Sunday, December 29, 2013

More Beale Street - Silky O' Sullivan's

The Silky O' Sullivan's on Beale Street is a monument to just how bad the street's decay got before its revitalization began in the early '80s. The indoor restaurant and bar area sits at the corner of Third and Beale in the old Gallina building but beside it there is a large outdoor patio area sitting behind the  heavily-reinforced remaining facade of a collapsed building.

In John Elkington's book Beale Street: Resurrecting the Home of the Blues he describes the terrible condition of the buildings on Beale when he began spearheading the early revitalization effort in the early '80s. During the '70s, as the city began acquiring all the property on Beale it was steadily boarding up vacant buildings as it took possession of them. Sealing up the empty structures meant they couldn't breathe during the boiling heat and humidity of Memphis summers. This filled them with steaming stagnant water that rotted away wood, plaster and masonry with shocking speed.

The '70s was also when Thomas "Silky" Sullivan owned one of the most popular bars in Overton Square, in an era when the Square was the city's dominate night spot. In the early '90s he relocated to Beale as it was experiencing a rebirth at the same time the Square, which has seen its own period of rapid rebirth over the past two years, was entering a period of decline.

I normally sample restaurants for the blog while I am at work, and my work routine normally only takes me around Beale Street on Monday when Silky's is closed during lunch hours. But every time I walk past the establishment I'm taunted by a bold challenge posted next to the front door. "There is no question I have the BEST RIBS in Memphis and the world and the fact is after you taste mine the rest will taste like Spam!" That is a serious proclamation, and as someone who has sampled my share of ribs I decided last Saturday that it was finally time to make a special trip to judge for myself.

Although I'd never eaten at Silky's before I always enjoyed it as a fun bar. The signature Divers are large buckets filled with a mix of assorted booze and straws that I've shared with friends before events at Fedexforum and the large patio is like a playground for grown-ups complete with a climbing tower for the resident goats.

The patio also features an impressive collection of celebrity autographs in its concrete like this section signed by Johnny and June Carter Cash.

Beale Street is a fun place to walk around, drink, socialize and enjoy music. And it has plenty of food that is good enough to satisfy a case of alcohol-induced munchies. But I've already learned to dismiss all the claims of "Memphis best" and "world championship" barbecue on restaurant signs there as empty marketing hype. Even if an establishment has sponsored a team that won a Memphis in May championship, that team would have competed with a charcoal and wood competition cooker, not one of the electric or gas-fired ovens used throughout the restaurant kitchens on Beale.

Silky's offered ribs dinners in an assortment of sizes. This is common on Beale, although restaurants anywhere else in the city largely just stick to full or half-slab options. I ordered the six-bone meal since it was equivalent to the half-slab combos I usually order for lunch. The presentation was great. It arrived looking like the kind of dry-rub ribs I love from places like Leonard's, Memphis Barbecue Company and the Bar-B-Q Shop.

But as I've come to expect on Beale, as soon as I began pulling them apart there was no evidence of smoke in the taste or appearance of the meat. the rub had a really good flavor, but the oven-cooked meat had some unrendered chunks of fat I had to pull off. The slaw was good but the beans tasted like they were straight from a can. For a pleasant Saturday afternoon strolling around Beale it was still a pleasant lunch experience. The patio where we ate is heated in the winter and our server was friendly and helpful. But when a place is boasting its ribs will make everywhere else's "taste like Spam!" it should be serving better ribs than the ones I can grab from the drive-thru at the Tops near my house. Silky's doesn't.

Barbecue isn't the only thing on the menu. My wife ordered an oyster po boy with fries and a cup of gumbo that was served with a cornbread cake, all of which she enjoyed.

If you want to have a good time in Memphis, Beale Street has plenty of great options. But if you are searching for some of the best barbecue in Memphis I'll leave you with one last bit of information. Most of the real, old-fashioned barbecue pits in Memphis restaurants are fueled by deliveries from the Charcoal Warehouse on Florida Street. That business goes through a 42,000-pound truckload of charcoal every week. During a recent visit there I asked the owner if he has ANY sales accounts on Beale Street these days. His answer was "no."

Silky O'Sullivan's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dirty South Barbecue - Papa Chuck's

If you frequent barbecue joints throughout Memphis you come to recognize elements that indicate the type of establishment you are visiting. Table service with well-dressed waiters and waitresses tell you that you are at a place at the fancier end of the spectrum. Meanwhile a handgun permit class qualification target taped to a wall of bullet-proof glass encasing the order counter signals that you might not be in one of the city's nicest neighborhoods. That is what I encountered when I walked into Papa Chuck's on Airways in between Lamar and the airport.

I'd noticed the spot, tucked behind a liquor store, during taxi rides home from the Memphis airport. The way it sits back from the street makes it hard to spot when you are heading south on Airways. And even headed north it is easy to miss if you are driving and paying attention to the road. But during cab rides home after trips away from the city I am always extra attentive to soaking in the sights of home and I had been meaning to try the little restaurant since I first noticed it over a year ago.

Unfortunately I'd always forget about it on days when I was actually working nearby in the area around Airways and Lamar. But a few days ago I was driving down Park and stopped to photograph the old Big Bluff BBQ building in nearby Orange Mound with its iconic "The Mound" graffiti. That put me in the mood from some Dirty South barbecue, which caused me to remember Papa Chuck's and make a quick detour for lunch.

If anyone knows any of the history of Big Bluff Bar-B-Q I'd love to hear it.

Despite the ominous bullet-proof glass I never felt threatened in any way during my visit to Papa Chuck's. In fact, the homeless woman who greeted me outside the restaurant and attempted to sell me batteries, socks and candy held my hand and prayed for God to bless me back with $2,000 after I gave her $1.

The inside of the restaurant was fairly spartan, with just a handful of tables and chairs in the dining area beside the glass-enclosed kitchen. I asked the woman behind the counter if she thought the rib plate or the pulled pork plate was a better option. She said the ribs, so that is what I ordered. The $8.99 price tag made it one of the cheapest rib plates I've found.

The beans and the slaw were both store-bought. I saw the tubs. The ribs were ulta-tender to the point of falling apart. I prefer a firmer texture to my rib meat, but these were still plenty enjoyable. They were also swimming in a sweet barbecue sauce. Once again, not my preference, but for $8.99 I was still happy with my lunch. Anyone who likes fall-off-the-bone ribs with a lot of sauce would consider them exceptional. And while it wasn't what I usually prefer, it was exactly what I was in the mood for at the time.

At one time, when I would encounter fall-apart ribs like the ones at Papa Chuck's I'd wonder if they'd been boiled before cooking. After some experimenting with cooking ribs on my own I now suspect that ribs like this have been inadvertently boiled at the end of the cooking process. It is common in the barbecue world to  wrap meat in foil when it is nearly done and let it cook for some additional time to continue breaking down the fat in them. Since meat is most receptive to smoke when it is raw, by the end of the cooking process it is hard to get much additional smoke into it. So wrapping meat at the end of a cook doesn't really sacrifice smoke flavor while it does allow it to keep breaking down, and becoming tenderer, without drying out.

A lot of cooks also add a generous amount of sauce to meat at the same time that they wrap it. Keep in mind that barbecue is typically cooked between 225 and 250 degrees while water boils at 212. If meat is sealed up and immersed in liquid while it cooks, it is being boiled. Even without sauce, if fatty cuts like ribs are cooked for too long wrapped in foil the steam and rendered fat in the foil is enough to effectively boil them.

The are different opinions on the best way to cook barbecue because their are so many different opinions on what constitutes great results. Whether or not to wrap, how long to cook in foil if you do, and whether or not to use liquid sauce while you cook are all topics that can inspire huge debate among even the oldest and most experienced of pitmasters. The best way to determine what you think is best is to simply eat barbecue from as many places as possible.

Papa Chuck's BBQ on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pinich District Soul Food - Alcenia's

Since I started blogging about Memphis-area soul food I've had readers telling me that I had to try Alcenia's, located Downtown on Main Street. The problem was that I am rarely anywhere near the Pinch District at lunch time. A few month's ago I finally tried to visit, but that was on a Monday. I discovered that Alcenia's is one of the many soul food places that stays closed on Mondays, so that day I ended up at the Downtown location of A&R Bar-B-Q

 Alcenia's is in the Pinch District near the Pyramid, the former home of the Memphis Tigers and Grizzlies basketball teams before the Fedexforum opened. Alcenia's is one of the many Pinch District businesses hoping that the Pyramid's redevelopment as a gigantic Bass Pro Shops location will replace a lot of the foot traffic the area lost when the the building was shuttered.

Last Thursday I tried again and finally got to experience first-hand what all the fuss was about. I talk about the friendly service at a most of the restaurants I write about. That Southern hospitality is something I've come to expect from local barbecue, country cooking and soul food joints. But Alcenia's takes that Southern charm to the next level. As soon as I walked in the door to the brightly decorated dining room the owner welcomed me with a giant hug and assured me all the food she served was "fixed with a lot of love."

Keep in mind that I never identify myself as a blogger when I initially visit a restaurant. I was just a stranger in work clothes stopping in for lunch. 

When my server came out and gave me a menu I was about to order the grilled tilapia I saw listed with the regular Thursday options since the excellent version of that dish offered by Dindie's Soul Food in Raleigh has become a regular staple of my diet. Then the server mentioned that meatloaf was available as well, although it wasn't listed on the menu.

I've heard incredible things about the Alcenia's meatloaf, with one friend saying he'll call the restaurant a day or two ahead of times he plans to eat there specifically to request that they have it available. Apparently the grandmotherly treatment from the owner extends to being able to call before visits to ask for a favorite meal to be waiting for you. As soon as I heard there was meatloaf in the kitchen I ordered it with greens and black-eyed peas.

I've also come to expect the duo of Louisiana Hot Sauce and Bruce's Green Hot Pepper Sauce to be sitting on the table at any soul food restaurant. I didn't see either on any table at Alcenia's. I didn't see any condiments at all. And I didn't ask if any were available. Everything came out perfectly seasoned.

The delicious meatloaf was packed with peppers and onions. As much as I love the meatloaf from Southern Hands, I think Alcenia's may top it in flavor. My sides of greens and peas came in comically large plastic bowls. As big as all the portions were, everything was so good I ate all the meatloaf, all the greens, about half the peas and most of the two hot-water cornbread cakes before tossing my napkin on the plate completely satisfied.

While I was eating I got to witness another moment of Southern hospitality. The Main Street Trolley stopped to let off an older woman who came into the restaurant. A few minutes later the trolley suddenly stopped again, after only moving a few feet, and the trolley driver trotted into the restaurant to give the woman a package she had accidentally left in her seat. She barely had time to thank him before he was back in the trolley rolling down the street.

According to the menu Alcenia's also offers an epic Saturday brunch for anyone who wakes up Saturday morning, or afternoon depending on your Friday night, craving a giant Southern breakfast feast.

 Alcenia's on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Smoking at a Hickory Hill Strip Mall - More A&R

The biggest problem with trying A&R Bar-B-Q restaurants around Memphis is that the South Memphis location on Elvis Presley Blvd is so damn good that the other locations suffer in comparison. The other locations are good at what they do; serving up fast food-style barbecue similar to Tops. Meanwhile the South Memphis location has some of the absolute best ribs in the city.

I hadn't tried the Hickory Hill location across the street from Big Daddy's Pawn Shop until fairly recently. It is only half a block from the only remaining Southern Hands restaurant and I try to never miss an opportunity to enjoy the Southern Hands meatloaf.

But when my friends Rob and Dan from the Manic American blog visited Memphis a few months ago they declared the ribs from the Hickory Hill A&R were the best they encountered during their time here. These guys know their barbecue so I decided it was time to give the restaurant a try.

Then I got hit by another major distraction. My beloved Emerald Thai Restaurant decided to move from its location nearby on Mt. Moriah out to Lakeland. So for the last couple months it was on Mt. Moriah I was eating there every time I was in the area.

A couple weeks ago, with Emerald Thai finally gone, I was ready to try the Hickory Hill A&R, which was also the only location I hadn't been to yet. Rob and Dan had mentioned the intense smoke flavor of the ribs there and when I pulled into the lot the first thing I noticed was the cloud of smoke pouring from the chimney at the back of the restaurant.

With a similar set up to Big Bill Bar-B-Que in Whitehaven, the Hickory Hill A&R doesn't let a strip mall setting keep it from embracing real smoke cooking. There was no question what I was going to order. I got a rib dinner with beans and slaw. I requested the spicy sauce and when I saw the restaurant also offered Delta-style hot tamales for a buck I added one of them to my order as well.

The beans and slaw were great, which I've come to expect from any A&R. The tamale was also excellent with a perfect balance of texture and spice. A great tamale can't be too soggy or too dry and this one was just right. The ribs were indeed packing a good smoke flavor but the meat was also tough. Thankfully it wasn't as tough as the ribs I tried at the Wolfchase location, which has since closed and reopened as Ty's Bar-B-Q

I remembered the Wolfchase location having good pulled pork despite the tough ribs so I made a follow-up visit to the Hickory Hill store to try a pork plate. It was solidly good in the Tops-style Memphis average sense. I also got another tamale on my second visit and it was just as good the second time around.

I noticed that Full Custom Gospel Barbecue Blogger Daniel Vaughn made a stop at the Hickory Hill A&R on a trip to Memphis. Vaughn is one the ultimate blogging authorities on barbecue, eventually parlaying his blog into a full-time gig as the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly magazine. His post echoed my sentiment of the ribs carrying good smoke flavor while being overly tough.

Vaughn eats so much incredible barbecue from across the nation that he is an understandably tough critic. For me it had more to do with my mental association of the A&R name with the ribs from the South Memphis location, which packs a not-so-secret weapon that gives it a serious advantage over most urban barbecue joints.

While all the other A&Rs are cooking inside buildings they share with other tenants, the one on Elvis Presley Blvd is the only restaurant cooking in an old-school, rural-style detached smokehouse I know of within the city limits.

Yesterday I stopped back by the South Memphis A&R. I was curious if the ribs were really that much better there or if the image of the smokehouse behind the restaurant was clouding my judgement. 

It wasn't a trick of imagination or memory. The ribs at the South Memphis location have the kind perfect texture combined with pink-to-the-bone smoke penetration you normally have to travel to rural places like Latham's Meat Company in Jackson, TN, to find. I applaud the other A&R locations for their devotion to smoke, but the in-store cookers they are using make it much harder to get that smoke into the meat without drying it out.

Keep in mind that real barbecue varies from batch to batch and what Dan and Rob enjoyed could have come out far more tender than what I had at the Hickory Hill store. Consistency is one of the main reasons people go to the trouble and expense of building a smokehouse. Steady, consistent low heat and smoke provide consistent great results in the right hands. In other words, I'm certainly not saying Dan and Rob were wrong to love the Hickory Hill A&R. I'm saying that the next time they pass through Memphis a trip to Elvis Presley Blvd has to be included on their agenda.

A&R Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Grocery Shoppers, Stop With all the Damn Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast

My fellow middle class Americans, we need to have a serious talk about the meat you are eating. A hectic schedule has kept me away from any of the area farmer's markets for several weeks now, causing me to rely on area grocery stores for the all meats I've been cooking at home.

This isn't a rant about the very real evils of the government-subsidized agricultural industrial complex or the superior flavor and health benefits of grass-pastured meats. This is a rant about the cuts of meat available, presumably based on customer demand.

A couple weeks ago I needed shanks for making Osso Buco. I couldn't find any in the sea of 90/10 ground beef, beef fillets, ground turkey and boneless skinless chicken breasts at the fancy new Kroger at Poplar and Highland. I asked the butcher; Cow, pig or lamb; it didn't matter. I just needed crosscut shanks from a four-legged mammal to braise with vegetables in chicken stock and wine in a Dutch oven.

I ended up stopping at the Union Avenue Kroger and the Cash Saver on Madison before I finally found them at the oft-maligned Kroger at Poplar and Cleveland. Laugh and call it "Kroghetto" all you want. At least it had shanks, right alongside the oxtails and neckbones.

Today my shopping list included beef short ribs for yet another braise. The Poplar and Cleveland Kroger failed me this time. The Union Avenue Kroger only had boneless short ribs. Let me repeat that again -- boneless short ribs. Seriously, I'm starting to think the average American shopper doesn't even deserve meat anymore. Luckily Cash Saver had what I needed this time around.

