Thursday, May 31, 2012

Finally Open - Cordova Farmer's Market

It's been four months since I first posted about the impending arrival of the Cordova Farmer's Market but the store is finally open for business. Over the weekend I saw numerous Facebook posts from friends who were happily exploring the new market on Germantown Parkway near Macon. Like the original, still-open Winchester Farmer's Market, which has been one of my favorite places in the city to shop for years now, the new store is actually a gigantic international grocery store not a traditional farmer's market.

I got a chance to look around myself on Wednesday. At first I thought the store seemed strangely empty compared to the overflowing Winchester store, but I'm sure it will be steadily adding new products onto the shelves. One exciting difference I immediately noted was that the northern side of the store has been reserved for a food court where vendors can rent spaces. Right now an Italian place is the only tenant but hopefully others will follow soon. It seems like a natural spot for a sushi place, a taqueria and other ethnic options.

The reason I think it seems like a natural spot for a sushi place is the tremendous amount of fresh seafood the store stocks.

When I say fresh, I mean fresh.

 The new Cordova location has a much larger seafood selection than the Winchester store although it doesn't have as huge of a variety of other meats as the original Hickory Hill location. I don't mean that it doesn't have a large variety -- you can find everything from Halal meats to pork ears, snouts and kidneys. But it doesn't currently stock the beef testicles and whole cow and hog heads that make a walk through the Winchester store's butcher section such an adventure. I'm sure part of it is just the new store trying to figure out exactly what the area customers are looking for.

Like the Winchester store, the produce section is stocked with piles of exotic produce that are fun to look at and wonder exactly what you would do with them. There were still plenty of empty bins but the selection is already astounding and I'm sure it will only grow from there. Walking through the original store always made me want to sample the unfamiliar fare when cooked by someone familiar with it. Hopefully the international food court in the new location really takes off with a variety of affordable options. It will make the sprawling grocery even more of a must-visit destination for Memphis-area food lovers.  




Also like the Winchester location, the Cordova store doesn't mess around when it comes to stocking rice.

UPDATE: I stopped back by on August 18, 2012 and the produce section is now fully stocked and every bit as impressive as the one at the Winchester store. Also, since a lot of people seem to be interested in the store's operating hours, the Cordova Farmer's Market is open from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. seven days a week.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Southern Cooking Done Right - Southern Hands

[NOTE: This restaurant is now closed. The Hickory Hill location is still open.]

I felt a little bad about my recent post bashing the plate lunch I tried at the rum Boogie Cafe. Was I expecting too much from a simple plate lunch? After trying almost the exact same combination of food at Southern Hands Family Dining in Collierville it is obvious that I wasn't. At Southern Hands a $6.55 meatloaf lunch demonstrates the soul-satisfying power of  simple food that is made from scratch by people who understand flavor and seasoning.

The restaurant itself is certainly nothing special to look at, but there were enough cars outside at lunchtime to indicate good things about the kitchen. Sometimes the line between a soul food place and a country kitchen place can get blurry. The menu at Southern Hands didn't feature any soul food staples like neckbones or chitterlings and the sign didn't identify it as a soul food place. But I still ended up ordering the exact same foods that I tried recently at the Orange Mound Grill soul food restaurant. And my food was still prepared by black Southern women who knew how to get the maximum flavor out of cheap ingredients. 

The service was friendly and lightening fast. I told the waitress that I wanted meatloaf, turnip greens and black-eyed peas. I started to check Facebook on my phone to waste some time since I was dining alone. I had barely logged on when my plate arrived teaming with Southern goodness.

I looked at it a minute and realized I was feeling a little gun shy after last week's disappointing Rum Boogie plate lunch. Then I took a little nibble of the turnip greens. All they needed was a little splash of the obligatory Bruce's Hot Pepper Sauce. I tried the cornbread next. I ranted about the "Yankee cornbread" at Rum Boogie for a reason. Good cornbread is one of my ultimate comfort foods. The hot, fresh cornbread at Southern Hands showcased the delicious simplicity of cornbread done right. The onion and ham-packed black-eyed peas were excellent as well.

As I sampled my way around the plate I kept eying the meatloaf. If something looks truly outstanding I tend to taste it last, just to draw out the experience. As much as I love a well-seasoned meatloaf I'm not a fan of the bright ketchup glaze that so much of it gets doused with. That wasn't an issue at Southern Hands. They put a tomato-based meat sauce on their meatloaf. It's seriously the best restaurant meatloaf I've ever eaten. Out of curiosity I asked my waitress and she confirmed that the sauce is the same one that the restaurant uses on its spaghetti. I'm sure the pasta dish is good, but why mess around with noodles when you can enjoy the epic beauty of meatloaf with meat sauce? Southern Hands is a local chain with additional locations in the Wolfchase area and near the airport. Now that I've discovered this lunch option at a price point that is barely more than fast food I'll definitely be seeing more of them.        

Southern Hands Family Dining on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day Weekend Barbecue - Travis

I started off my Memorial Day weekend right on Saturday morning with a trip to Millington to pick up a barbecue pork butt from my friend Travis. I spent a few misguided years in my early 20s eating a mostly vegetarian diet after managing to largely miss the point of Eric Schlosser's Fat Food Nation, a book that provides an excellent analysis of an industry built around turning government subsidized crops into cheap, unnourishing food-like products. Living in Memphis and having friends like Travis made it impossible to turn my back on my lifelong love of slow-cooked pork for too long. I've enjoyed an amazing variety of restaurant barbecue since I started my current quest but the barbecue Travis cooks in his backyard still ranks among the best I've had. 

People visiting the Mid-South often want to know where the best barbecue is. We definitely have some outstanding restaurants to choose from, but every restaurant is ultimately in business to make a profit. For people like Travis, barbecue isn't a commercial venture. It's an obsessive passion. They may only get to cook it a few times a year, but they spend countless additional hours daydreaming ways to improve their recipes and techniques. Some of the best barbecue in the Mid-South is being created in backyards as a labor of love. And you won't even see a lot of it at barbecue competitions. Travis doesn't chase after awards. He is content to just call around to barbecue-loving friends saying the simple words, "I'm cooking next weekend," and then enjoy the honest compliments from the people who inevitably flock to his house. 

In my post about the Millington Winery I said that on Sundays, "If you happen to see a Hagrid-from-Harry-Potter-sized man selling crawfish, chicken wings or barbecue, be sure to try whatever he is cooking that day." That was because is Travis is a good friend of the Winery's owner, Perry, so this barbecue rig is known to show up there from time to time.  

Even among friends Travis is ultra tight-lipped about a lot of the secrets to the cooking style that he has been honing for most of his life.

I do know that the butts are all rubbed down with mustard and then seasoned with Travis's homemade dry rub the day before he cooks them. He absolutely refuses to comment on any questions or comments about the content of the dry rub.

I've always preferred pulled pork to chopped. Great barbecue doesn't require a meat clever. You just stick a regular-sized fork into it and the meat should pull apart effortlessly.

"Charred crust" and "pink smoke ring" are two phrases used a lot in this blog. This is what they're all about.

Travis also makes his own barbecue sauce. The jar in my fridge was almost empty, which means I'll be opening a jar that has been aging in my pantry soon. I got a fresh jar from Travis so that it can sit in my pantry while I'm working my way through the old one.  A year or so worth of time spent canned but unrefrigerated can really improve an already-great homemade sauce.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

An Early Pioneer in Revitalization - Rum Boogie Cafe

The original investors in the Rum Boogie Cafe took a bold risk when they opened the restaurant at the corner of Third and Beale back in 1985. At the time, despite its famous history,  Beale Street was blighted and mostly deserted. The opening of the Rum Boogie Cafe marked the turning point where the decline of Downtown Memphis gave way to steadily snowballing revitalization.  

I sometimes hear people today talk about Downtown or Midtown "going downhill," and marvel at just how short our collective memories can be. The city's core has seen a tremendous revitalization over the course of the last three decades. I've witnessed tremendous improvement Downtown in just the short period since I was a teenager in the mid-90s when the general rule of thumb was that Beale itself was safe but you didn't venture off it in any direction except going to and from the big parking lot where the Peabody Place garage currently sits.

I planned to get barbecue when I stopped by Rum Boogie for lunch on Monday, but I noticed I could get a plate with with a meat and three veggies for just $7.50. That is amazingly cheap by Beale Street standards, so I ordered Meatloaf, turnip greens, black-eyed peas and fried green tomatoes from a seat on the patio where I enjoyed the wonderful weather. I should have stuck to my original plan and shelled out the $18.95 for a half-slab rib dinner.

The plate lunch looked impressive when it came out, but eating it was a series of disappointments. The bland meatloaf just tasted like unseasoned hamburger and ketchup, the peas tasted like they were straight out of a can and the fried green tomatoes were coated in a dense, flavorless cornmeal batter. The greens were so bitter they were inedible. They were the kind of bad where it takes several bites to fully come to terms with just how terrible something is. I kept thinking they couldn't have been THAT bad, so I'd foolishly taste them again. Dousing them Bruce's Hot Pepper Sauce was no help either. My waitress was friendly and asked several times if I had any problems or needed anything else so I'm sure I could have swapped the greens with something else, but  I needed to get back to work and none of the other items had inspired much confidence that a substitution would be me something Id enjoy.

I took a bite of the cornbread assuming that reliable comfort food would make up for the bitter greens. I instantly recognized the sugary atrocity of Jiffy Mix. I was raised in a Sunflour cornmeal household. The Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix manufactured in Michigan was always dismissed with the contempt any Southerner should feel towards "Yankee cornbread." Keep in mind that the Rum Boogie Cafe sits at the corner of Third and Beale, and that Third is what U.S. Highway 61 is called when it travels through Memphis. So the restaurant is sitting at the exact spot where the legendary "Blues Highway" intersects with Beale Street in Memphis, TN, and serving Yankee cornbread. The other sins on my plate were forgivable. This one wasn't.

[ADDED NOTE: Since this review I've had slightly sweet cornbread from other places that wasn't nearly as bad as what I had at Rum Boogie. It makes me think it wasn't even Jiffy Mix there but some new commercial concoction that is even worth.]

On Thursday I decided to give the place another chance, rather write it off based on one plate lunch special. The temperature had climbed well into the 90s that afternoon so on that visit I sat inside next to the stage. The was no band playing since it was early in the day, but I respect the Rum Boogie Cafe's ongoing dedication to live music. 

The Rum Boogie Cafe was also the first place on Beale where I've had a chance to eat real, Memphis-style dry rub ribs. And they ended up being a solidly serviceable rendition, even if they aren't among the cities best. It's interesting that other places I've tried on Beale like Alfred's, the Pig and Blues City Cafe all boast about their past successes in the Memphis in May Barbecue Contest while only offering ribs with a sweet glaze on them. Garden and Gun magazine has noted that the judges at the barbecue contest seem to prefer lean, spice-less, sugar injected pork to genuine traditional barbecue craftsmanship. So success in the contest doesn't mean a place actually serves great Memphis-style barbecue*. If you are on Beale and want to enjoy some good-enough dry rub ribs along with some live music, Rum Boogie Cafe has both.

I didn't bother to finish either of the sides that came with my rib dinner. The beans tasted like the store-brand  "vegetarian beans" sold at the supermarket while the sugar and mayo-heavy slaw seemed to use a recipe similar to the Neely's on Jefferson.

* It also doesn't automatically mean that it doesn't. I really enjoyed the excellent dry ribs at Memphis Barbecue Company, where the pitmasters have enjoyed a lot of success at the barbecue competition. I'm not sure if the dry ribs in the restaurant are anything like what they serve at the competition or if they, like a lot of teams, specifically doctor their competition barbecue towards the judges' picky-child-like palates. Either way, the fact that there is so little correlation between success in the contest and actually being able to prepare good, traditional Memphis-style barbecue means that the Memphis in May officials need to make some serious changes if they want the event to maintain any credibility.

Rum Boogie Café on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Keeping the Old-Fashioned Flame Alive - Helen's

On Monday I got a tip on the Memphis Que Facebook page about an article in
Garden and Gun Magazine profiling three rural west Tennessee barbecue joints. I had never heard of any of them, even though two were in areas I visit while I am working. Yesterday the same friend who told me about the article posted this video from YouTube about Helen's Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, TN, which was one of the featured restaurants:

When I looked Helen's up on Google Maps I found out it was right down the street from one of my scheduled stops for the day, so I knew where I'd be going for lunch. It's a small place with a small sign in a relatively crowded row of buildings near the center of town. Even knowing roughly where it should be I still drove past it twice before I finally spotted it.

One I found it I immediately noticed the smoke house out back. I knew from the video that the restaurant's owner, Helen Turner, burned wood down into charcoal for her barbecue. And I knew from my experience at Latham's Meat Company in nearby Jackson, TN, that the hot, labor-intensive process can yield some incredible results.

The last time I ate barbecue in Brownsville was at the Backyard Barb-Be-Cue on Main Street. Helen's definitely has a different vibe than the spacious chain restaurant full of neon lighting. The dining area at Helen's is a small space with two large tables surrounded by chairs. Black, white, young and old; the steady flow of customers coming through sit together to enjoy their barbecue. There was a line of people waiting to order almost the entire time I was in the building, but the friendly crew in the kitchen kept it moving. Any time I see loyal customers flocking to an old, independent restaurant I get ready for some good eating.

Coals from the smoke house are also used to keep the meat warm while it is waiting to be served in the kitchen's giant oven. My baked beans were served out of one of the Crock Pots sitting over to the right.

I ordered the chopped pork plate, since everyone in line was getting either the plate or a jumbo sandwich. I asked for the spicy barbecue sauce on it. When the woman taking orders, who ended up being Helen Turner, had asked the young man in front of me in line if he wanted spicy sauce he answered with an emphatic enough "no," to let me know that it was going to be genuinely hot.

A plate at Helen's comes with beans, slaw and potato salad that are all made in-house. The place doesn't have a fryer and once you taste the potato salad you understand that it doesn't need one. I generally order potato salad with my beans and slaw when a place includes three sides with a meal and it usually ends up tasting like it came out of a plastic tub from a grocery store. The potato salad at Helen's is absolutely perfect -- light and creamy without tasting like mayo, and packing just enough mustard. The slaw had a perfect balance of mustard and vinegar and the meaty, flavorful baked beans were simmering in a Crock Pot when they got added to my plate. I respect any restaurant that maintains a short, simple menu of items that are all done right. 

The meat had a great smoke flavor, which was no surprise. It was tender and juicy but still had a generous sampling of deliciously charred outer crust mixed in with it. The sauce added a nice spicy kick, but like the spicy barbecue sauce at Payne's it was also very sweet. The meat had enough flavor to keep the sauce from overpowering it, but on future visits I'll see if I can get the sauce on the side. I know some people love to have their meat swimming in sauce, but the cooking technique used at Helen's is an old-fashioned art form and I want to be able to savor all that wonderful smoke crafted into the pork.

Helen obviously knew most of the customers coming through her door. She asked me where I was from since I was an unfamiliar face and taking photographs. After I finished eating she came out of the kitchen to ask what I thought about my meal. Someone had just given her a copy of the same magazine article that brought me to her place. When I told her how good everything was and explained a little about the blog I was doing she showed me to the smoke house where I got a first-hand look at just how labor-intensive her cooking style is. It combines patience, timing and artisan experience with hard work in the smoke and heat to produce something no modern kitchen can truly recreate.


Helen's Bar Bq on Urbanspoon 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Crosstown Sears - Meditations on Two Wheels

My job takes me all over the Mid-South. As much as I enjoy getting to explore the region of the country where I live, the amount of time I spend looking through a windshield definitely gets old. When I'm not at work I tend to stick pretty close to Midtown, since I've already had my share of driving time. And I love to relax by getting on a bicycle and getting some wind on my face.

On Saturday night my wife and I attended the second annual Bikesplotation event at the old Crosstown Sears building. The event, hosted by Live From Memphis, featured a showing of 17  bicycle-related short independent films on the roof of the decaying building's parking garage.

Out of all the films we saw, my hands-down favorite was one called Meditations on Two Wheels by local filmmaker Robert Rowan. It is narrated by Rowan over footage he shot during a seven-day period he spent exploring Memphis on a bicycle. The engaging nine-minute short covers a lot of the same nonfood-related topics that are recurring themes on this blog and needs to be seen by a far wider audience than the group of people who watched it Saturday night.

Luckily the film is available on Youtube. Watch it. Then get other people to watch it.

The setting for the event was a perfect match for the film. The event was held in cooperation with Crosstown Arts, an organization working to bring the giant, crumbling building back to life.

Bicyclists were able to peddle through the garage to its roof while people on foot used the stairs. While the garage was added decades later, the main building was constructed in 1927. Besides an enormous amount of retail space, the 1.4-million-square-foot building also a major distribution center for the Sears catalog during a period when it was a defining force for American consumers. My dad spent over two decades repairing electronics for Sears and I have vague memories of visiting the building with my parents when I was a child before it was completely closed in 1989.

During my early to mid 20s I spent three years renting a duplex just a few blocks east of the Crosstown Sears building on Stonewall. I always enjoyed seeing the art deco building, which looks like a set piece from the first Tim Burton Batman movie, in the skyline. Today it's just a short walk or bike ride down the V&E Greenline away from my current home.

I'd love to see the majestic building put back to use, but it is a victim of its own sprawling size. It would cost a fortune to renovate 1.4 million square feet in such rough condition and it is hard to imagine any project that would actually require such an enormous amount of space. All the real architectural value of the building is in its towering front section, but demolition work to remove a large portion of the boxy rear warehouse area of the building to make it a more manageable size would still require a huge amount of money.

No one can blame the empty building on Memphis. The struggling Sears company has been a victim of epic mismanagement for decades. The management book What the CEO Wants You to Know mentions a 1975 speech by the CEO of Sears at the Kellogg School of Business where he told the class that retail in the United States was "a mature business and a zero-growth industry." At that time Wal-Mart was operating in just eight Southern states with total sales of only $340.3 million. Then in 1993 Sears discontinued its iconic big catalog and largely abandoned the mail-order business to focus on brick and mortar stores, just two years before a guy named Jeff Bezos started selling stuff from a website called

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Competition

The event I attended at Tom Lee Park Downtown on Thursday and Friday is technically called the Memphis in May Worlds Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Memphians just refer to it as BBQ Fest. For serious barbecue competitors it is a serious competition. For the vast majority of the people in attendance it is spring break for grown ups.

I didn't feel like keeping up with a real camera so I just have a few pics from my flashless cellphone. So I don't have any photos from after dark when it really gets packed and wild.

Since this blog has a fair share of readers who live in other areas I wanted to give them a brief overview of BBQ Fest. There are three main types of booths at the event and I don't mean ribs, shoulder and whole hog; which are the categories the booths are divided into around the park.

There are hobbyist booths. Competing in BBQ Fest is expensive so these booths normally have a couple dedicated barbecue cooking enthusiasts on the team along with a bunch of friends who are there to lend a hand, pitch in money and enjoy the massive party. These are also the booths where you are generally welcome to stop and share some of the food and booze as long as you are friends with some of the people in the booth. Donations to the cause are usually welcomed.

Then you have the business booths. Its impossible to gauge the real impact of BBQ Fest on the local economy because there is no way of calculating just how many deals are born out of the networking that occurs there. Like other cities, the golf course is an important place to do business here. But there are plenty of important connections made over ribs and beer next to the Mississippi River here in May. Businesses spend piles of money putting up elaborate multilevel booths with professional DJs, bartenders and mountains of food. Getting into these booths generally requires a wristband, which requires a connection with someone associated with the booth. 

And finally you have the serous competitor booths. These are the smaller booths that never have more than a handful of people in them and they are usually lined with trophies from previous barbecue competitions. The people inside them aren't there to party. They are there because they think they've mastered the arts of smoked pork and sauce and they want to prove it to the judges.

Serious competitors have learned what the judges are looking for over the years and cater to them. Unfortunately, according to an article in Garden and Gun magazine, most of the judges historically seem to love sweet flavors while being embarrassingly squeamish about spiciness and fat. If a visitor wants to sample barbecue, they can pay to be one of the People's Choice judges. That's probably the best way for an out-of-town visitor to experience the event. While there are plenty of vendors selling food and drinks, the reason locals attend is to visit friends at various booths where food and drinks are provided.

It's really impossible to photograph the event in a way that provides any sense of scale for just how physically huge it is. You literally walk for miles if you are visiting a lot of booths.

This blog spends a lot of time touting the health benefits of pork fat. Meanwhile, when humans are stressed our bodies release a hormone called cortisol. Continually elevated cortisol levels brought on by chronic stress are very bad for the body. There is a lot of wisdom in this sign that was hanging in a competitors booth. 

One of my friends had a booth with a great view of the Mississippi River. I was sitting on the edge of the river enjoying a beer and a full stomach watching the sun go down when Otis Redding's (Sittin on') the Dock of the Bay, which was recorded at Stax Records in South Memphis, came on a nearby stereo system. The most purely Memphis moments aren't planned, they just happen. 

Burger and Fries - More Tops

The pit was going strong at the Tops Bar-B-Q in Olive Branch, MS, when I pulled up on Thursday. The aroma of ribs and pork shoulder filling the parking lot made me instantly crave some good barbecue. But I was already going Downtown for the annual Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest as soon as I got off work. Since I was about to have a couple evenings completely dominated by slow-cooked pork I decided to stick to my original plan of ordering a double cheeseburger.

I've eaten at 12 of the locations now. Just two more to go.

The Olive Branch Tops is located just off of U.S. Highway 78 on Bethel Road. It shares the modern Tops look of the Millington and Jackson Avenue locations. Bethel Road changes names to Hacks Cross just a few miles north of the restaurant, while Highway 78 goes by both Lamar Avenue and EH Crump Boulevard in Memphis before it merges with I-55 headed in Arkansas. I frequently wonder if visitors to the Mid-South think the constant changes our street names go through is some kind of trick we are playing to keep them on their toes.

Like always, the double cheeseburger was a grease-dripping bundle of perfection On a whim I got an order of fries to go with my double cheeseburger on this trip. The fries are one of the only menu items left that I haven't mentioned in a post. I've sampled them plenty of times. My wife frequently has me get her an order with her food when I make a run to our neighborhood Tops. And I always eat a couple on the way home because who doesn't eat a few of the fries on the way home from a food run like that?

They are just standard crinkle cut fries out of a freezer bag. I was curious to see if they'd be salted, since the ones we get next to our house never seem to be. It appears to be a company-wide thing because these desperately needed salt too. They were better after I hit them with the salt shaker at my table, but for the best taste fries need to be salted straight out of the fryer while they still have a nice coating of hot liquid grease for the salt to soak in to. I normally just order the burger by itself, since the double is usually plenty filling and I prefer to avoid the rancid vegetable oils that restaurants typically use. But I know burgers and French fries are inherently linked in a lot of people's minds so I can see how the mediocre fries hurt the experience for people like the Best Memphis Burger blogger who want a perfect burger and fry combo. With such an exceptional burger it seems strange that the folks at Tops don't take their game to the next level with some good seasoned fries.

Tops Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Dirty South Survivor in the Suburbs - Morris Grocery

What is it with the area around Houston Levee Road and little old country stores selling superb sandwiches? I've been a huge fan of the ham sandwiches from Canale's Grocery for decades now. I've heard about Morris Grocery, located just east of Houston Levee on Macon, for years from customers of mine who work nearby. They always told me they preferred the nearby Reggi's Bar-B-Q so I hadn't made it a priority to stop by. Then I read a recent post about the Morris Grocery's sandwiches in the Memphis Gastroblog, and last week I got a text from a friend claiming it had one of the best barbecue sandwiches in town. So it was definitely time for a visit.

I said I knew some people who preferred getting barbecue from Reggi's to Morris Grocery. While it is easy to prefer one place or the other, the differences between them once again illustrate why I'm not trying to rank places against each other. The two joints offer such completely different experiences that which one is "better" will be entirely determined by what you are looking for. Reggi's offers a full menu of great tasting barbecue options in a clean restaurant inside a recently-constructed strip mall that is the epitome of bland suburbia.

Morris Grocery offers gloriously big, sloppy barbecue sandwiches and not much else. The old, dimly lit building doesn't have tables or chairs. The name might include the word "grocery," but the other options are a rack of potato chips, a small stand with some Hostess snack cakes and Wonder bread, a cooler for sodas and a beer cooler. I wish I got a picture of the beer cooler. It was stocked with tall boys and 40s of Busch, Miller High Life, Colt 45 and Magnum Malt Liquor. And it was covered with pieces of paper displaying large-print, hand-written Bible verses in a testament to the Dirty South's intense love triangle with booze and religion.

There were some baked chicken pieces, peas and corn under a heat lamp in a glass display case next to the cash register so the place offers some plate lunch options. But I told the lady who greeted me at the door I wanted a barbecue sandwich so she ducked behind the counter and had me one put together and wrapped in foil in just a few minutes. It was big. I paid with a five and got change.

Luckily I picked up a plastic fork from a container of them next to the register on my way out. Like the barbecue pork sandwich at Payne's, the Morris Grocery sandwich is so overloaded with meat, sauce and slaw that I only made it about half way through before the bun completely fell apart at which point I just transitioned to eating with the fork. I was in my work vehicle but the foil wrapper held together well enough to keep the mess contained. Since the store doesn't have any tables and chairs you may be tempted to attempt eating a sandwich from there while driving. Don't do it. This sucker requires both hands along with your undivided attention.

Where the spicy Payne's sandwich combines heaping quantities of  sugar, vinegar, mustard and hot pepper to launch an all-out blitzkrieg on the taste buds, the Morris sandwich lets the meat be the star of the show. It's deliciously tender and packed with smoke flavor. The sauce is fairly sweet but there wasn't enough of it to overwhelm the taste. It balanced well with the traditional mayonnaise-based slaw that had big enough chunks of cabbage to give the sandwich a nice crunch. 

Morris Grocery and the nearby Canale's Grocery are like time capsules amidst the surrounding generic suburbs providing testament that the area around them was still a rural community with its own unique identity in the not-to-distant past. Sprawl destroys in two directions at the same time, devouring existing communities with new development while driving families to abandon the blighted remains of previous developments as it continues its outward march. It's nice to see an area retain at least a little of its original character.

Morris Grocery on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cuban Pork Dinner - Los Compadres

Taqueria La Guadalupana on Summer Avenue is one of my favorite places to snag some cheap, authentic Mexican food so I decided to drop by while I was driving down Summer on Tuesday afternoon. Apparently I wasn't the only person with the same plan. The place was absolutely packed with a huge line at the cash register and people waiting around the entrance for tables to clear. I thought about heading north to visit one of the Mexican places on Macon but ultimately decided to head over to Los Compadres on Poplar Avenue near the University of Memphis.  

Los Compadres was originally located at Poplar and Union Extended in the former Captian D's building that is now home to EL Toro Loco. The sign on the new location still identifies Los Compadres as a Mexican restaurant but the owners added a Cuban menu when they moved a couple miles down the street. Cuba shares a deep love for slow-cooked pork with the Southern United States so I frequently order off the Cuban menu when I visit Los Compadres.

One of my favorite items on the menu is the puerco asado, which features pork marinated in a mojo criollo sauce and roasted with shallots. It's a simple dish that packs a tremendous amount of flavor. Like the Caribbean pork butt I've braised at home, it isn't barbecue. But it is a deliciously tender and juicy plate full of traditionally cooked pork, which occupies the bottom of my personal food pyramid. 

All the entrees on the Cuban menu at Los Compadres come with a combination of black beans, rice and fried plantains as sides. The seemingly unseasoned black beans are always so bland that I never eat more than a few bites of them. And the white rice just tastes like white rice. Those two sides can't compete with good old baked beans and slaw when it comes to accompanying pork. But the sweet plantains are a delicious treat that I always savor a little at a time while I'm enjoying my meal.

Los Compadres on Urbanspoon