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.