Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fast Food Pulled Pork Tacos - El Toro Taco

I don't eat barbecue every day, but sometimes barbecue finds me even when I'm not looking for it. On Monday I was working in Millington when I decided to stop in El Toro Taco for a quick lunch.

I'm not sure how long El Toro Taco has been around, but I can't remember a time when it wasn't on US Highway 51 north of Navy Road.

El Toro Taco is a little local fast food place that serves fare like tacos, burritos and nachos. Imagine a locally-owned version of Taco Bell only serving bigger tacos with filling that actually looks like ground beef.

While I was there I noticed a sign announcing that pulled pork had been added to the menu. Naturally I felt obligated to try one alongside two of the beef tacos I'd been craving when I stopped there. When I ordered the cashier asked if I wanted barbecue sauce on the pork taco and I naturally said yes.

The pulled pork was juicy but without any real smoke flavor. That was no big surprise since I wasn't expecting any award-winning barbecue in a $1.39 taco from a fast food taco shack. It did add some nice variation to my lunch when eaten with the two beef tacos I ordered. And my lunch was less than $5 total. El Toro Taco isn't going to wow anyone looking for authentic Mexican food, but it is way better than Taco Bell at a similar price point.

El Toro Taco on Urbanspoon

North Memphis - Jock's Hot Tamales

Last Friday I ended up trying some good Delta-style tamales that fate put in my path. That morning I cleared a bunch of scrap metal out of my garage and drove it up to the Mid-Town Auto Parts and Salvage yard at Chelsea and Evergreen.  Despite the junkyard's name and its proximity to Midtown it is in an area any Memphian would refer to as North Memphis. 

It's located north of Northside High School and the North Memphis Library. The location of the old Firestone plant is due west of it and the intersection of Chelsea and Hyde Park is due east. That is about as North Memphis as it gets.

For those of you who have never sold scrap metal, there are several salvage yards along Chelsea that buy it. You turn in your copper, brass, aluminium and stainless steel at a relatively small scale near the entrance at Mid-Town. You turn in steel and cast iron further back in an area where you drive across a giant scale, unload, then drive back across and get paid based on how much less your vehicle weighs. You show your license and get thumb printed at both locations. I had a few pieces of brass and copper and a pretty good bit of steel. I got $23.62 for my brass and copper and $4 for my steel. There is a reason thieves target brass and copper.

After I left the scrap yard I was driving down Chelsea when I noticed a van parked at the corner of Chelsea and Thomas advertising "Hot Tamale Man," "Jock's Hot Tamales" and "The Best Hot Tamales in Town." It had flashing lights on the roof alongside speakers that were blasting soul music. there was no way I could pass an opportunity like that up.

The price ended up being $5.50 for a half-dozen tamales. They were good and spicy without being overly greasy and I had to force myself to stop eating after four of them. The final two made a great afternoon snack a few hours later.

Delta-style tamales can be delicious but they aren't very photogenic since they inevitably just look like cornmeal mush wrapped in wax paper. But the ones from the Jock's Hot Tamales van deliver on taste.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Great Ribs and Fried BBQ Pies - More A&R

When people talk about the best ribs in Memphis you frequently hear people mention A&R Bar-B-Q. You also here people dismiss them as okay but not all that special. I think a lot of that difference in opinion is determined by which location people have tried. Most of the A&R locations share buildings with other businesses and have little indoor pits inside the restaurant. Meanwhile, the stand-alone Elvis Presley location has more in common with rural West Tennessee barbecue joints like Helen's and Latham's.

April showers bring light conditions that can make outdoor photography difficult

The first time I posted about the A&R on Elvis Presley I'd been writing this blog for less than a month. At that point I was still heavily focused on educating people on the geography of Memphis and that post spent much more time talking about the nearby Soulsville neighborhood than the actual barbecue. That was also largely because in those early days of blogging I hadn't come to fully appreciate barbecue cooked in old-fashioned smokehouses.

This is the brick-chimneyed cinder block smokehouse behind the Elvis Presley location of A&R. You normally only see smokehouses like this in rural areas. Over the past two years I've eaten enough barbecue from enough places to really appreciate how much of a difference one can make. Having access to one in an urban area is a genuine treat.

After my recent post about the rib tips I enjoyed at A&R's Downtown location I decided to swing back by the Elvis Presley location to try the ribs there. A sign at the counter informed me that the company recently lowered the prices on its menu items to commemorate its 30th anniversary. My rib dinner plate was only $9.99 before tax, making it one of the best values in a rib dinner I've encountered.

Of course, low cost is only one part of a good value. But these ribs delivered on taste as well. I requested them dry with sauce on the side. Between the smoke and the light dusting of dry rub the ribs had so much flavor I barely touched the sauce. They had the perfect texture too; tender but without the fall-apart consistency so many people mistakenly consider ideal. The beans and slaw were pretty average, but with great ribs that cheap who cares? While the Manic American guys were in town they mentioned how impressed they were by the big old barbecue pit inside the Hickory Hill location of A&R and the ribs that came out of it. I haven't been to that one yet, but I'm now curious to try it soon. 

While I was waiting for my ribs at the Elvis Presley store I couldn't help but notice a large sign advertising "BBQ fried pies." It looked like one of the fried pies you usually see with fruit or chocolate filling at little country stores, only filled with pulled pork and sauce. I posted a pic of it on Instagram before eating my lunch. Over the next several hours I got enough messages questioning me about the fried pies on Facebook that I decided to swing back by A&R for a Hobbit-worthy second lunch.

It turns out the pies are available with pork, beef, chicken or turkey filling. I naturally went for the pork. I ended up waiting nearly 30 minutes for the pie. I'm not sure if that is standard or if there was a mix-up in the kitchen. I do know that when it came out it was way too hot to eat or hold. I had to poke some steam holes in it with a fork and let it cool down.

At $4.99 before tax the fried barbecue tax compares well to a barbecue sandwich in both price and volume. It is loaded with barbecue sauce as well as meat and ends up being similar to a barbecue-stuffed chimichanga, i.e., similar to a pothead's greatest dream.

Regular readers of this blog know that I normally try to make my barbecue and soul food selections as healthy as possible by trying to eat real foods in place of toxic, empty-calorie junk foods. I have three big rules I generally try to follow.

1. Avoid refined carbohydrates as much as possible, particularly wheat and sugar/high fructose corn syrup.

2. Avoid foods cooked with industrial-produced, chemically-extracted vegetable oils like corn, soy and canola oil.

3. Avoid unfermented soy products.

The fried barbecue pie features meat drenched in sugary sauce and served in a flour crust that has been deep fried; most likely in soybean oil. So it manages to completely break all my usual rules for healthy eating. Of course, we are talking about a deep fried barbecue pie here. I'm pretty sure anyone looking to drop a few pounds or worrying about heart disease or diabetes already realizes they shouldn't be ordering one.

It is obviously meant to be an occasional, yet delicious, indulgence. But like I demonstrated with a jumbo barbecue sandwich from Payne's Bar-B-Q in a previous post, it is important for people to understand why it is unhealthy and that the pork meat is actually the healthiest part of it. Meanwhile the rib dinner I had earlier in the day is actually pretty ideal for someone worried about their heart health or their weight.

A&R Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Convenience Store Soul Food - Gary's Market

I recently got a tip from a reader that I needed to check out Gary's Market on Getwell down near the Mississippi state line. Here in the South convenience stores sometimes contain surprisingly-good fresh cooked food so I made a mental note to try it the next time I was down that way.

There isn't anything outside Gary's that would indicate it has anything other than the standard gas station assortment of fried crud under a heat lamp. But once you are inside you will notice a cafeteria-style counter at the back with a line of people at it. Like the nearby Tom's Bar-B-Q, Gary's mainly draws its customers from the surrounding industrial area and it keeps the line moving fast to get them back to work on time.

