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.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Rising From the Ashes - A&R Smokehouse Update

I posted a month ago about the pit fire that devastated the smokehouse behind the South Memphis location of A&R Bar-B-Q on Elvis Presley Boulevard. At the time I was pleased to see that work had already started to rebuild around the foundation and old steel pits salvaged from the fire. When I stopped by yesterday I was impressed by the dramatic amount of progress the construction crew had made in just four weeks. It looks like the old pits will be back in action in no time.

While waiting for the pits in the smokehouse to be back up and running the restaurant has been relying on an assortment of outdoor barrel cookers. Last month I mentioned that while the barbecue coming from the improvised set up was still okay, it wasn't as good as what generally came from the smokehouse. Over the past month it seems like the A&R folks have gotten the barrel cookers completely figured out. I got a pulled pork plate with beans, slaw and a hot tamale for lunch yesterday. The shoulder meat was superb, with a smoke ring that looked two inches deep. I'm glad to see the restaurant bouncing back so quickly from initially looked like a major setback. Having a rural-style smokehouse a few miles south of downtown inside a major city is something truly special.

On a final note, my soon-to-be-released book that I mentioned in the post about the smokehouse fire, Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce and Soul, will be out earlier than expected. It will be released June 10. I will be reading from the book and signing copies at the Booksellers at Laurelwood at 6 p.m. June 12. And on Friday, June 27 there will be a release party at the Hi-Tone where pitmaster Richard Forrest will cook a whole hog and local musicians the Dead Soldiers, Switchblade Kid and Clay Otis will all be performing.