Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Charles Vergos' Rendezvous vs. Latham's Meat Company

I've posted in the past about the excellent ribs at Latham's Meat Company in Jackson, TN, but after a recent visit I decided to do a follow-up post about just how consistently impressive they are. Before I got a chance to write that post I got a text from one of my friend's over at the Go Carnivore blog asking if I'd ever written about the food at the famous Charles Vergos' Rendezvous restaurant in Downtown Memphis. When I told him I hadn't he declared it was time for us to get together for the "official final word" on the Downtown institution.

You can get the Go Carnivore take on our visit here. It's a great, highly-detailed account of our visit.

The main point of my barbecue quest has been to find jewels like Latham's. Since it is the complete opposite of the Rendezvous on so many levels I decided a direct comparison of the two could be interesting. Up to that point I hadn't bothered with a visit to the Rendezvous since I do most of my barbecue exploration at lunchtime while I'm working and the combination of high, for barbecue, prices and long waits never made it seem like a good time to drop in. And as one of the most famous barbecue joints on the planet that mostly caters to tourists the Rendezvous wasn't the kind of hidden gem I was trying to uncover on my quest.

Enough distance separates the two restaurants that obviously no one is reading this and trying to decide between a visit to one or the other. The point was simply to contrast our area's most famous eatery to a place even most Memphians have never heard of. The majority of the people eating at and writing about the Rendezvous are new to this region's barbecue. Most of the articles you read about the restaurant are so formulaic that they stick to the tired, old "rib speakeasy hidden away in an alley" narrative to describe it.

Yes the Rendezvous is located in an alley; an alley off Union Avenue directly across the street from the Peabody Hotel. I took this picture standing in front of the Peabody. The alley is in between the Holiday Inn and Benchmark Hotel pictured here.

The restaurant does keep the alley smelling great.

After our meal I took this picture of the Peabody as seen from the entrance to the Rendezvous. In some informal polling of other diners we didn't encounter anyone else from Memphis.

Most of the people eating at the Rendezvous are out-of-towners. And most of them enjoy the food they get there. But it's safe to assume that most of them have never experienced ribs like the ones at Latham's. A lot of people visit Memphis and their only experience with our barbecue comes from the Rendezvous and Beale Street tourist traps like the Blues City Cafe. The sad part is that some of those visitors are people from places like Kansas City and Austin who know their barbecue. They try barbecue from a touristy Downtown place here and go home shaking their heads saying, "I don't know what all the fuss about Memphis barbecue is about."

The customer base at Latham's is almost all local Jackson residents. The breakfast and lunch spot isn't remotely famous. It didn't even show up on the Memphis Flyer's recent list of babrecue restaurants worthy of a brief roadtrip from Memphis. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't have plenty of loyal customers. Show up for lunch and expect to see the spacious parking lot overflowing.

People frequently ask me where they need to go for ribs. There is no one answer to that question. If you are a serious rib connoisseur then Leonard's Barbecue, the Bar-B-Q Shop, Central BBQ, Memphis Barbecue Company, the Cozy Corner, Jack's Rib Shack and the Double J Smokehouse are all well-worth your time and attention. And that just represents a handful of my favorite places. But with all the ribs I eat, there is something truly special about a trip to Latham's. If you are visiting Memphis, try some of the places I just listed. If you are a Memphian who has already been to all those places think about taking a trip to Jackson (and to Helen's in Brownville) to round out your West Tennessee barbecue knowledge.

The Rendezvous doesn't actually represent traditional Memphis barbecue, or even pretend to. The ribs there are grilled for a relatively short time over high heat and seasoned with Greek spices. Meanwhile the cooking style at Latham's is so old-school that I can't visit without spending some time behind the store staring mesmerized at the at the old cinder block smokehouse where the real craftsmanship occurs.

The piles of wood are burned in the barrels to create charcoal for slow, off-heat cooking inside the smokehouse. It's a  time-consuming process that creates a perfect flavor and texture profile in the meat that can't be recreated any other way.

The atmosphere inside the two restaurants is as fundamentally different as the cooking styles. The basement dining area for the Rendezvous is such a neat space, patrolled by sharply-dressed waiters, that it made me want the food to be be special too. On the other hand, I was skeptical the first time I stopped in at Latham's and saw barbecue sitting in steam trays under heat lamps as customers where being served cafeteria style.