I went for pork neckbones, cabbage and turnip greens. After your order is put together it gets wrapped in a clingy plastic film. That does a good job of keeping all the juice in the container to avoid a mess but I noticed that the staff even wraps up burger and fry combos like that, which seems like it would turn the buns and fries into a soggy mess if someone had far to drive before they started eating.

Since there aren't any tables or chairs in Gary's I ended up eating in my work vehicle so the plastic wrap and plastic bag were helpful to me since I was able to spread them out on my console to catch any spills while I ate. Everything was good and the portions were huge, especially considering the $5.99 pre-tax price. The neckbones were some of the meatiest neckbones I've ever seen and the greens had plenty of meat in them too. And everything was well-spiced to the point I didn't my eating without the standard soul food condiments of Louisiana Hot Sauce and Bruce's Green Hot Pepper Sauce available.

The line at Gary's moved so fast that I didn't even realize it serves barbecue until I picked up a menu while I was checking out at the cash register. I'll be sure to try it the next time I am down there. The daily specials for plate lunches feature an impressively wide variety of food to choose from. There is also a biscuit-centric breakfast menu.
Gary's Market on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Where There's Smoke Downtown - More A&R

People keep telling me how great the soul food is at Alcenia's on Main Street near the Pyramid in Downtown's Pinch District. On Monday I finally had a chance to swing by there at lunchtime, but first I checked the restaurant's Urbanspoon page to see if it would be opened since so many soul food places around town are closed on Mondays. The Urbanspoon page said Alcenia's is open on Mondays. In reality, Alcenia's is closed on Mondays.

Once I arrived at the closed restaurant I was already Downtown and hungry at lunchtime so I just travelled a few blocks over to Third Street to try A&R Bar-B-Que's Downtown location. While the A&R on Elvis Presley, with its real cinderblock smokehouse behind the restaurant, is my favorite location, all of them boast real barbecue pits. I've actually run into overly-smoked ribs at the now-closed Wolfchase location. That certainly isn't a problem you need to worry about at most of the places selling barbecue a few blocks over on Beale Street, where real barbecue smoke is in depressingly short supply.

I've found the pulled pork to be far more consistently good at A&R than the ribs. In fact, I've never had a bad serving of pulled pork from any A&R location. So, somewhat counter-intuitively, I decided to order a rib plate at the Downtown location since I'd never eaten there before and wanted to compare its ribs to other locations.

When my order came out it was a rib tip plate, not a rib plate. I mentioned that to my server and she immediately apologized and offered to switch it for me. But I had already seen and smelled the rib tip plate sitting in front of me. They were obviously juicy, with plenty of pink color from smoke penetration and a nice, light dusting of dry rub. I decided fate had sent them to me and told the server I was going to keep them, although she reassured me it would be no problem to swap them out. 

Once food has been served to a customer restaurants are required to throw it away if it is sent back, even if it hasn't been touched. In my world view it would be a crime to cause such good-looking rib tips to get tossed in the trash. And speaking of good-looking food; during my visit I also noticed some mouth-wateringly delicious looking smoked sausages coming out of the kitchen. I'll definitely be trying one of them soon.

Since I eat Memphis-area barbecue several times a week at minimum it is easy for me to get a little bit jaded. The rib tips, sauce, beans and slaw on my plate were all fairly average to me in the sense that they were all satisfyingly good but nothing blew me away. While I was eating a family of obvious-tourists sat down at the table beside me. The teenage son in the group was already proclaiming his hunger based on the aroma of the restaurant by itself. They ordered an assortment of ribs and pulled pork and when it came out they dove in with the joy reserved for people who only get Memphis barbecue as an occasional treat. It made me realize just how lucky I am to get to explore the world of barbecue here so thoroughly.

A&R Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon