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. I 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.