Sunday, April 29, 2012

Common Sense and the Myth of 'Artery-Clogging Saturated Fat'

Organic real butter and pork lard are both staples in my kitchen. But I also do a lot of cooking, particularly scrambling my morning eggs, with coconut oil.

Organic coconut oil is a healthy, delicious real food that is made almost entirely of saturated fat. One tablespoon gets its entire 120 calories from fat. Of those 14 grams of fat, 12 are saturated.

One serving has "60 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance" for saturated fat. Most people assume that the USDA's Recommended Daily Allowances are based on some type of clinical research. In actuality, they are pretty much pulled out of thin air based on the agency's goal of selling agricultural products. That is why you are told to eat six to 11 servings of grain per day, which will probably give you type 2 diabetes.

That saturated fat is what causes professional busy bodies like the Center for Science in the Public Interest to freak out over the coconut oil in products like movie theater popcorn. Part of the problem is that people still cling to the myth that fat in your diet becomes fat on your body, despite the fact that fat storage is primarily regulated by hormones. The other persistent myth is that saturated fat will clog your arteries and kill you because it is solid at "room temperature." Ironically, people making this claim will often point to solid fats like Crisco and margarine that are actually full of hydrogenated vegetable oils as evidence that natural saturated fat is bad for you. 

This coconut oil was certainly solid when I took it out of the pantry,

Since I've been avoiding vegetable oils and eating a lot of natural saturated fat I've seen a dramatic improvement in my cholesterol ratios. The idea that fat will travel directly from your digestive system to your arteries where it will sit around and clog them up is based on a very dumbed-down view of how the body operates. And even if it was that simple, it would still defy common sense.

The temperature this afternoon was in the high 80s; about 10 degrees cooler than inside a human being's arteries. So I left a jar of coconut oil sitting on my back patio for a couple hours. It might have been solid at the "room temperature" in my pantry, but the high 80s was enough heat to make it totally liquid. Meanwhile, the day that the blood in your body reaches a "room temperature" in the 70s is the day that you will never again worry about what to eat anyway.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Price of Sprawl - Germantown Parkway Corky's

The Corky's on Germantown Parkway seemed like the most fitting place for me to eat Wednesday night after I spent several hours hearing the true costs of suburban growth laid out in depressing detail during a presentation at the nearby Ducks Unlimited building next to the Agricenter, which are ironically located near one of the worst stretches of suburban sprawl in the Mid-south.

I can't blame businesses like Corky's for locating in areas with plenty of nearby customers. The pulled pork, beans and slaw I had at the Germantown Parkway Corky's could be offered up as the very definition of Memphis average in the most positive sense of the term. When the nearest competition is the the Jim 'N Nick's chain's Wolfchase store, appreciative customers are going to flock to a place offering good Memphis barbecue as an alternative.

On top of offering up good barbecue, I discovered on a recent visit to the Poplar Avenue Corky's that the company has Abita brew a Corky's-branded beer designed to go with its barbecue that is only offered in the restaurants. After the presentation I'd heard by Chuck Marohn, the executive director of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Strong Towns, I felt like I needed to reflect on all the information I'd just absorbed over a cold beer and a plate of barbecue.

The people at Abita did a great job with this beer. It really is a perfect match for the Corky's barbecue.

From a business's perspective opening a store somewhere like Germantown Parkway that has a large customer base ready and waiting makes perfect sense. The problem for local governments is that they are responsible for the infrastructure needs of new homes and businesses. And while new development seems like a great way to increase tax revenues Marohn works to help government leaders see the unaffordable financial obligations they are making when they decide to subsidize outward growth.

As I visit restaurants throughout the Mid-south I spend a lot of time noting the life cycles neighborhoods go through as suburban sprawl almost inevitably transitions into blight. A new suburb can create the illusion of prosperity but most new development over the past several decades has been funded by a foolhardy mix of public and private debt. For municipal governments a big new development is like a leased luxury car. It may look like a symbol of wealth at first glance but it is actually a giant liability.  

In a post about a barbecue joint on Goodman Road in Southaven, MS, I discussed the hidden, unsustainable cost of sprawl that turns it into a net drain on tax revenues. I've spent years traveling throughout the neighborhoods of the Mid-South, and it is obvious that our pattern of growth is devastatingly wasteful. I said that the simple truth most communities fail to recognize is that the average multi-child family moving into a newly constructed subdivision will end up costing more in municipal tax revenue than they will ever pay in.

As a civil engineer and urban planner Marohn was able to lay out the numbers for just how true that statement is. Even more shocking was the extent to which overaggressive growth creates a system where even shopping centers and industrial parks fail to pay for their own infrastructure requirements. The Strong Towns website includes a fascinating PDF file full of real world examples of the negative return on investment new developments can generate. It's a long document but Marohn joked that, "We wrote it for public officials, so the fonts are big and the words are simple."  
The knee-jerk response of many people around here is to blame blight on "inefficient Memphis government." But that doesn't explain the blight that is starting to appear on Stateline Road in Southaven, MS, or that already dominates Broadway in West Memphis, AR, and the abandoned Mall in Lakeland.

Interestingly Marohn mentioned that while several of the places he has visited in states like California, Texas and Florida initially seemed a lot better than Memphis on paper, they ultimately left him feeling, "bad about them and myself." Meanwhile, spending a few days in Memphis left him, "pleasantly surprised by how great of a place it is."

In a blog post about his visit he elaborated by explaining that, "this city has a strong core, great bones, a rich history and -- to a person that I have met -- a tremendous inner spirit." Meanwhile, many of the more affluent cities he visited are now suffering from a severe "growth hangover." They went on massive building sprees during the recent economic bubble and dedicated themselves to an unsustainable development model that requires a constant increase in new growth to cover the upkeep costs created by previous growth. As Marohn noted, that is the very definition of a Ponzi scheme and many of the municipalities that benefited the most from it still refuse to accept the fact that the economy of seven years ago isn't going to come roaring back and bail everyone out.

"There is a narrative that we are in a cyclical downturn," he said. "We are in a whole new economic era. We can't go back to 2005 any more than we can go back to 1950."

The concept that the post-World War II suburban experiment is really just a failed Ponzi scheme was a major theme of Marohn's presentation. Suburban sprawl only seems natural to most Americans because it has been spreading here for over 60 years. He said the the average development has about a 25 year life cycle before major maintenance, to both buildings and infrastructure, becomes necessary.

Our suburban experiment started around 1950, when we started a 25 year growth cycle with very little debt and massive amounts of entirely new construction that paid off significantly in increased productivity. That cycle ended around the mid-1970s, around the same time, Marohn said, that growth in private debt began to outstrip growth in government debt as we shifted, "from a layaway economy to a credit economy."

While that first cycle was primarily funded by savings and investment the newly established pattern of development wasn't generating enough wealth to sustain itself so the second cycle was funded by debt. By the year 2000, Marohn said, debt had "become so important that in the third cycle we allowed it to become predatory." In fact when compared to historical ratios between wages and home prices, between 2000 and the start of the real estate downturn, housing prices reached a level that was 214 percent of what history says wages can support.

While the media has been focusing on foreclosures and the declining values of residential homes, combined with the huge drop in new housing starts, Marohn suggested that the commercial real estate market could be in for an even uglier correction. Between 1999 and 2005 consumer spending grew 14 percent while per capita retail space expanded by 100 percent. We now have six times the retail space of any European country. Marohn didn't mention it but I couldn't help but note that this dramatic increase has occurred at the same time that Internet retailers have been steadily putting brick and mortar stores out of business. He did note that vacant retail space has increased by 42 percent since 2006. 

Anyone who has driven down Winchester in Hickory Hill knows that vacant retail space is a major eyesore that severely depresses surrounding property values in a seemingly self-perpetuating cycle. What really keeps the cycle perpetuating is the new growth government money subsidizes further out in the suburbs, actively destroying the value of previous infrastructure investments.

The growth in suburban sprawl over the last several decades has finally reached a tipping point where that outward growth is beginning to slow and stop, Marohn said. There is too much debt, in both at the government and private sector, for the wild spending to continue. The PDF file I linked earlier in this post details how bleak the finances look for the traditional funding sources for suburban growth. Our cities' future development patterns can't continue along their same path. Their futures will depend on their leaders' abilities to adapt to the reality staring them in the face.

Despite the depressing numbers "Memphis has a chance to be prosperous in the new economy," Marohn said during the presentation, which was hosted by the Memphis Urban Land Institute, Livable Memphis and the Memphis Regional Design Center.

When it came time to talk about solutions he laughingly pointed out that someone asking for a "solution" actually wants to know, "What can someone else change so that I don't have to change what I am doing?" By that standard, "there is no solution; only rational and irrational responses."

At this point he was interrupted by an angry libertarian in the audience who proclaimed that he didn't need to live in a city when he could just live on a large ranch in the country and build his own roads far cheaper than the government could. I have strong libertarian leanings on a lot of issues but I found it interesting that the man in the audience was basically illustrating why pure libertarianism, when taken to extremes, can't meet the needs of a modern society.

While the obvious first step in changing direction is to have the government stop subsidizing self-destructive growth; there are still existing roads, sewers and bridges that have to be maintained. From suburban sprawl to soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup, most of the really bad ideas inflicted on our society are directly fueled by government subsidies. But to really have smaller government we have to demand more efficient and locally-guided government. Size and bureaucracy don't just breed inept incompetence in government, as anyone who has flown Delta Airlines or used Comcast for cable TV service can attest to. The answer isn't to have a nation where the ultra-rich blow their fortunes trying to insulate themselves from a world that is falling apart around them. That's the nightmare world the Dead Kennedys envisioned in Moon Over Marin.

If you just came here to read about Corky's barbecue you are probably wondering how this post got so far off the rails at this point.

The average person isn't going to be ready to grab their wallet and chip in when the overpass on the way to their house needs $3 million in maintenance. Unfortunately the average municipal government isn't ready for it either, and the Federal Highway Trust Fund that disperses fuel tax revenues to local governments is already insolvent from trying to meet our highway system's current needs.

So after we stop subsidizing unsustainable growth, Marohn said the next step is to take stock of the spending needed just to maintain what we have. That is the only way we can start triage on our cities to determine where spending can generate the most return on investment.

He used the recent turn around of Broad Avenue, where a fifty percent increase in property values followed a low-buck repainting of the streets to take them from four lanes to two with street parking and bike lanes added in.

