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.

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