Tuesday, January 29, 2013

More Florida Street - Daisy's Soul Food and South Memphis Grocery

South Third Street just south of McLemore has been closed for several months now due to construction causing me to detour down Florida Street when I am travelling through the area for work. As I noted in my post about Mama's Flavors Soul Food on Florida, the street is an under-appreciated treasure trove for people who love Southern cuisine.

Since that post I've sampled a few more spots in the area on separate occasions that pretty well summarize what the erratic weather has been like in Memphis during the past month. I tried Daisy's Soul Food & Wings on a frigid Monday afternoon two weeks ago with ice and snow spitting down from the overcast skies. Yesterday I visited the South Memphis Grocery wearing a T-shirt and enjoying the warm sun.

Daisy's is just off of Florida in a shopping center at the corner of Third and Belz. I'd never noticed it driving south on Third in the past. It is much more visible driving on Belz, which I was using to reconnect with Third thanks to the current detour.

 At Daisy's I had neckbones, pinto beans and greens. Everything was well seasoned and the neckbones had the kind of texture I aim for when I cook them at home using a technique that basically combines braising and roasting. The food was cheap, the portion were generous and the service was friendly, even if I did get a few confused looks that seemed to imply, "what is this white dude doing in South Memphis eating neckbones during an ice storm?"

I'd heard stories about the tamales and burgers at South Memphis Grocery at Florida and Mallory since before I even started this blog. On Monday I stopped in to sample the tamales. They were only $1 apiece so I ordered three. How sketchy is the area around the store? At 11 a.m. on a Monday there were multiple people hanging outside nearby working on catching a buzz. Everyone was totally cool with me while I was there but since there weren't any tables and I was going to be eating while sitting in my vehicle I opted to eat my tamales around the corner by my next stop in the parking lot of a salvage yard just off Brooks Road near Third.

Sometimes you see tamales for sale and ask if they are the Mexican-style made with masa and wrapped in corn husk or the Southern Delta-style made with corn meal and wrapped in wax paper. At the South Memphis Grocery I didn't bother asking since it was obvious they would be the Dirty South Delta variety,

It's hard to do a Delta tamale justice with a photograph since it is ultimately just a greasy roll of corn meal and spicy pork. But this was a damn fine greasy roll of corn meal and spicy pork. Part of me wished I'd bought more than three since they were so good. Another part of me was glad I didn't because I could have easily eaten them until I was ill. Instead, later that day I had a second lunch at Big Bill Bar-B-Que on Elvis Presley, which has become a common stop for me when I am in Whitehaven.

Daisy's Soul Food & Wings on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 14, 2013

Real Pit Barbecue from a Hotel Restaurant - The Rib Zone

As a lifelong Memphian I already had multiple restaurants I could count on for good barbecue before I ever started my current quest back in September of 2011. The point of trying as many Mid-South barbecue joints as possible was to add some entertainment to my work routine by exploring my part of the country a little further while finding out what was going on in all the restaurants I used to just drive past.

If I wasn't on this quest then the Rib Zone BBQ on Lamar just south of Shelby Drive is somewhere I would probably never have tried, which would have meant missing out on a surprisingly pleasant experience. When I think about good barbecue a buffet place located inside a Best Western in a heavily industrial part of the city dominated by truck stops and a giant railroad switchyard definitely isn't the first thing I think about.

Before the Rib Zone opened there was another barbecue restaurant inside the hotel that I didn't get a chance to try before it closed. The Rib Zone sign went up several months ago but it didn't open until a few weeks ago.

While the Rib Zone has a buffet they also have a menu you can order from, which is what I did when I stopped in last Thursday. All the food on the buffet looked inviting but owner Dennis Watkins told me he had an $8 rib dinner special that day. The full buffet was $14.95 and I correctly assumed that the rib dinner was going to be plenty of food.

Since I'd noticed that the greens on the buffet looked particularly good I asked Watkins what kind of slaw he served. When he told me "creamy and sweet" I opted to pass on it and get greens and baked beans as my two sides instead.

Watkins told me he used to have a barbecue restaurant in Helena, AR, before he decided to move into the Memphis market. He had blues music playing in the kitchen that he was whistling along to while he worked. The music contributed nicely to the atmosphere, especially since it was being primarily played for the kitchen instead of the dining room.  It seemed completely natural instead of feeling calculated the way music selections at restaurants sometimes do.

I also enjoyed seeing this sign on the wall that told me Watkins shared some of my philosophies on eating real food.

I'd ordered my ribs with the hot barbecue sauce that I forgot to request the on the side. It ended up being tasty enough that I didn't mind the liberal quantity of it on my ribs. I was surprised by how pink they were and how much smoke I could taste in them. When I mentioned that and asked about how they were cooked Watkins told me the restaurant had a barbecue pit built into it, which wasn't something I expected from a place inside a hotel.

The ribs were cheap spare ribs like the ones used at the somewhat nearby Tom's Bar-B-Q. For an $8 rib dinner using a cheap cut isn't surprising, but Watkins obviously knows how to make the most of them. They were better than the ones I'd had at Tom's. In fact they were some of the best spare ribs I've had. I usually get a little nervous when I see a restaurant is using spare ribs since all the fat and connective tissue on them can easily turn them into a tough, unappetizing mess in the wrong hands. But the cheaper cut can be gold in the hands of someone like Watkins who is able to render all that fat into delicious liquid.

The greens and baked beans were also solidly good. I hope other people don't dismiss the restaurant based on its location in a hotel. If it can draw even a small fraction of the lunch crowd Tom's is able to get from the surrounding industrial area it should be successful. And it's location near the border with Olive Branch, MS, could make it a great carryout option for commuters headed that way at the end of the day as long as they don't mind the simple U-turns necessary to get in and out of the place while headed from Memphis towards Mississippi.

Watkins asked about other barbecue places I'd tried in the area. Since I'd already eaten enough food to know I'd be posting a positive review and he was showing genuine, friendly interest in my opinions I told him about my blog. I talked about some of the barbecue highlights I'd found in the southeastern part of Shelby County like the impressive efficiency at Tom's, the great dry rub ribs at Leonard's, the outstanding sauce at Arnold's and the barbecue stew at Showboat.

When I mentioned how much I enjoy Showboat's barbecue stew Watkins disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a small, frozen plastic to-go container. "This is the soup I make with my barbecue," he said. "Take this home and try it." 

 Sending me home with frozen samples of additional delicious food never hurts when I'm forming my opinion of your restaurant.

It ended up being enough soup for one good-sized bowl, which is what I had for lunch Saturday. It had a mix of barbecue, tomatoes, celery, peppers and corn in a thick, peppery sauce. Apparently it isn't always available but I'll be checking to see if it is on future visits since it was the very definition of soul-satisfying comfort food.

Rib Zone on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 10, 2013

New Name, New Ownership - Pure Glaze

I've written a couple posts about how impressed I'd been by the Reggi's Bar-B-Q on Houston Levee. I liked the restaurant enough to make a pilgrimage to the mother store in Jackson, which is meticulously run by smoke artist Eugene "Reggi" Picket. But while I was at the Jackson store Reggi mentioned he was having "some problems" with the Houston Levee location, which he had sold his name to and didn't own.

The Cordova-area Reggi's was originally recommended to me by some customers who work nearby. A couple months ago they mentioned they had stopped going due to a drop-off in quality at the restaurant since Reggi no longer had control of it. I tried to drop by a couple times when I was in the area to see for myself how the food compared to prior visits but the door was always locked even though the lights would be open and I would occasionally see people working in the kitchen. So it was no big surprise on Wednesday when I drove by and noticed a banner covering the old Reggi's sign announcing the grand opening of Pure Glaze BBQ at the location. 

Regardless of any problems the Cordova-area Reggi's had right before it closed don't hesitate to try the main Jackson location where Reggi will probably come by your table to ask what you think of your food.

As soon as I walked in the door I was hit with a mouthwatering smokey pork aroma that indicated good things were still being done with the old Reggi's pit. The lady at the counter told me the restaurant specialized in "glazed" ribs. That sounded like something way sweeter than I wanted so I ordered mine dry with the glaze sauce on the side. At $10.99 for a complete rib dinner they were actually a little cheaper than a rib dinner from Tops.

The menu also includes wings, smoked sausages, turkey legs, catfish and burgers.

The ribs had a nice smokey flavor that lived up to my expectations from the smell inside the restaurant. The barbecue glaze sauce was sweeter than I care for as expected but the ribs were good enough to enjoy without it.  Interestingly, the same completely nonspicy sauce is used on the restaurant's wings, which are billed as "barbecue smoke wings" instead of hot wings. The beans tasted like canned beans that had been doctored with a little of the glaze but I still enjoyed them. If you enjoy a sweet barbecue sauce like the one used at Payne's Bar-B-Q on Lamar you'll probably prefer your ribs with the glaze on them. 

Personal opinion makes comparing barbecue joints a completely subjective endeavour. For example, if you follow this blog on a regular basis you know that I strongly prefer mustard or vinegar-based cole slaws. Pickle or spice is welcomed but I don't care for sugary slaw. The slaw at Pure Glaze wasn't sugary but it was way creamier than I like. I realize there must be people who love bukkake-style cole slaw or it wouldn't be served at so many places but I'm not a fan of it. Despite the slaw there were enough positives about my visit to Pure Glaze to make me happily stop there again in the future.

Pureglaze BBQ on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Southen Cooking From a Chinese Buffet - China Inn

Black-eyed peas and greens are a New Years Day tradition here in the South. They are also a regular part of my diet anyway, so while I was working in Whitehaven on New Years Eve I stopped in at the China Inn International Buffet on Elvis Presley Boulevard to get some. Don't worry, I still had some homemade peas and greens at a friend's house the next day to help me avoid any potential bad luck this year.

I had never been to China Inn before, so why stop there when I was craving Southern food? Because the China Inn 2 on Covington Pike has become a regular lunch spot for me since I discovered how unexpectedly good the selection of Southern cooking there is. In fact, when I visit I normally completely ignore the Chinese food section and just load up a plate of Southern soul food staples.

The Whitehaven location is a little smaller, with a more pleasant atmosphere, than cavernous Raleigh location. While the buffet is also smaller smaller than the giant one in Raleigh it still has an abundant selection of food to choose from. And both restaurants maintain a steady flow of customers that keeps the food fresh.

I got a plate of pork neckbones, hog maw, fried catfish, peas and greens. Everything was as good as I'd expected it to be based on my experiences at the Raleigh location. For anyone who is unfamiliar with hog maw, it is made from the lining of a pig's stomach and is common in both American soul food and traditional Chinese cooking. It tastes okay but it isn't as tender and flavorful as well-prepared chitterlings, which are made from pig intestines. The hog maw certainly wasn't as good as the neckbones, which I have learned to load my plate down with at either China Inn since they never disappoint.

Heavy use of pork as both a main dish and a seasoning for vegetable-based dishes is so common in traditional Chinese cooking that it isn't as surprising as it initially seems that the China Inn kitchen is so proficient with soul food. Especially since both traditional cooking styles are so centered around avoiding waste, which means that every part of the pig ultimately ends up on the table. Keep that in mind any time you hear vegetarians and vegans referencing the completely-discredited China Study as evidence that animal fats and proteins are unhealthy.

China Inn on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Not the Only One Anymore - More One & Only

One & Only BBQ recently opened a new location on Perkins beside the Oak Court Mall. I had been wanting to try it but I waited until after Christmas to avoid having to park in the mall lot during the holiday-season madness. Last Friday I finally got my chance to duck in during lunch.

The restaurant occupies the former C.K.'s Coffee Shop/Johnny Rockets building next to the mall. The owners did a great job, both inside and out, of creating a more upscale atmosphere while still maintaining the building's old-school diner charm.

It had been just over a year since my one and only trip to the restaurant's original location. I'd enjoyed the food on that visit, but l hadn't been back since life rarely gives me any reason to venture out to the Poplar and Kirby area where it is located. Where the original location had a tiny dining area and is primarily geared towards carry-out business the far-more-spacious new location offers table service for people dining in. Everyone on the serving staff that I encountered was extremely friendly and I liked seeing the restaurant adapt its service to what works best for the individual location instead of copying the order-at-the-counter system somewhere it doesn't make sense the way Central BBQ did with its Summer Avenue location.

In looking over my post about the original location I saw that I'd written, "my wife and I both agreed that ribs with beans and the twice-baked potato salad would be the perfect order for future visits." I figured I am probably a pretty trustworthy judge of what I like, so I followed my own advise and got a half-slab of dry rub ribs with baked beans and twice-baked potato salad.

In my post about the other location I called the bacon, sour cream and chive-loaded potato salad some of the absolute best in town and it still impressed me at the Perkins locations. The beans were also great; loaded with pulled pork and swimming in an excellent sauce.

The ribs had a good texture and dry rub. Of the two sauces available at the table I definitely preferred the "hot" to the mild. It didn't pack much heat but it did add a nice subtle spice element that the mild was missing.

Pulling another quote directly from my post about the other One & Only location, after my visit there I wrote that, "my ribs didn’t have any smoke flavor and they lacked the tell-tale pink coloring that indicates when ribs have absorbed plenty of smoke. I’m sure that is due to location in a large shopping center in a fairly affluent area. They are probably forced to rely entirely on a gas grille since their neighbors would have a meltdown if they enveloped the outside of their store in a glorious pork-scented charcoal haze like the one you frequently see outside of places like Cozy Corner on North Parkway. "

That exact comment also applies to the Perkins location. While the dry rub and the hot barbecue sauce both imparted excellent flavors onto the ribs the only smoke flavor they had was of the distinct liquid smoke variety. At first it seems pretty brazen to open a place selling gas-oven ribs around the corner from the smoke-spewing flagship Corky's on Poplar Avenue. Especially when Corky's offers the Corky's Ale specifically brewed by Abita to go with its ribs. But One & Only is easier to get in and out of than Corky's and it has enough positives in its favor to make it a worthwhile, and ultra-convenient, stop for hungry mall patrons. Don't think of it as competition for Corky's. Think of One & Only as competition for the Chili's that sits across Perkins from it and the food court inside the mall. By that measure it is clearly a winning choice. 

One and Only BBQ on Urbanspoon