Photo from one of the recent Broad Avenue art walks, where the crowds made it hard to to navigate the sidewalks of the once-desolate strip. The newly-opened Jack Magoo's Sports Bar invited me and several fellow gearheads to bring our cars out to the event. As someone who loves old cars I found it interesting when Marohn noted that the first cycle of suburban expansion lasted from roughly 1950 until 1975. In other words, a period where automobiles went through a huge series of innovations right up until they point where they went to crap.

Another example was the new Greater Memphis Greenline. Projects like this can generate a huge return in property values compare to their relatively low cost. Especially when compared to flashy, high-dollar schemes like spending $65 million to build a Pyramid Arena Downtown. Then, when the pyramid is mothballed after just 13 years with millions of dollars still owed on its construction cost, promising to spend an additional $30 millions in subsidies to try to lure Bass Pro Shops into converting the Pyramid into a giant store. 

Politicians are drawn to big flashy scheme, since a politician loves nothing else in life more than throwing a big press conference to announce doing something, even if that something eventually does more harm than good. And we have been locked into our current pattern of development for so long that the Federal government systematically pushes money towards "big" ideas.

It's frighteningly easy to get a giant pile of money from Washington to do something really expensive and stupid. No one pays any attention to really smart ideas that don't involve a lot of money changing hands. The only thing central planning seems to actually do well is spread and institutionalize ideas so bad that they can only survive when shielded from common sense.

At least the Bass Pro idea involves an existing structure with plans to revitalize the surrounding historic neighborhood, as opposed to an entirely new development. But it is still an example of what Marohn referred to as economic hunting, where community leaders try to use incentives to lure outside businesses. He said this creates "transactions of decline," as communities compete over who can drive wages the lowest while offering the most subsidies.

We witnessed this recently in Memphis as the city offered huge incentives to keep Pinnacle Airlines, which is currently going through bankruptcy, here when our suburb of Olive Branch, MS, tried to lure them away. Olive Branch has been steadily attempting to poach businesses away from Memphis in recent years to meet the unfunded demands of its recent growth surge. It offered to build a major development for Pinnacle if it relocated there. This parasitic leaching by a suburb in another state is obviously bad for Memphis. But Marohn had the numbers to illustrate why, if successful, it would have also been a terrible deal for Olive Branch's tax payers.

We have turned city halls into, "machines set up to attract and build commercial property," he said. But once new infrastructure is developed, "the catch is that the public agrees to maintain the improvement forever." 

Instead of economic hunting Marohn said cities need to engage in economic gardening. Work with existing businesses and instead of trying to bag a new company that will employ 50 people, try to find cheap but effective ways to let 50 businesses each add one person.  

Cities often fail to recognize the value of the businesses they already have. Marohn gave the example of large Wal-Mart that was constructed in the outskirts of Asheville, NC, with plenty of development help from the city compared to a small mixed use development in the city's Downtown where all the costs were covered by the owner.

The Wal-Mart ended up covering 34 acres while the Downtown property covered 0.2. When their economic impact was averaged out per acre, the Wal-Mart was paying $6,500 per acre in property taxes and  $47,500 per acre in retail tax, had zero residents and just 5.9 jobs per acre. The Downtown property paid $634,000 per acre in property taxes, $83,600 per acre in retail taxes, housed 90 residents per acre and provided 73.7 jobs per acre. The city would have done far better to promote more of the Downtown developments instead of the one Wal-Mart.
He also provided examples from Minnesota where, because of their density, aging urban commercial strips; even when blighted and filled with pawn shops, liquor stores and check cashing places; were paying greatly more in property taxes than newly developed and heavily subsidized low-density commercial property on the same size lots on the same street. For far less money than that city put into heavy redevelopment it could have provided incentives to improve existing properties and make them even more valuable.

A big part of the problem is one-size-fits-all Federal, state and local guidelines. Marohn stressed the need for systems to devolve to more local control. Instead of having large, separate departments overseeing parks, roads, buildings, etc., have separate teams that address the overall needs of East Memphis, South Memphis, etc., since the challenges and needs of different areas can vary so greatly. It is always more cost effective to find effective reuse for things that already exist geared towards the actual needs and wants of the community.

Marohn spent several days here and met with a lot of public officials, including the mayor, so hopefully his ideas made an impact on other people the way they did me. We have been doing things wrong for so long, not just here but across the nation, that cleaning up the mess is going to involve some painful decisions. And it is going to require that people in the Mid-south realize how tied together we are. The idea that suburbs in Fayette County, TN, or DeSoto County, MS, can continually grow at Memphis's expense is as suicidal to them as it is destructive to the city.

Corky's Bar-B-Q (Cordova) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Worth the Price - Memphis Barbecue Company

I was a little skeptical pulling up to the Memphis Barbecue Company on Monday. The large restaurant sits in between an Applebee's and a Cracker Barrel on Goodman Road* next to I-55 in Horn Lake, MS. But while the competition around it is a testament to the depressing mediocrity that comes from large chains using bulk-purchased and prepared food as a commodity, the Memphis Barbecue Company is an oasis of quality and locally-owned attention to detail.

I could smell the wonderful barbecue aroma as soon as I stepped out onto the parking lot where there were a couple men unloading a large trailer of wood next to a giant commercial barbecue pit. My server inside later told me that the pit can cook 200 butts at the same time, so the owners have obviously been willing to invest the money necessary to produce the volume of slowly smoked pork is takes to feed such a large restaurant without cutting corners.

