Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Country Diner in the City - The Cottage

Located on Summer Avenue near National the Cottage is like a small-town country diner sitting in almost the exact middle of the city. It's the kind of place that serves breakfast all day along with plate lunches and dinners of Southern staples.

The menu said the meatloaf came topped with a tomato gravy so I decided to give it a try since I have been obsessed with the tomato and beef gravy that comes on the meatloaf at Southern Hands for several months now. Since I was going to compare it to Southern Hands I decided to also get my standard sides from the restaurant of turnip greens and purple-hull peas.

The price for the plate lunches is only $6.99. After taking my order the waitress, who was the friendly grandmother-type server you'd expect to find in a country diner, mentioned that it was free banana pudding day so if I wanted she'd bring me some for dessert after my meal. I usually take a pass on dessert but I was born and raised in the South and I don't turn down free 'naner puddin.' The server started to walk off before turning around and mentioning that the restaurant was also offering a special with any meat and two combo of four coconut shrimp for $1. At that point I wasn't sure if she just thought I looked too skinny and needed to be fattened up but I told her to add the shrimp to my order too.

The shrimp came out with my cornbread. Four shrimp, two corn muffins, meatloaf, turnip greens, peas and banana pudding is pretty hefty meal for just $7.99 before tax and tip. I only had a few bites of the corn bread but it was good enough that I could have easily eaten more. I was happen to see that it came with real butter (ingredients: cream, salt) not any type of vegetable oil-based frankenfood.

When my main plate of food came out I was disappointed by the meatloaf since the "tomato gravy" listing in the menu had made me excited. The "tomato gravy" it was swimming in looked like ketchup and tasted like ketchup. Southern Hands has definitely raised my expectations when it comes to meatloaf. Also, at Southern Hands I've gotten spoiled by greens and peas that never need additional seasoning. At the Cottage both were way underseasoned. The greens were fine with some salt, pepper and Bruce's Hot Pepper Sauce. The peas didn't have any pork flavor, which should be the foundation of delicious peas. I added Louisiana Hot Sauce, salt and pepper to them but it is hard to get the salt level right on peas that didn't get enough while they were cooking. Like Plate Lunch in Bartlett the Cottage serves up old-fashioned white country cooking as opposed to flavorful soul food. The portions are generous and none of the food I tried was bad, but there was nothing to truly excite the taste buds other than the dessert.

The cottage served me some some great homemade banana pudding and at a price of free it was impossible to turn down.

The Cottage on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ribs Done Wrong - When Pigs Fly

I'd heard ads on the radio for a new barbecue place called When Pigs Fly with locations on  Hacks Cross in Memphis and on Goodman Road in Horn Lake so I decided to look for the one on Goodman while I was down in DeSoto County Monday. I didn't see any signs for it but I did spot a place called Skipper's Catfish and BBQ so I decided to give it a try. When I stepped inside the menu's and shirts on the staff identified the place as When Pigs Fly.

I had inadvertently found the place I was looking for, the new owners just hadn't changed the exterior signage yet. I saw that a half-slab rib dinner was just $12.99 so I was curious to see how it would compare to the more expensive but ultra-impressive ribs served at the Memphis Barbecue Company, which is just three miles away on the same road.

The dinner was supposed to come with beans, slaw and fries but I subbed potato salad for the fries. As soon as I saw the ribs I was disappointed. They looked like overcooked grilled pork chops sprinkled with a little dry rub. The beans and slaw were both okay but the overly-creamy potato salad was full of hard, undercooked potato pieces. Things got worse from there as I began fighting my way through the serving of ribs.

While trying to pull the ribs apart I kept getting large portions of unrendered fat with little pieces of overcooked meat attached to them. Of the portion in my hand here that is a little piece of meat to the left while the big glob to the right is all fat. There was no smoke coloration or flavor in any of the meat.

The membrane had been left on the slab of ribs. Not all restaurants remove the membrane but if ribs are cooked correctly it peels off easily. On these ribs it was a tough, thick, fatty sheet clinging tightly to the meat.

I always stress that I like tender ribs that still maintain a nice, meaty texture. I don't expect them to be completely falling apart; removing the meat from the bone should ideally take a little bit of effort. But it shouldn't be an impossible task due to a layer of unrendered fat attached to the bones. Rendering the fat means using time and low heat to liquify it so that it flows out into the meat, infusing it with juiciness and flavor.

New restaurants always have some bugs to work out and When Pigs Fly also offers items like catfish and burgers so I'm not sure how good some of the other menu items may be. But the ribs I had there were like a textbook example of everything barbecue ribs shouldn't be. The combination of no smoke flavor, overcooked meat and unrendered fat means they were cooked way too fast over way too much heat. It is a new place so if someone visits later and finds that things have improved dramatically let me know so I can give it another shot since my first visit didn't leave me inclined to go back. 

When Pigs Fly BBQ on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Texas Transplant - Wing and BBQ Shack

I heard about the recently-opened Wing & BBQ Shack on Mendenhall near Winchester from a friend who is a major barbecue connoisseur who devotes a lot of his spare time to both judging and competing in area barbecue contests. He told me that the the owner was a transplanted Texan and that while the restaurant's pork ribs didn't do anything to impress him the place had an incredible chopped brisket sandwich.

The restaurant is tucked away in a strip shopping center in Fox Meadows and is pretty easy to miss. I drove past it the first time I tried to spot it and had to call my friend to get a specific fix on the location. It is directly across the street from the big bowling alley just south of Winchester. Once I went inside I told the lady at the counter that I'd heard great things about the brisket sandwich. She told me it was available with a $5 lunch special that included a side so I got one with a serving of baked beans. She also asked if I wanted the sauce and slaw on the sandwich or served on the side. I appreciated being offered the choice and opted for both on the side.

The tender, juicy, smoke-infused brisket meat was as good as I'd heard. I ended up bypassing the bun and just eating it with a fork. I was glad I got the mustardy slaw on the side since it let me really appreciate how good it was. It can be hard to really get a handle on how good slaw is when it is a component of a sandwich. The sauce had a nice little kick to it. The beans were great. Sticking to the place's Texas roots they were packed with beef and hearty enough to serve as a meal by themselves.  On my way out I told the lady at the counter how good everything was and that I definitely wished I'd had more of the meat. She said I could have had a jumbo sandwich for just $1 more. That is definitely what I'll do during future visits, which I'll definitely be making since, as much as I love Memphis-style pork, it is nice to enjoy some variety.

The Wing & BBQ Shack should really do more to promote itself as serving up Texas-style sandwiches here in Memphis. The place is right around the corner from the Winchester Tops location, which is my default for quick, cheap pulled pork in that immediate area. But while Tops recently added brisket to the menu, the chain offers a fairly underwhelming rendition of it. Memphis will always be pork city when it comes to barbecue but that also means there are already an abundance of places offering great pulled pork and pork ribs. Besides Tops, the Wing & BBQ Shack is also a short distant from Leonard's, Showboat and the Mt. Moriah Neely's. Chopped beef brisket is delicious when done right and the Wing & BBQ Shack does it right. Combine it with the place's beefy beans and you have a Texas combo that I'm sure other locals will appreciate for a change of pace.

Wing & BBQ Shack on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Outstanding Pulled Pork - Post Office

I owe Post Office Barb-B-Que on Highway 51 an apology. The first time I visited back in November the texture and appearance of the Atoka restaurant's ribs caused me to think they had been boiled.

The ribs were tender to the point of falling completely apart with the meat drawn up on the bones like a serving of braised meat like Osso Bucco. A friend of a friend who is friends with the owner asked about the ribs being boiled before cooking and the owner was appropriately offended that someone was suggesting he'd take a shortcut like that with his ribs. It made me feel terrible to think I'd unfairly disparaged a place with unfounded accusations back when I was just getting started with this blog and still learning a lot about barbecue. I posted a disclaimer at the top of the post retracting the claim until I could make a return visit. After stopping by Post Office on Thursday that post is now the only one on this blog I've ever removed.

These are the ribs I got on my first visit. I'm not sure if they spend a lot of time cooking while wrapped in foil so they sort of braise in their on juices but they were completely falling apart while I didn't notice a lot of smoke flavor. Or maybe my taste buds just failed me that day. Either way, if you think that barbecue can never be too tender you will love them but I thought they were too mushy.

On my return visit I got a pulled pork dinner. I immediately knew there was no way I could leave up an old post that questioned Post Office's dedication to serious time and smoke. It was easily some of the best pulled pork I've ever had.

There was an astounding amount of charred bark on pieces from the outer sections and a deep, intensely pink smoke ring. The taste lived up to the appearance. A mix of different, but all delicious, flavors and textures that hit you in tandem is what makes truly great barbecue stand above any other meat. I didn't notice that with the ribs but it was definitely there in the pulled pork. 

If you can create a bite of barbecue like this I can't question any of your cooking techniques.

One thing that stayed consistent between my first and second visit to Post Office was that to me there was no contest between the two sauces offered. The bright orange mild sauce was so sweet it reminded me more of duck sauce from a Chinese restaurant than barbecue sauce but obviously some people like it or it wouldn't be offered. Meanwhile the hot barbecue sauce offered a perfect mix of heat and flavor that caused me to continually reach for it even though the pulled pork was so good it could have been eaten without any sauce. Of the sides, I enjoyed the baked beans while the cole slaw represented the sweet and creamy approach to slaw that I don't care for. But the pulled pork is all the reason any barbecue lover needs to visit the restaurant.

Post Office Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 24, 2012

Giant Sandwich - Kelvin's

I have a friend who routinely mentions how good the enormous barbecue sandwiches used to be at Kelvin's before the place changed its name to Kelvin's Hot Wings and dropped the barbecue from its menu. I was driving down Highway 51/Thomas through Frayser on Monday when I noticed a sign in the window of the Kelvin's announcing the restaurant was serving barbecue sandwiches again.

The little restaurant is mainly a carry out place but it does have a few small tables along the front window. Since the sandwich was what I'd heard so much about I ordered one to see if it lived up to its reputation. 

That is a full-sized bun. The pile of barbecue just makes it look small. This monster costs $4.65.

I think the Kelvin's jumbo sandwich may even dwarf the Payne's jumbo in size. Luckily it came with a plastic fork since there was no was possible to pick the thing up and eat it as a sandwich. The chopped meat had some nice charred bits mixed in with it and a good flavor. The sauce seemed a little to sweet. When I texted my friend to tell him the sandwich was back on the menu he mentioned that he always ordered them with hot barbecue sauce. I asked an employee behind the counter about the hot barbecue sauce and he said it was available so I'll request it the next time I visit. The slaw seemed pretty good too but it is hard to objectively judge a serving of slaw that is sitting under a pile of barbecue that big.

Kelvin's Hot Wings on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Country Cooking Brunch - Bryant's

I almost always fix myself breakfast at home. It's a meal I can throw together in a few minutes and breakfast food is cheap enough that it is still reasonable at home even if you make a big meal while sticking to ultra-healthy, top-quality ingredients like real butter, eggs, bacon, sausages and unhomogenized whole milk from grass-pastured, organically-raised  animals.

But on Thursday night a massive storm knocked out the electricity to our house and it still wasn't back on Friday morning. That meant finding somewhere to eat breakfast, which meant heading to Summer and Graham to visit a Memphis breakfast institution.

Like I said, I was visiting after an intense summer storm had knocked out my electricity at home. Bryant's normally doesn't look this gloomy.

As a teenager working every summer on a lawn crew during the late 90s there were three area barbecue joints we frequented for breakfast -- Bryant's BBQ, Moma's B-B-Q and Three Little Pigs. At Bryant's the generous, made-from-scratch breakfasts became so much of a draw that the restaurant dropped the barbecue from its name and menu to focus on the meal it was most famous for, rechristening itself Bryant's Breakfast. 

Bryant's keeps breakfast food moving as quickly and efficiently as Tom's Bar-B-Q on Getwell does lunch. Don't let the inevitable long line intimidate you; it's going to move fast. The employees are used to the crowds and have feeding them down to a science.

Since I had some work I had to take care of before I was able to stop to eat it was 11 a.m. before I made it to Bryant's. I'd recently heard about the restaurant adding plate lunches to the menu so I ordered a side of turnip greens from the lunch menu to go with my "Everything Omelette," which came packed with ham, bacon, sausage, onions and tomatoes in a massive three-egg omelette. Like most of the breakfast combos at Bryants, the omelette came with biscuits, gravy and grits.  

The omelette was fantastic. It could easily be a meal all by itself. Since one of the major points of this blog is to make healthy choices while eating Southern foods I ordered the turnip greens as an alternative to the fattening biscuits, gravy and grits that accompanied the breakfast. The great ham at Bryant's is a big part of the place's reputation and the greens were satisfyingly loaded with it.

As good as the ham is, biscuits are the food most people think of when they hear the words Bryant's Breakfast. I'm not sure how many the place serves in an average day but the number has to be staggering. There were three of them included with my breakfast plate. I ate a few bites of one with some gravy but kept my focus on the real foods for two reasons. Like most restaurants, Bryant's uses vegetable shortening in its biscuits. With the flour that makes them a mix of two of the most damaging products in the modern American diet. Also, sticking to natural fats as much as possible has turned me into a biscuit snob.

Taking a few bites of a biscuit with gravy at Bryant's gave me a hankering for the homemade version, so on Saturday morning I made some to go with breakfast. I don't make biscuits at home very often, but when I do I try to make them as healthy and delicious as possible. Don't take that as an insult to the biscuits at Bryant's. Compared to any biscuit from a can, a frozen bag or a fast food restaurant they will seem incredible. But Bryant's has to keep food costs low enough to make a profit while keeping production high enough to feed the hungry crowds at the counter.

At home I can get a few biscuits ready in the time it takes my oven to preheat to 400 degrees, which is quick enough for me. I'll share my approach in case anyone is interested. I just made five large biscuits but the recipe is easy to double and obviously you get more biscuits total if you make them smaller.  

 Start with three and a half tablespoons of unsalted butter and about a teaspoon of pork lard. Cut the butter into half-inch cubes. Put the butter and lard in the freezer while you get the flour ready since you want the fats as cold as possible when you start working with them. No nasty, heart-frying margarine. stick to real unsalted butter. Natural fats have been a major component of my dramatically improved heart health.

In a large to medium-sized mixing bowl mix one and a fourth cups of unbleached all-purpose flour with 3/4 teaspoon of baking powder and a 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda. Buying baking powder will give you a whole new level of distrust for commercial baked goods when you realize how much extra you have to pay for a brand that isn't full of aluminum. Take the butter and lard from the freezer and use a combination of fork and your hands to mash and mix them into the flour until you have a nice, fine mixture. [NOTE: I've started using a full teaspoon of baking powder and a half teaspoon of baking soda based on some advice I got in the comments for this post.]

 Take a little more than half a cup of whole milk and slowly pour it into the bowl while steadily mixing with the fork with your other had. Stop occasionally to try forming the mix into a ball. Once you get a good, firm ball of dough stop adding milk. Be careful, you don't want it to get slimy. the exact amount of milk you need will vary according to the temperature and humidity around you.

 Roll out the dough and cut out some biscuits. I have some specific glasses I always use to punch them out because I think they make perfect-sized biscuits.

Bake for 15 minutes on a cookie sheet or pizza stone.

If I want gravy, while I am making the biscuits I already have either bacon or sausage going in the cast iron skillet.

Milk gravy just needs the grease from the bacon or sausage, a little flour, milk, salt and pepper. Don't forget the white pepper too.

All that butter and lard makes the biscuits incredibly flaky and crumbly, not greasy like someone might expect. If you just eat one with some gravy you only get about 20 grams of fattening carbohydrates in a breakfast packed with healthy, natural fats.

Bryant's Breakfast on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 20, 2012

Crosstown Soul Food - Rudabagas

A little procrastination actually helped to make this blog timely. Last Thursday I stopped for lunch a Rudabagas Restaurant, a soul food place on Cleveland just a couple block south of the old Crosstown Sears building. I still hadn't posted about the visit yet Sunday morning when the Commercial Appeal newspaper delivered some very big news about that Sears building on its front page. Keep reading. I'll be getting to that news and what it should mean for the rest of Cleveland Street later in this post.

It's actually harder for me to visit lunchtime stops like Rudabagas that are near my house than the far-flung restaurants from Jackson, TN, to DeSoto County, MS, I frequently write about. Since my job involves working various routes doing sales calls I try to hit stops close to my house at the start or end of the workday and to be as far from home as I'm going to get in the middle of the day. But on Thursday I spent the morning taking one of our cats to the vet, so I left home for work at lunchtime.

There were a couple of moments of confusion during my visit. I ordered the "smothered dark meat chicken" with pinto beans and cabbage. What I intitially got was chicken, dressing and cranberry sauce, which was the special for the day, along with the sides I'd requested. I pointed out the mistake to my server and she quickly switched it out with what I'd ordered.

The menu had offered a choice between fried or smothered chicken. I assumed that smothered meant baked chicken topped with a mix or peppers, onions and gravy since that is what smothered has meant at every other soul food restaurant I've been to. Instead at Rudabagas ordering smothered gets you fried chicken covered covered with gravy. I've mentioned the Ken's Food Find blog several times recently. After my meal at Rudabagas I checked the restaurant's Urbanspoon page and laughed when I saw that Ken had the exact same confusion about the smothered chicken on his first visit to the restaurant.

Since I generally try to demonstrate relatively healthy food choices as a part of this blog I wouldn't have ordered fried chicken covered with milk gravy if I'd known that was what the "smothered dark chicken" was. But what if you are more concerned with taste than health? It's soul food restaurant fried chicken covered with milk gravy. It tastes as good as it sounds. It's a mess to eat that requires a stack of napkins since you can only get so much of the meat off the bones using a knife and fork and once you start eating it you aren't going to stop until the bones are picked clean. Both the sides were pretty average. There wasn't anything wrong with either, but neither was anything to get excited about either.

While I was there I also noted an ominous sign posted in the restaurant. Rudabagas recently increased its prices in what is probably going to be a worldwide trend in the coming months.

The day before I visit to Rudabagas I stopped to look at some of the giant, burnt up fields of corn in between Memphis and Jackson, TN. Many of the dead plants were just stalks that had never even formed ears. Our economy and food supply has become way too dependent on huge fields of a handful of annual monocrops that are controlled by a handful of grain cartels. We destroy topsoil, deplete water tables and drench the land with pesticides to grow crops on land that should be used for natural rotational grazing by livestock. Notice that recent rains have already brought the grass back to life? With an annual monocrop like corn the entire year's harvest is dependent on a few months' weather.

At the start of this post I mentioned some huge news involving the long-vacant Crosstown Sears building. I wrote about the building back in May during a post about the Bikesplotation event hosted there by Live From Memphis. At the time I said, "I'd love to see the majestic building put back to use, but it is a victim of its own sprawling size. It would cost a fortune to renovate 1.4 million square feet in such rough condition and it is hard to imagine any project that would actually require such an enormous amount of space. All the real architectural value of the building is in its towering front section, but demolition work to remove a large portion of the boxy rear warehouse area of the building to make it a more manageable size would still require a huge amount of money."

According to the Commercial Appeal, the developers who purchased the building back in 2007 are planning to remove about a third of the building to make it a manageable size. Of the space that will remain, 600,000 square feet has already been spoken for, mainly by huge names in the local healthcare community like the Church Health Center, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, ALSAC and the West Clinic.

Those tenants make sense given the buildings proximity to the city's existing medical district. The developer's plans call for filling the rest of the building with a mixed use of apartments, retail, art studios and educational facilities to create a "vertical urban village," the paper reported.  The renovation is expected to cost around $200 million.

The project the developers are describing is a dense, walkable, creative and functional reuse of an iconic historic building. It embodies many of the design elements that this blog has been discussing recently and it is happening a short walk down the V&E Greenline away from my house at a sight that had become a major eyesore and drain on surrounding commercial property values.

I've been posting recently about how vacant retailers are a major drain on property values and tax revenues everywhere from Lamar Avenue to Hickory Hill to Southaven, MS. The bigger the vacant building the more it adds to blight, and it doesn't get much bigger than the former Sears building. Fill the building with working healthcare professionals and expect surrounding vacant commercial property to quickly fill with tenants.

The Crosstown Sears was originally built in 1927. As hard as it may be to believe now, skeptics originally claimed that the store wouldn't last long because people wouldn't be willing to drive that far out into the suburbs to shop. There are plenty of properties around the Sears building that could look great with some money put into them. The area immediately to the east of the building is already very affluent, but businesses have still been understandably
 reluctant to locate in the shadows of a giant vacant building. 

Nothing is guaranteed yet. But if renovation work starts on the gigantic old building expect a domino effect as properties like these across the street from it jump significantly in value. Especially since the main tenants for the refurbished building represent huge, well-established names in the local healthcare industry. This is one of the most exciting proposed projects during my lifetime in Memphis.

Rudabagas on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Smoke Free - Pig House

If you cook a piece of pork meat slowly over low heat it will end up being  tender and juicy. But smoke and seasoning are the additional elements that define great barbecue. After I tried the impressive ribs at Back Yard Bar-Be-Que on Old Hickory last month I wrote about how consistently good all the barbecue I've tried in Jackson has been. I attributed it to all the area's barbecue joints being independently run by locals and aimed at local repeat customers. I also mentioned that I ended up at Backyard because the first place I tried to stop that day, the Pig House Bar-B-Que, was still closed for the July 4 holiday at the time. 

On Wednesday the Pig House was open so I picked up a pulled pork plate. The Pig House is a little drive-thru-only place on Campbell just a few blocks from Back Yard Bar-Be-Que. It is just five miles from Latham's Meat Company and four miles from the Reggi's by Pringles Park. I assumed any barbecue joint sitting off the main road and flanked by competition like that was going to be top notch.

Everything seemed promising when I pulled up. The man taking my owner was extremely friendly and the prices were cheap. A pulled pork dinner was $7 and some change and it included potato salad along with the meat, beans and slaw. Since it was a rare August day with a high of just 87 degrees despite plenty of sunshine I found a picnic table in the shade at a nearby location to enjoy my meal and the weather together.

The barbecue sauce was really good. It had a nice spicy kick and vinegar bite to it. But even using all the sauce provided wasn't enough to make the meat seem flavorful. It was tender but it just tasted like pork. There was no additional flavor.

Looking at it more closely I could find portions that looked like they had come from the outer edge of the shoulder based on changes in texture and color. But there wasn't any crusty bark or smoke coloration. There also wasn't any indication of any rub or sauce being used during the cooking process. It didn't taste bad. It just tasted like what you would get if you slow roasted an unseasoned pork shoulder in an electric over.

The mustardy potato salad was the best of the three sides. The slaw was a little too sweet and didn't have any vegetable ingredients besides the shredded cabbage. At first I assumed the ketchupy beans were from a can but I found some bacon and onion pieces in them as I ate them. With its low prices and quick drive-thru service the Pig House offers a fast food rendition of barbecue similar to Baby Jack's BBQ in the Memphis suburb of Bartlett.

Pig House Bar-B-Cue Incorporated on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

False Advertising - King's

Regardless of what the sign out front says, King's Home Cooking on Lamar near Shelby Drive doesn't sell barbecue. Just the normal bodega lunch counter selection of fried stuff, burgers and Philly cheese steaks. I stopped in last Thursday and left without getting anything since there weren't any tables in the store and I didn't see any reason to eat in my work vehicle if I wasn't going to get to sample any barbecue. It looked like the word "King's" on the sign had been painted over a previous name so I'm sure the "Bar-B-Que" touted on it was something offered by a prior tenant.