of Memphis, have to confront.

NOTE: While driving through Frayser today I passed by a trailer park that was abandoned and condemned following the Mississippi River flood of 2011. The pictures I took represent some of the blight that, combined with pollution left behind by long-gone industry, can make Frayser seem so hopeless. I’m not sure why I’m so fascinated with photographing blight, from the city to the suburbs.

Tops Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

The Barbecue Food Truck - Scooter's

The Memphis City Council recently passed an ordinance allowing food trucks to roam the city beyond the festivals and special events they'd previously been confined to. Yesterday I noticed the Scooter's Bar-B-Que truck parked at Winchester and Riverdale in Hickory Hill on way home from work, so I decided to grab some food truck que for dinner.

The truck was piping out barbecue smoke from a little vent on its side and Prince tunes from a flat panel TV hooked to a stereo in the back of it that were playing concert footage. The operator of the truck was standing beside it enthusiastically singing and dancing along with the music, which he continued to do while he put together my order of two pulled pork plates and a half-slab of dry ribs.

 The words "authentic Memphis Que" are guaranteed to grab my attention.

I was glad to see a real, metal barbecue pit inside the truck that was responsible for the appetizing smoke drifting from the vent. The sign on the menu board said Scooter's has been serving mobile barbecue since 1992 and the truck has been a longtime familiar site at local events like Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival

The pulled pork was overwhelmed by the overuse of sauce. The sauce wasn't bad, there was just way too much of it, making it impossible to judge the flavor of the actual meat. The coleslaw was creamier than I prefer but had a nice vinegar bite while the beans seemed like standard canned goods. The ribs were definitely the best part of the meal with an excellent dry rub and plenty of juicy meat that was bright pink from absorbing smoke flavor hiding beneath a deliciously charred exterior. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Arkansas Hog - Roadside

I was at a Super Bowl party last night where one of the ladies in attendance told me about a barbecue restaurant just west of West Memphis, AR, that I needed to try. She couldn't remember the name, but she provided some vague directions that seemed good enough for me to give it a try. What I found was Roadside Bar-B-Que, located just south of I-40 on U.S. 147.

The restaurant, painted in the University of Arkansas's school colors, is owned by the parents of former Razorback tailback De'Arrius Howard. Inside there are pictures of Howard from his college days on the walls, which have also been covered with scribbled messages from past visitors. The building is basically a shack that has been added on to the front of an old trailer. The walls also had clippings of glowing reviews of the ribs from The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis so I ordered the half-slab rib plate with beans and slaw.

 The seasoning on the  ribs tasted great. The meat had a lot of flavor, even though I couldn't taste any smoke or see any evidence of a smoke line. I got some of Roadside's hot barbecue sauce served on the side, but used very little of it. The sauce had a really good flavor, but the meat was good enough to stand on its own. So where did all that flavor come from if it wasn't from smoke? I'll come back to that later. I was surprised when one of my rib bones broke in half while I was biting meat off of it. After savoring some of the marrow from the bone I decided to see how hard it would be to break another one. All the bones snapped open with shocking ease, which quickly reduced me to a caveman-like state digging marrow out of broken bones with my plastic fork. 

The slaw was good, with a nice touch of mustard in it. I thought the sauce for the baked beans was too sweet, but the ribs and slaw were good enough to make the beans an afterthought. The staff was laid-back yet friendly while the restaurant itself is comically dilapidated. Everything in it seems to be falling apart, especially if you venture into the restrooms. 

 In the South there is a widely-held belief that all handmade signs should include an apostrophe S, regardless of whether or not it makes any grammatical sense.

Despite the plunger message on the door, the toilet seemed to operate fine. But its seat was completely detached from the bowl, so I had to take it off and set it on the floor. If you are looking to experience a ramshackle rural southern barbecue joint, this is your place.

This is the view when you step out the front door.

Roadside was the first barbecue place I'd been to since I started playing with my new blood glucose meter and I was shocked to see a blood sugar reading of 134 an hour after my meal since I mostly ate my ribs dry, just drank water and didn't touch the large bun that was served with the meal. Then I started thinking about those strangely soft rib bones and started looking at some barbecue recipes online. It turns out that a lot of places either boil or marinate their ribs in Coke or some other soda to tenderize the meat and infuse it with flavor. Keep in mind that Pepsi recently admitted its soft drinks will dissolve a mouse and suddenly soaking in soda seems like a plausible explanation for the the easily broken rib bones, the strangely intense yet nonsmokey flavor, and the curious rise in blood sugar I got from eating bone marrow and rib meat.

Roadside BBQ on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Celebration of the Pig - Cochon 555

Last night five top chefs from around the country gathered in Memphis to pay tribute to the magical animal that is the reason for my blog's existence. The Cochon 555 tour pairs each chef with a different breed of heritage pig from a different small, sustainable farm. It was a huge honor for Memphis to be recognized for its culinary contribution to pork-based cuisine by being selected as one of this year's ten host cities. Rather than waste much more time with words, I'll mostly let the pictures tell the story of this epic pork feast.

The five chefs each had the kitchen staffs from their restaurants working at a frantic pace to keep the food moving to the roughly 500 people in attendance.

The first stop was chef Kevin Nashan of the Sidney Street Cafe in St. Louis who was using a Swabian Hall pig from Rustic Rooster Farms. The pig is a German-created cross between a Russian wild boar and the ultra-fatty Chinese Meishan pig.

 These delectable little pork tacos were the highlight of Nashan's offerings.
Chef Kelly English of Restaurant Iris in Memphis represented his city with a nod to the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team, which has made "heart, grit and grind" a catchphrase for the city with their style of play. He used a Tamworth pig from Old Thyme Farm. The large-bellied breed is known as the "bacon hog."

English ended up winning the event, which means he will progress to the final Grand Cochon contest in Aspen.

Chef Lee Richardson of Ashley's at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, AR, had a sign displaying exactly how his menu divvied up his Old Spot pig from Freckle Face Farm.

 Delicious hog head mortadella. This wasn't an event for vegetarians. 

 The mortadella was served next to little boxes that said "Praise the lard."

 Inside the box was a glorious little chocolate truffle filled with smoked pork lard.

Chef Chris Hastings of the Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, AL, used a Mulefoot pig from Sequatchie Cove Farm. This piece of pork belly on sauerkraut was a simple creation but one of the most satisfyingly flavorful things I ate all night.

It isn't a feast without a cheese spread. We stopped to sample some outstanding cheeses and small-batch bourbons before braving the long line for our final tasting station.

Chefs Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis used a Berkshire pig from Newman Farm.

It's hard to do it justice with a photograph, but the piece of liverwurst at the bottom of the plate was fantastic. 

Pork lard gelato. Just combing the three words makes my mouth water. I ate it with a spoon and tossed the cone, which wasn't worthy of being paired with such a magnificent creation.

With an event shirt like this, I know it's my kind of party. Oh, and I used my new glucose meter to check my blood sugar an hour after this pork-fueled gluttony and the beer and whiskey that accompanied it. It was only 127. Never underestimate the health benefits of pork lard.