I noticed about a year ago that all of the Mrs. Winner's Chicken and Biscuits restaurants in the Memphis area seemed to be going out of business. The last holdout I saw was the Brooks Road location, and it finally closed a few months ago. When the former Mrs. Winner's on Lamar at Knight Arnold reopened as a 24-hour breakfast, soul food and barbecue restaurant called Lil' Anthony's Cafe I decided I needed to try the new restaurant and check into the mystery of the disappearing Mrs. Winner's stores.
According to the Wikipedia entry on Mrs. Winner's, the chain had 113 locations throughout the south as of August 2007, but that number dwindled to 32 following a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in November of 2010. The company's website only shows seven locations, all in North Carolina, so things may have gotten even worse since the Wikipedia entry was last updated. I'm not sure what management problems lead to the company's financial problems, but I always thought their chicken was far better than fast food competitors like Church's and KFC. On the other hand, I can probably count the number of times in past five years that I've eaten fast food fried chicken on my fingers with digits to spare, so I guess my opinion wasn't worth much to the chain's bottom line.
I don't remember ever noticing Lil' Anthony's Cafe on Beale Street, but apparently that was the restaurant's home before it moved to the former Mrs. Winner's on Lamar a few months ago. The new signage made it impossible to miss. Lamar Avenue is the Memphis name for U.S. 78, a highway that travels from Downtown Memphis to Birmingham, AL. Since the road is a major route for semi-trailers I'm not sure how much of the restaurant's late-night business comes from locals and how much comes from out-of-town truck drivers.
The restaurant's walls are decorated with pictures of famous Memphis blues artists. It still has the order counter from its days as a fast food place for carry-out customers, but it also offers table service for dine-in customers and delivery for anyone within three miles.The menu didn't list a barbecue plate, but my waitress said I could get the sandwich special served as a plate with the bread and slaw separate from the meat and beans instead of fries.
As I waited on my food I noticed that most of the customers where ordering from the soul food menu, and everything looked good. If I go back, I'll definitely do the same. The pulled pork was full of tough, chewy fat. The sauce had a nice, bold vinegary flavor, but there was way to much of it. I was worried the meat was going to be swimming in sauce when I noticed on the bio included with the menu that the owner spent a lot of his childhood in Kansas City, MO. I've heard people refer to the dissapointing barbecue at Payne's as Kansas City-style as well. I've never been to Kansas City, but the barbecue that the place has inspired in Memphis seems to generally overuse sauce in an attempt to cover up tough, flavorless meat.
The mayonnaise-based slaw was bland and the beans tasted like they were straight from a can. But before I tasted my food I'd already asked my server for an extra side of turnip greens, which ended up being the best part of my meal once I hit them with the obligatory Bruce's Green Hot Pepper Sauce. Bruce's Green Hot Pepper sauce is made by Bruce Foods, the same company that makes Louisiana Hot Sauce, and both products should be available anywhere that claims to sell southern food.
I didn't see anyone eating breakfast, since it was the middle of the day, but as a fan of the movie CB4 I laughed when I saw biscuits and "big azz pancakes" on the menu. I also noticed that almost everyone in the restaurant who ordered a soul food plate named macaroni and cheese as one of their vegetable choices. And, as a final observation; shortly after I first arrived and sat down in the restaurant someone on staff turned on a stereo that played a couple cuts off of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. As several groups of additional white people arrived and were seated I noticed that the music was turned off and two flat panel TVs mounted in the dining area were tuned to the news. I think that someone must have decided that the album where Marvin got political might might be unnerving to the white folks. But any current news broadcast will ultimately present the same image of the world as Marvin's Vietnam-era work. If I'm going to be depressed either way, you might as well let me enjoy a good melody.