Monday, November 19, 2012

Downtown's New Barbecue District - More Central

It is easy to find barbecue in Downtown Memphis. But most of what you find will be the pricey, mediocre, tourist-oriented fare available on Beale Street. That is why the Double J Smokehouse was such a welcome addition to the Downtown restaurant scene when it opened earlier this year on G.E. Patterson in the South Main District just south of Beale.

The Double J backs up to the parking lot of the National Civil Rights Museum, which is located in what used to be the Lorraine Motel. Local barbecue powerhouse Central BBQ recently threw its glove down in the world of Downtown Memphis barbecue by opening a new location directly across the museum's parking lot from the Double J.

Although I don't try to actually grade any of the barbecue places I visit I want to make sure that people understand that my reviews of places are always influenced by factors like price and expectations. I mention that because I have had people question me for being critical about Central BBQ for some past issues with inconsistency and underwhelming side items while I've showed a lot of love for the various Tops Bar-B-Q locations. I've occasionally had people ask, "How can you think Tops is better than Central?" I don't. I love Tops for what it is -- cheap, fast, available all around town, and always "good enough."

Central frequently wins awards for having the best barbecue in town. It's one of the pricier non-Beale Street barbecue joints in town and you can end up waiting in a pretty long line at the original location. I hold Central to a higher standard. That being said, when it comes dry pork ribs, which I consider the Holy Grail of Memphis barbecue, I have never had a serving from Central that wasn't outstanding.

When I stopped by the new Central location last Monday I ordered the pulled pork plate specifically because it has been more inconsistent in the past, making me curious how it would be at the new place. This time the meat had a perfect texture and juiciness to it. I had it topped with Central's hot barbecue sauce and it added an excellent extra kick to the meat. I usually visit the original Central Avenue location and that is where the occasional dry servings I have experienced over the years have come from. That location also deals in such massive volumes of pulled pork going through its relatively small kitchen that total consistency of quality would probably be nearly impossible on a day-to-day basis. 

While Central is known and praised for its smoked meat, the sides still seem like an afterthought. The slaw was bland but better than the ultra-dry renditions I've had from the other locations. The beans still just seemed like canned baked beans with a token serving of meat tossed on top of them. Neither was bad but I expect a little more effort from a restaurant that enjoys so much acclaim. 

I visited during the middle of a work day and only drank water but I noted the well-thought selection of quality draft beers I've come to expect at Central BBQ including local examples like Ghost River, which is brewed right down Main Street from the restaurant, and Yazoo from Nashville. I also saw a spacious front room with a big screen TV so the new location seems to be following in the Summer Avenue store's footsteps as a great place to catch a Memphis Tigers or Grizzlies game. Given its proximity to the FedExForum I'm sure it also enjoys plenty of fans grabbing pregame food and drinks before home games.

When it comes to atmosphere, my first visit to the neighboring Double J was during a Tigers game and I had a great time there. But during a recent visit to the Double J with my wife the food was still great but we were subjected to blaring top-40 country music being piped in over the radio. I don't know how regular of an occurrence that is, but people visiting Memphis shouldn't be subjected to the canned garbage currently being pumped out by Nashville. If the Double J wants some country music to go with its saloon theme it needs to spring for satellite radio so it can play something like the Outlaw Country station that features music from the days when Nashville still mattered to the music world on an artistic level. Meanwhile, while I was at Central on Monday I enjoyed hearing a nice mix of blues and soul music that seemed very appropriate for the restaurant's location and vibe.

So should you go to Double J or Central when you are in the neighborhood? Because barbecue involves large cuts of meat cooked for long periods of time some inconsistency is unavoidable. In my original post about Double J I said the pulled pork was perfect while the ribs were just a hair overcooked. On a recent visit with my wife I encountered the opposite; perfect ribs and slightly overcooked pulled pork. I can't tell you which of the two restaurants will have better barbecue on any given night, but even on a slightly off night I'm confident that either place will be better than any of the barbecue being served on Beale Street. If you are a serious barbecue fan staying Downtown for a couple days try to find time to sample both.

Central BBQ on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 12, 2012

Rebirth of Cars and Neighborhoods in Midtown

There are two major reasons why I have been updating this blog a lot less frequently lately. One is that after more than a year on my quest to try as many barbecue and soul food restaurants as possible it is getting increasing harder to find places I haven't been to yet. The other is that I have been getting deep into my project of bringing my '55 Ford sedan back to life.

My '55 at a car show before someone pulled out in front of it in traffic about a year and a half ago.

What started as a decision to fix the car myself has spiralled into a frame-off rebuild where I am using a different, more valuable, Fairlane body in place of my original base-model Mainline body. Last Saturday, before heading over to the Crosstown area to join in the celebration of plans for a dramatic rebirth of the commercial part of that neighborhood, I also reached a major milestone in the rebirth of the old Ford.

I finally pulled the stripped-down original body off the frame on Saturday. Just a little more work to go before this thing can finally start going back together. I want to reuse this frame since I have already done so much work updating and improving its suspension and drivetrain over the years. This is actually my third time redoing the car over the past 20 years, but this is the first time I've gone full frame-off.

On Saturday I also pulled the stripped-down body I am going to use off of its frame. Being a gearhead means having friends respond with a nervous, "Why?" when you ask, "Are you going to be busy this weekend?" With enough people pulling the bodies was quick work, especially compared to the months I spent getting them stripped down and ready for this.

Few things in life excite me more than seeing cool-looking old things being brought back to life. So it made for a perfect day when I finished getting the '55 bodies pulled in the early afternoon with plenty of time to head around the corner from my house to the old Crosstown Sears building where the MemFIX event was celebrating the aging commercial district's potential. This event came on the heals of the recent major announcement of plans for the reuse of the giant Sears building involving the Church Health Center, St. Jude, Le Bonheur and others.

The fall leaves around the building made it look even more impressive.

I was surprised by just how large the turnout of both vendors and spectators ended up being. All the vacant commercial buildings surrounding the old Sears tower where opened up too with temporary makeshift retail businesses and music venues occupying them.

Bike lanes had been added to the street similar to the ones used in the "guerilla renewal" of Broad Avenue.

There was a great assortment of bands playing at the event with one stage set up on the side of Sear building in addition to the indoor venues. As the sun went down the Dead Soldiers, one of the best recent additions to the city's music scene, closed down the outdoor stage. The band is a traditional country group made up of musicians from the local metal scene using a wide variety of traditional instruments. Their sound is extremely tight and there is a definite metal sentiment to a lot of the lyrics while the sound is pure real country. The shows are always fun for both the band and the audience. Check out their music here.

People who stuck around outside after the show where treated to a showing of The Princess Bride.

But my wife and I headed down the street to see an electrifying indoor performance by local nerdcore rapper Adam WarRock. Whoever booked all the music for the event did a great job of featuring a wide variety of artists that would appeal to anyone who enjoys good music.

If you aren't familiar with WarRock's work take a minute to listen to his rap anthem devoted to the Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation. Then go to his website to check out more of his work. And to download the Ron Swanson song since it will be completely stuck in your head anyway.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

New Place in an Old Space in West Memphis - Down South Burgers

I had been trying to revisit Willie Mae's Rib Haus on Broadway in West Memphis for several months but the place was closed down every time I'd drive by. I wasn't overly impressed with the ribs there on my first visit but I thought the restaurant showed enough promise that I didn't link my review of the place to Urbanspoon because I wanted to make a return trip to sample the pulled pork before forming my final opinion.

Last Monday I drove past and saw the the space was no longer Willie Mae's. It has been reborn as Down South Burgers and Rib Haus.

Along with burgers, barbecue and catfish the restaurant also serves breakfast in the morning.

The new restaurant already seems to be a hit with local residents. In my previous visit to Willie Mae's I was the only customer there. This time there were plenty of people eating burgers at tables and picking up carry-out burgers. And those burgers looked and smelled good enough that I was tempted to try a double instead of sampling the ribs. But I'm on a barbecue quest so I got a rib dinner. Down South doesn't have baked beans so I an order of onion rings to go with my barbecue and cole slaw.

Like when the place was called Willie Mae's that rib dinner came with just a third of a slab of ribs. But the dinner was less than $10 and the ribs had plenty of meat on them. The sauce was a definite improvement over the syrupy glaze my ribs had been drowning in during my Willie Mae's visit. The had a nice charred crust on them but were still tender and juicy.

The slaw was ultra-creamy, which isn't my personal preference at all. The onion rings were good and should make a great complement to one of the restaurant's double cheeseburgers that I will definitely be trying on my next visit based on the ones I saw other customers devouring. 

The building was cleaned up considerably before it reopened as Down South. There still isn't anything remotely fancy about it; it's just a simple place to pick up some honest Southern food. But from a business standpoint I can easily understand that a lot of potential customers see what I referred to as "the unfakeable, well-earned patina of a true survivor" in my Willie Mae's post as reason to dine elsewhere. A good scrubbing with some fresh paint; new counter and floors; and matching tables, chairs and table clothes definitely creates a more welcoming impression.

Down South Burgers and Rib Haus on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Good Sandwich - More Pollard's

Out of all the places I've visited for this blog, my two posts about Pollard's in Whitehaven have generated the most interest from reader's by a wide margin. That is 100 percent due to the restaurant's appearance on the Food Network television program Restaurant Impossible. But while I posted about the place both before and after its TV makeover, both of those posts just talked about the restaurant's ribs.

That was partially due to my rules for healthy eating on this quest, which cause me to largely avoid wheat and foods cooked in vegetable oils. I was at a wedding recently where a friend's mom told me she has effortlessly dropped 25 pounds on my "barbecue and soul food diet" and feels great. It is nice to hear confirmation that I'm not just ranting at the air around me with this blog, and that the information I'm sharing here is genuinely helping people. For anyone who needs a refresher; I try to limit total carbs to 100 grams a day or less with as little of that as possible from wheat, sugar and high fructose corn syrup. I avoid refined vegetable oils as much as possible and try to get most of my calories from natural fats from animals, coconut oil and olive oil. Other than that I don't count calories at all and simply eat until I'm full when I get hungry. These guidelines have kept me at a healthy weight and improved my cholesterol ratio while I've generally been eating pork at least a couple times a day.

But most people aren't following my guidelines and last Monday I was driving past Pollard's at lunchtime when I realized I had never tried the meal that represents what most people would probably order when stopping by for a quick, affordable lunch -- a barbecue sandwich with baked beans and fries.

I wanted to try the fries since one of the pointers Pollard got from Restaurant Impossible was to save money and improve quality by making his fries from scratch with fresh potatoes. The results are great, with tasty skin on them to attest to their minimal processing. The sandwich was on a perfectly toasted bun, but I still ended up just eating the meat and slaw with a fork and bypassing the bread. It was a solid example of a pulled pork sandwich with a generous helping of tender meat that I wouldn't hesitate to order again. I requested the spicy sauce again on this visit and this time it had more of a satisfying kick to it. There was also less of it than on the order of ribs I'd tried so it ended up being a nice compliment to the sandwich. The regular sandwich combo just came with fries, but I already knew how good the made-from-scratch beans were so I paid extra for an additional side order of them.


In my post about my previous visit I mentioned that some of the POLLARD'S letters that the Restaurant Impossible people had mounted on the wall were falling down. They were all back up this time around and the restaurant looked clean and tidy. Of the sheet music the TV crew used to decorate the walls I ended up in a booth next to the words and music for the "Recession Blues" by B.B. King, which seemed highly appropriate for a Memphis restaurant struggling to make it in the current economy. In all of my visits to Pollard's all the people I have encountered working there have been nice enough to keep me hoping that they make it.