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