It threw me off for a second when I first entered the building and the hostess asked me if I wanted smoking or non. Tennessee has limited smoking to 21-and-up establishments for years now, and since DeSoto County, MS, is a suburb of Memphis it is easy to forget it is in another state with its on separate laws. Once I was seated in the nonsmoking section an extremely friendly server took my drink order and gave me a menu. When he came back with my ice water he also had an order of hot, freshly made pork rinds dusted with dry rub barbecue seasoning.

The pork rinds are a standard free starter at Memphis Barbecue Company, similar but vastly superior to the rolls that are common at other restaurants. I love pork rinds and I love dry rub, so I didn't waste any time tearing into them. I tried splashing them with a little of the regular barbecue sauce that was on the table and the result was great. Then I tried them with the flavor-packed hot barbecue sauce and it was even better. When my server came back to take my food order he saw me enjoying the pork rinds and started to suggest trying them with the spicy sauce before laughing when he realized that was already exactly what I was doing.

I ordered the half-slab rib dinner with beans and slaw. The ribs are offered wet or dry in both loin (baby back) rib and spare (St. Louis) rib cuts. Since the restaurant boasts about its amazing food and world champion pitmaster owners I decided to put them to the test with the leaner loin ribs. At $15.99, the price tag for a half-slab dinner certainly indicated that they were proud of their food.

The ribs had a coating of dry rub, but it wasn't the heavy dusting you see at places like the Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown. Instead, there was just enough rub to mix with the rendered fat that seeped out of the meat while I was eating to create a sauce-like coating that was literally finger-licking good. As much as I enjoyed the hot barbecue sauce on my pork rinds, I thought that the ribs were better without it. The outer smoke line on them was a dark red color that faded to pink towards the interior of the meat. As good as the sauce was, it was an unnecessary distraction from the wonderfully complex flavor of the ribs in their natural state.

The beans and slaw were both solidly better than average compared to other barbecue places around town, although neither stood out as truly amazing. I usually avoid bread on my barbecue quest but I did nibble a few small bites of the cornbread that came with my dinner to verify that it was as good as it looked. I don't find it hard to pass on bread made from ordinary wheat flour, but I was a straight-up cornbread junkie in my heavier days and a good-looking sample will still temptingly beckon to me.

After tax and tip I ended up paying $21 for my meal at the Memphis Barbecue Company, which is pretty steep for a lunch stop. But for someone looking to enjoy great traditional Memphis dry rub ribs, I'd put it alongside the Bar-B-Q Shop, Leonard's, Jack's Bar-B-Q Rib Shack, and the newly-opened Double J Smokehouse in my current, totally unofficial and subject to change, in no particular order, top five**.

* There is a traffic light to help you get out of the Memphis Barbecue Company parking lot. I digressed into a long-winded rant about Goodman Road and its traffic in my post about Boss Hog B-B-Q. There was a report in the Sunday Commercial Appeal that the city of Memphis is bringing in a planning expert to tell them many of the same things I said in that blog post. Hopefully I can make it to his public presentation tomorrow evening to hear him speak in more detail. I am fascinated by the way cities, particularly mine, change over time. That's why this blog is frequently a discussion of the city disguised as a food blog. [UPDATE: I attended the presentation and wrote an outrageously long post about it here]

** I haven't posted about the Rendezvous yet, but keep in mind they aren't traditional Memphis ribs. They are a Greek take on traditional Memphis ribs. I have a lot less experience with the wet ribs around Memphis, since I order dry whenever I have the option, but if you do prefer wet, the ones at Cozy Corner would be hard to beat. Just don't ask them for hot unless you mean it.

Memphis BBQ Company on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 23, 2012

Hot Tamales from a Trailer on Jackson Avenue

On my way home from work Friday I noticed an old trailer at the corner of Jackson and Wales with a sign in the window touting hot tamales. I'd already had a Tops double cheeseburger for lunch but the tamales were only a dollar apiece so I went ahead and picked up two so my wife and I could each try one as an afternoon snack. The masa in the tamales combined with the bun from my burgers to total a lot more grain than I'd normally be willing to eat in a day, but I don't let the occasional indulgence bother me. The health problems caused by eating processed junk like grains, sugars, vegetable oils and soy are chronic not acute, meaning it is the regular, repeated doses that most Americans get that are making people so sick and overweight yet malnourished.

The man who sold me the tamales said he is usually there on the weekends, which must mean that he counts Friday afternoon as part of the weekend. His menu board next to the door of the trailer said he also offered a pork shoulder plate, so I'll have to make a lunchtime visit to try one.

The neighborhood around Jackson Avenue just south of I-240 where the trailer was parked is almost entirely Hispanic and even most of the stores have their signs in Spanish so when I first saw the trailer I was expecting Mexican tamales. But when I saw that both the men working the trailer were black I assumed that I was going to be getting spicy Delta-style tamales wrapped in wax paper instead of corn husks. I'm a fan of either tamale style as long as they are well seasoned, so either was okay with me.

When I got home an unwrapped them I saw that they were the Delta-style in wax paper. They had a good flavor and a nice spicy undercurrent to them without being overly hot and the filling struck the right balance of not too dry, not too greasy. I haven't tried enough tamales around town to really compare them to others, but for the $2 I spent these didn't disappoint me.

Barbecue By Bass Pro Shops - More Tops

I'm counting the Tops Bar-B-Q on Macon as number 11 of 14 as I work my way through all the stores, even though there is a very good chance that I've eaten there in the past. When I was growing up in Raleigh the shopping center behind the Tops restaurant was home to the nearest Wal-Mart store to our house, so I probably ate there with my parents at some point. But I needed to be certain I'd eaten there to cross it off the list.

The Wal-Mart closed sometime around the late 80s/early 90s when a bigger, newer store was constructed at Covington Pike and Austin Peay, followed a few years later by another store on Stage Road in the Wolfchase area. Losing the Wal-Mart was a devastating blow to the shopping center until years later when Bass Pro Shops moved into the space, bringing back a large portion of the lost traffic with it. The arrival of Bass Pro Shops had to provide a boost in business for the Macon Road Tops, since there is an obvious demographic crossover between guys who shop at Bass Pro Shops and guys who appreciate a perfect double cheeseburger.   

There is an old-fashioned hardware store next door to Bass Pro Shops, so a man can easily work up quite a hunger before he gets to the end of his shopping list.

I was already at Bass Pro Shops on Friday, since I needed to replace the worn-out boat seat that I use with the desk in my work vehicle (I realize this statement makes absolutely no sense to anyone who is unfamiliar with my job). So I stopped for a Tops double cheeseburger on my way out of the parking lot.

You can see half of a Wendy's sign behind the top right corner of the Tops building in this picture. Some people don't know any better and buy their burgers from the fast food place.

The Tops building on Macon was obviously a little diner before it became a barbecue joint. A barbecue pit was added to the back of the building during the conversion, but it still has the diner-style open kitchen where you can see how the burgers are put together on the big stainless griddle.

On top of using freshly ground beef from Charlie's Meat Market on Summer Avenue, one of the big secrets to the Tops burger taste is the way the buns are toasted on the griddle, after the salt and pepper-seasoned beef patty is added to one half and the veggie toppings are added to the other. This melds all the flavors together and soaks one of the bun halves with delicious grease before the whole glorious concoction is joined together and secured into a wax paper sleeve with a toothpick holding it together.

If you are a Tops burger fan, just seeing this wrapper is enough to make you hungry.

To me, part of the Tops charm comes from the Tops ladies. These women are all business and they expect you to know what you want to order when you step to the register. They may be white, they may be black. They may look 20, they may look 70. They aren't there to be your friend. They are there to get consistently good, cheap food out to customers as fast as possible in a place with "no tipping" signs on the walls. The service at Macon was actually pretty friendly, but I've had people, my wife included, get a little freaked out by the intensity of the staff at times.

Customers are generally safe, but the real fun can come from watching the ladies interact with each other. There have been a couple occasions at the Jackson Avenue location near my house where I thought someone was about to get hit. I just consider it a part of the experience, and as long as you don't waste their time or make their life needlessly difficult, you can safely do the same. You will also see a male worker or two from time to time, but holding up to the intensity of a Tops Bar-B-Q kitchen generally requires the inherent toughness of a rough-around-the-edges Southern woman to last very long.

The Tops ladies don't need your love. They are making you a burger like this, fresh cooked to order, for just over five bucks. Don't trifle with them.

Tops Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Great People, Not So Great Food - Barb-A-Rosa's

[NOTE: This restaurant is now closed.]

Barb-A-Rosa's B-B-Q on U.S. Highway 51 in Millington was a major disappointment the first time I visited. Since it was just my second stop on my current barbecue quest, and they had a big "under new management" sign hanging in the store on that visit I decided it was time to stop by again and see it things had improved. The place always has plenty of cars in the parking lot, so it seemed like they had to be doing something right.

The restaurant was full of customers when I dropped in on Thursday. A few of them were people I recognized from my job and I even had one of my customers invite me over to his table. I had to give him a little background on my barbecue sampling obsession when my plate came out and I started taking pictures of it.

Since I had a bad experience with the ribs on my first visit I went with pulled pork this time, since it tends to be more forgiving. The prices at Barb-A-Rosa's are super cheap. My plate was only $5.45 after tax and was supposed to include three sides. I wasn't a fan of the mayo-heavy potato salad on my previous visit so this time I asked for beans, slaw and onion rings. They ended up giving me the standard beans, slaw and fries with an extra order of onion rings at no extra charge.

Earlier this week I compared Old Style Bar-B-Q in Olive Branch to Moma's Pit B-B-Q in Bartlett. Barb-A-Rosa's seemed even more similar. The staff was truly infectiously friendly. I didn't know them but was laughing and joking with them by the end of my meal. The food wasn't a big step up from what I'd had on my first visit. The pulled pork was better than the ribs I'd tried, but was still relatively dry and flavorless despite being covered in sauce. It was also served room temperature, just like the ribs had been. I know that they were dealing with a large crowd on this trip, but cold 'que on two separate visits is hard to overlook.

The beans were canned beans with a little pork added in and the bland, creamy, finely chopped slaw wasn't any more impressive on this trip either. I didn't eat any of the fries, but they looked like standard crinkle-cut fries from a frozen bag. The onion rings were the best part of the meal. They had a batter similar to what you get on the fish at a fast food place like Captain D's or Long John Silver's.

The low prices and friendly service seem to keep plenty of repeat customers coming back for lunch every day. There seems to be a specific niche in the local barbecue market for independently-owned joints serving up low-cost, underwhelming food to a familiar cast of regulars. One thing that works in Barb-A-Rosa's favor is that it is located near a lot of fast food places. For the five dollars and change I spent on my meal, I couldn't have eaten any better at the nearby Krystal's, McDonald's, Taco Bell, etc. And the service definitely wouldn't have been as nice. Like Moma's in Bartlett, the staff at Barb-A-Rosa's was friendly enough to make me feel bad about having to write so dismissively about the food.

Barb a Rosa's Real Pit Bar Bq on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Improvising - Homemade Braised Pork Cheeks

On a trip to the farmer's market a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to score some pork cheeks from Newman Farm. The tender cheek meat of a pig is one of the most delicious parts of one of the world's most delicious animals. So nice restaurants snap up the majority that Newman produces, making it a special treat to find at the market.

I've been doing a lot of braising lately, since my wife got me a copy of the excellent All About Braising cookbook by Molly Stevens for Christmas. I've posted about a couple of the braises I've made like beef short ribs braised in red wine and Caribbean pork butt. The book didn't include any recipes for pork cheeks, but I've braised enough recipes from it to be confident that I could throw something together. This week I had a pretty good assortment of vegetables left over from various other recipes. One of the unifying principles of traditional soul food and French cuisine is that nothing should go to waste. So I decided to see what I could do using no recipe and only what I had on hand in my kitchen.

The first thing I did was dry the cheek meat off with paper towels, season it with salt and pepper, dredge it with a little flour and brown the pieces on all sides in a cast iron skillet with butter and olive oil.

I grabbed a leek, a couple carrots, a celery stem, a small yellow onion, a shallot and a couple garlic cloves from the produce I had on hand and diced everything up. Since I also had a bell pepper I was briefly torn between going Cajun or French. French braises almost always start with mirepoix made from sauteing carrots, celery and onion while almost all Cajun food starts with the holy trinity of bell pepper, celery and onion. I decided to save the pepper and use the carrots, which meant I was going French. 

For my aromatics I ground up a couple allspice berries and combined them with a bay leaf, some leftover fresh thyme that was sitting in the fridge and  a couple rosemary sprigs from a giant rosemary plant in our flower bed.

I used the same skillet that I browned the cheeks in with a little additional butter and olive oil to saute the veggies for a few minutes before adding the aromatics. I also had an extra tomato on the counter, so I diced it and added it in. 

I make large batches of homemade chicken stock and store it in mason jars in my freezer since I do a lot of cooking with it. I added enough to the skillet to mostly cover the veggies. I also had about a quarter-cup of white wine from the Old Millington Winery sitting in a bottle in the fridge, so it went in as well.

The lid from our cast iron Dutch oven also fits our skillet. I put it on after I added the pork cheeks and placed the skillet in a 300 degree oven for about two hours.

Once the cheeks were perfectly tender I took the braise out of the oven and moved them to a serving pan. I hit the braising liquid with some zest and juice from a lemon that was on the counter because it was there and lemon zest makes almost everything better. Then I just added salt and pepper to taste to create a sauce that my wife described as "magical." While the total cooking time ended up being over two hours, there was only about 20 minutes worth of real kitchen time. I spent most of the time working in my garage while the braise was in the oven. The great thing about braising is that once you get the simple technique down it becomes easy to make up or customize recipes on the fly with outstanding results.

Gas Station Ribs - Cousin's Express

Ribs can turn up anywhere in the Mid-south. When I stopped for gas yesterday at the Cousin's Express gas station on U.S. Highway 57 in Piperton, TN, (AKA Poplar Avenue just east of Collierville) I noticed a sign in front of the store promising "hickory smoked ribs."

I'd already had lunch, but I still decided to go in and check things out. I noticed they offered a "rib sandwich" for just $4.99, so just like when I ended up in in the same situation at Ron's B-B-Q in Jackson, I ordered one without the bread. I'm still not sure what the intended point of a "rib sandwich" is, but it is a good way to get a small sample of ribs. And I small sample was the best way to approach ribs that were sitting in a glass display case by the cash register next to the fried chicken that is a common sight at gas stations throughout the south.  

The sauces offered over at the tables were pretty good. The hot was genuinely fiery and even the mild had a nice kick to it. The slaw was disgusting. Eating it felt like what it is probably like to eat mayonnaise straight out of a jar. I tried a few small bites and threw the rest away.

The ribs were juicy despite sitting under a heat lamp. In fact the meat completely fell off the bone. They also had little flavor and no indication of the hickory smoke promised by the sign outside. I'm pretty sure they were just boiled then charred on a grill for a few minutes. I wasn't surprised at all, since I wasn't expecting a serious barbecue pit to be included in a prefab gas station. Like most gas station chow, this was aimed at people who just want to grab a quick bite and aren't feeling all that picky.   

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Barbecue and Local Hockey History - Old Style

On Monday I stopped for lunch at Old Style Bar-B-Q in Olive Branch, MS. I've seen signs for it while traveling on U.S. Highway 78 in the past but had never seen the actual restaurant. It is right off the highway, so you can't miss it if you just turn where the signs tell you to. It ended up being much bigger than I expected.

The meat with my pulled pork dinner was fairly dry and only had a little smoke flavor. The sauce was pretty good and added some needed moisture to the meat. The mustard and relish-filled slaw was probably the best part of the  meal, so I'm sure it and the sauce combine with the pork to make an okay sandwich. The beans tasted like canned beans that had been doctored with added pork meat and sauce, but the sauce was good enough to make that a pretty noticeable improvement over straight-from-the-can beans.

The menu also listed plenty of breakfast food available in the morning and a newspaper article on the wall said the restaurant was a popular gathering spot among locals, so it seems to be the Olive Branch version of Moma's Pit B-B-Q in Bartlett. None of the food was bad, but nothing really stood out either. 

The most interesting part of my visit was checking out the large collection of Memphis-area hockey memorabilia. Sports memorabilia is a common at local barbecue places, especially when it comes to representing the University of Memphis Tigers men's basketball team. You also see restaurant owners displaying their loyalties to their favorite college football team (almost always an SEC school around here), their favorite NFL team (usually either the Cowboys, Steelers or Titans) and the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team. But this was the first time I'd seen a barbecue joint calling out its owners love of hockey. 

DeSoto County is home to the Mississippi RiverKings hockey minor league hockey team that was based out of Memphis from 1992 through 2000 before it moved from the now-shuttered Mid-South Coliseum to the Lander's Center in Southaven. But I never knew that the Memphis area had a history of local hockey stretching back to the 1960s with teams like the Memphis South Stars and the Memphis Wings. I enjoyed taking in the little history lesson after I finished my meal.

Old Style Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Major and Minor Milestones - Restaurant Iris

This is my 100th post for this blog. And by random coincidence, it is an account of a meal that marked a far more important occasion. My wife and I celebrated our five-year wedding anniversary over the past weekend with a trip to Restaurant Iris next to Overton Square in Midtown.

Restaurant Iris is one of the most loved and reviewed places in the city, as you can see from a quick glance at its Urbanspoon page. Since so much has been written about the amazing things chef Kelly English is doing with Southern food, and I left the camera at home to enjoy myself with no distractions, I'll focus more on what makes the place so special rather than the specific details of our meal.

We went on Friday night, and while it had threatened to rain throughout the day, the evening ended up having perfect weather that made us wish we'd requested outdoor seating in front of the historic home that houses the restaurant. The interior of the building is still divided into rooms from its days as a house and the layout combined with the friendly yet professional staff creates a cozy atmosphere without the stuffiness you find at a run-of-the-mill, sprawling, dimly-lit  "fine dining" establishment.

The atmosphere combines with the balance of creativity, tradition and attention to detail in the dishes themselves to create the kind of experience that makes dining in New Orleans so wonderful, and that Memphis needs more of. These are the characteristics that make Restaurant Iris and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in East Memphis two of our absolute favorite places to dine on special occasions.

Iris is also similar to New Orleans in that it is an excellent place to drink with a very well-thought selection of whiskeys, beers and wines and knowledgeable servers that can be counted on for good recommendations. Our server did an excellent job picking a red wine later in the evening to go with my wife's entree.

We started the night with whiskey drinks followed shortly by oysters three ways and a spectacular arugula salad with toppings that included crispy pork belly and sweet bread "croutons." The last time we visited my wife had been impressed with the restaurant's version of surf and turf, which tucks fried oysters blue cheese into a New York strip. However, she declared me the "winner" after sampling the soft shell crab dish, and its delectable sauce, that I ordered. My wife is a firm believer in competitive ordering, where someone at the table is, sometimes begrudgingly, declared the "winner" based on her opinion of who gets the best food.

At one point during our meal we overheard someone at a nearby table requesting a myriad list of substitutions and alterations to a main dish. The server graciously obliged them, even though they were probably making a mistake. If you have a genuine allergy or intolerance to an ingredient, certainly ask if that food can be left out of any dish you are interested in ordering. But if it is just a matter of personal culinary prejudice, when you are paying to dine somewhere that a gifted chef has meticulously crafted every item on his menu, trust that he has put plenty of thought into the specific combination of tastes and textures for every dish.  

The chefs from Restaurant Iris and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen had the honor of representing their city in the recent Memphis Cochon 555 event for a reason. We are lucky to have them here. The Cochon event was a competition between true artists who work in flavor, and Kelly English was the winner that night. The trophy is still proudly displayed above the bar in his restaurant. If you have the privilege of dining there, enjoy every bite as he envisioned it.

Restaurant Iris on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 13, 2012

Standard-Setting Pulled Pork - More Tops

I stopped for lunch today at the Tops Bar-B-Q on Winchester near Mendenhall. I realized that although I've written a lot about Tops for this blog, and I talked about how its pulled pork defines "Memphis average" in a post on Brad's Bar-B-Q, I still haven't done a post about eating the pulled pork at a Tops location.

Tops has been around Memphis since 1952 and currently has 14 locations around the Mid-South. If you are anywhere in Memphis or the surrounding suburbs, you probably have one fairly close by. So if you want to go into business selling pulled pork around here, you need to be able to compete with Tops. And it isn't easy. The pork dinner I ate at the Winchester location today was only $5.55 before tax, so the food is cheap. And while while some of the stores may seem a little funky and rundown, I think it is part of the chain's charm. Instead of the standard fast-food model, where uniformity at all cost is a constant goal, all the Tops stores have their own unique character and their own barbecue pits where food is cooked on-site. Yet the quality of the food is amazingly consistent from store to store.

The Tops on Winchester shares a building with a bodega that offers a check cashing service, so the parking lot can fill up on Fridays when people are getting paid. But there is additional parking in the back and Tops keeps an employee or two in the parking lot when things get hectic to make sure its parking spots are being used by its customers.

It usually isn't listed anywhere on the menu, but you can get hot barbecue sauce instead of the regular if you request it, which I did. Also, my standard rule for the quest is to always order a dinner with beans and slaw. But I realized I couldn't remember ever trying the potato salad at Tops, so I got an order of it with my cole slaw instead of baked beans.

The chopped pork I had at the Winchester store was actually a lot better than average. I have a theory that the food is better at the older locations, where the grills are seasoned with decades worth of soaked-in sauce, seasoning and grease.  It had a great smoke flavor and plenty of charred out mixed in with the meat. The mustard potato salad was about what you would expect from a grocery store deli counter. It wasn't bad but it was a little too creamy and bland. I only ate about half of it and will probably stick to the baked beans in the future. I've now eaten at nine of the 14 locations, so there are only five left for me to complete my side quest of eating at all of them.

I crossed an eighth location off the list when I stopped by the location at 4183 Summer, near Graham, a couple weeks ago for one of the chain's perfect double cheeseburgers.

Perfect. Double. Cheeseburger.

I took a picture of the Marion, AR, location off of I-55 just north of West Memphis while I has on the other side of the bridge yesterday since I've eaten a double cheeseburger there since I stated the blog but I've never posted about the restaurant. I love that Tops is a chain yet every location has its own unique look. 
Tops Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Eating Ribs Perched on Top of Beale - Alfred's

I think I've been a little too dismissive of the barbecue choices on Beale Street so far. Sure they are generally aimed at tourists and a seem little overpriced. But while I haven't had any truly amazing barbecue on my visits to the Pig and Blues City Cafe, all the ribs I've eaten on Beale so far have been enjoyable. And the food prices are high compared to other parts of town, but so is the rent. You are paying for location, and sometimes location means a lot.

I was strolling down Beale Thursday, enjoying the perfect weather, while trying to decide where to grab lunch. I noticed that the upstairs patio at Alfred's looking particularly inviting, but it was also empty. So I stuck my head in the door and asked a smiling server about eating up there. She cheerfully told me to head right up. I noticed I was one of the only customers in the entire restaurant, which explained the empty upper-patio. 

View of Beale to the west from the upper-patio.

Alfred's sits at the corner of Third and Beale. I spent a fair amount of time discussing Third Street, which is what the infamous "Blues Highway" U.S. 61 is called when it passes through Memphis, in my post on Interstate Bar- B-Q. When you sit on the upper patio of Alfred's, you are looking down at the intersection of two of the most important roads in the history of American music.

View of Third to the north from the upper-patio.

I've always sort of avoided Alfred's, since I tend to just think of it as a generic dance club blaring popular mainstream music, while I prefer more punk-rock-oriented dive bars. But during the middle of a weekday, when Beale is mostly empty, it seems like a great place to do some day drinking with friends. Unfortunately, I was by myself and had to get over the bridge to West Memphis, AR, after lunch for some afternoon work responsibilities, so I just ordered a water to drink.

View of Third to the south. That is the Westin hotel and Gibson guitar factory on the right. You can't see it in the picture, but the FedExForum is directly across the street from them on the left. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played a sold-out show at the Forum later that night, so my pictures of an empty patio and fairly empty streets are really just the quiet before the storm.

I laughed and explained I was a lifelong Memphian with a blog when the waitress asked where I was from while I looked over the menu. I was on Beale Street in the middle of a weekday with a camera taking pictures of everything around me. So it was completely natural to assume I was a tourist. In a way I guess I was. One of the most fun things about my barbecue quest has been the way it has allowed me to explore the city from a fresh perspective, instead of mindlessly passing through different parts of town while I work. 

I was happy to see that Alfred's serves regular half and full slabs of ribs instead of the oddball-sized small, large and full serving options I've noticed at a lot of Beale Street eateries. I order a half-slab dinner and continued to soak up the sun, the gentle breeze and the view while I waited for my food.

I was impressed as soon as I saw my plate. The rib dinner was $15.95, but at least the portions were in line with a half-slab dinner from other parts of town. Alfred's only offers wet ribs, which seems to be standard on Beale, but the sauce had been added while the ribs cooked so it was soaked into the meat and crusted on the outside. The end result was tasty rib meat that had a nice mix of flavors and wasn't overly sauced. The ribs and the  beans also had a dusting of dry rib. When I started eating the beans I realized they were just canned beans that had been spruced up with dry rub then baked for a few minutes. But even that little bit of effort made them much better than regular straight-from-the-can beans. The slaw was also pretty standard.

The ribs actually had a better smoke flavor than the ones I had at the Pig the week before, although the Pig's were a little more tender and juicy. Both were good enough to make me realize that, while I may not find any of the absolute best barbecue in Memphis on Beale, I should be able to enjoy some really nice meals. And the higher prices are just a natural part of eating in a tourist district. 

You aren't just paying for the ribs. You are paying to have the ribs here. I also had excellent service, but I was up there by myself so I don't know how it is when the place gets slammed.

Alfred's on Beale on Urbanspoon