Saturday, August 31, 2013

Tacos - Chiwawa and Borolas

There was a period where I gave up on the tacos from Chiwawa and just stuck to the hot dogs and corn dog when I'd visit. But I've recently enjoyed some really good barbecue tacos there.

The growing pains experienced by Chiwawa since it opened last spring have included a lot of two-steps-forward, one-step-back improvements. I first visited the cool-looking taco and hot dog restaurant in the old Chicago Pizza Factory building during its soft opening last spring when the dining experience was a total comedy of errors.

I have loved witnessing the ongoing revitalization of Overton Square, which is a short bike ride distance from my house. Chiwawa is such a neat space that I really want to see it live up to its potential. On a visit last I had some tacos that made me think the restaurant was finally hitting its stride. The owners brought in a new head chef, Brown Burch, a few months ago and he had been steadily improving the menu and creating interesting specials. Then I heard that the restaurant's owners got rid of him before I could even write my post about the improvements. Like I said, two-steps-forward, one-step-back has been an ongoing theme here. So this post represents my positive experiences with food from a new chef who is already gone.

The patio is the main draw at Chiwawa, but even if you are just stopping in for a drink you still want the option of ordering some good food. This can be a problem at Overton Square drinking establishments. My friends and I frequently hang out together at both Boscos and the Bayou, since both are great places to have a few drink with friendly staffs and fun atmospheres. Because of that we often end up eating the generally mediocre-at-best food that both places serve.

When a kitchen has underwhelmed you enough times you learn to find something safe and foolproof on the menu, like the hot wings at the Bayou. At Chiwawa that food was the corn dog after several experiences with ultra-dried-out pork tacos and fish tacos that tasted like they had reheated frozen fish sticks on them. But when we noticed a new lineup of tacos on the menu on a recent visit I decided to order several and ended up being glad I did.

I ordered three tacos. The Memphis Mercado has smoked pork shoulder, guajillo chili sauce, cactus, avocado, pineapple and cilantro. The El Patito features confit duck leg, pineapple-mango habanero sauce red cabbage. And the Tacos de Madre contain smoked brisket seasoned with cumin and oregano and topped with caramelized onions, roasted tomato chipotle sauce and cotija cheese.

All three tacos were delicious. The barbecue tacos had tasty, noticeable smoke in the meat and the flavor combinations were all well though out and balanced. They represented the exact type of fun, creative food I had been hoping for since the restaurant opened. I tried them again a couple days ago and they were as good as before, so I'm hoping the big improvements made by Chef Brown will  last after his departure.

Fun and creative should be what people are looking for from the tacos at Chiwawa, not traditional. I've heard some people complain that the tacos there aren't real, traditional ones but real traditional tacos are already available all around Memphis.

A lot of people argue about the best place to get authentic tacos around town. The reality is that there are countless places that are all uniformly good. I routinely stop at taquerias while driving around town for work and the main reason I don't blog about them is that they are all so consistent. Particularly in the southeastern section of the city; from the airport through Oakhaven, Fox Meadows and Hickory Hill; all you have to do is look for a place with a sign announcing "tacos" or "taqueria."

Tacos Borolas is a place I tried a couple a few days after my first experience with the new and improved Chiwawa tacos.

If all the exterior signage is in Spanish and the menu options include lengua (tongue) you can pretty much count on some good tacos.

Lengua tacos are my favorite but Tacos Borolas was out during my visit so I got  fish, spicy pork and chorizo tacos.

The fish taco comes already dressed and there is a little topping bar in the restaurant for dressing the other tacos. Taqueria La Guadalupana on Summer is the most well-known authentic taco place in Memphis, and the food there is great, but it is actually hard to go wrong exploring the little mom and pop places. Just look for restaurants that are fairly spartan. The more heavily decorated around a contrived "Mexican" theme a place is the more likely it is to serve bland meats on flour tortillas.

Chiwawa on Urbanspoon

Tacos Borolas on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Contender in Brownsville - Raisin' Cain

My last stop for work yesterday was in Brownsville, TN, so I swung by Helen's Bar-B-Q on Washington Avenue to pick up two pulled pork dinners to take home for my wife and I. About five minutes later as I was headed back to I-40 home I stopped on the side of Anderson Avenue to buy some more barbecue from a roadside trailer.

The trailer was just south of the four-way stop at Anderson and Highway 70. It is usually there Tuesday through Saturday afternoons.

The pulled pork Helen Turner creates in the old screened-in smoke room behind her little restaurant is incredible. So when I saw a little trailer with a banner identifying it as Raisin' Cain BBQ I was curious to sample pulled pork from someone ballsy enough to peddle their wares right around the corner from her.

I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with the sauce and the slaw on the side to keep everything from turning into a soggy mess on the way home. The young white guy operating the trailer offered both hot and mild sauce so I asked for hot since that is also what I got from Helen's and I wanted an even competition. That and I just like spicy barbecue sauce.

My sandwich, which ended up being loaded with pork when I got it home, was only $4.50. The pulled pork plates from Helen's that came with piles of meat, beans, slaw and potato salad were only $8 and some change each, so either place will give you ample food for your money.

As I was driving off from Raisin' Cain I noticed smoke drifting from a large smoker sitting behind it. It took me nearly an hour to get back to my home home in Midtown Memphis. With two large orders from Helen's and a big sandwich from Raisin' Cain sitting directly behind me it was a near torturous experience being taunted by the smells coming from those three paper bags.

For dinner my wife and I split the meat from the Raisin' Cain sandwich and added the Raisin' Cain spicy sauce to it to eat alongside our Helen's pulled pork for a direct comparison. As soon as I looked at the meat from Raisin' Cain I was impressed by the nice bark. It actually had more pink in it than the meat from Helen's, and while this might sound like heresy to a lot of people, it also had a slightly better overall texture. The pulled pork from Helen's is always so tender that some of the meat ends up being downright mushy.

The flavor of the actual meat was an even match even when compared side by side. The sauce was a different story. Helen's won the battle of hot barbecue sauces hands-down. Her sauce is a perfect balance of sweetness and spice. The sauce from Raisin' Cain tasted more like a plain traditional hot sauce, like a Louisiana or a Frank's Red Hot, than a barbecue sauce.

Helen's cole slaw with its strong vinegar bite also made the Raisin' Cain slaw taste bland by comparison. There was nothing wrong with the slaw from Raisin' Cain, it had a nice roughly chopped consistency and a nice touch of mayo without being overly creamy. Anyone who doesn't like vinegary slaw would prefer it to Helen's, and I realize slaw is one food item where personal preferences vary widely. I didn't try any other sides from Raisin' Cain but the beans and potato salad from Helen's were as perfect as always.

Overall, while Helen's won out for overall eating experience, if I worked or lived on the southern side of Brownsville I could easily see myself just grabbing a quick meal from Raisin' Cain rather than driving across town to Helen's in the north. Keep in mind this is Brownsville, where across town means a distance of less than five miles. That is pretty high praise for pulled pork from a little roadside trailer. If I'd run across Raisin' Cain almost anywhere else this post would have been almost entirely praise. But when you park your tailer next to a heavy-hitter like Helen's you have to accept that it is going to set the standard for you to compete with.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Truth in Advertising - Greens, Beans and Taters

The day after my wife and I returned from our recent vacation to Boston and New York City I ended up working in Henderson, TN. I make the drive down Highway 45 from Jackson, TN, down to Henderson every couple of months. The quiet little stretch of road is called the "Rockabilly Highway" from back in the days when it was full of little honky tonk clubs where now-legendary musicians like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly would perform, which is why the Rockabilly Hall of Fame is located in Jackson.

After several days in Manhattan it was a little startling to readjust to just how much open land there is in the rural South. As much as I enjoyed our trip it definitely felt good to be back in the part of the world where I feel at home. And I already knew the restaurant I was going to try for some home cooking to accompany that feeling.

I'd noticed Greens, Beans and Taters on the side of the highway a couple months earlier, but I'd already eaten lunch up in Jackson on that trip so I just made a mental note to try it the next time I had a chance. Sometimes you see a new restaurant open up and you wonder what kind of food it serves. That wasn't the case with Greens, Beans and Taters; where one look at the name told me exactly what sort of traditional Southern staples I could expect to find on the menu.

The inside of the restaurant was spacious and clean, and the staff welcomed me in with the kind of enthusiastic Southern charm that let me know I was back in Tennessee. You order cafeteria-style at Greens, Beans and Taters and I was torn between the meatloaf and the fried chicken I saw on display since both looked excellent.

I ultimately went with the meatloaf. People use the phrase meat-and-three to describe soul food and country cooking restaurants even though almost all of the places I visit these days just include two sides with their plate meals. Greens, Beans and Taters still upholds the old tradition of three generous side servings. In a nod to the establishment's namesake foods I got turnip greens and lima beans, but I did get cabbage instead of any of the available forms of taters.

Each meal comes with a choice of a roll, a corn muffin or skillet cornbread. The man in front of me in line and I both opted for the skillet cornbread. The young man taking our order apologized saying that they were a little old and said that if we had any problem with them to bring them back for either corn muffins or some fresh skillet cornbread he was expecting out of the kitchen shortly. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the little cornbread pancakes, but his concern with making sure everything on our plates was top-notch indicated the kind of service and quality the restaurant strives for.

As he was handing me my plate the same young man asked if I was a fan of bread pudding as I was looking over the desserts beside the cash register. I told him that I'm generally not much of a dessert eater but I was intrigued by the strawberry-moonshine fried pies I saw on display. He grabbed one out of the case and said to enjoy it on the house since it was my first visit.

All of my food was cooked and seasoned with skill. As expected at a place called Greens, Beans and Taters there was a bottle of Bruce's Green Hot Pepper Sauce at my table but I only added a few shakes of it to my cabbage and lima beans. I ate half of my fried pie and took the other half home where my wife immediately claimed it and agreed with my assessment that the crust was merely okay but the strawberry filling was outstanding. 

I'm already looking forward to the next time I end up in Henderson just so I can sample more of the menu at Greens, Beans and Taters.

Greans, Beans, and Taters on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Barbecue in Brooklyn - Little Brother

Since barbecue has become extremely trendy in New York City during the past couple of years I had a lot of people recommending various places to try it during the recent vacation my wife and I took there. I mostly ignored those recommendations since I already eat great barbecue all the time at home. After all, if someone was visiting Memphis from New York I wouldn't tell them where to get pizza and deli food around here.

But after a day of exploring Queens and Brooklyn that included a lot of bar hopping we ended up trying some NYC que after all. And it ended up being good stuff.

We were having drinks with some old friends at a bar called Hot Bird on Clinton Hill in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights neighborhood when we noticed other patrons bringing in carry-out containers of barbecue. After asking around we found out there was a Carolina-style barbecue restaurant next door called Little Brothers BBQ.

When a friend went over to get some food for he and his girlfriend he returned with two impressive-looking sandwiches and a copy of the menu. The pulled pork looked good and once my wife noticed pulled pork-topped macaroni and cheese on the menu she sent me over to get an order for us.

The pulled pork I'd seen on the sandwiches had sported a noticeable pink smoke line that indicted the restaurant was using a real smoker. When I walked in the door I saw a pile of wood that gave me further assurance Little Brother was serving real barbecue, not a gas oven imitation. After placing my order I chatted with the young woman who took my order for a few minutes and she pointed out the large smoker in the kitchen behind her. This dedication to the craft of genuine smoked barbecue is commendable, especially when you consider how prohibitively expensive it must be to source quality hardwoods for cooking in Brooklyn.

A tub of macaroni and cheese topped with pulled pork is something I would generally avoid at home where wheat is one of the three junk ingredients, along with sugar and vegetable oils, that I try to severely limit in my diet to keep my nonstop consumption of barbecue and soul food healthy. But this was vacation and it made a great evening snack while we were having drinks on the Hot Bird's wonderful patio.

For any New Yorkers who are unfamiliar with Southern-style smoked pork, the pulled pork I had at Little Brother was a good guide to what you should be looking for. It had a nice bark, which is what we call the charred pieces from the outer surface of the meat. Beneath that bark there was a nice deep pink layer of meat that comes from good smoke penetration during the cooking process.

I didn't care for the sauce. It was spicy and had plenty of vinegar like a lot of the sauces I love but something about the flavor profile just seemed off to me. But the meat was good enough to stand on its own, which is the hallmark of good barbecue. While it wasn't as good as the best Memphis has to offer it was actually notably better than what you'll find in some of our Downtown tourist traps.

There have been some rather comically naive claims in some of the New York press that barbecue is on the decline in the South at the same time it has been spreading through the Northeast. All we in barbecue country can offer those writers is a traditional Southern eye-rolling "bless your heart." One of the biggest problems I have maintaining this blog is keeping up with the steady stream of great new restaurants. But I can see where the myth comes from. It seems like the Yankees jumping on the smoked meat bandwagon are genuinely interested in the craft and trying their best to copy traditional cooking methods. They are certainly bringing a respect to the art you won't see at any of the fast food joints rushing to add pulled pork to their menus. Meanwhile, locals in places like Memphis may shun the tourist traps in their hometowns, but by default they are the only places that many visitors experience. 

The pulled pork meat at Little Brother was solidly good enough to qualify as "Memphis average" even if the sauce was a little lacking. That should make it a welcome addition to the already-incredible dinning scene for anyone grabbing a pint and a shot at a Brooklyn bar.

 Little Brother BBQ on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Organ Meat in Manhattan - Takashi

While my wife and I were looking over the organ meat-heavy menu at Takashi in Manhattan's West Village our server asked how adventurous we are about trying different cuts of meat. The entire reason we were there was the heavy praise we'd read for the restaurant's assortment of seasoned animal parts that patrons cook themselves on grills at the tables. From chitterlings to pig's feet to hog maw I haven't shied away from trying any cuts as I've explored the soul food landscape of Memphis.

We had arrived after a long but enormously fun day of touring Central Park on bicycles followed by seeing a matinee performance of the hilarious musical The Book of Mormon by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone on Broadway. Takashi doesn't take reservations for groups smaller than four people so when we arrived we found out our wait would be a little over an hour. We killed time by walking around the neighborhood and checking out the nearby High Line until the restaurant called to tell us our table was ready.

We had some really enjoyable dishes along with some underwhelming ones, but with some better ordering decisions the overall meal could have been much better. For appetizers we started with the beef pilaf-stuffed zucchini blossoms and the bresaola made with Kobe beef prosciutto topped with blue cheese and greens. The stuffed blossoms were great but the bresaola, while okay, was a bit of a disappoint. The taste was entirely dominated by the blue cheese. We had also thought about ordering the squid ink rice and miso-marinated sweetbreads and after seeing an order of them arrive at another table ended up wishing we had asked for them instead of the bresaola. 

Tongue three ways on the left and heart on the right. Depending on how adventurous you are the menu offers everything from traditional ribeye steak to "cow balls escargot style with garlic shiso butter." 

For our main course we ordered the beef heart and the "the tongue experience," which consists of cuts from three different parts of the tongue. It had come highly recommended, including an endorsement in author Timothy Ferriss's highly entertaining cookbook The 4-Hour Chef. And I frequently eat and enjoy tongue in lengua tacos, both from taquerias amd cooked myself at home in a slow cooker. But as delicious and tender as slow cooked tongue is, it just came across as overly tough and chewy when grilled no matter how much we played with the cooking time. On the other hand, the heart was excellent with just a quick sear on each side.

The tongue was one of the main dishes that drew us to Takashi, but with options like cheek meat and more traditional steak cuts on the menu we regretted ordering it. Our meal at Takashi ended up being an interesting experience that could have been much improved if we'd ordered a few things differently. Also, organ meats are so prevalent in Southern soul food precisely because they are cheap. I am of the firm belief that any food can be good if it is cooked correctly. Some foods just take more skill than others. But at Takashi you are cooking the meats yourself. It is hard not to feel a little ridiculous paying over $100 for two people to cook their own organ meats, especially considering the gigantic pile of offal I could throw on the grill at home after a trip to the Winchester Farmer's Market with a $100 bill.

Takashi on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Bucketlist Sammich - Katz's Deli

Any fool can make a sandwich by throwing ingredients in between two slices of bread. But the word sammich implies something grander. A sammich is constructed around a clear vision, with generous quantities of carefully chosen ingredients combined to make something truly glorious.

There is one sammich that has been on my bucket list for years. I've always loved a good reuben, but until recently I'd never experienced the Holy Grail of reubens -- one from a Kosher-style deli in New York city.

That changed last week while my wife and I were vacationing in New York. We were staying in an apartment in Manhattan's East Village; just a few blocks from the world-famous Katz's Deli that was founded in 1888.

When you enter Katz you get a ticket that you carry with you as you gather whatever food and drink items you want. The workers keep a tally of your order on the ticket as you present it each time you ask for anything. You pay for everything at once at the register as you leave.

On my first visit I headed straight for the sandwich counter and ordered a reuben. The employee who assembled my sammich gave me a sample of the corned beef to try while he was working. It lived up to all my dreams, practically melting in my mouth.

This blog is usually devoted to the art of slow-cooking meat with smoke. While corned beef is slow-cured with a salt-water brine instead it is interesting to note that the most common cut used for corned beef is brisket; a fatty cut that is also well-loved and renowned in barbecue circles. 

Smoke and salt are the two oldest preservatives in human history. In fact, Pastrami is made by smoking corned meats after they are salt-cured. So I like to  think of the corned beef brisket I enjoyed at Katz's as an ancient but close relative to barbecue.

A lot of restaurants are putting "reubens" on their menus these days that aren't actually reubens. Turkey and fancy slaw on wheat bread may make a sandwich you enjoy, but don't call it a reuben. On the other hand, the reuben at Katz's is a textbook perfect example with corned beef, sauerkrat, swiss cheese and Russian dressing piled on rye bread. And I mean piled. After tax and tip one sandwich is over $20, but one sandwich was also enough food to feed my wife and I combined.

When my wife booked the apartment we stayed in I didn't realize how close it was to Katz's. But once we realized I could run and grab one while she was getting ready in the mornings it became a recurring meal. And it's one I am already missing dearly now that I'm back here in Memphis, although the next time I'm in Manhattan I'll have to force myself to shy away from the reuben on at least one visit in order to try the deli's also-famous and massive pastrami sammich.

Katz's Deli on Urbanspoon