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


  1. I've never eaten at Rutabagas....usually, I'm slumming it next door at Al Rayan, where the tables are dirty, the food is good, and the women inside are friendly.

    1. I've been a fan of Al Rayan since years ago when it originally opened as a Middle Eastern place called Boogey's Bistro.

  2. Seems like a very good restaurant..I surely give a try to this whenever I visit this place.