Friday, September 28, 2012

Medical District - Peggy's Heavenly Home Cooking

Wednesday was this blog's one year anniversary. I haven't posted much in the past two weeks even though I've still been enjoying barbecue and soul food pretty much every weekday. I've found so many great places doing this blog that I now know where to stop for a cheap, tasty and nourishing lunch in pretty much any part of the Mid-south I end up in. The problem for this blog is that over the course of more than 170 posts over the past year I am finally starting to run out of new places to write about.

On Thursday I was able to stop by Peggy's Heavenly Home Cooking on Cleveland a few blocks south of Union in the Medical District. It is directly next door to Printer's Alley; a late-night bar that is an institution among locals who like to drink well into the a.m. hours. I've had several people recommend the Southern hospitality and vegetables at Peggy's to me over the years but I am rarely that close to home on workdays and somehow I never think about the place on Sundays, when it is also open. That will change now that I've been there, since open restaurants around Midtown can be surprisingly hard to find on Sunday evenings.

I ordered the chopped steak with onions and sides of turnip greens and black-eyed peas from my extremely warm and welcoming server. My meal came out fast. Being in the Medical District the restaurant seems to make sure it gets food out quick enough to get busy medical workers back to work on time. Everything was well-seasoned, but in a more subtle way than Southern Hands, which has become my gold standard for greens and black-eyed peas. At Peggy's the seasoning in the chopped steak stood out as particularly good and the greens just needed a splash of the obligatory hot pepper sauce that was already on the table. The peas did seem a little underseasoned although a little black pepper corrected that.

Like At The Bistro near the airport, Peggy's prides itself in serving "healthy soul food." And like At the Bistro, "healthy" at Peggy's means vegetables cooked without animal fat on a menu full of starch-heavy sides, sugary drinks and sugary desserts. That was no big deal to me. I was still able to put together a thoroughly tasty and nutritious meal. Peggy's and At The Bistro are both owned by women with a thorough understanding of how seasoning works, so both restaurants are able to create delicious Southern vegetables without any animal fat. But it is always disappointing to see just how ingrained misinformation peddled by the the government and the processed food industry has become in society's mindset.

Ironically, I'm sure that the meat-free vegetables are extra popular at a restaurant that draws a lot of its customers from the Medical District, since groupthink and confirmation bias have caused medical professionals to stubbornly cling to the hypotheses that high fat diets and high blood cholesterol levels increase the risk of heart disease despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In fact, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently began encouraging hospitals in the city to cut fats from the foods they serve and push more whole grains, and hospitals are voluntarily accepting his recommendations. One of the main reasons I said I was so opposed to Bloomberg's prior vendetta against big gulp sodas; despite the fact that sugary drinks are such a major driving force behind obesity, heart disease and diabetes; is that the government has such a long history of giving terrible dietary advice. An epidemic of high blood sugar levels is the driving force behind our country's increasing epidemic of chronic diseases. And a low-fat, whole-grain-heavy diet is one of the last things anyone with high blood sugar needs. When I compared the effects on blood sugar of a low-fat meal full of whole grains to just eating a jumbo barbecue sandwich from Payne's a few months ago I ended up being amazed by how much worse the supposedly "healthy" meal ended up being.

If you genuinely believe some invisible being like Allah or Yahweh is going to get mad at you for eating pork in your vegetables that is one thing. But if you think science has useful things to tell us about how the world works then take another look at pork fat and accept it for the nutritious and nonfattening energy source that it is. It's status as a real food that we is why making it a cornerstone of my diet has dramatically improved my heart health. And vegetables like greens are loaded with fat-soluble vitamins that are bodies don't absorb correctly if we don't eat them with enough fat.

Interestingly, since I mentioned how much I love the greens at the Southern Hands, I found out that the fear of pork fat amongst the general public also influenced the recipe for greens there. I stopped by the Collierville location on Wednesday, like I now do pretty much any time I am in Collierville, and while I was there I asked one of the owners if she uses salt pork or ham hocks in her greens since they are so consistently good. I was shocked when she told me neither. Since we live in a society where the words "salt pork" make people cower with fear she cooks the greens with a combination of smoked turkey and rendered chicken fat from her baked chicken. The results are great, but she did say she still personally prefers pork.

It demonstrates how little common sense people are applying to nutrition when customers are more comfortable with rendered fat from a chicken than a pig. Yes chickens are leaner overall than pigs. But even if you believe the myth that animal fat is bad for you, rendered fat by definition is pure fat no matter what animal it comes from. Besides, pigs don't get fat eating fat. You make a pig fat with corn, soy beans and skim milk.

On a side note, the reason I was in the Midtown area at lunchtime was because I took off work early to take care of getting tags for my Mustang. People who live in Memphis understand why I set aside an entire afternoon for that ordeal. The several hours process it takes to go through inspection and then to the County Clerk's office for tags strikes fear into the heart of any Memphian. Residents have to go through an inspection for any vehicle more than four years old.

Comically, the '69 Mustang was built before there were any government emissions standards so it is exempt from having to meet them but the city still requires a paper from one of its inspection stations for any license renewal. Normally that paper has to say the vehicle passed every part of the inspection. But for an old car like the Mustang you can totally fail the tailpipe test for hydrocarbons and then use the paper saying you failed to get tags as long as you pass all the safety parts of the inspection for things like lights, parking brake and wipers.

Despite the hydrocarbons, don't get onto me for polluting. The car is a secondary vehicle that doesn't see a lot of road time. And fixing up an old car is recycling. The impact on the environment isn't anywhere near as bad as the energy and resources that go into creating a new car, even if it's a Prius.

Peggy's Heavenly Home Cooking on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Back in Memphis - King's Palace and Much More

As much as I enjoyed my week-long vacation in San Francisco it felt good to be back home in the city I love. I ended up spending my first week back eating at a lot of my favorite haunts like Three Little Pigs, Southern Hands, Joann's Family Affair and Tops while enjoying the seemingly endless variety of fun things to do that Memphis offers this time of year. 

Monday was the first time since my return home that I slowed down to sample some new-to-me barbecue when I stopped in to the King's Palace Cafe on Beale Street for lunch. Like B.B. King's Blues Club and the Rum Boogie Cafe, King's Palace has shunned canned music in favor of sticking to the live music that made Beale famous, however there wasn't a band playing during my lunchtime visit.  I was there to try barbecue, but a combination of dreary weather and a Cajun-heavy menu made me decide to order a cup of shrimp and crawfish etouffee to go along with my barbecue platter.

I was glad I did. The subtly spicy etouffee ended up overshadowing the barbecue enough that if you end up visiting King's Palace I'd recommend sticking to the Cajun cooking the restaurant specializes in. The barbecue platter came with a few ribs, some pulled pork, "voodoo potato salad," and cole slaw. At $5.75 for the etouffee and $10.75 for the platter King's Palace didn't seem as overpriced as a lot of the Beale Street clubs. Based and the etouffee I'd enjoyed I was surprised by how bland the potato salad was despite its voodoo name and peppery appearance. The cole slaw also fooled me by looking like it would have a nice mustard flavor when it ended up being overly sweet instead.

The ribs and pulled pork once again left me concerned that tourists who visit Memphis and only try barbecue on Beale have to leave here wondering why we are so proud of our area's barbecue. All the pork was swimming in an overly sweet sauce. The ribs had a pretty good flavor hiding underneath the sauce but they were a little tough. The mushy pulled pork reminded me of some heat-and-serve stuff from Schwan's that I tried back in college because a friend's mom had bought it for him. The Schwan's pulled pork was tolerable back then. It was free sustenance at a time I was living off of SpagettiO's, grilled cheese, Hamburger Helper and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. At King's Palace finishing the pulled pork felt like a chore. Barbecue is supposed to be tender but it should still have a meaty consistency.

My visit to King's Palace in one of the most touristy sections of Memphis came on the heels of a week that showcases just how much fun the city offers its residents during the spring and fall periods where the weather gets "just right". And a week on the West Coast caused me to truly appreciate just how cheap it is to go out and have fun here. Seriously, if anyone ever complains that there is nothing to do here they need to get out of the house more often.

I'd arrived back in town just in time for the annual Rock For Love event that raises money for the Church Health Center, a local organization that provides health care for the uninsured workers and their families. The event included impressive live performances by a slate of great musicians at Overton Square and the Hi-Tone (a club that was home to Elvis Presley's kung fu dojo back in the '70s). Then it wrapped up with a free concert at the Levitt Shell featuring soul legend Booker T.

Local rapper Al Kapone, who wrote a lot of the best tracks on the Hustle & Flow soundtrack, warmed the crowd up.

Booker T closed out Rock For Love playing old hits like Green Onions to a packed crowd at the Levitt Shell. The Shell is a venue were Elvis played during his early days. At one point Booker T introduced a cover of Bob Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door by talking about laying down the bass recording for the original song. Lots of bands cover the song, but no one else introduces it with, "I remember when my friend Bob first approached me about playing bass on this song..."

A few days after Rock For Love I ended up taking an extended lunch break in the middle of a Thursday to watch the action at Memphis International Raceway when Hot Rod Magazine Drag Week rolled through town. Most people mentally associate the Mid-south with music and barbecue. But even most locals don't realize how much of a player the area is in the high-performance automotive industry. Aftermarket heavyweights like Comp Cams, Lunati, Eagle Crankshaft, Hypertech, Bullett Cams, Walker Radiator, Cooling Components and Performance Distributors make their homes the area.

I was already working near the track in Millington on Thursday. I take an event like this as a sign that fate is telling me to ditch work for a few hours. Especially when the entry fee is only $5 and the event is scheduled to be done by 1 p.m.

Back in 2004 Memphis was home to the first Hot Rod Magazine Pump Gas Drags, an early attempt to find the fastest legit street car in the country. After that event people were claiming that cars dipping into the nine second realm in the quarter-mile couldn't possibly be real street cars. There were several more Pump Gas Drags held here before the event morphed into the even more brutal competition known as Drag Week.

This year's Drag Week was a 1,400-mile torture test that started in Tulsa, OK. The cars raced there; then in Ennis, TX; Gillian, LA, and here before heading back to Tulsa for the final round. The car with the fastest average time from runs at every track won its class. 

The racing action was constant with a new round of cars staging as soon as a pass was completed. The blistering times some of the cars were running was insane given the reliability they had to deliver to make the entire drive.

The tight schedule made the pits almost as intense to watch as the races themselves.

When I said no trailers I meant the cars couldn't be trailered. If you were comfortable PULLING a trailer of extra gear with your race car it was more power to you.

This console was inside a vintage Mustang. Race car aesthetic combined with cupholder and cell phone charger.

A Challenger tearing down the track...

Then immediately swapping rear tires, making repairs and detuning for the drive to the next track in Oklahoma.

A '57 Chevy lays down a 7.17 second pass at 193 mph. It was the fastest pass of the day until a Nova ripped a 7.04 at 208 mph. I thought I'd got an excellent video of the Nova until after the pass when I realized my memory card was full. Doh!

Saturday was devoted to the annual day-long mega party known as Cooper-Young Festival. It was the festival's 25th anniversary and it keeps growing in size. Over the course of those 25 years the Cooper-Young neighborhood in Midtown has seen a tremendous revitalization and the festival now spans several blocks in each direction from its namesake intersection with countless house parties in the neighborhood continuing long after it is officially over.

Later the same Monday I had lunch at King's Palace I went by the Abbey, an all-ages venue in the basement of Lifelink church in Cooper-Young, to see extraordinary Celtic punk rockers Flatfoot 56. The cover was only $7. The venue is located in the same room where Johnny Cash gave his first live performance playing a church bake sale. Sometimes it seems like you can't go anywhere in Memphis without running into music history.

Tuesday night I stopped by the Booksellers at Lauralwood where Blake Fontenay was signing and discussing his new novel The Politics of Barbecue. Fontenay spent ten years covering local politics for the Commercial Appeal newspaper so he has a good understanding of the dirty side of politics here. The book centers around a barbecue restaurant owner who gets himself elected mayor and the corruption that ends up surrounding a push to bring a Barbecue Hall of Fame to the city. Expect a full review soon.

The Overton Square and Levitt Shell events I attended during Rock For Love were both free while the show I saw at the Hi-Tone had a $10 cover. Drag Week had a $5 admission fee, entry to Cooper-Young Fest is free and the cover for Flatfoot 56 was $7. The book signing/discussion was also free, although I naturally bought a copy of the book while I was there. Attending everything I've described in this post cost me a total of $22 in entry fees. That is an unreal value in bang-for-buck entertainment.

Kings Palace Cafe on Urbanspoon

Simplicity as a Guiding Philosophy - Chez Panisse

When we were making plans for our recent trip to the San Francisco Bay Area one restaurant I knew we had to visit was Chez Panisse. I know there are newer restaurants doing much more exiting and innovative things with food, but owner Alice Waters still deserves all the praise heaped on her and her restaurant for instilling an appreciation for fresh, local organic foods in American palates. Those words may sound trendy today, but they were revolutionary concepts in 1971. And Water's cookbooks like the Art of Simple Food are still invaluable assets in any amateur cook's home kitchen.

During our visit we ate lunch in the upstairs cafe area. It's hard not to be underwhelmed when you first look at the menu. You show up knowing that the entire point is to have ultra simple dishes prepared with the best possible ingredients, but it is still easy to read the descriptions on the menu posted outside and find yourself saying, "That's it?"

Once you get inside you get a better understanding of just how pleasant the entire experience is going to be. My wife is an interior designer and she kept looking around and complimenting the restaurants ultra-simple but thoroughly uniform and well-thought design. "This is a place that knows exactly what it is," she said.

The same thing can be said about the food. We started by ordering one of the entrees; a pizza with heirloom tomatoes, smoky bacon and rosemary; to share as an appetizer since we were still hanging out with our friends from Saint Helena. From there I had a garden salad with baked Adante Dairy goat cheese with garden salad while my wife had carrot soup with yogurt and cilantro. The quality of the ingredients used and the attention to detail make the boringly-pedestrian sounding dishes perfect in their simplicity and balance of flavors.

The restaurant forbids the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in the dining area, which helps force diners to focus on the experience at hand. It's always disconcerting to visit restaurants these days and see tables full of friends pecking at their cell phones instead of enjoying each other's company. We use our communication devices to recount things that have happened to us and plan for what we will be doing next in a way that makes it far too easy to forget to enjoy the moment when we are together.

For our main courses  my wife had a skirt steak  from BN Ranch with buttermilk-fried onion rings, padron peppers and tomatillo salsa while I had
California king salmon with sweet corn, green beans, chanterelle mushrooms and basil butter. Once again everything was a simple as it sounds yet utterly perfect in taste and presentation. Chez Panisse has the kind of carefully selected drink menu you'd expect from a restaurant of its caliber and we enjoyed several rounds of good beverages as we worked our way to the excellent chocolate mousse with vanilla cream and candied walnuts that my wife and I shared to top off what was one of the most satisfying dining experiences I can remember. In fact, our lunch caused us to cancel dinner reservations my wife had made as dinner time approached and we realized we were still enjoying the contentment that comes from a great meal hours later.

Chez Panisse on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Napa Valley and Good Food with Good Friends

Last Monday, after three nights in San Francisco, my wife and I ventured north to explore Napa Valley and spend a couple days visiting with some friends at their home in Saint Helena. While several of the days we spent with them included large chunks of time devoted to travel, last Tuesday we were able to enjoy an entire day of relaxed comradery and wave after wave of outstanding food and drink.  

As much fun as we'd had in the city it felt great to get out into open country with good friends after several days where every moment we spent outside of our tiny hotel room we were surrounded by strangers. A crowded park or bar where there are a lot of people you know is fun. Constant crowds of strangers can start to wear you out. Also, while I push for dense, walkable commercial areas in this blog, in San Francisco that concept has been pushed to an extreme where there isn't really room outside to do anything other than walk from place to place. You don't realize how much porches, patios and landscaping are staples of Southern life until you go somewhere they are absent.

I already knew that one of the main reason the Bay Area has so much good food is the access to fresh ingredients. Healthy and sustainable eating largely means sticking to locally-produced, in-season or naturally preserved real food. In the Dirty South that means a lot of the kind of traditional pork, greens, sweet potatoes, cabbage, beans and peas that are recurring elements of this blog. In wine country the temperate climate means that almost anything can be grown locally for large portions of the year and local eating becomes a constant adventure with seemingly endless choices. The strong food scene also means that there are also always some amazing imported special ingredients at all the markets waiting to be incorporated into meals.

Our friends have an impressive garden and plenty of animals living with them on their property. We gathered eggs from their chickens and ducks to use with our breakfast. While looking through the fridge I noticed they had a nice supply of rendered duck fat so I made biscuits subbing it for the pork lard I normally use in them. They turned out fantastic. 

My wife snuggles with Prince the rabbit while Marshmallow the goat hangs out in the background.

After a large breakfast on our first morning in the valley we stopped by the Madrigal Vineyards to sample some wines and buy some to go with our dinner.

For lunch we stopped at the Bouchon Bistro, owned by revered chef Thomas Keller who also owns the nearby French Laundry, which has been referred to as "the best restaurant in the world," by Anthony Bourdin. I would have loved to have dined at the French Laundry, but lunch at Bouchon allowed us to experience a meal in a Keller-operated restaurant that was merely pricey instead of the nearly $300 a person before drinks that a prix fixe dinner at the French Laundry will run. Compared to that the $33 I paid for roasted leg of lamb with ratatouille, fried squash blossoms and jus was downright cheap while still letting me get a glimpse of the kind of magic Keller can create.

After lunch we stopped by the Sunshine Foods Market to pick up food for dinner. Both of the friends we were staying with are culinary school graduates. One is currently working in the wine industry but has cooked at restaurants including the legendary Chez Panisse while his girlfriend works as a professional caterer. When we travel to visit friends they often offer to cook for us and I usually tell them not to bother, since I don't like feeling like more of a burden on someone who is already letting me stay with them. But Brian and Emily are skilled enough and enjoy cooking enough that when I saw the bounty of their garden and the foods available at the local markets I insisted on buying a mix of groceries for them to get creative with when they offered to cook dinner. They had a keg of Anchor Steam on tap in their basement so when we got back from the market I drank beer and watched as they threw together course after course of what ended up being like the a grand tapas feast.

We started with fresh lump crab meat wrapped in endive leaves. It was entertaining and informative to watch our hosts sort through the food and grab items from their pantry and garden to accompany them as they created dishes on the fly.

My wife posted this pic on Facebook while we were shopping and almost all of our friends were asking about it when we got home. At first glance we thought the sign read $40 a pound, which seemed like a reasonable indulgence, because of the the way the one combines with the Y to look like a dollar sign. When one-eighth of a pound rang up for nearly $20 we realized we had accidentally requested $140-a-pound ham. At least we got a small serving.

I've eaten a lot of pig in my life, but for $140 a pound I expect a near-religious experience. This stuff actually delivered. It looks similar to regular prosciutto but the flavor is off the charts and the fat seems to literally melt in your mouth.

They grabbed some fresh figs from their garden, topped them with little hard ricotta salata, wrapped them in the ham and sprinkled on some chives that also came from the garden. Just four ingredients seemingly thrown together but each bite was exquisite as the flavors did magical things together and the ham managed to live up to its billing. 

As soon as I saw a duck, venison and pork pate in the market I knew I had to try it. This one didn't need any work to make it spectacular just some crostinis and spreads.

Pork, olive and cilantro sausages were another item I had to try as soon as I saw them in the market. They were also another item that didn't need much in the way of fancy preparation.

Emily ended up roasting the halibut we bought and serving it over fried green tomatoes from the garden.

Meanwhile Brian grilled the opah we bought while making a sauce by reducing fish stock, lemon juice and wine then adding in creme fraiche, which is a word I may never say with a straight face again thanks to South Park. We have friend in Memphis who are excellent cooks as well and I try to never pass up an opportunity to watch a talented cook prepare something, especially if if they are using a recipe or technique I am unfamiliar with. There is always something new to learn. By the time we finished the opah dish the day-long combination of food and booze had us all nearly falling asleep on our feet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gourmet Pork Shoulder in San Francisco - Perbacco

I mentioned in my recent post about a Memphis Thickburger sighting that I wasn't interested in eating pork shoulder during my trip to the San Francisco Bay Area last week. The area's abundance of great restaurants was one of the major factors that drew my wife and I to the West Coast for a vacation and I wasn't interesting in eating something I have nearly every day at home.

But that was a fast food rendition that was easy to dismiss. On a Saturday night in the Financial District the persistent recommendations of helpful server led me an outstanding gourmet take on pork shoulder that I will be discussing later in this post.

It was one of two meals we had in and around the Financial District that day. We'd had lunch at Yank Sing on Stevenson, where all the food was excellent but the prices were hard to justify. Back home in Memphis we have been spoiled by regular visits to Asian Palace on Summer Avenue where a group of people can easily order more food than they can finish for about $15 a person. At Yank Sing it was frighteningly easy to for two people to rack up a $100 tab. A few of the dishes we had Yank Sing were better than anything I've had at Asian Palace, but most were pretty average and the price tag made the overall experience seem underwhelming.

If you do go to Yank Sing definitely request the scallop balls on a stick. They weren't on any of the carts during our visit but I asked for some after seeing another table get an order. They ended up being the best thing we had at the restaurant, even eclipsing the outstanding soup dumplings.

Despite the big lunch an afternoon of constant walking on the city's hilly streets insured we were still plenty hungry when we arrived at Perbacco on California Street where my wife had made reservations based on a friend's recommendation. I was wearing the same clothes I'd been walking around in all afternoon and felt a little awkward when I first entered the fine dining establishment and realized how out-of-place I looked in jeans, a t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie. My appearance didn't seem to bother our waiter who gave us absolutely exceptional service.

Few things are more disappointing than perusing a menu full of difficult decisions,  asking a server for help and realizing that they have little knowledge of or passion for their restaurant's food. That certainly wasn't the case at Perbacco where our server did an outstanding job of guiding us to choices that culminated in my wife declaring her meal, "easily one of the top three I've ever eaten and possibly number one."

We started out with his recommendation of an appetizer of Burrata cheese with marinated eggplant, fresh basil and a cherry tomato, raisin and pine nut topping. For a pasta course he recommended the walnut tortelli, which was filled with scimudin cheese and served with a brown butter and pear agrodolce.
Both dishes ended up coming to the table around the same time. The Burrata looked and tasted great. The tortelli looked deceptively basic. One bite of it and I was amazed by the perfect balance of flavors. My wife and I shared it back and forth taking tiny little bites to savor every bit of it.
For our entrees she ordered beef short ribs served over roasted corn polenta with morel mushrooms and baby turnips. I ended up giving in and ordering the
capicollo arrosto -- a slow-roasted portion of pork shoulder served with a sancrau* and apple puree, culatello (if you only click one link in this post make it that one) and pork jus. Our server had adamantly assured us that the pork shoulder was one of the absolute best things on the menu. At first I think he assumed my reluctance to order it came from some sort of squeamishness on my part about eating pork shoulder. I assured him that I was fully aware of the cut's delicious potential as it is one of my favorite foods that I consume on a near daily basis. Then I decided that it was foolish of me not to order a cut I love so dearly when it was being so heartily recommended.

The pork was spectacular while my wife searched through her mind trying to determine if her combination of short ribs and polenta was truly the absolute best dish she'd ever eaten. She also said it paired perfectly with the red wine she'd asked our server to pick for her.

I appreciated the care and attention we received in the restaurant despite not looking like normal denizens of the Financial District. Then I had a moment of revelation when I walked past the restaurant's open kitchen on my way to the restroom towards the end of our meal, which had also included several rounds of Italian beers for me. The kitchen staff looked like a kitchen staff; like all my restaurant-industry friends I am accustomed to hanging out with during routine late nights in the Madison Avenue dive bars I frequent in Memphis. Putting a restaurant in the Financial District doesn't change the fact that it is going to be staffed with restaurant workers. I'm sure they enjoyed seeing a young couple enjoying an expensive meal out of a genuine love for food.

One of the most surprising things about walking around San Francisco is realizing just how small it is. Being roughly seven miles by seven miles mostly surrounded by the ocean and the bay has made land too valuable for the city to have room for the kind of steadily creeping blight I've photographed from Hickory Hill to Southaven in the Memphis area. Instead the ultra-dense layout means gentrification naturally flows into any area where land gets "cheap" in the relative terms of the Bay Area.

The dense layout also makes it interesting to see how you can suddenly walk out of one neighborhood into another with almost no transition. This pic in Chinatown was a few blocks before we stepped into the Financial District. As ugly as some of the seas of asphalt in the Memphis suburbs are, San Francisco made me appreciate how good of a compromise the Midtown area of Memphis is. We can walk and bike around while enjoying good food, art, music and buildings with character. But we also get to have grass and greenery. The next day a Bay-Area friend took us to Zeitgeist in the Mission, where shoulder-to-shoulder crowds packed the entire outside area of gravel and cramped picnic tables. "Why is it so crowded today?" I naively asked. "Because the sun is out, people want to sit outside and have a drink and this is one of the few places you can." The beloved Midtown pastime of porch mingling, where you wander from front porch to front porch in the neighborhood enjoying drinks with friends, isn't possible in an area where front porches and front yards are completely unobtainable.

Since this post deals with San Francisco Financial District restaurants it will probably end up drawing some readers who have never seen this blog before. Those people probably wonder why there has been a sudden shift from food to urban design at the end of the post.

Yank Sing on Urbanspoon

Perbacco on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Memphis Barbecue Thickburger Sighting in San Francisco

I've had several friends challenge me to try the Memphis Barbecue Thickburger currently being offered at Hardee's and Carl's Jr. restaurants after witnessing the sexually charged ads being used to tout it. That isn't an easy task here since the Memphis area doesn't have any Hardee's or Carl's Jr. restaurants.

The fact that the restaurants have no presence in Memphis could help explain the mountains seen in the background during the commercial. Once again for folks who don't understand this; the City of Memphis is physically located in the state of Tennessee but in landscape, culture and climate it is entirely a part of the Mississippi River Delta.

Last week I took a vacation trip to San Francisco with my wife. After checking into our hotel and heading out for a walk in search of food what was one of the first things I encountered? A Carl's Jr. offering up the barbecue-topped burgers.

I was hungry. And Tops Bar-B-Q has made me a big fan of barbecue-topped burgers. And I'm the guy who has been willing to eat a McRib, a Burger King "Memphis BBQ pulled pork sandwich" and a pork rib MRE in the name of comparative research. But I couldn't justify wasting a meal in San Francisco on yet another fast food abomination using the words "Memphis barbecue" as a marketing ploy.

This is the view across the street from the Union Square-area Carl's Jr. Sorry but there was no way I was going to try a fast food copy of something I eat all the time at home when I was surrounded by some of the world's best restaurants.

The barbecue-topped burgers at Tops combine Tops pulled pork with Tops burgers. Since I already know that Hardee's/Carl's Jr. don't make better burgers than Tops the only way the Thickburger could compete would be if the pulled pork on it was notably better than the pulled pork from a genuine Memphis institution. Let's be real about the odds of that happening. Also, there was a certain sign on the front door of the restaurant. A sign I didn't notice anywhere else the entire week I was in California, granted that I didn't pay attention to any other fast food eateries during the trip. The sign wasn't very inviting to someone already mentally listing reasons not to eat at the restaurant.

California doesn't play around with fast food. I'm sure there aren't any chemicals in the Carl's Jr. food that aren't also found in every other fast food chain in the country.

I happened to have a friend visiting Los Angeles at the same time I was San Francisco who ended up trying a Thickburger since he ended up in a situation where Carl's Jr. was the only thing available. He assured me that the sandwich was as bad as I'd assumed.

It is interesting to note that the warning sign was most likely due to preservatives used in the food. Meanwhile, salt and smoked foods have been unfairly vilified despite the fact that salt and smoke have been the two dominant, natural food preservatives helping to keep humans alive for a large chunk of our existence. Later in the trip I ran into this glorious shop during a visit to the Ferry Building, which is mostly an incredible gourmet farmer's market these days.

Stick to the old ways of preserving meat with salt and smoke. It's a fine art that yields delicious results with no strange man-made chemicals required.