Friday, September 27, 2013

Outside Nashville - Papa Kay Joe's

Last weekend I was in Lebanon, TN, a small town just east of Nashville, with some friends for the annual Redneck Rumble car show. The Rumble is an event for rat rods, traditional-style hot rods and bobber-style motorcycles.

If you like traditional hot rods like these, you'll like the Redneck rumble.

Since I was going to be passing through Nashville around dinner time on the way home I posted a message on the Memphis Que Facebook page asking for recommendations on where to eat. Several people mention Nashville hot chicken places like Prince's and Hattie B's. Nashville hot chicken is one form of southern food I haven't explored yet, and based on some of the pictures I've seen and reviews I've read it is something I need to try. But I was in the mood for barbecue (big surprise right?) so I followed a tip to check out a place called Papa Kay Joe's Bar-B-Que located west of Nashville in Centerville.

The pig on the sign is exactly the same as the one on this sign from a boarded-up barbecue joint in West Memphis, AR.

I looked up Papa Kay Joe's on my phone and found a listing for an address on Ward Street in Centerville. It was going to be about a 40 mile total detour from the interstate, but it seemed like a worthwhile adventure. The directions on my phone said to take Exit 172 and head south on Highway 46 for several miles before making a right on Highway 100 and driving about 17 miles to get to Centerville. But we had only been off of I-40 traveling on Highway 46 for a couple miles when we saw a big sign for Papa Kay Joe's

At first we were confused, but also happy that we weren't going to be driving near as far out of the way as we expected. On the way into the restaurant I noticed an additional sign noting that we were actually at Papa Kay Joe's East. There are two locations. So if you are traveling on I-40 and want to try Papa Kay Joe's barbecue without driving all the way to Centerville just head south from Exit 172 and you'll find the restaurant on the right side of the road a couple miles down. Just be warned that it is closed on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

Once we were seated and looked over the menu the friend I was traveling with ordered a pulled pork sandwich with fires and slaw. I noticed an interesting sounding item on the menu that featured a pile of pulled pork on a cornbread cake but I ordered a rib dinner with beans and slaw.

 My friend let me try a bite of the pulled pork from his sandwich before he inhaled it and it was great. It could easily be eaten with no sauce, although the restaurant offers both mild and hot barbecue sauce.

My ribs failed to impress me. They came coated with an ultra-sweet sauce that dominated the flavor. The hot barbecue sauce available at the table was much better than what came on the ribs, I would have requested the hot but my server had told me the ribs were served dry. Their texture varied from overly-mushy in some areas to over-cooked to a jerky-like consistency in other areas. Compared to the excellent pulled pork my friend  I was left with that feeling where you want a time machine to jump back and warn yourself to order differently.

The menu listed both mayo and vinegar slaw. My friend and I both ordered the vinegar-based but the restaurant was out so we ended up opting for the mayo based instead. While I generally prefer vinegar slaw the mayo slaw at Papa Kay Joe's is really good. It is roughly chopped, the mayo is used sparingly and it is seasoned with black pepper. If more mayo-based slaw was like the variation served at Papa Kay Joe's I wouldn't have an aversion to it. The beans were totally average.

My rib dinner also came with a cornbread pancake. I realized just how much of a mistake I'd made while ordering when I took a bite. The thing was delicious. My friend asked to try a bite and ended up wide-eyed at how good it was as well. On the way out of the restaurant I noticed a framed article on the wall from Southern Living magazine. It quoted owner Devin Pickard saying the cornbread cakes are fried in pork lard on a griddle because he thinks barbecue restaurants should celebrate pork fat.

The next time I have an opportunity to eat at Papa Kay Joe's there is no question what I will be ordering. I will be getting one of those outstanding pork lard-fried cornbread cakes topped with the restaurant's outstanding pulled pork and slaw. Even now I find myself daydreaming about just how spectacular it will taste.

Papa Kayjoe's Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Memphis Most" Winner - Germantown Commissary

A few weeks ago the Commercial Appeal newspaper released its annual Memphis Most issue. The Memphis Most poll is a shameless copy of the Best of Memphis poll published annually in the Memphis Flyer newspaper. Along with being the original, the Best of Memphis poll in the Flyer is generally considered the more credible guide to the city, although some of the Best of Memphis results will also make knowledgeable people curse and cringe the way the Memphis Most list will.

What do I mean by curse and cringe? In this year's Memphis Most poll Pete & Sam's was declared Best Italian in a city with options like Bari and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen. Best Hot Wings went to Buffalo Wild Wings while Best Deli went to Jason's Deli and Best Coffee Shop went to Starbucks. Seriously, if you are unfamiliar enough with local options for hot wings, deli food and coffee to vote for those chains, just don't vote. Also, the Cupboard won for Best Vegetarian. The Cupboard is a meat and three country cooking place, meaning it serves the kind of food I eat all the time. It is 10 minutes from my house. I haven't eaten there in years. It doesn't even have the best vegetarian country vegetables on that particular block of the Medical District. For that, go to Peggy's Heavenly Home Cooking.

Not all the winners were dumbfounding selections. Restaurant Iris took Best Fine Dining, Gus's Fried Chicken took Best Southern Fried Chicken and Brother Juniper's took Best Breakfast; all of which were completely deserving choices. But it was still a poll were a Best Shopping Center award went to Collierville's Carriage Crossing; a design nightmare that someone manages to combine the absolute worst elements of dense urban design, suburban strip malls and indoor shopping malls into one terrible experience.

The award for Best Barbecue Ribs went to the Germantown Commissary. I've had plenty of pulled pork from the Commissary over the years but I'd never sampled the ribs there so I decided I needed to make a special trip to see how they measured up. I went with a skeptical but open mind. The pulled pork at the Commissary has always been good, but not exceptional. And the ribs won, but in a poll where the Rendezvous got enough votes for an honorable mention while Leonard's didn't appear on the list at all. 

The restaurant is located inside a converted old general store next to the train tracks in old Germantown. The historic location definitely adds to the dining experience.

I had to plan a special trip to eat at the Commissary. It is on the opposite side of the county from my Midtown home. And while I usually try restaurants while I am working, the Commissary is in a heavily residential area that I never travel to for work. So last week I took a ride out there with a friend to try some ribs for dinner. My friend recently moved to Memphis and had heard enough about the Commissary that he was already curious to try it before it appeared on the Memphis Most list.

We arrived a little before 8 p.m. as the main dinner rush was just starting to clear out. All the staff members we encountered were friendly and there was only a short wait before we were seated and ordered a round of Ghost River beers while we looked over the menu.

We may have gone a little overboard with our ordering. We got two full-slab rib dinners, onion rings, chicken wings, and a tamale.

We ordered the wings expecting hot wings, but they were actually just breaded and fried chicken wings served with honey mustard sauce. Not bad, just not what we expected. I guess we just assumed chicken wings are tossed in hot sauce and butter and served with blue cheese or ranch dressing. The onion rings were ordered on a whim and were okay, but they were mostly breading without much onion.

The single tamale was surprisingly filling. It was a Delta-style tamale and came topped with chili and cheese. I enjoyed it overall, but the tamale itself under all that topping was a little dry and bland.*

After sampling all the sides we were ready to tear into the main course. The slabs of ribs at the Commissary are served dry, with no sauce or rub. Dry rub and mild and hot barbecue sauce are all available at the table. The restaurant still includes a tasty deviled egg with its barbecue dinners, which makes for a nice little extra treat. The beans and slaw were both solidly good, as they have always been when I've had food from the Commissary. The rib meat demonstrated great smoke penetration with pink coloration running all the way to the bone.

The ribs themselves are good. I can see where someone who had only tried the lackluster ribs from some of the big names like the Rendezvous or the now-defunct Neely's, along with the "fast food ribs" from Tops, could think they'd found the best in town. It is also important to note that people who live in Germantown are generally not the kind of people who are going to spend a lot of time exploring the rest of the city. That isn't me bashing Germantown. It is one of the nicest suburban areas in the city because it has always shunned the kind of poorly-designed, future-blight, commercial development that the rest of the city's suburbs have never had the foresight to avoid.

But while the ribs at the Commissary are certainly better than average, we were there to see if they were worthy of being crowned the Best Ribs in the Memphis area. As I've noted in the past, I prefer my ribs with dry rub instead of sauce. But even if you prefer sauce, the sauce at Commissary is underwhelmingly mild and flavorless. Even the hot is like someone just added an element of heat to the mild sauce, which has no other flavor elements to make it interesting.

So that brings us to the dry rub. The dry rub is what adds that extra dimension of flavor that takes the ribs to the next level at places like Leonard's, the Bar-B-Q Shop, Jack's Rib Shack, Alex's Tavern and Memphis Barbecue Company that serve truly outstanding ribs. So I had high hoped when I took a section of my commissary ribs and dusted them with the dry rub that was on the table. It tasted like candy. Seriously, it tasted like something that would get sprinkled on an apple on a stick at the fair. It looked like dry rub, but you could get the same result just dusting ribs with brown sugar. There was no other flavor profile to the rub other than overbearing sweetness.

While the sauces and dry rub at the Commissary failed to impress, the ribs are good enough to be enjoyed on their own. They aren't exceptionally juicy or flavorful, but there is a good smoke presence. They are solidly above average. Before anyone complains that, "truly great ribs don't need sauce or rub," I'll say that I agree completely. The ribs at Latham's Meat Company in Jackson, TN, are served without any sauce or rub, and they are truly outstanding. But there is still a complex element of flavor there that the Commissary lacks. If I lived in Germantown, I'd probably eat a lot of Commissary barbecue. It is certainly better than the Tops a few blocks from my house that I frequent out of convenience. Combine convenience with above average quality and it is probably the best place for the demographic it is drawing its customers from. After all, Alex's Tavern may have much better ribs, but good luck on convincing the average Germantown housewife to drive across town to eat there.

*Since I mentioned the tamale being a little dry and bland I'd like to point out that hitting the perfect balance of spice and fat in a tamale is an art. I recently tried this place at Winchester and Kirby Parkway in Hickory Hill were the tamales had a nice spicy kick to them but were a little to soggy and greasy. It is also interesting to note that Hattie's Tamales had an actual store near this intersection for years that I never made it into before it closed. So once I saw they were available from the little shack on a trailer I made sure to get some while I had the chance. The best tamales I've found in the Memphis area are still the ones at the South Memphis Grocery.

Germantown Commissary on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Barbecue and Whiskey in Memory of a Friend - Cochon Heritage BBQ

Last Friday a group of extraordinarily talented chefs gathered in Downtown Memphis to cook heritage pigs from small, area farms in a friendly competition that transitioned into more of an Irish wake by the end of the night. Cochon Heritage BBQ is a spin-off of the Cochon 555 series. Like the Cochon 555 event in Memphis last year, each chef's team uses a heritage pig from the farm of their choice. As the name implies, at Cochon Heritage BBQ the focus is on the art of slow, off heat cooking with smoke. 

The focus is also on small farms that are dedicated to raising animals humanely and sustainably.  This year four of the six teams competing used Berkshire hogs from Newman Farm. Anyone who has purchased Newman Farm pork products either at area farmers' markets or off the menu at outstanding local restaurants like Sweet Grass, Hog and Hominy and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen understands why so many teams opted to compete with pigs from Newman. So the tragic sudden death of Newman Farm patriarch Mark Newman less than two weeks before the event turned it into a send-off for a great man who left a huge mark on the culinary landscape. 

Mark was a huge advocate for both sustainable farming and the talented chefs who used his products in their kitchens. And that naturally made him a huge advocate for the Cochon events as well. His big grin and joking personality made him an integral part the local farmers' market scene. At the Cochon 555 event in Memphis some of my favorite memories are of sharing whiskey and stories with him. The first Cochon Heritage BBQ followed shortly after during last year's Labor Day weekend, but I missed that event since my wife and I were vacationing on the West Coast at the time. We made plans to attend Memphis's second Heritage BBQ competition at Beale Street Landing assuming we'd be sharing more jokes and drinks with him.  

It was my first visit to Beale Street Landing, a taxpayer-funded fiasco that has finally partially opened years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. But that can be an urban planning rant for another post. [UPDATE a week after I posted this the Memphis Flyer provided a great summary of the Beale Street Landing fiasco.]

The tone for the evening was set as soon as I walked in the front door of Beale Street Landing and was greeted with a hug from Mark's wife of 39 years, Rita. After offering my condolences I moved on to sample the food from the first team I encountered. 

The St. Jude Culinary Team headed by Mile McMath and Rick Farmer are a skilled group of cooks who spend their work days feeding the staff and patients at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The St. Jude team had a sign announcing its use of a Newman Pig for the Cochon competition...

...And Mark's name had been added to the team's shirts.

The St. Jude team presented its food on cafeteria style trays and immediately established how high the level of competition was going to be. From left on top; that is braised pork belly with dim sum-style sticky rice, an oyster topped with barbecue bologna, and an outstanding tamale. Below that from; pork short ribs with pig ear "pasta," a butermilk and cornbread parfait and a can of field peas with pork tongue pastrami and pickled pig's feet and ears.

The next station featured a team that combined staff from two Atlanta restaurants with chefs Chad Clevenger of Alma Cocina and Nick McCormick of TAP Gastropub. Here you see a crispy barbecue rillette, pork posole, a Cuban-style pork torta and a green bean salad. Just two teams into sampling the competition I was already feeling sorry for the judges who would have to pick a favorite.

My first two stops had been at indoor stations. Next I moved outside where three teams were suffering in the August heat. I'm not sure why an event in Memphis that included so much outdoor space was scheduled to start a 5 p.m. on a day in August. By 7 p.m. the temperature got much more bearable but those first two hours were muggy and scorching. This team paired chefs Ryan Trimm of Southward, Sweet Grass and Next Door Memphis with Josh Galliano of the Libertine in St. Louis.

The Trimm/Galliano dup served slow-roasted ham with peach preserves on lard biscuits, a pig's head baked bean and jalapeno stew, ribs, a "pizza" of pork loin on pork rinds with a mustard sauce and pulled pork corn dog bites dusted with dry rub.

Tamales were a popular dish, which was great for a tamale lover like me. The Central BBQ team headed by Craig Blondis and Chris Taylor served a pulled pork tamale with a "soul stew" of ham, sausage, beans and peas; greens served with rind-on pork belly; and pork and peanut bonbons. I found out that the bread on the top left of my plate was supposed to be for the Central BBQ answer to the McRib sandwich. Despite how underwhelming an actual McRib is, I hate that I missed trying the Central team's take on it. 

After sampling two of the outdoor teams I retreated inside away from the August heat to try Jackson Kramer of Interim's spice-rubbed ham and his outstanding pressed pork confit.

While cooling off inside I also took time to grab a Manhattan before heading back into the heat to try the last food station. The whiskey was as abundant at Cochon Heritage BBQ as it has been at any of the Cochon 555 event I've attended.

The heat was already uncomfortable when we arrived and after trying food from five teams along with a generous sampling of quality bourbons and beers I had to brace myself to try the final table. But I'd heard enough people raving about the entries from Travis Grimes of Husk in Charleston, S.C., that I knew I had to find room for them. The husk team ended up winning the event. It served peach barbecue sauce-glazed fried bologna with a pickled peach relish; confit pork neck corn fritters; pork shoulder with heirloom tomatoes, onions, Ricotta and olive oil; and field peas cooked with bacon and ham hocks.

I was able to duck back inside to the air conditioning whenever I got too hot outside. Evan Potts, who normally bartends at the Cove on Broad, didn't have that luxury. He was working an outdoor bar beside the river, getting the full brunt of the sun as it moved to the west.

The sun was literally melting the stacks of plastic cups he was using to serve drinks.

Like any cochon event there were also oysters, this time topped with bacon and goat cheese...

...And lots of additional good cheeses...

...and butcher demonstrations.

The view from Beale Street Landing, even in its current unfinished state, is spectacular.

As the sun went down and the temperature dropped everyone gathered around the stage for the awards ceremony.

Cochon events usually end with the awards ceremony. At this event the awards ceremony quickly morphed into a memorial service for Mark Newman.

Mark's Family on stage with Cochon 555 founder Brady Lowe (second from left with microphone). The event took on the feel of an Irish wake as family and friends shared memories, toasts were drank, tears flowed and multiple F-bombs were dropped on stage by people searching for the right words.

Lowe took time to present the trophy to the event's winners, the Husk team led by Travis Grimes. Then hot air lanterns were dispersed through the crowd for attendees to light and release over the Mississippi River in memory of Mark.