The sad part is, this is mainly due to peoples' earnest but misinformed attempts to eat healthy. The American public's relationship with the food it eats has become so warped that grocery stores are full of overweight people pushing around carts full of whole-wheat breads, margarine, skim milk and boneless skinless chicken breasts. They are trying their best, eating this garbage in the mistaken belief that it will improve their health, not realizing it is the source of their problems. Even worse, many of them are also taking statin drugs to lower their cholesterol levels, never realizing the drugs are greatly increasing their future odds of cancer and Alzheimer's disease while doing nothing to reduce their risk of heart disease.

Unlike whole grains and vegetable oils, which are total junk foods, there is nothing wrong with a boneless skinless chicken breast. You should be eating the entire animal. After you roast a whole chicken and eat the most delicious parts like the legs, thighs, and wings while saving the leftover skin and bones for making stock you will be left with plenty of breast meat that is great for making soups and chicken salad.

But a lot of people are trying to subsist on bland cuts like the boneless skinless chicken breast out of needless fear of animal fats. Or worse, some bizarre phobia of meat that looks like meat keeping them from enjoying the healthy culinary wonders of meat on the bone, much less delightful cuts like tongue and heart.

The real food movement should be about eating real food. Yuppies buying ultra-high-priced steaks, chicken breasts and artisan breads at the farmer's markets are missing the point entirely. There is real food at the supermarket. But while the general rule is to stick to the outer walls where the least processed products like fresh produce and meat are found, even the outer edges contain foods that reflect the confusion the food industry has created in the public mind with its misuse of the word "healthy."

This is a product called "fat free cream cheese." It is on the shelves next to the real thing. Obviously there is no way to make actual fat free cream cheese, since cream cheese IS fat. The only way a consumer would buy this chemical-laden imitation is if they were hoodwinked into thinking it was somehow superior to natural dairy fat.

Winter is coming. If your diet has been dominated by boneless skinless chicken breast now is the perfect time to roast a chicken, make stock with the leftovers, and break out the Crock Pot to start exploring all the fatty cuts of meat on the bone you've been missing.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Hustle and Grind - Memphis

In other parts of the country people have careers and people have hobbies. In Memphis people have hustles, and true Memphians generally have more than one. When I'm not riding around town wholesaling automotive parts I sometimes sell comic books on ebay. And of course there is the barbecue blog and my work building custom classic cars, although I haven't quite figured out how to make a profitable hustle out of either of those yet.

While peddling parts a few weeks ago I noticed a grill in front of Goldie's Hand Car Wash on S. Third just north of Shelby Drive. So I swung by to ask if there was any barbecue for sale. Asking someone if they are selling barbecue just because you see a barrel cooker set up in front of a business is probably uniquely Memphis as well. I've had some good barbecue doing that around here, and never had anyone act surprised I was asking. But Goldie told me he didn't have any barbecue that day. Besides cooking and detailing cars he has another side hustle selling and installing carpet, and that hustle had kept him busy all morning so he didn't get any food on the grill.

He told me to stop back by the next time I was in the neighborhood and sure enough, a couple weeks later I noticed him standing in a cloud of smoke tending the cooker.

He had chicken wings, steaks, spare ribs and baby back ribs all cooking in a cloud of smoke.

Grilled over direct heat, the ribs weren't technically barbecue. They were flavorfully seasoned, tender and juicy, so they were skillfully grilled and I happily devoured half a slab while Goldie and a friend sat at a table next to mine chatting with me while playing dominoes. 

I know I've been pretty harsh towards the Rendezvous for serving chargrilled ribs. At the Rendezvous there is usually a long wait for relatively pricey ribs that are frequently touted as the best Memphis has to offer. So I feel perfectly fine with criticizing the ribs I had there while saying I enjoyed the $7 grilled half-slab I ate in a lawn chair next to a card table at Goldie's car detail place while sitting in the shade next to his front bay door.

The next day I was in Raleigh when I noticed a man in an American flag apron posted up across the street from the Raleigh Springs Mall listening to soul music and enjoying a tallboy of beer while hawking hot tamales from under a tent in the middle of a rainstorm. So naturally I immediately turned around to buy some. They ended up being appropriately spicy, packed with Angus beef and delicious.

Being a Memphian means having a hustle. The term hustle in Memphis doesn't automatically imply anything shady or underhanded the way it does in other areas. Here your hustle is what you do when you are out on your grind. And if you want to make it, you grind hard while you hustle. Hustle and grind are both nouns. Hustle and grind are both verbs. And hustle and grind are as much of a part of our way of life as ribs and Delta-style hot tamales.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Overrated But Improved - The Cupboard

Before Monday it had been years, possibly a decade, since I had eaten at the Cupboard on Union. The restaurant draws big crowds of loyal customers, but I hadn't been able to understand why. When I mentioned that in a recent post about the Commercial Appeal's Memphis Most poll, where the Cupboard was voted Best Vegetarian, I had a couple of readers comment that I needed to give it another chance and that the quality of the food there had improved dramatically over the past couple years.

After all, if I'm bashing a place I haven't been in that long I'm like the wilfully ignorant local know-nothings who say things like, "Downtown Memphis is a cesspool. I haven't been there in 15 years and I'm never going back," thus ignoring the steady revitalization Downtown has experienced.

So on Monday I stopped back in and tried the onion-topped hamburger steak with turnip greens, baked sweet potato and fried green tomatoes. I specifically ordered the fried green tomatoes because I remembered them being particularly awful in the past.

While waiting on my food my server brought me a big basket full of little bite-sized cornbread muffins. The one I sampled was good, but i wasn't looking to fill up on empty cornmeal calories so I stopped with that one.

When my order came out I could tell the fried green tomatoes had undergone a serious improvement as soon as I saw them. The ones I remembered in the past had a thick, flavorless shell of breading on them. These had a nice light, crispy coating of flavorful cornmeal batter. The juicy hamburger steak also packed plenty of exceptional flavor.

I was happy to see the baked sweet potato on the menu since so many country cooking and soul food restaurants serve candied sweet potatoes that are swimming in sugary syrup. Unfortunately there was no butter at the table, just packets of "Fresh Buttery Taste Spread" full of artery-frying vegetable oils. I asked the server if I could get any actual butter but she said the restaurant didn't have any. I don't know which is more tragic, a country cooking kitchen with no butter in it or the fact that so many customers would probably willingly choose rancid-tasting margarines over real butter out of the deluded belief that it is healthier. That isn't a specific complaint about the Cupboard. Vegetable oil is a plague in kitchens throughout the U.S. Butter rant aside, the sweet potato was great, as expected. We cook a lot of baked sweet potatoes at home since it is easy and foolproof.

The turnip greens were fairly lacking in flavor. Even with a healthy dose of Bruce's Green Hot Sauce they still didn't have any punch to them. I know that the Cupboard doesn't use animal fat in its vegetables, but that doesn't mean the greens can't be well-seasoned. Peggy's, which is around the corner from the upboard on Cleveland, and At the Bistro on Brooks both serve completely vegetarian vegetables that are still expertly seasoned.

The Cupboard has definitely improved, and I wouldn't mind visiting again in the future if someone else insisted. But I would still try to talk whoever was insisting into going around the corner to Peggy's. In the Memphis Flyer's recent Best of Memphis Poll the Cupboard came in second place behind Soulfish in the Best Southern/Soul Food category. Every year I have to write in the Four Way in South Memphis for that category, since it never even gets mentioned. Two days before my recent visit to the Cupboard I took an out-of-town friend to the Stax Museum, so we naturally stopped for dinner at the Four Way after our visit. So if my opinion of the Cupboard seems overly dismissive keep in mind I'd had truly exceptional soul food two days prior as a point of comparison.

I think a lot of praise for the Cupboard's is similar to the praise you hear for the Rendezvous. It is coming from people who haven't tried much of the competition.

Cupboard on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Green Oasis at Brooks and Airways - Trees by Touliatos

Blight is normally a slow process, as an empty property slowly succumbs to the forces of time and nature. Maintaining any man-made structure or environment is a battle against entropy, and there is always a certain sad beauty to decay as the earth reclaims a part of itself.

Trees by Touliatos was a sprawling 20-acre plant nursery on Brooks Road next to Airways with an impressive assortment of water plants and fountains that made it seem like a perfect oasis in the desert of crumbling concrete that generally defines the area around the Memphis International Airport. The business has only been closed for two years, but as I was driving past yesterday I noticed how quickly nature was reclaiming the property.