To get to the cafeteria-style serving area at Latham's you have walk past the butcher counter. The dining area is also school cafeteria-level spartan. If you need a restaurant for a first date or entertaining business clients then Latham's probably isn't your ideal spot. Especially considering it doesn't serve alcohol and isn't open for dinner.

For atmosphere I can see the Rendezvous's appeal. For someone who craves the taste of smoke-infused meat with perfectly rendered fat it leaves a lot to be desired. During our visit we tried three different meats; ordering brisket and pulled pork along with our ribs. Meanwhile, at Latham's I've never ordered anything but the ribs.

 Latham's is known for its country plate lunches. All the food I've seen there looks good. And I've been meaning to try the pulled pork for a while now. I mean, look at all that pink in the meat sitting next to the also impressive-looking smoked chicken. That is the telltale sign of good smoked meat. They've even given me a free sample of the pulled pork when I told them I need to try it some time. It is excellent pulled pork, but excellent ribs are better.

Excellent ribs are a quasi-religious experience that makes it difficult to restrain yourself from grunting like a caveman character from Quest For Fire while you eat.

The ribs at Latham's are always pink all the way down to the bone. This is the magic of the smokehouse.

The ribs from the Rendezvous look great when they come to the table too.

But one look at the interior of the ribs reveals just how inferior the char-grilling approach is to slow smoking. It's not just a matter a coloration. The presence or lack of a pink smoke line is just a visual clue. The real issue is flavor and texture; areas where the Rendezvous's ribs have more in common with a grilled pork chop dusted with Greek seasoning than real Mid-south barbecue.

When I say the Rendezvous doesn't represent real Memphis barbecue I want to make clear that I am complaining about the seasoning. I don't have any problem with the Greek-influenced rub. Alex's Tavern near my house loads its ribs with Greek seasoning, but slow cooks them on an old outdoor smoker. They are some of the best ribs you'll ever eat. I'm serious, go try them. And I didn't even think to mention Alex's on my list of places for serious rib connoisseurs earlier in this post.

That is the biggest issue I have with the Rendezvous. It is frequently named as one of the best places in Memphis to eat ribs. And it is an entertaining dining experience. But when it comes to the actual quality of the ribs being served, the Rendezvous doesn't even qualify as an also-ran in the world of Memphis-area ribs.

The two best things we had at the Rendezvous were the beef brisket and the baked beans. Brisket is such a naturally tough, fatty cut that there is no edible way to quickly grill it, which must force the restaurant to take a slow and low approach to it. I loved the thick hearty beans. On the other hand, the beans at Latham's are just slop straight from a can. But how big of a deciding factor are beans when picking a barbecue restaurant?

The cole slaw at the Rendezvous was bizarre in taste, appearance and consistency. "I feel like I'm eating applesauce," was my proclamation during our dinner there. The pulled pork was a a mushy, underwhelming mess. People who don't eat a lot of pulled pork need to understand that there is a huge difference between juicy meat, which comes from being infused with perfectly rendered fat, and mushy meat, which is caused by poor cooking technique killing the texture of the meat itself.

Go Carnivore declared that "Effectively, Rendezvous is the worst BBQ that Memphis has to offer." I wouldn't go that far. In my barbecue travels through this area I've had some flat-out bad ribs (more tales of bad ribs here and here). But the Rendezvous definitely represents the biggest gap between hype and reality. The other huge name in Memphis ribs, Corky's, may not have the best ribs in Memphis either, but its restaurants still offer solid, reasonably good Memphis barbecue. My great remorse is for those barbecue connoisseurs from places like Austin and Kansas City that I mentioned earlier who eat at the Rendezvous and on Beale Street during a visit here and go home telling people "I tried some of the 'best ribs in Memphis' and those folks obviously don't know what they're doing."

Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous on Urbanspoon

Latham's Meat Co. on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Family Tradition - Sidestreet Burgers and Evan's Cafeteria

Sidestreet Burgers on Highway 178 in Olive Branch has been on my radar for nearly a year now, but I hadn't stopped in until a few weeks ago. Part of the problem was catching the place open, since if I am in Olive Branch it is usually on either a Monday or a Thursday and the restaurant is closed on Mondays. And I have to drive past the Rib Zone on Lamar to get to Olive Branch, so I'm frequently not hungry by the time I reach Sidestreet. But the full parking lot on days that the restaurant was open convinced me the burgers were worth checking out.

It turns out that Sidestreet is a one-man operation run by a friendly young chef named Jonathan Mah. He keeps things simple with a short but well-thought menu. On the day I visited I noticed an enticing-sounding Sriracha steak on the specials board, but I'd showed up craving a burger so I stuck with the restaurant's namesake item despite my deep love for Sriracha sauce. I went all-out and ordered the half-pound cheeseburger topped with bacon and caramelized onions.

 The restaurant has a topping bar where I also added lettuce, tomato and pickle.

The burger was suitably huge and cooked to a perfect medium. Seth over at the Best Memphis Burger Blog frequently documents his troubles with getting kitchens to accommodate his desire for a juicy, medium burger so I'd highly recommend that he take a trip down to Olive Branch for a burger prepared by Mah.

While I was eating I was thoroughly entertained by a sign on the wall with the heading "Our credit card philosophy." Bring cash when you visit because the restaurant doesn't accept credit cards. Why not? The reasoning explained on the poster told a very long story from the era of the Ch'in and Han dynasties involving walking fish with magic bones, gold slippers, merchants, kings and people crushed to death by flying stones. The story had nothing to do with credit. At the end of it said, "And that's why Sidestreet Burgers doesn't accept credit cards." 

I was still thinking about the Sriracha steak on the specials board when I checked the Sidestreet Burgers Urbanspoon page and saw other customers mentioning how consistently good and creative the restaurant's specials are. So despite the excellent burgers, don't dismiss Sidestreet as just a burger joint. With a young chef bringing a strong sense of humor, creativity and general love of food to his establishment; Mah has made the little restaurant a place worth following.

I was working in Olive Branch on Monday and decided to swing back by Sidestreet just to see what kind of specials were available, assuming that if worst came to worst I could just order a big, juicy burger. I forgot the restaurant was closed on Mondays. But behind the restaurant I noticed I sign for a country-cooking place called Wray's Fins and Feathers. So I drove around only to discover that it is closed on Mondays too. And that I when I saw two familiar names sitting on Pigeon Roost Road in old, historic Olive Branch.

That is Evan's Cafe on the left and Blocker's Soul Food on the right.

I knew the Blocker's Soul Food on Winchester had closed recently, and with the Raleigh location converted to Lorenzo's Soul Food I thought the name had disappeared from the local soul food landscape. It turns out Blocker's is still open, just moved to Olive Branch. But Blocker's is also closed on Mondays, leading me to begin wondering if I was going to be forced to eat some sort of fast food garbage in the hideously soulless new section of Olive Branch over around Craft Goodman and Goodman surrounding the Super Wal-Mart.

I was saved from that fate by a name from even further in my past. During my days as a newspaper reporter for the Commercial Appeal I worked in the paper's DeSoto County office back in 2000. There were two country cooking restaurants on Goodman that I would frequent in those days -- the Magnolia Cafe in Olive Branch and Evan's Cafe in Horn Lake.

The two restaurants were owned and operated by a Southern-raised and accented Asian husband and wife team. He ran Evan's, she ran Magnolia. I knew both restaurants were long-gone from their original locations, but I didn't know Evan's had reappeared in Olive Branch. 

I remember a friend who used to regularly meet me for lunch at the Magnolia Cafe commenting once after the owner had just checked up on us and recommended getting seconds that, "it's sort of like a friend's mom cooked a bunch of food and invited you over to eat." It's a similar experience at Evan's, with a friendly owner, very low-priced buffet, and an extremely family-friendly atmosphere.

When I say family-friendly atmosphere I mean that the restaurant has a tradition of aways showing family-friendly older movies on a big TV in the dining room and all the tables use butcher paper as placemats with crayons available for anyone who wants to draw on them. The walls of the spartan restaurant are decorated with crayon art created by kids who have dined there in the past.

The lunch buffet was only $4.99 plus an additional $0.75 for a glass of water. I actually applaud a fast-food-priced restaurant for charging a small fee for water and giving me a full-sized cup. As someone who works outside in the Memphis heat, I hate ordering a water with my food somewhere and being given the equivalent of a child's sippy cup. I don't order water to be cheap. I order it because I'm thirsty and it's what I want to drink.

At the buffet I got pulled pork, a baked chicken thigh, turnip greens and broccoli. I mean "broccoli" in the purest Southern sense; swimming in a sea of Velveeta. The Federal government actually played a major role in making Velveeta a staple of country and soul food by distributing Velveeta-like government cheese to people on public assistance for several decades from the '60s through the '90s. Government cheese is gone these days but countless recipes created around it live on with items like Rotel chicken and Rotel spaghetti appearing on soul food menus throughout the South. Despite the Velveeta-soaked broccoli Evan's bakes most of its meat items and doesn't have any fryers, so don't worry about it being a restaurant where everything is greasy.

Evan's definitely veers more towards country cooking than soul food. The baked chicken thighs I ate packed a lot of seasoning but most of the items are the more blandly season style generally preferred by older white people in the South. My greens were very mildy seasoned, and I didn't see any of the mandatory hot green pepper sauce sitting around for me to season them myself.

The pulled pork was tender and juicy, but the lack of smoke flavor and slightly mushy consistency makes me pretty sure it was prepared in a slow cooker, not a pit. For pulled pork on a $4.99 buffet I can't complain. In fact I had seconds of both it and the greens. The food at Evan's isn't going to be fancy or exciting. But it will be consistently good enough, affordable, quick, and come with service that makes you feel like an old friend.

While I was paying for my meal when I finished eating I mentioned that I used to eat at both the old Evan's location and the Magnolia Cafe. Evan's owner Galvin Mah said that his wife closed the Magnolia Cafe to go manage a restaurant in Germantown due to struggles with arthritis and steadily increasing rents in the shopping center where she had been located. Then he hit me with the question, "Have you tried my son's restaurant up the street; Sidestreet Burgers?"

I laughed at the obvious realization and answered "yes." Husband, wife, son; over the course of nearly 15 years I've never had a bad dining experience at any restaurant owned by any member of the Mah family. 

The section of Pigeon Roost where Evan's is located is another example, like the Collierville Square or old Millington, of attractive and inviting design in a town that has since abandoned the principles of dense, walkable development and retail stores built out to the street in favor of rubber-stamping future blight like that seen in Hickory Hill and on Stateline Road.

UPDATE: Since I mentioned to pay attention to the specials board at Sidestreet Burgers; a couple weeks after this post I stopped back by Sidestreet and Chef Jonathan Mah had this creation that I was lucky enough to eat:

Mah called this the Hott Pigg. It's ground pork stuffed with applewood bacon and rosemary then topped with pepperjack cheese, jalapeno slaw and apple butter barbecue sauce. It was exceptional. If you stop by it may not be available, but don't hesitate to ask what the best special available is that day.

SideStreet Burgers on Urbanspoon

Evans Country Buffet on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Catfish Roundup - Gus's, Saigon Le and Emerald Thai

[NOTE: Enerald Thai has moved from the location on Mt. Moriah mentioned in this post to Highway 64 near I-40.]

Memphis has plenty of well-established catfish restaurants like Soul Fish and the Catfish Cabin. But there is also some great catfish lurking in places most people wouldn't think to look for it.

In all the posts I've done about Southern food catfish is one major staple that I've  pretty much completely neglected. It is just as heavily associated with the South as barbecue, fried chicken or neckbones. And I certainly love the taste of a perfectly prepared catfish dinner, like the ones that used to be served up every Friday at the Brunswick General Store on Brunswick Road near Bolton High School.

The now-empty Brunswick General Store building.

The Brunswick General Store was within walking distance of my parents' house. It was known for its large, expertly-seasoned fried catfish fillets and sides that included baseball-sized jalapeno hush puppies. Unfortunately, the store was eventually sold to new owners who began cutting corners, which quickly alienated longtime customers leading to the closing of the area institution.

This was a significant blow to my dad and many of his neighbors, for whom the catfish Fridays were a decades-old tradition. But my dad recently mentioned to me that the Wolfchase-area Gus's Fried Chicken had the best catfish he'd found since the decline of the Brunswick General Store. Given my deep love for the fried chicken served at Gus's I was immediately ready to sample some catfish there.

Although I frequently see catfish dinners on area menus, I tend to avoid them since they are hard to reconcile with my goal of making relatively healthy choices while eating Southern food every day. Your typical catfish dinner is a starch-heavy pile of battered fish, French fries and hush puppies that have all been cooked in toxic, industrially-produced vegetable oils. But at Gus's peanut oil is the preferred cooking oil and I was able to request mixed greens and baked beans as my side items.

The catfish ended up being a spot-on rendition of traditional, country-style catfish with cornmeal breading. And the standard four-piece meal was more than I could finish. It was an interesting contrast to the also-good-but-different catfish I was accustomed to from the Collierville Gus's, where I frequently stop for lunch.

The Collierville Gus's gives you the option of adding a piece of catfish to a fried chicken dinner for a nominal fee, so a two-piece dark meat with an added piece of catfish is a pretty standard order for me there. In Collierville the catfish uses the same batter as the outstanding fried chicken instead of the traditional country batter used at the Wolfchase store. On a recent stop in Collierville I asked about the different approach and found out that the Collierville location is owned by the same people as the Downtown location, while the Mendenhall and Wolfchase locations have two different separate owners.

As often as I drive past the Mendenhall location I've never stopped there since the parking lot is always so crowded, so I'm not sure what approach it takes to catfish. Besides, when I am craving catfish on that end of town I usually end up heading further down Mt. Moriah to Emerald Thai. Two of my favorite spots for eating catfish in Memphis are places that specialize in Southeast Asian cuisine. It shouldn't come as any surprise considering that part of the world is home to the largest species of catfish on the planet; the Mekong giant catfish that currently holds the record for being the world's largest freshwater fish period.

I'll come back to the catfish at Emerald Thai in a minute, but first I want to discuss the restaurant where I initially fell in love with catfish as an Asian entree. I was working in a Downtown radiator factory about ten years ago when my then-girlfriend/now-wife and I first discovered Saigon Le on Cleveland just south of Poplar. A large percentage of my coworkers were Vietnamese immigrants so one day I brought a Saigon Le menu to work with me and asked some of them what they would order there to see if I was overlooking any hidden gems.

I always prefer when my takeout order of catfish from Saigon Le is served with the sauce in a separate container to keep the fried fish from getting soggy.

One of the first recommendations one of my Vietnamese coworkers made was was fried catfish with tomato sauce. The first time my wife and I ordered it we were surprised by the country-style breading on the catfish. Meanwhile, we weren't sure what to expect from a Vietnamese tomato sauce but it ended up being a flavorful combination of tomatoes, peppers and pineapples. A decade later, the dish is still a common order for us when we get food from the restaurant.

The catfish topped with sauce. And my wife considers it a high crime to ever order Saigon Le takeout without getting an order of the restaurant's vegetable fried rice.

Vietnamese cooking has been heavily influenced by Western imperialism dating back to French occupation during the mid-1800s. French-Asian fusion cooking was happening naturally in Vietnam over a century before the concept became trendy in the restaurant world. Put two cooks in the same kitchen and they will naturally steal good ideas from each other. Plenty of G.I.s from the Southern U.S. served in Vietnam and I'm sure it wasn't long after some of them saw giant catfish being pulled out of rivers and ponds over there that the Vietnamese people were introduced to country-style breading.

While Saigon Le and Gus's both have great catfish, my most regular catfish stop in Memphis is the Emerald Thai Restaurant on Mt. Moriah. Since the unfortunate closing of my beloved Chao Praya over in Hickory Hill, Emerald has become my favorite local Thai place. Also worth noting is that my sister-in-law is from Thailand and also vouches for the food there.

I've never had a bad experience at Emerald, but there is one dish there that I am truly addicted to. I order the pad prik made with catfish so often that when I walk in the owner usually just asks, "You want fish?" when she sees me instead of handing me a menu. It's a large fillet of fried catfish in a sea of chopped vegetables and spicy, savory sauce. Once you've eaten it you'll find yourself making return trips  to order it again when you end up daydreaming about it later.

There is also a lower-priced lunch menu at Emerald that I sometimes order from. On those days I get the cashew chicken. At most Thai restaurants cashew chicken sounds good but it usually ends up being a little bland and disappointing. The cashew chicken at Emerald is loaded with little hot pepper pods that add a fiery kick to the dish. Even if you don't eat them they still infuse some spice into the dish.

The lunch meals also include a cup of soup. I'm convinced the Tom Kha Kai soup has magic curative powers for any time I am suffering from Memphis weather allergies.  It is loaded with chicken, mushrooms, kaffir leaves, galanga and chilies in coconut milk with lime zest.

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

 Saigon Le on Urbanspoon

 Emerald Thai Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon