Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dirty South Barbecue - Papa Chuck's

If you frequent barbecue joints throughout Memphis you come to recognize elements that indicate the type of establishment you are visiting. Table service with well-dressed waiters and waitresses tell you that you are at a place at the fancier end of the spectrum. Meanwhile a handgun permit class qualification target taped to a wall of bullet-proof glass encasing the order counter signals that you might not be in one of the city's nicest neighborhoods. That is what I encountered when I walked into Papa Chuck's on Airways in between Lamar and the airport.

I'd noticed the spot, tucked behind a liquor store, during taxi rides home from the Memphis airport. The way it sits back from the street makes it hard to spot when you are heading south on Airways. And even headed north it is easy to miss if you are driving and paying attention to the road. But during cab rides home after trips away from the city I am always extra attentive to soaking in the sights of home and I had been meaning to try the little restaurant since I first noticed it over a year ago.

Unfortunately I'd always forget about it on days when I was actually working nearby in the area around Airways and Lamar. But a few days ago I was driving down Park and stopped to photograph the old Big Bluff BBQ building in nearby Orange Mound with its iconic "The Mound" graffiti. That put me in the mood from some Dirty South barbecue, which caused me to remember Papa Chuck's and make a quick detour for lunch.

If anyone knows any of the history of Big Bluff Bar-B-Q I'd love to hear it.

Despite the ominous bullet-proof glass I never felt threatened in any way during my visit to Papa Chuck's. In fact, the homeless woman who greeted me outside the restaurant and attempted to sell me batteries, socks and candy held my hand and prayed for God to bless me back with $2,000 after I gave her $1.

The inside of the restaurant was fairly spartan, with just a handful of tables and chairs in the dining area beside the glass-enclosed kitchen. I asked the woman behind the counter if she thought the rib plate or the pulled pork plate was a better option. She said the ribs, so that is what I ordered. The $8.99 price tag made it one of the cheapest rib plates I've found.

The beans and the slaw were both store-bought. I saw the tubs. The ribs were ulta-tender to the point of falling apart. I prefer a firmer texture to my rib meat, but these were still plenty enjoyable. They were also swimming in a sweet barbecue sauce. Once again, not my preference, but for $8.99 I was still happy with my lunch. Anyone who likes fall-off-the-bone ribs with a lot of sauce would consider them exceptional. And while it wasn't what I usually prefer, it was exactly what I was in the mood for at the time.

At one time, when I would encounter fall-apart ribs like the ones at Papa Chuck's I'd wonder if they'd been boiled before cooking. After some experimenting with cooking ribs on my own I now suspect that ribs like this have been inadvertently boiled at the end of the cooking process. It is common in the barbecue world to  wrap meat in foil when it is nearly done and let it cook for some additional time to continue breaking down the fat in them. Since meat is most receptive to smoke when it is raw, by the end of the cooking process it is hard to get much additional smoke into it. So wrapping meat at the end of a cook doesn't really sacrifice smoke flavor while it does allow it to keep breaking down, and becoming tenderer, without drying out.

A lot of cooks also add a generous amount of sauce to meat at the same time that they wrap it. Keep in mind that barbecue is typically cooked between 225 and 250 degrees while water boils at 212. If meat is sealed up and immersed in liquid while it cooks, it is being boiled. Even without sauce, if fatty cuts like ribs are cooked for too long wrapped in foil the steam and rendered fat in the foil is enough to effectively boil them.

The are different opinions on the best way to cook barbecue because their are so many different opinions on what constitutes great results. Whether or not to wrap, how long to cook in foil if you do, and whether or not to use liquid sauce while you cook are all topics that can inspire huge debate among even the oldest and most experienced of pitmasters. The best way to determine what you think is best is to simply eat barbecue from as many places as possible.

Papa Chuck's BBQ on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pinich District Soul Food - Alcenia's

Since I started blogging about Memphis-area soul food I've had readers telling me that I had to try Alcenia's, located Downtown on Main Street. The problem was that I am rarely anywhere near the Pinch District at lunch time. A few month's ago I finally tried to visit, but that was on a Monday. I discovered that Alcenia's is one of the many soul food places that stays closed on Mondays, so that day I ended up at the Downtown location of A&R Bar-B-Q

 Alcenia's is in the Pinch District near the Pyramid, the former home of the Memphis Tigers and Grizzlies basketball teams before the Fedexforum opened. Alcenia's is one of the many Pinch District businesses hoping that the Pyramid's redevelopment as a gigantic Bass Pro Shops location will replace a lot of the foot traffic the area lost when the the building was shuttered.

Last Thursday I tried again and finally got to experience first-hand what all the fuss was about. I talk about the friendly service at a most of the restaurants I write about. That Southern hospitality is something I've come to expect from local barbecue, country cooking and soul food joints. But Alcenia's takes that Southern charm to the next level. As soon as I walked in the door to the brightly decorated dining room the owner welcomed me with a giant hug and assured me all the food she served was "fixed with a lot of love."

Keep in mind that I never identify myself as a blogger when I initially visit a restaurant. I was just a stranger in work clothes stopping in for lunch. 

When my server came out and gave me a menu I was about to order the grilled tilapia I saw listed with the regular Thursday options since the excellent version of that dish offered by Dindie's Soul Food in Raleigh has become a regular staple of my diet. Then the server mentioned that meatloaf was available as well, although it wasn't listed on the menu.

I've heard incredible things about the Alcenia's meatloaf, with one friend saying he'll call the restaurant a day or two ahead of times he plans to eat there specifically to request that they have it available. Apparently the grandmotherly treatment from the owner extends to being able to call before visits to ask for a favorite meal to be waiting for you. As soon as I heard there was meatloaf in the kitchen I ordered it with greens and black-eyed peas.

I've also come to expect the duo of Louisiana Hot Sauce and Bruce's Green Hot Pepper Sauce to be sitting on the table at any soul food restaurant. I didn't see either on any table at Alcenia's. I didn't see any condiments at all. And I didn't ask if any were available. Everything came out perfectly seasoned.

The delicious meatloaf was packed with peppers and onions. As much as I love the meatloaf from Southern Hands, I think Alcenia's may top it in flavor. My sides of greens and peas came in comically large plastic bowls. As big as all the portions were, everything was so good I ate all the meatloaf, all the greens, about half the peas and most of the two hot-water cornbread cakes before tossing my napkin on the plate completely satisfied.

While I was eating I got to witness another moment of Southern hospitality. The Main Street Trolley stopped to let off an older woman who came into the restaurant. A few minutes later the trolley suddenly stopped again, after only moving a few feet, and the trolley driver trotted into the restaurant to give the woman a package she had accidentally left in her seat. She barely had time to thank him before he was back in the trolley rolling down the street.

According to the menu Alcenia's also offers an epic Saturday brunch for anyone who wakes up Saturday morning, or afternoon depending on your Friday night, craving a giant Southern breakfast feast.

 Alcenia's on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Smoking at a Hickory Hill Strip Mall - More A&R

The biggest problem with trying A&R Bar-B-Q restaurants around Memphis is that the South Memphis location on Elvis Presley Blvd is so damn good that the other locations suffer in comparison. The other locations are good at what they do; serving up fast food-style barbecue similar to Tops. Meanwhile the South Memphis location has some of the absolute best ribs in the city.

I hadn't tried the Hickory Hill location across the street from Big Daddy's Pawn Shop until fairly recently. It is only half a block from the only remaining Southern Hands restaurant and I try to never miss an opportunity to enjoy the Southern Hands meatloaf.

But when my friends Rob and Dan from the Manic American blog visited Memphis a few months ago they declared the ribs from the Hickory Hill A&R were the best they encountered during their time here. These guys know their barbecue so I decided it was time to give the restaurant a try.

Then I got hit by another major distraction. My beloved Emerald Thai Restaurant decided to move from its location nearby on Mt. Moriah out to Lakeland. So for the last couple months it was on Mt. Moriah I was eating there every time I was in the area.

A couple weeks ago, with Emerald Thai finally gone, I was ready to try the Hickory Hill A&R, which was also the only location I hadn't been to yet. Rob and Dan had mentioned the intense smoke flavor of the ribs there and when I pulled into the lot the first thing I noticed was the cloud of smoke pouring from the chimney at the back of the restaurant.

With a similar set up to Big Bill Bar-B-Que in Whitehaven, the Hickory Hill A&R doesn't let a strip mall setting keep it from embracing real smoke cooking. There was no question what I was going to order. I got a rib dinner with beans and slaw. I requested the spicy sauce and when I saw the restaurant also offered Delta-style hot tamales for a buck I added one of them to my order as well.

The beans and slaw were great, which I've come to expect from any A&R. The tamale was also excellent with a perfect balance of texture and spice. A great tamale can't be too soggy or too dry and this one was just right. The ribs were indeed packing a good smoke flavor but the meat was also tough. Thankfully it wasn't as tough as the ribs I tried at the Wolfchase location, which has since closed and reopened as Ty's Bar-B-Q

I remembered the Wolfchase location having good pulled pork despite the tough ribs so I made a follow-up visit to the Hickory Hill store to try a pork plate. It was solidly good in the Tops-style Memphis average sense. I also got another tamale on my second visit and it was just as good the second time around.

I noticed that Full Custom Gospel Barbecue Blogger Daniel Vaughn made a stop at the Hickory Hill A&R on a trip to Memphis. Vaughn is one the ultimate blogging authorities on barbecue, eventually parlaying his blog into a full-time gig as the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly magazine. His post echoed my sentiment of the ribs carrying good smoke flavor while being overly tough.

Vaughn eats so much incredible barbecue from across the nation that he is an understandably tough critic. For me it had more to do with my mental association of the A&R name with the ribs from the South Memphis location, which packs a not-so-secret weapon that gives it a serious advantage over most urban barbecue joints.

While all the other A&Rs are cooking inside buildings they share with other tenants, the one on Elvis Presley Blvd is the only restaurant cooking in an old-school, rural-style detached smokehouse I know of within the city limits.

Yesterday I stopped back by the South Memphis A&R. I was curious if the ribs were really that much better there or if the image of the smokehouse behind the restaurant was clouding my judgement. 

It wasn't a trick of imagination or memory. The ribs at the South Memphis location have the kind perfect texture combined with pink-to-the-bone smoke penetration you normally have to travel to rural places like Latham's Meat Company in Jackson, TN, to find. I applaud the other A&R locations for their devotion to smoke, but the in-store cookers they are using make it much harder to get that smoke into the meat without drying it out.

Keep in mind that real barbecue varies from batch to batch and what Dan and Rob enjoyed could have come out far more tender than what I had at the Hickory Hill store. Consistency is one of the main reasons people go to the trouble and expense of building a smokehouse. Steady, consistent low heat and smoke provide consistent great results in the right hands. In other words, I'm certainly not saying Dan and Rob were wrong to love the Hickory Hill A&R. I'm saying that the next time they pass through Memphis a trip to Elvis Presley Blvd has to be included on their agenda.

A&R Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon