Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Old Collierville - More Gus's

I'd been meaning to eat some Gus's Fried Chicken ever since driving past the original location in Mason, TN, on my way to Bozo's Hot Pit Bar-B-Q a couple weeks ago. I intended to grab some Gus's on that trip but the huge serving of pulled pork I got at Bozo's ended up being too much for me to even consider additional food.

On Wednesday I was working in Collierville so I decided to swing by the Gus's out there. I hadn't been to the Collierville location since a couple weeks before I started my Memphis-area restaurant quest.

The Collierville restaurant is just south of Collierville's Historic Town Square in a converted old house at the location where the first part of the Battle of Collierville was fought during the Civil War on Oct. 11, 1863. There is a plaque near the street in front of the restaurant describing the battle, during which Union cavalry troops, led by the forever-despised-in-the-South General William Sherman, forced the Confederate Army further south into Mississippi.

The Collierville Gus's is far less crowded, at least on the occasions I've stopped by, than the one Downtown, where lines out the door are common. Collierville today is mainly a bedroom community for people who work in Memphis and their families so I'm not sure what the dinner time crowd is like. But there were only about three other tables with people at them when I stopped by Wednesday. The relaxed atmosphere and historic setting make for a really pleasant place to enjoy lunch. 

There was a recent article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper about a stray rooster who has ironically taken up residence near the Gus's in Collierville. There are a couple signs warning motorists about him but I haven't seen him during any of my travels through the area. [UPDATE: I got some good pictures of him during a more recent visit.]

I ordered a three-piece dark meat meal with beans and slaw. Like always, the beans were nothing special and the slaw was a little too sweet. And like always, that didn't matter. The fried chicken was exactly what you expect from Gus's -- crispy skin, juicy meat and a nice, well-seasoned subtle spiciness. It's amazingly ungreasy for the amount of flavor it has. I drank water, didn't eat the bread included with the meal and had no problems returning to work on a 100-degree day. I think a lot of fried chicken's reputation as a gut bomb comes from the gluten-heavy sides and sugary drinks people normally consume with it.

After my meal I took a brief walk though the Historic Town Square north of Gus's. As a journalism student in college I interned at The Collierville Herald newspaper one summer during the late '90s. The paper is located just off the Square and I always enjoyed strolling through it to find lunch and visit various city offices for stories.

As an interning reporter at the paper one of my jobs was to go through the archives to find past stories for the This Week in History column. It was always fascinating to see old papers from as recently as a few decades ago full of stories about livestock auctions and crop prices and realize just how recently Collierville was still a mostly self-sufficient small rural town, not the suburb people think of it as today.

The Square is a beloved part of Collierville. Residents frequently mention it and the small-town atmosphere it lends to the city as reasons why they live there. The irony is that the Square represents the polar opposite of so much of the generic suburban sprawl that typifies so much of the rest of the town. If you go just a little northwest to Poplar Avenue you will see the same sort of poorly-planned commercial development that led to the blight found on Lamar Avenue today. And the city has become increasingly choked with generic subdivisions with single entrances from a main road feeding into a network of cul-de-sacs.

My wife's parents live in Collierville and we got married in the Town Square a little over five years ago in April of 2007. Between that and working next to the Square during college the area brings back a lot of fond memories.

The most iconic and beloved part of Collierville, which is frequently presented as the face of the city, is a large, green walkable public space ringed by storefronts that are built out to the street and then surrounded by a mixed use of industrial and residential properties. It's the antithesis of modern suburban development and people naturally gravitate towards it because it is inherently functional and attractive. Modern planners who are looking to create communities instead of sprawl should visit and take notes.

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Back in Business - Willie Moore's

Before I started this blog the original Willie Moore's Family Restaurant  on Third just south of Crump was a place I'd drive past at work and think I should stop in just to give it a try. It probably helped plant the subconscious seed for my decision to start trying as many barbecue and soul food places as I could find. Unfortunately the original restaurant was totaled by a massive fire before I ever got a chance to eat there.

Once the restaurant reopened on Main in between Jefferson and Adams I kept meaning to get a picture of the gutted old building to post whenever I wrote about the new location. When I tried to do that two weeks ago the building had already been razed. So determined to stop procrastinating in regards to Willie Moore's I stopped by the new place on Monday.

The new location is definitely in a more inviting spot than the old one. A sign in front of the restaurant boasted that the menu includes 15 different meats and 15 different vegetables every day, which is way more selection than most soul food places. That's even more choices than I had at the Orange Mound Grill on the day I visited.

According to a recent article in the Commercial Appeal, namesake owner Willie Moore was hesitant to start serving chitterlings out of concern for the odor from cooking them. But a sign in the entranceway indicated they are available now. After enjoying my first experience eating chitterlings I looked for but I didn't see them on the cafeteria-style serving area. I didn't ask about them because the pork neckbones looked so good that I had to order them.

The portion of neckbones was enormous. When you look at the picture above, those aren't tiny servings of turnip greens and pinto beans. The serving of neckbones is just that big. As the lady kept adding them to the plate I started to wonder if she was ever going to stop. My total after tax was less than $9. Once I found a table I immediately grabbed some Louisiana Hot Sauce and Bruce's Hot Pepper Sauce from the condiment counter. I ended up not using a drop of either. Everything was already seasoned perfectly. It was all so good that I nearly finished everything on my tray despite the generous quantities.

Obviously people who work in the surrounding area are aware of Willie Moore's quality and value. It was around 2 p.m. when I stopped in, which is definitely not  a peak time for a Downtown restaurant, and there was still a steady flow of customers through the dining room. That's a reassuring sight at a cafeteria-style place where you want fresh food being steadily cycled out of the serving pans. I still wish I'd had a chance to visit the original location, but I'm glad to know that the fire that destroyed the building didn't destroy the business too.

Willie Moore's on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 22, 2012

Pulled Pork on Getwell - Boss Man Vs. Burger King

Since Burger King began advertising its new "Memphis BBQ pulled pork sandwich" I've had several people ask me when I'm going review one. After all, I voluntarily ate a McRib last year just to compare that abomination to actual pork ribs from a real barbecue place nearby. And I recently ate a pork rib MRE I bought off ebay just to see what the Department of Defense's take on rib meat is.

Burger King isn't just calling its new limited-time offering "barbecue." It is specifically marketing it as Memphis-style sandwich. So on Thursday I stopped at the Burger King at Park and Getwell to try one. 

During the past decade or so my Burger King experience has been limited to a Whopper I purchased due to a random craving a couple years ago while driving past one of the restaurants. Since fast food items are usually industrial products that have had all their natural flavor, texture and nutrition  processed out and replaced by chemical additives a craving for for one isn't the same as a craving for the items they are mimicking. Anyone who has eaten a Whooper and a Quarter Pounder could tell the two apart blindfolded, even if they were dressed identically, just based on each sandwich's unique mix of flavoring chemicals. Neither tastes like an actual cheeseburger.

While I  try to stick to real food these days, back when I was a broke college student I was actually somewhat partial to the Burger King on Park, which is why I picked it for my barbecue taste test. The young lady who took my order smiled and told me I'd made a good choice when I asked for the pulled pork sandwich, which she said described as "really good."


In the cashier's defense, I'm sure she was comparing it to the rest of the Burger King menu when she said it was a good choice. At $3.81 after tax it was certainly the cheapest barbecue sandwich I've had in Memphis. But it's puny size means it still isn't a bargain compared to something like a jumbo sandwich from Payne's, which is only about $2 more (compare the above photo to the sandwich pic in my Payne's post using my hand as a size reference). The taste was so dominated by bread and sauce that I removed the top bun and ate it open-faced to get a better taste for the contents.

The pulled pork was topped with barbecue sauce, onions and a strange neon yellow sauce that tasted sort of like a tangy honey mustard with some spices added to it. The barbecue sauce just tasted like an overly sweet store-bought sauce from a bottle. There was so much sauce everywhere that it was hard to form much of an opinion on the meager serving of pork. It certainly seemed more like actual barbecue than a McRib but the sauces overwhelmed any taste that the meat had and there was no reason to think it had been cooked in a actual barbecue pit.

The combination of onions and the unidentified yellow sauce made me wonder if anyone involved in the Burger King marketing department had ever eaten a barbecue sandwich from somewhere in the Memphis area. Hopefully no one from any other part of the country will try one and think it is representative of the wonderful culinary tradition this blog is devoted to. It's "Memphis barbecue" in the same sense that Taco Bell sells "Mexican food." On my way out the door I stopped by the counter to ask about the yellow sauce.

"You mean the cole slaw?"

"The what?"

"They call that the cole slaw. It's supposed to be like the slaw on a regular barbecue sandwich."

I don't know what the stuff on my sandwich was but it wasn't cole slaw. The sandwich wasn't very filling either. In fact, between the bread and the sugary sauce I think I was actually hungrier when I left the restaurant than when I arrived. Since I ate real ribs following my McRib, I decided to find myself some real pulled pork. 

If I'd wanted pulled pork back when I was a student at the University of Memphis I would have gone to Little Pigs; a real barbecue joint on Highland within walking distance of the school. Today it is a Quizno's. I'm curious if students today are observant enough to stop and wonder why there is a barbecue pit on the side of the sandwich shop?

I noticed smoke pouring from the top of the pit at the Tops Bar-B-Q off of Getwell about half a mile south of the Burger King but I wanted to try somewhere new to me. About a mile further down the road I stopped in at the Boss Man Pit Stop on a section of Getwell that has the same type of blight I mentioned in my recent post on Lamar Avenue. The restaurant was sitting in between a car title pawn shop and an adult video store but the staff was inviting and the place smelled like real barbecue.

A pulled pork sandwich plate was $9.82 after tax at Boss Man. That's over double what I'd spent at Burger King but it was still a better deal in every conceivable way.

The pork plate came with slaw on the sandwich and two extra sides so I got baked beans and onion rings.

I discarded all the bread this time around. It was still a massive pile of food. And the meat was topped something any  Southern person could readily identify as cole slaw. 

The sauce on the Boss Man pulled pork had a good combination of spice and vinegar tang. The meat had plenty of tasty bark from the outside of the shoulder and pink, smoke-infused meat from beneath that. I did notice some unrendered fat mixed in with the chopped pork, which is one of the biggest reasons I prefer pulled meat. The onion rings tasted like regular commercially-purchased ones from a frozen bag but the beans were nice and thick with a good helping of barbecue sauce in them.

While I was eating the friendly staff came around several times to make sure I didn't need anything else. The owner, Eddie "Boss Man" Patterson, asked if I'd eaten there before and when I told him I hadn't he wanted to know what I thought of the barbecue. When I complimented the smoke ring and told him about Burger King's Memphis barbecue impostor he invited me over to take a look at the pit he cooks in.

I hadn't mentioned having a barbecue blog when he showed me the barbecue pit. He was just an outgoing guy who took pride in his work.

While I was looking at the barbecue pit Patterson mentioned that he has a mobile rig that he takes to local clubs at night to sell barbecue, turkey legs and catfish in the parking lots. When I mentioned that I blog about barbecue he invited me out back to take a look at it.
You can see that Patterson is standing at the back of the motor home pointing at something on the back window.

It's his score from the mobile setup's most recent health inspection, which he is justifiably proud of. 

Patterson runs a Twitter account at where people can see where the truck will be next. If you aren't familiar with Memphis and want to get something from the truck I would highly recommend practicing some due diligence in checking out some of the locations where he sets up to make sure its a scene you're comfortable with. He mentioned taking the truck to Yo Gotti performances so I asked if he sold barbecue when the famed Memphis rapper was at the Level II club.

"Oh yeah," he said.

Level II is located in a sprawling, mostly desolate shopping center on American Way near Mt. Moriah. The large nightclub sits in between an abandoned Wal-Mart and an abandoned Circuit City. I frequently travel past it during the day at work and I knew it was featured heavily in Gotti's video for the song Bang Bang. I've generally stressed in this blog that Memphis isn't anywhere near as dangerous for the average person as sensationalist media reports and fearful suburbanites would lead people to believe. There are a lot more safe, beautiful places and fun, interesting things to do than the city's detractors would lead you to believe.

Most of the violent crime in Memphis isn't random. If you aren't involved in the drug trade, avoid areas and situations where people are obviously looking for trouble and don't identify yourself as a target your odds of being a victim of violent crime plummet. On the other side of that equation, if it's after midnight and you decide to visit a large nightclub in a blighted area where rival gang members are getting thoroughly intoxicated your odds of being involved in a "random" violent altercation can increase exponentially.

Level II during the day is peaceful and quiet. The desolate shopping center it inhabits is what happens when local governments continually subsidize outward sprawl with no ultimate plan.

Level II during a late-night performance by Yo Gotti. Gotti makes incredible music but his shows aren't what most people would refer to as "safe."

Boss Man Pit Stop on Urbanspoon

Burger King on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Beale Streets Blues - B.B. King's

On Monday afternoon I stopped for lunch at B.B. King's Blues Club at the corner of Second and Beale. The club opened back in 1991, just six years after the opening of the Rum Boogie Cafe initiated the revitalization of Beale Street, kicking off a decade where Beale Street was once again a local destination for people wanting to enjoy live music.

I saw a lot of  great live music on Beale during the '90s. I was a junior in high school in 1996 the first time I saw Rancid at the New Daisy Theater playing a sold out show on the ...And Out Come the Wolves tour. 

Rancid hit the stage playing this song and the entire packed crowd went absolutely berserk. I'd been into punk rock for years at that point, and had been to small local shows, but I'd never seen mayhem like that before. I saw a lot more punk shows at the New Daisy in the years that followed. I still go see punk bands every chance I get, but these days that normally means Midtown bars not Beale Street.

A decade after the first time I saw them Rancid returned to the New Daisy during a tour for their Indestructible album. For some reason they didn't play the song Memphis off that album during their set despite repeated calls for it. Local fans still complain about missing an opportunity to hear the song live on Beale Street.     

As the '90s drew to a close the company that manages Beale Street, Performa Entertainment Real Estate, increasingly turned its back on the street's musical heritage in an attempt to maximize short-term profits. The Center for Southern Folklore, a nonprofit music venue and cultural organization, was booted off Beale to make way for a Wet Willies location. The center relocated to the Peabody Place on Main Street. As a family-friendly nonsmoking venue where beer was the only alcohol sold the center was extremely popular with music-loving locals and tourists. It was even a frequent daytime stop for school field trips. But a lack of mixed drinks limited the amount of money it could bring in, which limited the rent it could pay. Meanwhile Wet Willies may be a soulless frozen daiquiri chain but it has deep pockets.

While the opening of B.B. King's Blues Club on the west end of the historic district was a major milestone in Beale Street's revitalization, the opening of Wet Willies on the east end was a major milestone in the street's growing irrelevance for fans of live music.

 A few years later Wet Willies was joined by another chain aimed at tasteless drunks when a Coyote Ugly Saloon opened on the other side of the street. That is the New Daisy Theater to the right of it.

The moving of the Center for Southern Folklore and a shift in focus away from the street's musical heritage offers a textbook example of poor planning where a drive for increased revenue actually diminished the street's value to its former core customers -- local music fans and tourists. Unsurprisingly, the end of the street with the daiquiri bar that sells a sugary grain-alcohol-based slush called the "Call a Cab" and the chain saloon that encourages women to dance on the bar tends to draw a obnoxious and sometimes-belligerent drunken weekend crowd that is unconcerned with Beale Street's history. The Beale Street Merchants' Association is ironically now concerned with the fact that the street is becoming increasingly unwelcoming for families and tourists on Friday and Saturday nights.

Adding an additional layer of irony, during the first half of the 20th century Beale Street was a place where young black men would hang out along the street and listen to music even if they didn't have money to spend in the clubs. By ignoring the street's former reputation for live music, nightclubs that rely on the prerecorded DJ-driven booty rap that has become common in the Historic District have once again turned it into a weekend destination for young black men who just want to hang out on the street, listen to music and hit on women passing by without spending money in any of the venues. So the Merchants' Association is trying to find a way to limit the street to people spending money in its restaurants and nightclubs.

The western end of the Historic District has managed to maintain a lot more of the bluesy character people associate with the street. B.B. King's Blues Club still embraces Beale's rich musical history with live blues musicians on its stage every night. Even at lunchtime when I stopped by there was a live performance by B.B. King himself playing on a big projection screen on the main stage.

During Monday's visit to B.B. King's Monday I sat at the bar and had a large order of ribs. I'm still not sure why places on Beale tend to sell ribs in quantities like small, medium and large instead of the standard half or full slabs that are offered throughout the rest of the city. I was happy to see that they offered dry ribs as an option. The fried-onion-topped ribs were tender and coated with a really good dry rub but they didn't have a lot of meat on them and there was no evidence of smoke. I'm not sure if they were boiled or cooked in a gas oven but they definitely didn't spend hours in a smoke-filled barbecue pit. In fact, for an area with so many places claiming to offer Memphis-style barbecue, there is disturbingly little aroma of barbecue pit smoke on Beale.

The beans tasted like regular canned beans while the slaw was pretty average. I took a bite of the corn muffin and thankfully it tasted like cornbread, not the sweetened impostor being offered down the street at Rum Boogie.

I wouldn't make a special trip to B.B. King's to eat ribs. But if you are wanting to eat some okay ribs while enjoying some live blues on Beale the club is one of your best bets.

BB King Blues Club on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chitterlings are Health Food - Joann's

I was driving through Frayser on Friday when I noticed Joann's Family Affair Soul Food on Watkins just north of Overton Crossing. Up until then I still hadn't tried chitterlings on my quest, so when I saw a sign on the front window assuring me that they were available I decided it was time.

The restaurant serves chitterlings on Fridays and Saturdays and apparently the big orange sign goes up on those days to let customers know they are available. It's safe to say that the restaurant doesn't see many white customers given the surprised looks I received when I walked in the door. Everyone was friendly, even as the lady behind the counter laughingly freaked out when she asked what I wanted to order and I said chitterlings.

"YOU want chitterlings?! Don't be fooling with me. What do you know about chitterlings?! Have you ever had them before?"

I told her I hadn't. I'm not sure what sort of bizarre whiteboy voyeurism she thought had led me to stop in and try them. I explained that I was working my way through as many Memphis area barbecue and soul food places as possible. Is it a real barbecue and soul food quest if I never bother trying chitterlings? Besides I love pork, I love traditional foods and I don't share the U.S. general publics' disregard for organ meats, which are a treasured, nutrient-rich part of nearly every traditional culinary culture in human history.
In case there are any non-Southerners reading this blog who aren't familiar with the term, chitterlings, pronounced chitlins, are pig intestines.

The lady, who said she is the owner and cooks everything in the kitchen by herself from scratch, tried to point me towards the baked chicken but I went ahead and ordered chitterlings with turnip greens and yams. Everything ended up being great. The curious owner came over to the section of the restaurant where the tables were and seemed pleasantly surprised when she saw me steadily hitting my chitterlings with hot sauce and eating them. I've heard about some chitterlings having an off-putting odor and/or texture but these didn't. They were tender and tasty. The portions were huge but I still ate almost everything. The owner told me that chitterlings all come down to knowing how to properly prepare them.

Joann's shares a shopping center with a liquor store and a smut shop. The shopping center sits across the street from the cool-looking art deco building for the WREC broadcast towers. Ironically, WREC is the local affiliate for talk radio hosts like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. 

Since I largely work outside and the temperature was well into the 90s on Friday I was a little worried about eating a big pile of new-to-me offal and then heading back out into the heat, but it ended up being a non-issue. This is food that people have traditionally eaten around the world while doing outdoor manual labor. Since I've been completely avoiding sodas and cutting way back on wheat products over the past year I pretty much never have problems like heartburn and other stomach issues no matter what I eat.

And speaking of eating chitterlings and avoiding sodas, there has been a lot of fuss in the news lately about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban the sale of sodas bigger than 16 ounces from restaurants, movie theaters and food carts. There is no question that sugary drinks have been a huge contributor in the United State's current epidemic of high blood sugar that has been driving dramatic increases in obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, etc. But does that mean it is a good idea to get the government involved in what people eat and drink?

When I got home from work on Friday I looked up the nutrient information for chitterlings. One listing I found was for a three ounce serving while another was for a full pound. I'm not sure how big the serving I had was, but it was definitely a lot more than three ounces. If you follow the USDA's nutritional recommendations then the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in chitterlings will seem shocking. But dietary cholesterol has nothing to do with your actual blood cholesterol levels. And by ignoring the USDA and eating a diet full of saturated fat with limited carbs and moderate protein I've dramatically improved my cholesterol numbers while maintaining a healthy weight.

So chitterlings actually have a great nutritional profile as long as you don't eat a lot of processed junk with them that will cause you to store the fat in them. And they are loaded with vitamins and minerals like zinc, iron and vitamin B-12. Watch a nature documentary. When a meat-eating animal kills something it doesn't look around for lean cuts of muscle on its prey. It goes straight for the fatty organ meats. Also, I was eating my chitterlings with turnip greens and yams; two plants that are loaded with fat-soluble vitamins. So pairing them with plenty of natural fat helps your body to absorb all the nutrients in them. There is a myth that soul food is unhealthy because even the greens are cooked with pork fat. Cooking them with the healthy fats from pork actually makes them better for you. the real secret to making soul food healthy is avoiding the sugars and starches.

So ironically, while chitterlings are often thought of as an unhealthy and undesirable food associated with poverty, they are a great way to feed a working body. Meanwhile, it hasn't been until relatively recently that poverty has become so closely associated with obesity. And most obese poor people are also malnourished, because they are getting so many empty calories from the nutritionally deficient processed foods that are ultra cheap because they are manufactured from federally subsidized crops like soy, wheat and corn.

Type 2 diabetes didn't become an epidemic in the south while people were living off of meat and vegetables cooked in pork fat. It became an epidemic when people started living off of flour, refined vegetable oils, sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Yet today people with type 2 diabetes, a disease caused by chronically elevated blood sugar, are routinely told that they can control their blood sugar levels by cutting animal fats out of their diets and eating a lot of whole grains. That advice is absurd. Besides fat people are also told to limit salt intake, despite a total lack of evidence that eating less salt is actually healthy. So there is no way I can support any further government involvement in peoples' diets when government involvement in peoples' diets is already making our country increasingly overweight and unhealthy. 

Here is Sean Croxton, the man behind the excellent Underground Wellness podcast and blog, explaining the science behind what sugar does to the body. It's bad stuff, and most people in the U.S. are addicted to it. But making people drink sodas out of smaller containers isn't going to curb that addiction.

Joann Family Affair on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Lamar Avenue - More Tops

The last time I posted about a Tops Bar-B-Q a friend asked if I'd ordered pork rinds. I assumed he meant prepackaged Brim's pork rinds since Tops carries Brim’s products. But he said that on a visit to the Tops on Union he saw someone in line ahead of him order fresh pork rinds, which caused him to order some for himself.

After hearing about this I naturally asked about pork rinds when I visited the Tops on Lamar for lunch on Thursday. I was disappointed to hear they didn’t have any. My friend said the workers on Union told him they aren’t listed on the menu specifically because they already sell out so quickly. As a business owner I’d like to suggest that if you have a product you are keeping quasi-secret from your customers because it sells out so quickly it’s time to double the price and market it.  

What I did get on my visit was a pork shoulder plate. It was as solidly good as I expect from Tops, although the meat was oddly sliced into long strips. Thanks to the somewhat random ebb and flow of customers that is common at restaurants, when I first arrived I had to wait in line for a while but by the time I finished my meal I was the only customer in the store.

While I was the only customer in the store a bum wandered in off the street and tried to “get $1.50 for the bus” from the manager. She had been friendly with all the customers and started off friendly with him while asking him to leave but he kept persisting until she did the head and neck roll black women use to signify they have had all the foolishness they can handle and launched into an impressive tirade on the hard work involved in managing a Tops location, her mortgage, and her general lack of sympathy for grown men who “smoke their money then come in talking about wanting me to buy them a sandwich or give them money for the bus.” The bum quickly realized he’d pushed things too far and scurried out of the building.

Like most big cities, Memphis has its share of bums. It also has a reputation for being more dangerous than it actually is for the average person. Per capita violent crime numbers are heavily skewed by violence involving rival gangs, drug deals, robberies of people known to have drug money and other avoidable hood drama. Another part of the bad reputation comes from the appearance of streets like Lamar. Because Lamar is so heavily-traveled it gets seen by a large number of people; locals and tourists alike. And what they see is ugly. 

The problem with unchecked commercial development is that without an underlying design plan a haphazardly sprawling collection of buildings lacks the kind of intrinsic value that makes people want to put money into them as they age. Instead businesses move to new developments that are still terrible looking from a design standpoint but at least have the visual benefit of being newer, like the heavily congested sections of Goodman Road and Germantown Parkway.
I noticed one of the vacant spaces on Lamar used to house a restaurant named Q's Soul Food across the street from Tops. I wish I'd had a chance to try it.

I recently wrote about the blight along Broadway in West Memphis, AR. But the buildings that line the sidewalks there still have a unified and often historical look to them that makes it easy to envision what the street could look like with some money pumped into it. It’s the same kind of visual appeal that led to redevelopment in local areas like Cooper-Young and South Main, and it helps explain why even in its current state most of Broadway’s buildings are occupied.
When you look at Lamar you don’t find yourself thinking the numerous empty buildings need a good rehab and new tenants. You find yourself thinking that they need bulldozers. Local municipalities that routinely rubber stamp new development in the assumption that growth is always good need to send their officials on a tour of Lamar to see just how big of a drain commercial properties can end up being on tax revenues. Overaggressive growth inevitably leads to vacant properties. When a property goes vacant it doesn’t just decrease in value. It decreases the value of buildings around it, even ones that are still occupied. Meanwhile vacant properties actually increase the need for police and fire protection, which adds to the cost for local government.

People in the suburbs outside Memphis will sometimes boast that they've gotten away from "crooked Memphis politicians." The naive assumption underlying that belief is the idea that corrupt developers who showered politicians with money and gifts in Memphis, then did the same thing in the rest of Shelby County, will suddenly start to behave ethically in places like Fayette County, TN, or DeSoto County, MS. The recent corruption charges against Southaven, MS, mayor Greg Davis underline the fact that as long as government-subsidized outward development continues to spread unchecked throughout the Mid-South it will continue to bring political corruption with it.  

Tops Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 11, 2012

Broadway and the West Memphis Three - William's

Since I was working in West Memphis, AR, on Monday my original lunch plan was to make a return visit to Willie Mae's Rib Haus to see if the pulled pork was better than than the ribs I had there on my first visit. When it ended up being closed I decided to go further down Broadway in search of another barbecue joint I remembered spotting on a prior trip through what was once the city's bustling commercial center.

The aging former main strip still has a welcoming, unified design that makes it easy to daydream about how good it could look in a revitalized state.

Most Memphians just think of West Memphis as a giant sea of truck stops over on the other side of the river. As the little Arkansas city's retail business has largely shifted over to the Interstate access road where the Super Wal-Mart is located the smaller stores that line the city's old core have struggled with blight and a dwindling customer base in a scenario that has played out in countless small towns throughout the country over the last couple decades.

I remembered that the other barbecue place I'd noticed was just south of Broadway so I did a little zigzagging through the numbered streets that line the former main road until I found William's Bar-B-Q on 14th Street. William's doesn't serve ribs or a barbecue plate. The menu is limited to barbecue sandwiches and a few other basic items like cheeseburgers.

Walking up to the front door I noticed a CD insert from a rap album taped to it. Looking at the back of the door, it looked like it was an attempt to repair a bullet hole. But everyone inside the place, employees and customers alike, was extremely pleasant. 

The sandwich ended up being similar in overwhelming size and sloppiness to the ones served at Payne's and Morris Grocery. Luckily it came on a plate with a fork, since after a few bites it fell apart to an extent that I just tossed the top half of the bun and ate it open-faced. I ordered mine spicy and I think it actually had a better sauce than the ones I tried at Payne's and Morris Grocery. The chopped pork included a great mix of tender inner meat and crispy outer bark while the slaw was pretty average. There is absolutely nothing fancy about the restaurant but for less than $6.00 the monstrous sandwich is a great deal.

While looking for William's I was surprised by the number of little blues clubs I saw in the area. Between them and the area's barbecue joints a tour of the main section of Broadway would actually present a more accurate portrayal of Memphis, Tennessee's heritage than a trip to Beale Street for overpriced barbecue and tourist-oriented nightclubs. 

It appears that William's Bar-B-Q has never thrown away a broken television set in the decades it has been around. There was a sign warning people not to touch them.

Most of my customers in West Memphis are located either on or right off of Broadway, but since I do wholesale sales to other businesses I normally don't see much of the residential areas that surround the street. The last time I explored some of the surrounding neighborhoods was a couple years ago after I read the book Devil's Knot by journalist Mara Leveritt. The book is an account of the botched investigation and trial that resulted in the recently-released West Memphis Three being convicted for the 1993 murders of three young boys from the neighborhood just north of Broadway.

Although the crime fit perfectly with the profile for a crime of passion committed by a family member the West Memphis Police were convinced to focus their investigation on a local teenager named Damien Echols by a local juvenile probation officer named Jerry Driver who'd had an unhealthy obsession with Echols for years. There were rumors flying that the murders had been part of a satanic ritual thanks to sensationalist reporting by local TV news stations and newspapers like The Commercial Appeal* in Memphis.

A month into the investigation frustrated police, who had made no progress in the case, ended up questioning a local teenager with an IQ of 72 named Jessie Misskelley Jr. to see if he had any firsthand knowledge of the crime. Despite a polygraph test indicating that he was telling the truth when he said he didn't, police ended up interrogating him for 12 hours straight, mostly unrecorded and with no lawyer present, before finally coercing him into a confession that claimed he, Echols and another local teen named James Baldwin had killed the three boys. The rambling "confession" got so many basic facts about the murders wrong that police officers had to write a new one for him that fit with the facts of the case and convince him to sign it. 

After reading the book's account of the investigation and trials, which took place in West Memphis in front of heavily biased juries, I ended up going to visit several of the key locations mentioned in it. Driving through the neighborhoods around Broadway and looking at the small, frequently dilapidated houses makes it tempting to judge the entire community for the modern-day witch hunt, which was driven by ignorance, superstition, prejudice and a stunningly incompetent criminal justice system.

As much as I love the South, I'm very familiar with the negative side of small town communities. My parents are originally from a very small town in the Missouri Bootheel called Canalou that is so hopelessly backwards that the last time someone really tried to help the place out the the resulting fiasco was the subject of a This American Life broadcast. But even outside of small towns most humans have an amazing ability to accept or dismiss information based entirely on how it fits into their existing worldview. Local people naturally recoiled from the thought of a family member of one of the victims committing such a terrible crime. And as the ultimate boogeyman in their imaginations, Satan seemed like a reasonable explanation for the murders to a largely uneducated community steeped in modern American Christian mythology.

Even today in Memphis there are still plenty of people who refuse to even consider the idea that the wrong people were convicted of the murders. A lot of this denial is driven by the horrible truth that if someone acknowledges that the wrong people were probably convicted they also have to acknowledge that the real killer or killers got away with committing such a terrible crime.

This is even more true in the minds off officials like David Burnett, the arrogant and incompetent judge who presided over the trials, denied later appeals, and is now unfortunately an Arkansas state senator. During the trial Burnett repeatedly allowed "evidence" to be admitted like the testimony of an "occult expert" with a mail-order degree or a knife that was found in a lake near one of the defendants homes and presented as a murder weapon despite there being nothing linking it to the murder scene or any of the defendants. Meanwhile he repeatedly ruled inadmissible any evidence that suggested the three were innocent, like the results of the original lie detector test that indicated Misskelley was telling the truth when he said he had no knowledge of the crime beyond what he had heard around town.

Was Burnett a genuine monster who knowingly allowed a real murderer to get away while ruining the lives of three teenagers just to advance his political career? Or was he merely a bigoted, misguided fool who thought he was doing his community a favor by denying due process to people he assumed were guilty? Like the majority of people who run for political office he displayed traits of Narcissistic personality disorder, which could have kept him from ever questioning his initial assumptions about the case. People say that ignorance is bliss. Are men like Burnett and Gary Gitchell, the chief inspector for the police department in '93 who later became head of security for Shelby County Schools, able to look at themselves in the mirror with no hint of self-loathing thanks to their own ignorance? Or if they literally believe in ancient tales of Satan and Hell is there a part of them that is terrified at the prospect of eternal judgment? 

* I remember reading about the case in The Commercial Appeal during junior high school. While the paper has recently done a good job of covering the efforts that led to the release of the West Memphis Three it has never acknowledged how large of a role it played in spreading the hearsay and misinformation that contributed so heavily to the convictions from the heavily biased juries. 

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A Step Back in Time - Bozo's

Bozo's Hot Pit Bar-B-Q has been around since 1923. The Mason, TN restaurant is practically across the street from the original location of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken on U.S. Highway 70. While Gus's now has additional locations around the Memphis area, the little Mason fried chicken shack was the only one around in 2001 when GQ magazine named it one of the top five restaurants in the U.S. worth flying to just to eat a meal.

If you're going to fly in to sample some Gus's you should definitely stick around for some pulled pork from Bozo's while you're there. I don't know if I'd take a flight just to eat at Bozo's, but it was definitely a worthwhile destination for a group of classic hot rod owners on a pleasant Saturday afternoon in June.

Most of my barbecue journeys occur during the week while I'm making my rounds in my work vehicle. But my personal car is a white '69 Mustang I bought last summer and fixed up to drive while I am in the middle of a complete ground-up rebuild* of the 1955 Ford Sedan I've had since high school. With classic cars and barbecue being two of my lifelong passions I naturally jumped at the opportunity when I heard about a group cruise from Bartlett to Mason for the express purpose of eating at Bozo's.

We ended up packing over 25 cars into the Bozo's parking lot. Locals were getting on cell phones and calling their friends to tell them to come out and look.

We had called ahead to warn the restaurant we were coming and they did a good job handling the chaos of about 50 people showing up at the exact same time wanting to sit together and order at the same time. According to the menu Bozo's also does catering and I'm sure that experience helped the friendly staff deal with us. All together it took less than two hours from the time we arrived until everyone had eaten and paid up, which is impressive for a group that size packed into a little roadside family restaurant. 

I ordered the pulled pork and rib combo. Everything at Bozo's is served dry with bottled sauce available at the table in mild, medium and hot. The mild was too sweet and syrupy while the hot was simply hot without a lot of other flavor. The medium ended up being the one that perfectly hit the spot. It had a nice spicy kick to it but it the heat was just one element in a great overall mix of flavors. the beans and slaw were both pretty standard. The slaw was the sweet and creamy variety that isn't my personal preference.

Between the two types of barbecue the pulled pork was great while the ribs failed to impress me. What little meat there was on the ribs was very dry and tough. Meanwhile the pulled pork was extremely juicy with a great mix of flavors from the inner and outer shoulder meat. The serving of it on my plate was also deceptively huge. I was surprised by how much of it I ate before I finally put a visible dent in it. When we were waiting on our food to come out my friends and I had joked about hitting Gus's for a second dinner after we finished our barbecue since we were all extremely hungry when we arrived at Bozo's. By the time I actually did finish my serving of pulled pork I knew there was no way I was eating anything else for the rest of the night.

 Bozo's is such a visual time capsule that portions of the Johny Cash biopic Walk the Line were filmed there. A framed poster for the film now hangs on one of the walls surrounded by prints from scenes where the interior of the restaurant is visible around stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.

* Last summer the front end of my '55 was smashed in by another driver who pulled out in front of me in traffic. I built a garage in my backyard over the winter and I'm currently tearing down my old car and another '55 body I purchased recently to make one car out of the best parts from both of them.  

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