I parked and began poking around the property, photographing the stunning speed of plant life overtaking a property that was inherently designed to nurture plant life. This post isn't being critical of the Touliatos family in any way, shape or form. The business owners spent decades operating a vibrant enterprise in an unlikely location that stayed successful long after blight had already come to define most of the surrounding area. And the son of the company's retired founders is still doing landscape design work in the Memphis area.

There isn't any barbecue in this post, but beyond the food a bigger focus of this blog is to expose readers to parts of the city they may be unfamiliar with. After some time walking around the old Trees by Touliatos grounds I decided the images I captured were worth sharing. Whenever you hear people reference "the end of the world" they actually mean an end of humanity. Nature is always quietly waiting to quickly reclaim any areas we leave behind.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Reborn Pit in Atoka - Paradise Grill

I was driving through Atoka on my way to Brighton, TN, last week when I noticed the former Post Office Barbecue building had reopened as a place calling itself the Paradise Grill. The name made me assume the restaurant specialized in grilled seafood and steaks, but I stopped to to ask for a menu to see if barbecue was available as well. If the building still had the pit used to produce the incredible pulled pork that was served up by Post Office it made sense to wonder if the new restaurant was putting it to use.  

After a quick look at the menu I immediately asked for a table. Paradise Pit Barbecue would be a better name for the restaurant, which is run by members of the Paradise Porkers barbecue team. There seems to be a recent trend of barbecue teams opening restaurants. I've been extremely impressed by the barbecue at the recently-opened Ty's Bar-B-Que in the Wolfchase area. And I was already somewhat familiar with the Paradise Porkers, having hazy memories of ending up drinking and singing along with Jimmy Buffett tunes in the team's tent late one night during this year's Memphis in May barbecue contest.

The walls are decorated with some of the trophies the team has picked up on the competition barbecue circuit. The fake parrot is a pretty good indicator of the type of decor exhibited throughout the restaurant. Some people will love it, some people will hate it. I've never worried too much about design aesthetics in barbecue joints as long as the food is good.

I asked about the ribs on the menu but my server told me they are served wet so I opted for the pulled pork plate instead. The meat had a great mix of textures from the inner and outer sections of the shoulder with plenty of delicious bark and a nice, deep smoke ring. The baked beans were loaded with smoked pork to a nearly 50/50 ratio of meat to beans while the slaw was a solid example the vinegar-based style I prefer.

The pulled pork was served unsauced and good enough to be eaten that way. There were bold and sweet varieties of barbecue sauce located at the table, sitting on a paper towel roll beneath a fake window framing a large photograph of an ocean setting. The fake window views are arranged next to tables throughout the restaurant. Once again, you won't find any subtlety in the restaurant's theme. I'm not a fan of sweet barbecue sauces so I tried the bold and it ended up being good enough for me to apply a relatively generous, by my standards, amount to my meat.

The pulled pork at the old Post Office Barbecue packed in some impressive smoke penetration so I was happy to see the building, and its barbecue pit, back in use*. The term "competition barbecue" gets thrown around so much in restaurant advertising that it is as meaningless as seeing "real pit" or "hickory" in a restaurant's name. But the pulled pork at Paradise Grill was genuinely good enough to compete with some of the best I've tried.

In other barbecue related news from the same day I tried Paradise Grill: As I was traveling up Highway 51 I noticed some major work being done on the Barb-A-Rosa's B-B-Q building. Barb-A-Rosa's closed a few months ago. I pulled into the parking lot to ask one of the workers if the building was being demolished or renovated since it was impossible to tell at the time. He said they were doing renovation work and planned to have the place reopened in a few weeks. While I've been pretty underwhelmed by the barbecue at Barb-A-Rosa's in the past the staff has always been very friendly so I'll gladly give the refurbished restaurant another chance when it reopens.

*UPDATE: I assumed that the Paradise Grill was using the same barbecue pit that Post Office used when it was at the same location. It turns out I was wrong. During a return visit I spent some time talking to owner Mike Godwin. The owner of Post Office kept his smoker when he closed the restaurant. Godwin cooks his barbecue behind the restaurant in the same Cadillac Cooker rig that he used for competition with the Paradise Porkers. All his cooking is done with lump charcoal and cherry wood and he doesn't split the cherry logs until right before they go into the cooker's firebox in order to get as much flavor from them as possible.

The Paradise Grill on Urbanspoon