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


  1. I don't have my MBN certification, but I do judge KCBS and I think that saying "the fact that there is so little correlation between success in the contest and actually being able to prepare good, traditional Memphis-style barbecue" is not a very fair assessment. There are differences between competition restaurant que and you also have to understand that there is a LOT of subjectivity in juding.

    Just because you don't like sweet barbecue doesn't mean that someone else does not. We are trained to judge entries based on the balance of flavors. You're not supposed to bring your personal preferences to the table, but you must agree that it's very difficult to do so.

    I can't tell you how many competitions I've judged where at the end of a category a judge will tell me they rated someone down because they don't like a particular ingredient used in the sample. It really pisses me off to hear that. You mark someone down if one flavor overwhelms another, not because you don't like it.

    Another thing you have to realize is that compeition que is "one-bite barbecue." That is, we're eating so many different samples, that we only take one or two bites of a particular entry. That bite has to wow us and that means that a lot of these entries wind up being overpowering when it comes to "standard que."

    I, too, lament the use of so much sauce in competiions, but it has become kind of a necessary evil. In order to keep samples moist from the cooking area through turn-in to the judges' tables, sauces are sometimes necessary. Especially brisket.

    Lastly, I think it's kind of difficult to take your comment seriously when someone like Melissa Cookston wins multiple contests and can turn out stellar que.

    1. I'm a huge fan of Melissa's restaurant. I even mention it specifically in the post. I think a lot of the Beale Street places hire "ringer" pitmasters justfor the competitions. And the "one-bite barbecue" is a huge problem. Something with a lot of pop for one bite can be something that would seem terrible if you ate very much of it. You hear horror stories of people injecting competition meat with everything from margarine to MSG.