Sunday, August 17, 2014

Germany in Overton Square - Schweinehaus

It has been just over three months since I posted pictures from inside the then-completely gutted former Paulette's space in Overton Square that is being reborn as Schweinehaus. In that short period of time the building has completely transformed into a German restaurant/beer hall with an outdoor beer garden.

The restaurant's grand opening will be in two weeks on September 1. But owner David Scott Walker is a longtime friend who I met my first day living on the University of Memphis campus as a college freshman back in 1997. So yesterday he invited me over to take a look inside, drink a few lagers and sample some menu items.

Walker isn't going to just put some sausages and sauerkraut on a menu and call his place a German restaurant. Sausages and sauerkraut will definitely be available, but he and chef David Todd are crafting a fairly extensive menu of well-executed German foods with enough options to make sure everyone from vegetarians to hardcore carnivores can enjoy themselves.

The restaurant is a true family business. I met Walker's brother, Andy Walker, that same day I arrived at the U of M in '97. Andy is a longtime bartender who will be running the bar at Schweinehaus while helping with the restaurant's operation. Andy and father Stan Walker also handbuilt all the restaurant's tables and benches.

When I posted pictures from inside the building three months ago there was nothing but dirt and trenches where old plumbing had been dug out where the brand new kitchen is now.

One of the dishes chef David Todd was experimenting with was a sauerbraten made with braised beef brisket.

Todd was also working on perfecting the restaurant's vegetarian SpƤtzle.

Both the dishes I tried yesterday were superb. I also sampled some pork shoulder, sausages, meatballs and fresh pretzels a few weeks earlier at the Walker household where the two chef Davids were working on menu items and getting familiar with the new smoker they purchased at Memphis Barbeque Supply for use at the restaurant. As someone who lives a short bicycle ride from Overton Square I've immensely enjoyed its recent resurgence. Schweinehaus is a great addition to the Square that fits in perfectly with the area's atmosphere while offering a unique experience from any of the other establishments there.

Schweinehaus on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Original Barbecue Pizza - Coletta's

While my wife and I were sharing a barbecue pizza at the Coletta's on South Parkway last night I realized I have somehow neglected to post about this signature Memphis dish. When Coletta's began offering barbecue pizza in the 1950s it made Memphis one of the first cities in the U.S., following New York and Chicago, where pizza was served.

I tell the full history of this delicious dish in my new book about Memphis barbecue. While I was interviewing owner Jerry Coletta a few months ago for my book he took me into his restaurant's kitchen to follow the process that goes into making one of his barbecue pies. While I was there I took way more photos than I had room for in the book, so I decided to share some of the outtakes here so people can see why the original barbecue pizza is so superior to the countless "barbecue pizza" offerings that now appear on restaurant menus across the country.

Shoulders cooking in the barbecue pit in the Coletta's basement. A lot of places offering "barbecue pizza" today are topping their pies with grilled chicken, then calling it barbecue because they also toss on some barbecue sauce. The Coletta's recipe for a barbecue pizza dates back to the 1950's, when anyone in Memphis understood that "barbecue" was supposed to mean barbecue.

A pizza oven uses extremely high temperatures to quickly cook the pies, which is the opposite of the slow and low approach used to make barbecue. If you put barbecue meat in a pizza oven you will quickly overcook it and dry it out. So how does Coletta's combine this two opposing cooking styles? By starting with a perfect, plain cheese and sauce pizza.

When the piping hot cheese pizza comes out of the oven it immediately gets a thick layer of fresh, hot pulled pork from the basement pit.

Then the pizza gets a good dose of the restaurant's homemade tomato-based barbecue sauce before heading out to the customer. It isn't a pizza with a little barbecue added as a topping. It is a cheese pizza completely covered with several inches of pulled pork.

Elvis Presley was a huge fan of the Coletta's barbecue pizzas. The back room he always requested is still designated the Elvis room and is full of Elvis memorabilia.

Coletta's Italian on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Former Coleman's Locations Re-reborn - Smokin D's and Moma's

Coleman's Bar-B-Q was one of the biggest names in Memphis-area barbecue in the '60s and '70s with locations throughout the Mid-south. You can still eat a great Coleman's sandwich at their locations on Millbranch and in Hernando. And you can read about the chain's rise and fall in my new book on Memphis barbecue. A good number of the former Coleman's locations still survive today, cooking with the old brick and steel charcoal pits at places like Captain John's in Collierville and Showboat in Hickory Hill.

I recently revisited two former Coleman's locations that reopened in what became longtime home's to other barbecue joints. Moma's B-B-Q in Bartlett suffered a devastating last year that forced a major renovation while the former Barb-A-Rosa in Millington, which also started life as a Coleman's, reopened as Smokin D's Pit Stop.

The old Barb-A-Rosa building on Highway 51 went through a major renovation to get it up to code after Barb-A-Rosa's closed, thus ending the grandfathered status the building had enjoyed on numerous code issues. I have posted a couple times about the disappointing experiences I've had when I've eaten at Barb-A-Rosa. And I've had several readers argue that their experiences with the restaurant had always been great.

I recently got some clarification on the differences in opinions from some friends who work near the restaurant. Apparently Barb-A-Rosa served quality barbecue for a couple decades, before the woman who owned it was sadly diagnosed with cancer.  After that multiple people tried running the place for short periods of time, but none of them lasted very long. All my experiences eating there were in the building's final period under the Barb-A-Rosa name, but I never ate there when the original owner was in charge, serving what I have been told was top-notch barbecue.

The new owner, who rebranded the place Smokin D's, spent months updating the building while I kept an eye on it every time I was in Millington, waiting for a chance to give the new place a try. I finally saw the open sign in the window a couple weeks ago and stopped in to order a shoulder plate with beans and slaw.

Everything was impressive. The beans had huge pieces of meat in them. The chunky mayo slaw paired well the charcoal-cooked Boston butt meat that had a nice mix of textures from the outer bark and inner meat. I ordered the hot barbecue sauce on the side and while the meat was good enough to eat without it, I still enjoyed dipping bites in it. 

One thing I noticed on the menu that intrigued me was the Chicago-style hot dog. My same friends who told me about the original Barb-A-Rosa's owner happened to be having lunch when I stopped in and they informed me the Smokin D's owner was related to the owner of the old Jimmy's Hot Dogs in Bartlett. I could see tubs of homemade vegetable-heavy hot dog dressing on the counter, so I stopped back in later the same day for a hobbit-style "second lunch." There are two dressings -- a mild and a hot. I ordered the jalapeno-heavy hot and it was an impressive dog for a little over $3. It was a large dog served on a massive bun, although I discarded the bun to eat the hot dog and dressing with a fork.

The next time I stopped in I ordered ribs, which are served wet. Some of my favorite wet ribs come from a former Coleman's location in Collierville called Captain John's so I had high hopes. These looked great and the taste and texture wasn't bad, but they didn't measure up against the ribs at Old Timers and Pig-N-Whistle*, so when I am in Millington wanting ribs I'll stick to those places. But I will be a repeat customer for the pork shoulder plate.

Like Barb-A-Rosa, Moma's is another place I've knocked in the past. But after their recent fire and rebuild I decided to give them another chance. I'm glad I did. It is interesting to note that, despite the old charcoal-only pit, the fire was caused by a fryer, not the barbecue pit.

Since Moma's, like the Coleman's that preceded it, is primarily a "sandwich shop" I basically ordered a deconstructed sandwich meal by getting shoulder plate with slaw and fries, which came with a toasted bun. The pulled pork was completely different than the disappointing finely chopped, somewhat tough, meat I'd had in the past. The mix of textures was fantastic. Along with the inner meat and bark there was a nice ratio of smoked skin. Smoked and charred skin adds an amazing extra element to barbecue and is something you don't find in many Memphis-area barbecue joints.

There was one large piece of unrendered fat that was easy to avoid while eating a pile of meat with a fork. I can see where it could catch someone eating a sandwich off guard, but it would be well-worth the few seconds it would take to discreetly spit it out for the otherwise perfect mixture of shoulder meat served on my plate. The sauce was offered in hot and mild. I'd ordered the hot and on this trip it was a perfect accompaniment. The fries and slaw were also solid. I ended up scooping most of the slaw on top of the meat to eat them together.

This was good barbecue. I've had plenty of not good barbecue from Moma's in the past, so I'm not sure what changed after the fire, but I know I'm not imagining things. I noticed that ribs had been dropped from the menu. I've had some really bad ribs from Moma's in the past. In fact, I specifically went to Moma's because my dad wasn't able to join me for lunch. I'd been meaning to retry Moma's and the nearby Baby Jack's for months, since Moma's had rebuilt and I noticed Baby Jack's recently added a real barbecue pit to the side of its building. But I usually take my dad to lunch when I am in that part of town and both places have served him bad barbecue a couple of times. He still talks about his memories of some terrible ribs he had from Moma's years ago. My dad is a firm believer that if your restaurant has served him bad barbecue more than once you are dead to him, while I am more willing to offer a later chance.

Basically, I don't know if rebuilding after a fire caused some big change in cooking philosophy at Moma's. I just know the meal I ate Tuesday was way better than anything I've had there in the past. It was fairly perfect shoulder meat. So if you've ever had a bad experience there, go give the place a second chance.

*Since my initial post about the Millington Pig-N-Whistle I've since tried their ribs "muddy" and highly recommend a trip there to try their ribs in this uniquely Memphis sauce-with-dry-rub style.

Moma's Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Two New Jackson, TN, Barbecue Joints - West Alley and Diddy's

During the months I was working on my soon-to-be-released book I built up a backlog of new restaurants I need to post about. Two new barbecue joints have popped up in Jackson, TN, recently -- West Alley Bar-B-Q & Smokehouse and Diddy's Bar-B-Que. I've already been impressed by the abundance of good barbecue in Jackson, which makes deciding where to eat a difficult decision when I am working there.

I first noticed West Alley Bar-B-Q a few months ago on the same section of Main Street in downtown Jackson where the short-lived Heavenly Diner was located. The Heavenly Diner didn't just close; it seemingly disappeared, building and all. I was driving down the street looking for it, wondering if I'd lost my mind, when I noticed the banners for West Alley Bar-B-Q near the gravel lot where the Diner had been.

When I pulled up to park beside the building I immediately noticed a man cooking pork shoulders in a couple of barrel cookers appropriately located in the alley beside the restaurant. The building obviously served as a garage in a previous life and since the weather was nice the front bay doors were open, creating an open-air open air juke joint vibe.

The restaurant has a stage and a bar and obviously serves as a nightclub/music venue at night. The daytime atmosphere was relaxed and inviting, making it a pleasant place to grab lunch. The menu also includes other Southern foods like catfish, but I'd already smelled shoulder cooking in the parking lot so I ordered a shoulder plate with beans and slaw.

Everything on the plate was good, although nothing was spectacular. the sauce was a little sweeter than I prefer, but it was used sparingly enough that it wasn't a problem. It was a solid enough meal that combined with the friendly service and sunlight coming through the open bay doors I'll gladly stop back by for another shoulder plate anytime I'm nearby at lunchtime on a pleasant day.


I won't order a rib plate from West Alley again, which is what I tried on my second visit. The cheap cut of spare ribs was tough and relatively flavorless other than the overly sweet sauce it was drenched in. The restaurant is just west of Highway 45, and anytime I'm in Jackson for work I travel the section of highway that takes me north from the area around West Alley past Back Yard Bar-Be-cue and Latham's Meat Company, both of which offer far superior ribs.

Further south of West Alley on Highway 45 I discovered another source of outstanding ribs when I stopped in at the newly-opened Diddy's Bar-B-Que. I had been familiar with the Diddy's name for years due to an intriguing sign I'd noticed for years in an empty lot next to a supermarket on Highway 45 just south of South Side High School. 

The sign had always announced that barbecue was available in the lot on Friday and Saturday nights, weather permitting. Naturally I'd always been curious about the set up, but I was never in Jackson on a weekend night to check it out. Then about a month ago I saw that the sign had been changed to announce that Diddy's was moving into a permanent restaurant location a little further down the street just south of the Super Wal-Mart.

The restaurant wasn't open yet on that day, but on Wednesday I checked back and saw a parking lot full of cars so I pulled in to sample the food at the humble-looking little metal building. I was already confident the food would be pretty good, since the owner wouldn't be opening a restaurant unless he had built up a solid base of customers willing to go to an empty lot on weekend nights to eat his food.

I decided to skip the easier-to-cook shoulder meat and go straight for my ultimate test of a barbecue joint, a dry rib plate with beans and slaw. When I ordered I got hit with a question that threw me off for a minute -- "Ketchup or mayo slaw?" Ketchup slaw? In all my life of Southern eating I'd never heard of ketchup slaw. I ordered the mayo-based with my meal, then thought about it for a second and asked if I could get a small sample of the ketchup slaw.

I normally prefer vinegar or mustard based slaws to ones dominated by mayo. The ketchup slaw had a nice vinegar bite to it, but the sweet ketchup taste that accompanied it made it a little off-putting when eaten by itself while waiting for the rest of my food. I'm not a big fan of ketchup other than using a little of it on foods like French fries and burgers so I wasn't surprised that a serving of cabbage coated with it just seemed wrong to me. But I have friends who love piling ketchup on everything, to the extent of seeking out Canadian ketchup-flavored potato chips, so I could see where some people would love it.

The rib plate with the mayo slaw looked much more like what I was used to. And the beans and slaw on it were pretty standard renditions. The ribs didn't look like they were anything fancy either, until I tore into them. They were incredibly juicy with a deep smoke ring. The meat pulled clean from the bones but still maintained a nice, meaty texture. The outer bark had a delicious pepper flavor. They were everything I look for in great ribs, meaning my dilemma of deciding where to eat ribs when I'm in Jackson just got even more difficult.

Diddy's BBQ on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Barbecue with Michael Pollan at Crosstown Arts

Every writer has a handful of books they consider truly life changing. I've been greatly inspired by books on a lot of subjects, but in the world of food there are two titles that truly stand out to me as the most important modern works on the subject. Those books are Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes and The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. On Tuesday night Pollan was a guest speaker at Crosstown Arts in Midtown, where he discussed and signed copies of his newest book Cooked.  

Pollan's new book includes an in-depth discussion of whole hog barbecue and the event included a tremendous spread of locally-sourced barbecue and sides created by St. Jude chef Miles McMath. It was a truly remarkable meal.

Tickets to the meal portion of the event were only $20, which was an incredible bargain for a selection of locally-sourced barbecue that included all-you-can eat barbecue from sources that included a Newman Farm pig and a wild Mississippi hog.

Despite the array of outstanding food, meeting with Pollan was the obvious highlight of the evening. His writing provides a captivating look at the history, philosophy, morals and culture behind the food choices we make. I got the chance to thank him firsthand for his inspiration. Reading The Omnivore's Dilemma started me on the path to creating this blog and writing my own book; Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce and Soul.

 The always-entertaining Deering and Down provided music during the dinner.

After discussing and reading from his new book, Pollan (left) sat for a question and answer session with McMath before answering questions from the audience. Along with Cooked and The Omnivore's Dilemma Pollan also wrote the excellent books In Defense of Food and A Botany of Desire. In Defense of Food is a much shorter, easier to read follow-up to The Omnivore's Dilemma. Meanwhile Gary Taubes, who I mentioned earlier in the post, also followed-up his fascinating door-stopper of a masterwork, Good Calories, Bad Calories, with a much shorter and easier to read book titled Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. It is interesting that both men ultimately followed extremely in-depth and groundbreaking works with books that revisited the same subject in a simplified manner aimed at a broader audience. While both of the later books are more accessible, neither should be considered "dumbed down" in a negative sense if someone is looking for a good starting point with either author without diving straight into the deep end of the pool.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Reviving Old Landmarks - Tennessee Brewery and Schweinehaus

Thursday night my wife and I stopped by the old Tennessee Brewery for the six-week Untapped event. Like the Crosstown Sears building I recently toured, Memphians have been hoping for decades that someone could come up with a viable plan to bring the old brewery building back to life.

The Untapped pop-up event features a creative redecoration of the space using found materials along with vendors selling craft beers, food trucks and portable toilets for restrooms. After enjoying a few beers at the brewery building along with some tacos at one of the food trucks present we moved on to Overton Square, where I ran into my old friend, chef David Scott Walker, who is in the process of opening a pork and beer-centered German restaurant called Schweinehaus on the Square in the old Paulette's building.

My wife and I live a short bike ride away from the Square and have immensely enjoyed its ongoing revitalization. And like most people who spend time there, we have been very excited about the new restaurant. Walker gave me a tour of the space Thursday night, which will include a communal beer hall and an outdoor beer garden. It will be a great space, where I can't wait to kick back with a sausage and a nice lager.

But touring the Schweinehaus space also made it apparent how difficult it will be to redevelop the old brewery building. The grandiose old building is an incredible space with a lot of history, but it is also a huge space that has been empty since 1954. Schweinehaus is opening in the building that housed Paulette's until it relocated to Harbor Town in 2011 after 37 years on the Square. Because Paulette's had been grandfathered on so many code issues while it was open, Walker has had to completely gut the space; digging up all the plumbing and building a new kitchen and bathrooms from scratch to get everything up to code.

So as you look through the photos below, the pics from the brewery will make you hope it can be filled with permanent tenants. Meanwhile, the pics from Schweinehaus will give you an idea of just how much work it can take to get a relatively small building, which was still a fully operational restaurant three years ago, up to code and reopened. It really puts the amount of money it would take to bring the brewery building back to life into perspective.

Also, one final thought to go with this photo series. A recent post on the Strong Town's blog addressed some of the concerns I've had driving around the city over the years. The design of the old Tennessee Brewery and Paulette's buildings, and the design of the neighborhoods around them, makes us value them and want to see them preserved. Suburban sprawl has brought blight to a lot of older Memphis neighborhoods like North Memphis, South Memphis, Binghampton and Orange Mound. But the design of those neighborhoods has allowed them to maintain their functionality, character and sense of community despite their struggles with poverty and blight. And all those communities have seen some positive turnaround in recent years.

As blight spreads to more recently-developed neighborhoods like Fox Meadows and Hickory Hill along Winchester, things look much more bleak. They were developed around a model of cul de sac neighborhoods that require residents to drive to large commercial developments on main roads to do anything. As modern large commercial developments go empty, and as houses go vacant in coves that don't connect to anything, there is no underlying sense of utility or style that will make future generations want to roll up their sleeves and put in the work to bring them back to life. No one looks at the rectangle, cinder block shell of a former big box retailer sitting behind a sea of cracked asphalt and daydreams possible uses for it the way they do the old brewery building sitting on the edge of the street in a historic neighborhood.