Sunday, December 29, 2013

More Beale Street - Silky O' Sullivan's

The Silky O' Sullivan's on Beale Street is a monument to just how bad the street's decay got before its revitalization began in the early '80s. The indoor restaurant and bar area sits at the corner of Third and Beale in the old Gallina building but beside it there is a large outdoor patio area sitting behind the  heavily-reinforced remaining facade of a collapsed building.

In John Elkington's book Beale Street: Resurrecting the Home of the Blues he describes the terrible condition of the buildings on Beale when he began spearheading the early revitalization effort in the early '80s. During the '70s, as the city began acquiring all the property on Beale it was steadily boarding up vacant buildings as it took possession of them. Sealing up the empty structures meant they couldn't breathe during the boiling heat and humidity of Memphis summers. This filled them with steaming stagnant water that rotted away wood, plaster and masonry with shocking speed.

The '70s was also when Thomas "Silky" Sullivan owned one of the most popular bars in Overton Square, in an era when the Square was the city's dominate night spot. In the early '90s he relocated to Beale as it was experiencing a rebirth at the same time the Square, which has seen its own period of rapid rebirth over the past two years, was entering a period of decline.

I normally sample restaurants for the blog while I am at work, and my work routine normally only takes me around Beale Street on Monday when Silky's is closed during lunch hours. But every time I walk past the establishment I'm taunted by a bold challenge posted next to the front door. "There is no question I have the BEST RIBS in Memphis and the world and the fact is after you taste mine the rest will taste like Spam!" That is a serious proclamation, and as someone who has sampled my share of ribs I decided last Saturday that it was finally time to make a special trip to judge for myself.

Although I'd never eaten at Silky's before I always enjoyed it as a fun bar. The signature Divers are large buckets filled with a mix of assorted booze and straws that I've shared with friends before events at Fedexforum and the large patio is like a playground for grown-ups complete with a climbing tower for the resident goats.

The patio also features an impressive collection of celebrity autographs in its concrete like this section signed by Johnny and June Carter Cash.

Beale Street is a fun place to walk around, drink, socialize and enjoy music. And it has plenty of food that is good enough to satisfy a case of alcohol-induced munchies. But I've already learned to dismiss all the claims of "Memphis best" and "world championship" barbecue on restaurant signs there as empty marketing hype. Even if an establishment has sponsored a team that won a Memphis in May championship, that team would have competed with a charcoal and wood competition cooker, not one of the electric or gas-fired ovens used throughout the restaurant kitchens on Beale.

Silky's offered ribs dinners in an assortment of sizes. This is common on Beale, although restaurants anywhere else in the city largely just stick to full or half-slab options. I ordered the six-bone meal since it was equivalent to the half-slab combos I usually order for lunch. The presentation was great. It arrived looking like the kind of dry-rub ribs I love from places like Leonard's, Memphis Barbecue Company and the Bar-B-Q Shop.

But as I've come to expect on Beale, as soon as I began pulling them apart there was no evidence of smoke in the taste or appearance of the meat. the rub had a really good flavor, but the oven-cooked meat had some unrendered chunks of fat I had to pull off. The slaw was good but the beans tasted like they were straight from a can. For a pleasant Saturday afternoon strolling around Beale it was still a pleasant lunch experience. The patio where we ate is heated in the winter and our server was friendly and helpful. But when a place is boasting its ribs will make everywhere else's "taste like Spam!" it should be serving better ribs than the ones I can grab from the drive-thru at the Tops near my house. Silky's doesn't.

Barbecue isn't the only thing on the menu. My wife ordered an oyster po boy with fries and a cup of gumbo that was served with a cornbread cake, all of which she enjoyed.

If you want to have a good time in Memphis, Beale Street has plenty of great options. But if you are searching for some of the best barbecue in Memphis I'll leave you with one last bit of information. Most of the real, old-fashioned barbecue pits in Memphis restaurants are fueled by deliveries from the Charcoal Warehouse on Florida Street. That business goes through a 42,000-pound truckload of charcoal every week. During a recent visit there I asked the owner if he has ANY sales accounts on Beale Street these days. His answer was "no."

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