Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Florida Street - Mama's Flavors and the Charcoal Warehouse

[UPDATE: Mama's Flavor's has closed and been replaced by a church. You can still get outstanding tamales and burgers from the nearby South Memphis Grocery. And the Charcoal Store is still a Memphis institutuon]

I was destined to drive down Florida Street last Monday no matter where I stopped to eat. I was making my way down Third Street when Third Street was suddenly ... gone. It was blocked off just ahead of a bridge that didn't exist anymore. I asked one of my customers at a nearby business what the story was and he told me the construction project to improve the street was slated to take two years. So that made McLemore to Florida a natural detour to get me further south where I could cut back over to Third.

I had already planned on taking a detour that way since a friend had recently posted a photo on Instagram of a place called Aunt Cora's Soul Food on McLemore near Florida and asked if anyone had tried it. If you use Instagram on your phone and run across any good barbecue or soul food finds that you end up posting there be sure to tag them #memphisque.

Aunt Cora's ended up being closed. I'm not sure if that is a temporary or permanent situation. I just know no one was there last Monday at lunchtime. That was okay with me since I had heard good things about another soul food place further down Florida called the Crock Pot. For those who are unfamiliar with Florida Street, it is in South Memphis in the heavily industrial area around President's Island. The street is also something of an under-recognized hotspot for Southern Cuisine with the extraordinary Cajun food of Deja Vu on it to the north of McLemore and the famed cheeseburgers and Delta-style tamales of the South Memphis Grocery to the south.

The South Memphis Grocery is practically across the street from the restaurant I was headed to. When I got there a sign on the building informed me that it was now called Mama's Flavors Soul Food instead of the Crock Pot. I'm not sure about the story behind the change but when I mentioned I'd come looking for the Crock Pot the friendly lady at the register told me, "we kept all the same cooks in the kitchen when we took over."

After looking over the day's options I opted for chopped hamburger steak with greens and yams. It was a little over $7 for a single patty or a little over $9 for two. I asked for one but changed my order to two when the lady preparing my plate acted like I was crazy for not getting the double serving. I ended up thanking her after I'd completely cleaned my plate. The patties were seasoned perfectly; stuffed with garlic, onions and peppers and topped with a tasty gravy. The greens and yams were expertly seasoned as well. I didn't even touch the Bruce's Hot Green Pepper Sauce on the table while I was eating my greens.

The food was delicious but the lighting made it difficult to make it look appetizing in photographs.

While the locally infamous "section of South Memphis where the streets are named after states" definitely isn't known as one of the safest parts of this city, and it isn't an area where you'd find me exploring after dark, everyone I encountered at Mama's Flavors was exceptionally outgoing and friendly towards me. And while I was on Florida I also stopped in at another local landmark that makes the street such an important part of the Memphis food scene.

From competition teams to restaurants, the Charcoal Warehouse on Florida is where Memphis's serious pitmasters shop. Beyond charcoal in both lump and briquette form the place also stocks a large variety of woods like apple, cherry, maple, oak, peach, pecan and hickory that are used to fine tune the flavor profile of carefully crafted smoked meats. 

Prices are kept up-to-date on a dry erase board.

Some places ask what I am doing when I show up taking pictures. At the Charcoal Warehouse I just said, "I have a barbecue blog," as I stepped in and started snapping pics. They just nodded like, "Well of course this place needs to be in it," and waved me further in.

They can sell you whatever quantity you need, up-to and including using a forklift to load it by the pallet-full if you have a trailer that can handle it. 
Crock Pot on Urbanspoon

Mama's Flavors Soul Food on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Incredible Ribs at my Neigborhood Dive Bar - Alex's

I had heard people claim that Alex's Tavern serves outstanding ribs but I always just associated the place with late-night drinking and extraordinary cheeseburgers. I live right off of Jackson Avenue near Rhodes College. Alex's is 1.2 miles from my front door. This can be handy yet dangerous at the same time. For those who are unfamiliar with the place, Alex's is one of those special Memphis bars you head to when the other bars start closing in the early a.m. hours. In this city, plenty of great stories start with the words, "We ended up going to Alex's last night after last call at (fill in the blank)." However, I doubt anyone has ever said the words, "Man, going to Alex's on the way home last night was a really good idea."

This is how Alex's looks when most customers see it. I stopped by on the way home after the P and H closed on Saturday night/Sunday morning just to bookend the day with Alex's visits.

I had started my day there with an order of ribs.

The concept of going to Alex's during daylight didn't seem as bizarre to me as it will to some people, since a I have a couple of fellow gearhead friends who live nearby and we occasionally swing by for burgers when we work up a hunger wrenching on old cars. If you are unfamiliar with the place's phenomenal Greek burgers, which get a generous dose of Greek seasoning before being cooked in a cast iron skillet, Seth over at the Best Memphis Burger blog does a great job describing them.

I had been up late Friday night working on rebuilding my '55 Ford with the above-mentioned friends so when I rolled out of bed Saturday afternoon I decided that I'd go ahead and try the ribs from Alex's for a mid-day first meal. As I was arriving I got a call from another friend in the neighborhood who was wanting to grab lunch and a beer who ended up joining me. Other than the bartender we were the only two people in the place, which is every bit as dimly lit at noon as it is at 3 a.m.

I was glad I ended up having a friend join me when the bartender told me that it would be 30 or 40 minutes before my ribs were ready. That news also reassured me that there was zero risk I was getting ribs reheated in a microwave.  He said he was out of beans and slaw but he offered us an order of his tasty Greek-seasoned fries instead. The owner, Rocky, is a Greek who believes every food is better with Greek seasoning. When I asked if the beans and slaw also have Greek seasoning when they are available I was told, "Everything here is seasoned with it. If you sit still long enough we're liable to sprinkle some on you."

When the ribs arrived they were outstandingly smoky, tender and delicious. The rumors were true; they really are some of the best ribs in the Memphis area. They were served the way I prefer -- dry rubbed with sauce on the side.They had a nice spicy kick and, unsurprisingly, a generous dusting of Greek seasoning. The seasoning is already famous for how well it works with Memphis-style ribs thanks to the Rendezvous restaurant Downtown, where owner Charles Vergos created a local institution with his Greek rendition of Memphis ribs.

When I asked what the secret to the ribs is the bartender chuckled and said, "We don't really do anything to them. That's why they are so good. It's just salt, pepper, Greek seasoning and eight hours of slow smoking before I hit them with my Greek barbecue sauce, wrap them in foil and smoke them some more. While they are cooking I spray them with apple juice."

In my post about creating my own barbecue on a $40 Brinkman smoker I mentioned that with proper technique and attention to detail a cheap smoker can make barbecue as good as any high-dollar commercial rig. Rocky has absolutely proven that.

This is where some of the best ribs in Memphis get created; an aging barrel smoker behind a Midtown dive bar. For great barbecue, knowledge and technique are worth more than expensive equipment.

I had heard that the ribs at Alex's were a Saturday special but Rocky said they have been enough of a hit that he tries to keep them around now. He smokes them several times a week as needed, but I'd still call before heading over to make sure they are available. The number is 901-278-9086. During my visit he said he was down to his last slab. Of course, if you ever show up and hear that some of the best ribs in town aren't available at the moment you still have the option of ordering one of the best burgers in town. Or some of the best wings in town. Rocky keeps the menu short, but that's because he doesn't put anything on it that he hasn't completely mastered.

Alex's Tavern on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Midtown Bar Reborn in East Memphis - Neil's

The original Neil's in Midtown was where I was introduced to the world of Madison Avenue dive bars as a college student in the late '90s. After I graduated I spent years during my mid-20s when I was there almost every Wednesday night for the drunken debauchery of karaoke led by Donna, an aging Arkansas lady endearingly known for her complete and total lack of any hint of tact or sophistication. I still have occasional nightmares about her singing the Pussy Cat Song. I also remember being there one night and seeing her riding around on some young guy's shoulders before they careened off the stage onto a table. I had moment of thinking, "Oh my God, I just saw Donna die during karaoke," before she got up off the floor.

It was a dirty, old smoke-filled bar where insulation from the grimy ceiling would occasionally fall into the $4 pitchers of Beast (Milwaukee's Best) Light that we bought because we were young and broke despite the mind-ending hangovers we knew they produced. A little over a year ago the place caught on fire and ended up being demolished after it was declared a total loss. Despite the amount of time I still spend in other Madison Avenue bars I hadn't been inside Neil's in nearly a decade, but I still hated to see Midtown lose a place I had so many memories of. 

At the time of the fire I'd heard that Neil planned to rebuild. Instead he ended up reopening the bar in East Memphis in the former location of the Whole Hog Cafe. Since moving his bar to ritzier part of town he seems to be catering to an older crowd. When I stopped in Friday afternoon I asked if they still did karaoke and the bartender told me, "No, we don't want to be a college bar out here."  The was a pretty decent crowd for the time of day. Based on the amount of University of Memphis gear I saw on customers I'd say most of the crowd consisted of people having a drink before heading Downtown to the FedExForum for the Memphis Madness kickoff to college basketball season. At the age of 34 I was definitely the youngest customer in the building. Even the draft beer selection had grown up; with Newcastle, Yuengling and two varieties of Ghost River replacing the Beast. There was still Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap for budget-minded drinkers. 

But I wasn't at the new Neil's location looking for a bar experience. I was there because I had heard that since there were barbecue pits in the new building Neil had gone ahead and added barbecue to the menu.

When I arrived I sat at the bar. The only barbecue listed on the menu was a pulled pork sandwich. I'd heard the place had ribs so I asked about them but a bartender said they are only available occasionally as a special. Although there wasn't a barbecue plate on the menu but since the kitchen offers meat and three plate lunches the bartender said it was fine to just request pulled pork as a meat with three vegetable sides. They were out of baked beans so I got slaw, broccoli and cheese and hashbrown casserole.

Here in the South cheesy hashbrown casserole is a vegetable.

While I was waiting for my food I also ordered a pint of Newcastle, largely based on the novelty of being at Neil's in the daytime drinking a quality draft beer.

The pulled pork was okay but nothing special. I wouldn't make a special trip to eat it in the future, but if you are already there and craving barbecue go ahead and give it a try. There was a pretty big piece of unrendered fat in my order but it was a generous enough serving that there was still plenty of meat. The sauce tasted like a standard commercial offering from a grocery store.

The slaw was like someone couldn't decide between mayonnaise, mustard or vinegar-based so they just took shredded cabbage and doused it with copious amounts of all three. The cheese and broccoli was composed of steamed broccoli with nacho cheese sauce on it. It would have seemed better if it wasn't sharing a plate with the hashbrown casserole, which combined several types of shredded cheese onto perfectly cooked and seasoned crispy-on-the-outside potato pieces.

If I find myself back there in the future I wouldn't mind having a serving of that hashbrown casserole with one of the gigantic Neil's cheeseburgers. I remember them being impressive back at the old location and based on some of the reviews I've seen of the new place if doesn't look like that has changed. Neil's may be in a newer, cleaner location but it is still a pub not a barbecue joint So even if the barbecue didn't blow me away I can't really fault a pub for serving simple, honest pub food.

Anyone who used to hang out in the original Neil's location will recognize the old shuffleboard table that escaped the fire with relatively minimal damage.

Neil's on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hot Rod and Barbecue Abundance in Holly Springs

As much as I love barbecue and classic cars, real world concerns are always placing a limit on the time and money I can devote to them. But imagine what life would be like for a normal, working guy from the South like me if money quit being an issue.

Last Saturday I drove my Mustang down to a barbecue at the Holly Springs estate of George Poteet, a local car buff who has been smashing landspeed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the fastest piston-engine, wheel-driven vehicle in history. I went to Bonneville with him for Speed Week when he first started breaking records back in 2006, when his fastest pass down the salt was "only" 338 mph. The first, and prior to Memphis Que only, blog I created was devoted to that bucket list trip. I got married the next year and haven't been able to make it back to the Mecca of high-speed hot rodding. But every August Poteet keeps going back and going faster, reaching a speed of 462 mph this year. 

For an idea of what this thing is like at 462 mph check out this Youtube video put together from cameras that were throughout the car during the run. It's only two minutes long. If you're a gearhead you'll end up watching four or five times in a row.

Even more amazing is that he is reaching speeds like that powered by a single 368 inch Mopar V8.

What the engine lacks in size it makes up for in forced induction with two huge turbochargers.

Every year since 1949 Hot Rod magazine has presented this trophy to the driver who travels the fastest mile on the Salt Flat's five-mile course.

The trophy has been in Poteet's shop for four years now. The names on it are like a who's who of racing legends like Alex Xydias, Al Teague and Mickey Thompson.

The barbecue was being prepared the Memphis Street Rods car club, who cooked 60 pork butts and a whole hog.


I was surprised by just how great the barbecue ended up being. The club members who smoked it seriously know what they are doing. Excellent texture, bark and smoke penetration.

This vintage John Deere ice cream maker produced 50 gallons of homemade ice cream for dessert for everybody.

Poteet made his money as vice president of National Safety Associates, Inc., during a time of rapid growth for the company when it first entered the home water filtration market. But I can remember sharing hotel rooms with he and my dad, who are friends and both members of the Memphis Street Rods, on trips to car shows back in the '80s before he reached  levels of wealth like this. Remember, every car pictured in this entire post belongs to the same guy. But despite his successes in the business world he is still a down-to-earth Mississippi gearhead. In fact he prefers not to be recognized when he attends car shows. He just gets to collect real cars the way some gearheads collect little diecast models.

Step behind the cars lined up outside the building and you'll find another row of them. Not only are all the cars immaculate, but almost all of them also sport rare, highly-sought after options, especially when it comes to the engines powering them.

Once you're done checking out all the cars from that building...

...You are standing in front of another building full of cars.

The 462-mph streamliner was in yet another building full of cars.

One of my favorite cars in the entire collection is this deceptively nostalgic looking little deuce coupe powered by a Roush-built Ford Windsor V8 backed by a five-speed.

I stopped in my tracks when I witnessed the Holy Grail of ultra-rare, ultra-powerful big Ford V8s sitting in a black Galaxie. The SOHC 427 "Cammer" was such a beast that NASCAR banned it out of fear in 1965 before it ever even got a chance to compete. I took the time to explain the engine's importance to my friend who was accompanying me. Then I walked on to the next car in the building and briefly thought I''d lost my mind when I saw what looked like the exact same engine compartment in another car.

One of the 427 Cammers is in a Starliner hardtop.

The other is in a Sunliner convertible. Other than the tops the cars are identical.

As soon as I noticed the old Dodge Super Bee I knew I'd see a 426 Hemi under the hood.

This heavily customized '69 Torino Talladega isn't even complete yet, but it's already a work of art sitting unfinished in bare metal.

Under the hood is another ultra-rare big Ford V8 -- an injected Boss 429.

Step out behind the shop and you are looking at a Galaxie raced by former NASCAR driver Fred Lorenzen.

Another building...

And another building...

And another building...

Of all the engine families in the world, the FE series of big-block Ford V8s has always had the most magnetic pull on my soul for reasons I can't logically explain. Poteet's collection includes plenty of exquisite examples.

From factory three deuces on a 390...

...to a factory dual quad 427.

As an afternoon shower moved in all the toys got stacked up and put away. I can't imagine how you decide what to drive each day when you're dealing with a collection like this.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Rooster Looking for Love at the Collierville Gus's

In my post about the Gus's Fried Chicken in Collierville I mentioned the stray rooster who had taken up residence near the restaurant. I stopped in for lunch this week and he was hanging out outside, which gave me an opportunity to get some great pictures.

I liked to thing of him as a real-life version of Secret Agent Poyo, the ultra-badass fighting-rooster-turned-USDA-agent from the amazing comic book series Chew.   

Unfortunately, the actual explanation I received from a friend for the little guy's obsession with the restaurant makes him more of a tragic character. Commercial poultry is all based around hens, and raw hen meat still gives off the hormones scents used to attract roosters who want to mate. So the lovelorn rooster keeps coming back, trying to find all the hens that his rooster-sense keeps telling him are nearby.

 They're in the building behind you little buddy, but trust me you are better off not knowing the spicy, juicy, battered delicious truth.