Monday, July 30, 2012

Lifecycles of Suburbs - More Southern Hands

[NOTE: The Germantown Road location of this restaurant is now closed but the Hickory Hill location is still open.]

Since I first tried the meatloaf at Southern Hands Family Dining a couple months ago I've eaten it almost every single time I've been in Collierville at lunchtime. I always look over the menu, but I always end up ordering meatloaf, turnip greens and black-eyed peas. I get cravings for it just from driving through Collierville.

Another Memphis Que post that starts with a visit to a restaurant before digressing completely.

Last Wednesday I stopped for lunch at the Southern Hands on Germantown Parkway, which is located near the Cordova Farmer's Market. The Cordova location is in a newer building with a more spaciously spartan dining area than the cozy, well-worn Collierville store. Once again I looked at the menu and couldn't resist returning to my tried-and-true combination.

The savory meat sauce is what makes the meatloaf so superior to the ketchup-drenched renditions served in so many restaurants. Everything was really good although it seemed to be missing a little something from the perfect seasoning profile I've come to expect from the Collierville store. But keep in mind that I routinely drive past the the Captain John's Barbecue that store shares a parking lot with and the Gus's Fried Chicken a few blocks away to eat at the Collierville Southern Hands because it is so good. So don't take it as an insult to the Cordova location when I say the one meal I had there fell a little short of being perfect. 

While I was waiting for my food I read a framed review of the restaurant from the Commercial Appeal newspaper that was hanging on one of the walls. I agree with the reviewer, Jennifer Biggs, that while sweet cornbread is generally something to avoid the sweetness of the cornbread at Southern Hands is subtle enough that it is still completely enjoyable, unlike the cornbread that offended me so much at the Rum Boogie Cafe.  

One area where my tastes obviously differ from Biggs's was when she wrote that, "the turnip greens were too smoky for my tastes, but that's an issue left to the individual palate; I prefer my greens without any meat. At Southern Hands, the greens do have a nice balance of sweet and sour -- but mostly, they were smoky."

Any regular ready of this blog knows that the concept that greens can have too much of a smoky meat flavor doesn't really fit into my worldview. But like she pointed out, individual tastes are going to vary.   

The one thing that stood out the most about the review was the heavy praise Biggs gave to the fried chicken. I'd never been tempted to try the fried chicken in all my times eating at the Collierville location since it is right around the corner from a Gus's Fried Chicken. If I'm in the mood for fried chicken with a Gus's a few blocks away, I'm going to Gus's. But after reading the description of the fried chicken at Southern Hands I decided I needed to try some the next time I was near one of restaurants.

The next time ended up being the next day when I stopped by the Southern Hands on Winchester in front of the Hickory Ridge Mall. The Hickory Hill location is in a former Applebee's near both the former Schnuck's grocery that is now the Winchester Farmer's Market and the former Target store that is now the epic retail extravaganza known as Big Daddy's Pawn Shop.

Having been to all three Southern Hands locations now, every single employee I've encountered has been so courteous and friendly that it is obvious the restaurant puts a heavy emphasis on making welcoming customer service an ingrained part of the company's culture. The fried chicken meal at Southern Hands usually comes with three whole wings. The Winchester restaurant was running out of wings on my visit so the kitchen substituted a breast for one of the them. My server was so apologetic when he came out to tell me that for a second I thought he was saying I couldn't get fried chicken at all. Subbing a breast for a wing? No problem, no need for apologies.

While I was looking at the Urbanspoon page for the Cordova Southern Hands the day before I noticed that the Memphis Gastroblog praised the yams there so I ordered some with my fried chicken and turnip greens at the Hickory Hill store.

The serving of turnip greens I had that day ended up being absolutely perfect. The candied yams were a little sweeter than I prefer but sill good. The fried chicken had two women at the table next to mine talking to me about how good it looked and asking how it tasted. The batter on the skin is definitely lighter than Gus's, or even most fast food fried chicken for that matter. It isn't spicy at all but the chicken meat is good and juicy. If I'm in Collierville wanting fried chicken I'll still stick to Gus's but at the Hickory Hill location I didn't regret getting it instead of the meatloaf for a change of pace. On a future visit I'll have to try the fried pork chop, which is supposed have the same batter.

On my way out I noticed a lot of cars in the parking lot of the Hickory Ridge Mall so I decided to take a walk through it. A tornado hit the mall in 2008 causing severe damage. Like most Memphians I hadn't been inside the mall since. The Hickory Ridge Mall frequently gets mentioned alongside the Raleigh Springs Mall as an example of what being in Memphis does to commercial property by people who conveniently forget about the vacant mall in Lakeland.

While all the former large anchor stores at the Raleigh Springs Mall have deserted it the Hickory Ridge Mall is still anchored by a Sears and an Incredible Pizza Company. Inside the mall there were plenty of vacant spaces but I was surprised by how many stores were open. There weren't many national retailers, instead most of the tenants are small, local businesses. People who haven't been to the mall in years will describe at as somehow being simultaneously deserted yet full of criminals. In reality it was clean and well-lit, and while it wasn't crowded there were more shoppers than I expected to see, especially on a Thursday afternoon.

I think most people from outside Hickory Hill just assume the mall is empty because of how much vacant commercial property they see driving along Winchester around the mall. But the mall is still walkable, drawing customers and full of spaces for small businesses, so it doesn't have near the problems that owners of properties geared towards big box tenants do.

Shopping centers like this have a smaller number of retail spaces that are much larger than the ones inside the mall. They need tenants who need, and are willing to pay for, that much square-footage of space. Those prospective tenants don't want to locate in a mostly empty shopping center, since being surrounded by vacant buildings and large empty parking lots isn't very welcoming to customers. Once an area is overbuilt large vacant buildings and empty seas of asphalt drive down rent prices, and therefore property values, in a perpetuating cycle.

Hickory Hill fell victim to the build-and-abandon debt-driven growth ponzi scheme that nearly destroyed the U.S. economy by 2008. As area municipalities continually tried to grow their way out of debt with borrowed money, and homeowners did the same thing with subprime home loans, an increasing number of both residential and commercial properties were left vacant as new construction greatly outstripped growth in both population and personal income.   

Developers built a tremendous amount of new retail space in the Mid-south at the same time that the Internet was reducing the demand for brick and mortar stores. Circuit City, which used to occupy this building, couldn't survive competition from both Best Buy and online retailers like Despite losing a competitor Best Buy is currently struggling against online retailers. This building is now empty retail capacity with no demand for it. 

The same thing happened across the United States during the previous decade as banks seemingly approved every harebrained loan application that crossed their desks in the short-sighted pursuit of quarterly performance numbers. Local governments welcomed the new growth; borrowing money for new infrastructure and ignoring the way the new developments increased blight and decreased tax revenues in older areas they were already responsible for.

Memphis has foolishly spent decades trying to annex its way to prosperity; constantly claiming new territory in the pursuit of tax revenue only to be left responsible for each new community's police, fire and infrastructure upkeep costs as aging properties and outward sprawl inevitably make each new annexation a net drain on the city's finances. The pursuit of growth for the sake of growth has created so much new blight throughout the Mid-south that it is hard for many residents to believe the fact that crime rates have actually gone down in Memphis over the past 20 years. Find an older cop and ask them about what the inner city areas were like during the heyday of the crack epidemic in the late 80s and early 90s. Sprawl hasn't created additional crime, other than the developers-bribing-politicians variety of white collar crime, but it has steadily spread it into new areas.

The vacant building on the right was a Barnes and Noble. That company still exists. I got a Barnes and Noble gift card for my birthday a few weeks ago. I used it buying stuff on the company's website. Barnes and Noble may survive, but it will never be the brick and mortar powerhouse it once was. Even if no additional retail space had been added in Mid-south after Hickory Hill was developed the area would still be struggling with the fact that so much of its commercial property was created for customers going to stores to buy things like books, electronics, and movies and music stored on individual discs. 

Despite the surrounding commercial blight the megachurches in  Hickory Hill still draw plenty of people. There is absolutely zero correlation between the financial prosperity of an area and the religious faith of its inhabitants despite countless claims that nonsense like prayer in schools would revitalize communities.

Southern Hands Family Dining on Urbanspoon

Southern Hands Family Dining on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Pork-Topped Double Cheeseburger - More Tops

I have claimed numerous times in the past that Tops Bar-B-Q makes a perfect double cheeseburger. But on Monday a friend sent me a Facebook message pointing me to an article in the Memphis Flyer that indicated there was still room for improvement.

For an additional $0.45 you can get barbecue added to your Tops double cheeseburger. With a realization like that I immediately knew where I was eating lunch that day.

I've been on a sidequest for months now to eat at every Tops location. By Monday I only had one left that I hadn't visited. Believe it or not, after living in Midtown for most of my adult life I had never been to the Tops on Union. Everywhere I've lived in Midtown has been north of Poplar, so the Tops at Jackson and Watkins has always been more convenient for me. And the Union Avenue store's location in the medical district has always made it popular enough to make it more trouble to get in and out of than the one closer to my house.

However, the Union Avenue Top's location next to the Methodist Hospital's pedestrian bridge does make it easy to photograph despite the heavy traffic in front of it.

The review in the Flyer is about a single hamburger topped with barbecue. Since I'm trying to maintain a healthy weight while eating at so many barbecue and soul food places I try to go for a much higher ratio of saturated fat to carbs. So I got a double cheeseburger topped with barbecue.

How have I lived in this city for 34 years without knowing this is an option?

I normally order my double cheeseburger "mustard all the way." But since this one had pulled pork added I skipped the mustard and just got it "all the way" with lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion.

It was a thing of savage beauty. The toasted bun did a surprisingly good job of holding everything together.

I mentioned plenty of times that the pulled pork at Tops is how I define "Memphis average." Looking at the Urbanspoon page for the Union Avenue Tops it seems like most of the comments go from one extreme to the other. People either claim it is excellent or terrible. In my opinion it definitely isn't the best in town but it is solidly and dependably good, especially for the low price and the quick service. Adding barbecue to the $4.95 regular price for a double cheeseburger brought the pretax total to $5.40.

The review of Tops on the excellent Best Memphis Burger blog only gave the cheeseburger three out of five stars. I understand why because the reviewer there made the mistake of only ordering a single. Tops uses thin patties, so a double is necessary to get the full experience. Also, he reviews burgers and fries together and the fries at Tops tend to be awful. But after trying the double topped with barbecue I'd say Tops deserves another visit from him to try this magnificent creation.

I've also heard from a friend that Tops offers homemade pork rinds. During my stop on Union I asked about them, and like my experience on Lamar, I was told they weren't available. Does anyone out there have any experience with these mythical pork rinds? I want to know how to get my hands on some.

Also, since I've completed my sidequest of eating at every Tops location I decided to compile all my entries about Tops into a single list in case someone, somewhere happens to be interested: 

November 6, 2011: A short post about the double cheeseburgers from the Tops on Jackson near my house.

December 12, 2011:Since Tops recently started offering pork ribs and beef brisket I sampled the Ribs from the store on Summer near Highland and the brisket from the store on Rhodes near Getwell.

February 9, 2012: After deciding that I need to visit every Tops location I have a double cheeseburger at the Tops on Frayser Boulevard. This one includes a lot of discussion about the problems facing the Frayser community.

February 14, 2012: A visit to the Tops on Stateline Road in Southaven, MS. The Stateline location has the best ribs of any Tops where I've tried them.

February 27, 2012: I love the convenience of having a Tops next to my house. If I want a slab of ribs to go with my scrambled eggs in the morning it only takes a few minutes to run and grab one.

April 13, 2012: A visit to the Winchester location for a pulled pork plate and give the Tops potato salad a try. Also includes pics of the store on Summer near Graham and the one in Marion, AR.

April 23, 2012: A visit to the Tops nest to Bass Pro shops on Macon for a double cheeseburger. This one includes a shout out to the hard working women of the Tops chain.

May 15, 2012: There are two Tops locations along Highway 51; one in Frayser and one in Millington. This post compares the two.

May 20, 2012: I visit the Tops in Olive Branch, MS, and get an order of the consistently underwhelming Tops fries to go with my double cheeseburger. Why doesn't a chain that makes such good burgers pay more attention to its French fries?

June 16, 2012: My next-to-last stop on my Tops sidequest was the Lamar Avenue location where I sample some sliced pork then spent some time discussing the blight along Lamar and what it says about urban planning.

Tops Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Smoking My Own

Theodore Roosevelt once said that "the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic -- the man who actually does the work, even if rough and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done."

So after nearly a year of writing about other peoples' barbecue it was time for me to create some on my own. My wife and I are involved in a locavore dinner club. Once a month we meet up with a group of friends and enjoy a dinner made from locally-sourced ingredients. A different couple hosts the group at their home each month and prepares the entree while other members are assigned to appetizers, sides, beverages and desserts based on a rotating schedule. The hosts also pick a single specific ingredient that everyone has to incorporate into what they prepare.

The whole thing is a lot less formal and pretentious than that description probably makes it sound. It's really just an excuse to get together for good food and strong drinks. Using farmer's markets and working to incorporate the specified ingredient into whatever you prepare adds an element of challenge and creativity that keeps it from being just a routine potluck. We hosted the most recent dinner over the weekend. The ingredient was peaches, so I set about creating barbecue with a peach-based sauce.

The sauce turned out really well. I made it before I started the barbecue using a recipe I found online. It was similar to a good tomato sauce, just substituting fresh peaches from Jones Orchard in Millington for the tomatoes.

This is Newman Farm pork after 12 hours on a Brinkman smoker I picked up from Home Depot for $40. With quality meat, proper technique and attention to detail you can get great results from a cheap smoker. Before the meat went on the smoker it was rubbed down with a mix that included the dry rub I mentioned picking up last week. The rub came from my friend Travis, whom I've written about in the past. He was willing to share enough for me to cook for a small group of friends, but he was still completely mum about his secret mix of ingredients.

After a total of 18 hours of cooking time our guests were already over by the time the meat came off the smoker. It is nerve-wracking to spend that much time cooking for other people when you won't know what the results are like until you are serving them. But I'd received plenty of tips and advice from Travis and I knew that if my barbecue turned out anywhere near as good as his everyone would be happy.

It smelled delicious. The moment of truth came when two forks were all I needed to easily pull apart the tender meat.

After using nothing more than time, smoke and seasoning to create what everyone agreed was some exceptional barbecue I definitely gained a new appreciation for the meticulous process behind the time-honored craft. It also gave me a new sympathy for people living in parts of the country where anytime they want good barbecue their only option is to head outside and smoke their own. Good barbecue is so abundant here that it can be too easy to take it for granted.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Misinformation in the Newspaper - China Inn 2

At lunchtime last Friday I went up to to intersection of Covington Pike and Stage, since I needed some pictures to counter a severely biased and misleading story that had run in the Commercial Appeal the day before.

 As a 34-year-old who still subscribes to and reads the print edition of the daily local paper I am part of a steadily disappearing demographic. This article and what it implies about the current direction of the Commercial Appeal caused me to seriously consider calling in to cancel my subscription.

Last Thursday the paper ran a story under the headline, "Credit Union cites crime and isolation for move to Bartlett," that started with this lead:

"Raleigh's distressed commercial strips of empty asphalt, vacant space and liberal supply of predatory lenders have sunk so low, even the City of Memphis has fled to Bartlett.

"That is, the City of Memphis Credit Union."

Reading further in the story it becomes clear that although the credit union uses the city's name and seal in its logo, it has no connection to Memphis government. Five of its six branches are still in Memphis but one in Raleigh recently moved about a mile further east on Stage to a new space in Bartlett. 

The article says:

"Part of CEO Ken Swann's answer was that his credit union needed to be nearer some of the 25,000 members, all of whom don't live in Memphis, and required more and nicer square feet.

"But he also stressed the crime and isolation in Raleigh.

"After pointing out that five of the six branches remain inside Memphis, Swann told questioners Wanda Halbert and Janis Fullilove that the Raleigh branch had become increasingly isolated and victimized.

"Its neighboring tenants had already moved out of the Village Mart on Covington Pike, just south of Stage Road.

"Burglars once attempted to steal the credit union's ATM. Another time, criminals jack-hammered around the night deposit box.

"'We struggled with that,' Swann said of leaving Memphis. 'Our goal was not to move out of the city.'

"But leave it did, just over a mile and just over the line into Bartlett. The new branch opened in Bartlett Square office building, 5705 Stage Road, on July 2."

Crime has definitely increased in Raleigh over the past 20 years, but where the article transitioned from sensationalism to outright blatant misinformation was when it began comparing the old credit union location to the new one saying:

"Site visits by The Commercial Appeal showed:

"Old place: Faced illegal dumping grounds behind a now-vacant Payless Shoe Source.

"New place: Good view of stately, red-bricked Bartlett United Methodist Church.

"Old place: Commercial strip fronted by big asphalt parking lot with only thin lines of perimeter landscaping.

"New place: Office building fronted by much smaller parking lot with proportionally much more landscaping. Even the atrium inside is flush with trees.

"Old place: One of strip center's bigger stores displays only a temporary banner sign: "School Uniforms".

"New place: Next to lushly landscaped, well maintained Side Porch Steak House.

"Old place: Borders waste bin area for neighboring Burlington Coat Factory, which itself is surrounded by acres of treeless asphalt.

"New place: Has a gurgling water fountain in lobby and blooming crepe myrtles outside.

As someone who grew up in the area described in the article and who still spends a lot of time traveling down both Covington Pike and Stage at work I knew that the differences between the two areas were far less significant than the paper was claiming. In fact, the similarities between the two are a lot more noteworthy and important for any genuine analysis of the lifecycles of local suburban commercial developments.

So I took my camera to both areas for some pictures to back up my rebuttal of the Commercial Appeal article. Since barbecue and soul food restaurants are where all my posts start out, no matter how far I might eventually digress, my first stop was the China Inn 2 located just a few buildings south of the credit union's old Raleigh branch.

In case you were wondering, the original China Inn is on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven. I'll have to try it after being surprised by the quality of the soul food offerings at the Raleigh Location.

The sign in front of China Inn 2 promises a buffet loaded with both "international cuisine" and "Southern home cooking." I've always been a little hesitant to try it, since I'm wary of restaurants that try to cover too much ground with their offerings. It is usually a recipe for mediocrity at best. I assumed the Southern cooking options at China Inn 2 would be a handful of selections like fried chicken, meat loaf, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese sitting in the steam pans.

The usual staples were there. But there was also a large choice of foods like hog maws, beef tripe, pig's feet and neckbones. And there was still enough of a lunch crowd near 2 p.m. to keep fresh food coming out at a steady pace. The crowd was a mix of black, white, Hispanic and Asian customers of all ages. 

For my first plate I got pulled pork barbecue, a pork neckbone, a baked chicken drumstick, turnip greens, yams and some hot water cornbread. Everything was good. The barbecue was the least impressive. While tender and juicy, it didn't have any smoke flavor and was served with bottled Cattleman Jack's sauce. It wasn't bad, but commercial gas oven 'que with store-bought sauce definitely isn't anything to get excited about. Everything else was really good. I guess I should have been paying more attention to the parking lot when I drove past China Inn 2 in the past. All the cars should have made me realize the place was worth checking out.

For less than $8 the buffet ended up being a great value. I ended up getting another neckbone because the first one was so good. On my second trip I also got a few bites of the pepper steak and stir-fried fish from the Chinese section of the buffet to give it a try. Both of them were good as well. I'll definitely be back, since I'm in the area so frequently.

I could have eaten even more, but it was a boiling hot afternoon and I needed to go walking through some blacktop parking lots to take pictures for this post.

The old Raleigh branch for the City of Memphis Credit Union. The Commercial Appeal described the location as a, "commercial strip fronted by big asphalt parking lot with only thin lines of perimeter landscaping." No one can argue with that statement.

The biggest problem with the old location was that it was at the back corner of the shopping center beside the rear corner of the Burlington Coat Factory next door. Once again, there is no denying that the loading docks and garbage containers didn't make for a very scenic view.

The Commercial Appeal was also correct that the shopping center has plenty of empty asphalt with little greenery. This building on the other side of the Burlington Coat Factory was once a home improvement store called Home Quarters. There is a large Home Depot across the street that the old store didn't have a prayer of competing against. The building is now a distribution center for an athletic company, making the space look somewhat empty and underutilized. 

There is no denying that the section of Raleigh around Covington Pike and Stage has some blight caused by poor design when the area was initially developed. But the tone of the Commercial Appeal's article makes it sound like the credit union moved to a beautiful utopia just a mile down the road in Bartlett.

Remember how the article described the lush landscaping, trees and blooming crepe myrtles at the new location? This is it.  


The article also claimed that the new location had a "good view of stately, red-bricked Bartlett United Methodist Church." The church is visible a little ways down the street. But across the street from the from the new location is this largely-vacant strip mall. Remember how the paper slammed the old location for being near a sea of asphalt with no trees?

The sign in front of the aging strip mall is a good indicator of how many vacancies it has.

Look behind the credit union's new home and you will see what used to be an 84 Lumber yard. The Side Porch Steakhouse beside the building the credit union now occupies is nice looking. But the article made no mention of the old gas station on the other side of the building.

While the lumber yard closed years ago it appears that people are renting space from whoever owns the property now to store industrial equipment and gear for special events. So like the former home improvement store in Raleigh, it isn't vacant but it definitely appears underutilized.  

The reporter who wrote the article makes it clear that he visited both sites. So for someone to walk around both locations and then present such a drastically different view of two areas that are facing extremely similar problems means there must have been some sort of agenda behind the distortion of fact.

I don't doubt that the credit union had problems with criminals attempting to access its property after hours at night. But that problem would have been largely caused by its location at the far back corner of its old building, where it was largely shielded from the street. So the move to a front corner facing the street at a new location was a definite improvement, but why did the paper go out if its way to make it sound like an escape from a decaying, crime-infested Raleigh to the lush, green paradise of Bartlett?

Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on the Commercial Appeal's website knows about the anonymous comment sections at the bottom of its stories. The comments are generally a toxic cesspool where a handful of bored, angry and miserable people posts constantly throughout the day using mockery and bile in a desperate attempt to feel better about themselves. The paper recently instituted a policy that mostly restricts online commenting on articles to paid subscribers (a digital-only subscription is available for just $9.99 a month). 

At first the new policy seemed like an attempt to clean up the comments sections, which had become a genuine embarrassment to the entire Mid-south. But I've noticed that since the change crime reporting on the paper's website seems to have gotten even more sensationalist. In fact, any negative news about the city, no matter how trivial, gets huge placement on the site. The article on the City of Memphis Credit Union makes it even more obvious that the paper is intentionally pandering to the most willfully-ignorant, know-nothing elements in its audience to make money off people paying to make snide remarks based on oversimplified stereotypes.

Memphis has plenty of real problems, and it deserves a daily newspaper that is able to provide serious, intelligent analysis of those problems. Right now it doesn't have one. I realize that when the paper's owners at Scripps-Howard in Cincinnati tell it that it is once-again time to do less with less in an attempt to prop up profit margins the paper has no choice but to keep reducing its staff and content. The Commercial Appeal's print edition was recently redesigned in yet another attempt to hide its ever-decreasing content.

With fewer reporters and editors around it is easier to fill space in the paper with stories taken directly from other media and police reports. Real analysis of complex issues requires time and money that is increasingly lacking. But it is deeply disturbing to think that the paper isn't just avoiding more in-depth analysis due to lack of resources; it is intentionally avoiding challenges to the oversimplified beliefs of its most belligerent readers who are drawn to any information, true or false, that reinforces their self-perceived place in the universe.

This isn't an issue of left or right, Republican or Democrat. The paper actually provides the B.S. "balance" that comes from reporting both the Democrat and Republican narratives as if they represent the only two ways to view any issue. This helps keeps the online arguing at a maximum level and the actual thinking to a minimum. 

The article on the City of Memphis Credit Union did mention towards its ending that:

"Large-scale planning decisions made many years ago — such as allowing Wolfchase Galleria to be developed on the outer edge of the city — could be the root cause of the Raleigh's commercial deterioration.

"But the credit union executive's grilling occurred minutes before the committee — and later, the full City Council — approved changes to the Unified Development Code. The reason for many of the code changes is to make it easier for Memphis developers to save money by avoiding the UDC's stricter design standards."

Wolfchase definitely caused a lot of the commercial deterioration in Raleigh, just like it did to the suburb of Lakeland. The bigger problem is that no lessons were learned at the time. Newer developments like Wolfchase and Goodman Road around I-55 are even more poorly designed than those older examples. In an odd twist of irony the newer developments have been temporarily stabilized by the current real estate bust, which has prevented further sprawl from making them look like their otherwise destiny of Winchester in Hickory Hill. 

The Unified Development Code is the city's attempt to make sure that future development, and redevelopment, within its borders is done right. As I noted in recent posts about Millington and Collierville, there are design elements that obviously do and don't work over a long period. As ugly as the strip mall across the street from the City of Memphis Credit Union's new home looks, it is just west of the best looking retail stretch in Barlett. 

Like the old sections of Collierville, Millington and Germantown, the best looking section of Bartlett retail space is next to the train tracks in a historic part of the city. The storefronts are built out to the street and there are a lot of small businesses densely packed together in an area that is easy to walk.  This is also the design you will see in the older parts of Memphis; like South Main, Cooper-Young and Broad Avenue; that have seen major revitalization in recent years.

We spent too many decades having our urban planning done by the developers and big businesses who buy our politicians. I was deeply disappointed to see a newspaper I was once proud to work for intentionally misleading its readers to promote the myth that the blight, political corruption and crime that continually follow unchecked sprawl can be escaped with a move outside the city.

China Inn 2 on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 20, 2012

Random Barbecue Observations

I am getting ready to smoke some barbecue in my backyard this weekend. Obviously good Memphis barbecue starts with a good dry rub but all of the ones you see for sale in grocery stores are full of junk like MSG and maltodextrin. So I called up a friend who makes his own to see if he'd be willing to part with a little.

I met him where he works this morning and picked up enough to take care of my needs for the weekend. While I was there it struck me that Memphis is probably one of the only places in the country where driving to a factory on the outskirts of Downtown to pick up a ziplock baggie full of homemade barbecue dry rub seems like a completely normal thing to do.

In another random observation, while driving through West Memphis yesterday I spotted this now-vacant building:

I'm sad I never got a chance to eat there because that had to one of the greatest signs any business has ever had.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Casey Jones Village - Old Country Store

After I stopped by Back Yard Bar-Be-Cue in Jackson, TN, two weeks ago I mentioned my theory that a big part of why the city has such consistently good barbecue is because the restaurants are geared towards locals not tourists. But this week I stopped by a restaurant that is definitely aimed squarely at tourists traveling down I-40, and while I avoided the ribs there I still ended up enjoying a solidly good meal of country cooking/soul food.

The Old Country Store and Restaurant is located in the Casey Jones Village. The store part of the building is like a Cracker Barrel gift shop on steroids. While the restaurant is mainly known for its large country buffet, it had a long line of people waiting to get in and I wasn't sure I wanted to eat at a buffet before returning to work in the intensely muggy summer heat. I was happy to find a counter selling plate lunches on the other side of the store with food coming from the same kitchen that was stocking the buffet.

At $6.99 for a plate lunch I ended up saving a little money and not feeling the obligation to painfully gorge myself that comes from paying for "all you can eat." I got a pork chop covered with peppers and onion, collard greens and black-eyed peas. Ribs were available too but they were sitting under a heat lamp wrapped in Saran Wrap so they didn't look very enticing.

The first thing to surprise me was the peas. They looked freshly shelled instead of like rehydrated dried ones. Fresh peas are in season right now but I wasn't expecting a place like the Old Country Store to be taking advantage of that. They were seasoned a little bit blandly but the tables were stocked with a nice assortment of hot sauces that took care of that. All the greens needed was a nice splash of Bruce's Hot Pepper Sauce. The pork chop didn't need anything; it was great. I noticed that most of the people getting plate lunches seemed to be locals since so many of them walked straight over to the counter as soon as they came in the door without browsing the store and got carry-out orders. The Old Country Store may primarily be a tourist stop but you can get a plate lunch good enough and cheap enough to make return customers out of locals who aren't interested in souvenirs.
 Old Country Store on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

More Overpriced Beale Street Que - Superior

On Monday I tried yet another place on Beale claiming to serve "the best" barbecue. Superior Restaurant is on the western side of the Entertainment District near Second Street in a building that use to house Beale Street's police substation.

There wasn't a hostess and a lot of the tables were already occupied by groups of people having lunch so I just took a seat at the bar where I was able to chat with the two friendly bartenders while I ordered and waited for my food. There was a musician on stage playing an acoustic guitar and singing. He sounded pretty good although I heard more Prince covers than old blues songs. Still, Beale has reached a point where any live music is a welcome site. 

I ordered the rib and pulled pork combo. At $18.95 before tax and tip it was near the price range of an absolute feast from somewhere like Central BBQ or the Bar-B-Q Shop. Instead of a feast I got a few ribs, a small serving of mushy pulled pork, and a few bites of beans and slaw. Like the Blues City Cafe nearby, Superior piles on the cheap Sysco fries to try to make the plate of food look less paltry than it is.

I noticed that Superior sells sauces and rubs with both its logo and the logo for 10 Bones BBQ in Southaven, MS. I'd be willing to guess that the two restaurants share some owners, since both seem to specialize in overpriced barbecue with sauces that are waaay too sweet. People who think that barbecue can never be too tender have never experienced mushy pulled pork like I had at Superior. The ribs had a better texture but there was no evidence of smoke in them and even the dry rub tasted like sugar.

Overly sweet, lacking smoke and claims of competition success seem to be the unifying features of most Beale Street barbecue. With all the claims of competition success keep in mind that Garden & Gun magazine has explored the Memphis in May Barbecue Contest and made note of the judges' growing ignorant preference for sugar over the flavors of spice, smoke and rendered fat. As odd as it may sound, the two biggest threats to the reputation of Memphis barbecue right now are Beale Street and our annual World Barbecue Cooking Competition at Tom Lee Park. As many wonderful barbecue places as Memphis has, if I visited from Texas, Kansas City, the Carolinas, etc., and just tried "award-winning" barbecue on Beale I'd leave thinking that Memphis was an impostor on the barbecue scene.

I mentioned that the building where Superior is located used to be a police substation. Rowdy weekend crowds have become an increasing problem since the station moved, so the city is now setting up a Memphis Police Department Entertainment District Unit on the eastern side of the Entertainment District, where most of the problems occur, in a building that has been home to numerous failed bars and restaurants.

Superior Bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Millington Past and Present - Old Timers

I'd never eaten at Old Timers in Millington before I stopped in on Monday, but as soon as I saw how many tables of people were there for lunch I figured the food had to be good. The restaurant is just off Navy Road in a building that was built at a dry goods and grocery store in 1907 near the train tracks. I keep noticing that in small suburban towns around Memphis there always seems to be something a little special about restaurants in historic buildings next to train tracks.

I initially planned to order something other than barbecue. The menu features a great selection of Southern cooking standards, some of the specials on the specials board sounded great and everything I saw on other people's plates looked good. Plus I'd plenty of great barbecue over the weekend. As part of my weekend-long birthday celebration I went to the dependably excellent Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown on Saturday night with a large group of friends and made sure to order enough pulled pork and ribs that I was still eating leftovers on Sunday afternoon. 

But fate seemed to be determined that I needed more barbecue. The hostess sat me at a table at the back corner of the restaurant where a large plate-glass window provided a view of the restaurant's barbecue pit in an adjoining brick room. There may be some men who can sit and look at the big barbecue pit while they are hungry at lunchtime and not order some of the pork smoked on it but I'm not one of them.

The impressive ribs had a tremendous amount of meat on them. The had a nice solid smoke ring and enough deliciously rendered fat in them that people who aren't aware how healthy pork fat is might foolishly complain about it. They didn't have any dry rub on them and at first I was a little worried when the only sauce available on the table was a mild one, since mild seems to mean syrupy sweet at a lot of places. But the sauce at Old Timers has a nice vinegar tang to it that makes it a good compliment to the ribs.

The baked beans didn't initially look very appealing since they had the color and appearance of canned pork and beans, however when I tasted them they had a really good flavor and were loaded with chunks of onion and pork. Adding a bit of the barbecue sauce made them even better. The slaw was really good too with a nice pickle and vinegar flavor instead of mustard or mayonnaise. The meal came with a couple corn muffins that were way too sweet. After being impressed with the well-balanced mild barbecue sauce I was surprised by how disappointing they were.

The restaurant's walls are covered in vintage photographs that provide a fascinating look at what life in Millington was like during the first half of the 20th century. I took a meandering trip to the restroom while I was there mainly just to look at as many of the pictures as possible. The northern side of the building where Old Timers is located is home to the Millington Cable Company. Like I noted in a recent post about the Collierville Town Square, looking at older sections of small suburban towns can provide a vivid example of just how bad most of the surrounding planning and design has been.

The old multi-use building is built out to the street and has design that still looks good with a cable company occupying it. Whenever I end up in older areas with buildings lining the streets I inevitably spend a little time walking around sightseeing, since it almost always ends up being interesting.

People use terms like generic and cookie-cutter to describe suburban developments, but those terms can be a little misleading. The buildings within most commercial development look  exaggeratedly different from one another. What is cookie-cutter about them is how a Chili's or an On the Boarder in one place looks like one in any other in the country. Branding and ease of parking near an entrance are major priorities to national chains. A McDonald's wants to look like a McDonald's from a mile away and it doesn't want anyone having to walk past the entrance of another restaurant to get there. This doesn't just rob area's of their individual character. The big problem occurs when a company with a garishly distinctive building design decides to close a location.

The cable company looked right at home in the cool historic building. Right around the corner from it on Navy Road this was obviously a chain pizza place surrounded by a big parking lot until recently. Now it is a discount tobacco store, sitting by itself in a sea of cracked asphalt, in a building that looks  exactly like a former chain pizzaria converted into a discount tobacco store. If it was one of several tenants in a denser retail environment with a more appealing design it would look okay. But here it just looks like blight.

Head north on Highway 51 from Navy Road and you will pass a former big box retail store that is now a Goodwill thrift store. As a nonprofit the Goodwill store isn't paying any property taxes even it costs the city just as much in police and fire services and infrastructure needs as the original tenant.  

As Strong Towns director Chuck Marohn noted on his visit to Memphis, once a municipality agrees to subsidize growth it is agreeing to pay the additional costs associated with that growth indefinitely, no matter how much the return on investment might plummet. Marohn explained that cities and towns tend to drastically underestimate how much new growth will cost them in the long run, wile overestimating how much revenue it will bring in.

When the City of Millington approved the shopping center where the Goodwill store is currently located, you can bet that no one was planning for it to end up occupied but not paying taxes. The only advantage to the city now is that having Goodwill in the building keeps it from being a vacant property driving down surrounding property values.

I have seen a steady increase in the number of nonprofit thrift stores occupying former large big box retail sites over the past several years, all overflowing with donated goods. We have reached a point in our society where the economy is sputtering and stalling because people aren't borrowing enough money to keep buying enough ever-increasing amounts of cheap consumer goods at the same time that we are having trouble finding uses for all the barely-used cheap consumer goods we are already covered in. Meanwhile organic farming gets dismissed as too expensive and labor intensive by people who seem to think that having more jobs and less material stuff in our society would be a bad thing.

True laissez-faire capitalism isn't possible in a modern society where any development will need things like basic infrastructure and police and fire protection provided by government. On the other hand, planned economies that attempt to separate profits from production have been a devastating failure everywhere they've been attempted. Local governments shouldn't be attempting to control local businesses. But when local businesses demand government services it is the government's responsibility to make sure it will see a longterm positive return on its investment.

This Rent-A-Center and Cash America Pawn shop are just south of the Goodwill store on Highway 51. They've been there for years so both are obviously filling a need within the surrounding community while paying property taxes to the city. The design of the properties they occupy makes them more of an eyesore than the natures of the businesses themselves.

Of all the Memphis suburbs, Germantown has done the best job of preventing blight through strict regulation of its businesses, zoning laws and design codes. That can seem ironic since Germantown has a very Republican-leaning population that would frequently claim to hate government regulation of business and property rights. But what that city has done, like a smartly run business, is recognize that any development it approves is both an investment and a liability. Granted Germantown has pushed for a little too much design uniformity at times, creating a community that would be far too boring for me to personally live in. But unlike the majority of the rest of the Mid-south, its leaders have actually thought about what the developments they approve will look like decades down the road.  

Old Timers on Urbanspoon