Friday, October 4, 2013

A Green Oasis at Brooks and Airways - Trees by Touliatos

Blight is normally a slow process, as an empty property slowly succumbs to the forces of time and nature. Maintaining any man-made structure or environment is a battle against entropy, and there is always a certain sad beauty to decay as the earth reclaims a part of itself.

Trees by Touliatos was a sprawling 20-acre plant nursery on Brooks Road next to Airways with an impressive assortment of water plants and fountains that made it seem like a perfect oasis in the desert of crumbling concrete that generally defines the area around the Memphis International Airport. The business has only been closed for two years, but as I was driving past yesterday I noticed how quickly nature was reclaiming the property.

I parked and began poking around the property, photographing the stunning speed of plant life overtaking a property that was inherently designed to nurture plant life. This post isn't being critical of the Touliatos family in any way, shape or form. The business owners spent decades operating a vibrant enterprise in an unlikely location that stayed successful long after blight had already come to define most of the surrounding area. And the son of the company's retired founders is still doing landscape design work in the Memphis area.

There isn't any barbecue in this post, but beyond the food a bigger focus of this blog is to expose readers to parts of the city they may be unfamiliar with. After some time walking around the old Trees by Touliatos grounds I decided the images I captured were worth sharing. Whenever you hear people reference "the end of the world" they actually mean an end of humanity. Nature is always quietly waiting to quickly reclaim any areas we leave behind.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Good Food in the Lowe's Parking Lot - Elwood's Shack

I'd recently seen some impressive-looking pictures of some of the food from Elwood's Shack that a friend posted on Facebook. This friend was the same barbecue judge and competitor who told me about the Wing & BBQ Shack when it opened and between my faith in his opinions and what I was seeing in the pictures I knew I needed to try the place.

Elwood's Shack is located in the parking lot of the Lowe's at Summer and Perkins in the building formerly occupied by the Pizza Shack. The new restaurant still offers pizzas; but barbecue, smoked wings and an enticing selection of sandwiches are also on the menu along with breakfast foods in the mornings. Since it is so close to Covington Pike I decided to stop in on the Friday before last while I was already going to be out that way for work.

I almost changed my mind when I opened my copy of the Commercial Appeal that morning while I was eating breakfast and saw a glowing review of the restaurant. I'm wary of visiting restaurant's immediately after positive reviews are published in the paper since they can frequently end up being overwhelmed by the sudden influx of new customers. But I was going to be driving past anyway and I decided that if the place was too crowded I could always head a few blocks down Summer to Jack's Bar-B-Que Rib Shack (somehow every single restaurant mentioned in this post has the word shack in its name).

While Elwood's was indeed full of customers with a line of people at the register when I arrived I could see that the kitchen was getting food out to customers at a steady pace so I went ahead and ordered a barbecue pork sandwich. It comes with either regular or jalapeno slaw so I went with the intriguing-sounding jalapeno variety.


The sandwich ended up being a gloriously big, sloppy beast that I mostly ate open-faced with a fork. The pork was well-smoked, the jalapeno slaw added a nice extra kick and the bun was perfectly toasted and buttered, which showed some impressive attention to detail despite the unusually high volume of customers that day. For $6 it is one hell of a sandwich. It should also be noted that in the mornings you can get the barbecue piled on a breakfast burrito along with eggs, jalapenos, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and cheese for a Ron Swanson-worthy start to your day.


After I finished my sandwich I decided to head back to the counter and try an order of smoked wings since a small order was just four wings. They ended up being huge as well. They had a delicious smoke flavor and the order includes a piece of grilled pineapple, which was a nice added touch. I was only able to eat two of them after already having the sandwich. I took the other two home with me where my wife later devoured them on sight.

The menu at Elwood's Shack was extensive enough that I have plans for my next couple visits. I want to try the barbecue sandwich with beef brisket. And the restaurant makes its own roast beef that looks amazing in pictures I've seen of the sandwiches made with it.

Elwood's Shack on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Another Whitehaven Soul Food Find - Kountry Cookin'

How many good soul food places are there in Memphis? I'm not sure but I keep finding more of them. Last week I was driving south on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven planning to stop at Big Bill Bar-B-Que for some reliably excellent pulled pork when I noticed a sign telling me to turn right on Winchester to try Kountry Cookin' Soul Food. I'd never heard of the place so naturally I hung a right and spotted the restaurant about half a block down the road.

Kountry Cookin' ended up being a clean, spacious restaurant that serves food cafeteria style. I ordered pork neckbones, cabbage and yams and was seated with my food within minutes of entering the front door.

The neckbones were incredibly meaty and good. I've still never had a bad serving of neckbones in an area restaurant. I guess that is because it is such a simple dish and one you don't put on the menu unless you know how to cook it. The cabbage and yams were also solid, well-seasoned representations of simple,  satisfying foods, which is exactly what I want from a regular lunch stop.

I've fallen pretty far behind in blogging over the last couple weeks but hopefully I can get caught up pretty soon. A couple years ago I upgraded my aging desktop computer with additional memory and turned it into a dual boot system with both Windows and Linux hard drives. For those who don't know, a dual boot system simply means that when you turn on the computer you tell it which hard drive you want it to operate from. Linux is a far superior operating system to anything offered by Microsoft or Apple, and it has the added benefit of being free. It is actually based on the same reliable operating system Apple uses, it just doesn't use the stupidly overpriced proprietary hardware that Apple foists on its customers.

The unsecure and glitchy Windows operating system is a magnet for malware, spyware, bloatware, and viruses and our computer's sluggish performance is what caused me to add the Linux hard drive. Since then the Linux setup has stayed fast and reliable while the Windows setup continued to get progressively slower. The only reason we still booted it up in Windows from time to time was due to a handful of programs we still used it for, most notably my wife's iTunes account along with some programs she uses for work. I personally despise iTunes and had been happily using the program Banshee to handle my music on the Linux computer and Google Play to handle my music on my Google phone. I look at Microsoft versus Apple as a pair of choices similar to picking between republicans and democrats in the voting booth; at best you are trying to decide who sucks least.

But my wife wanted a functional Windows system and waiting for ours to boot up and run programs was like watching a glacier move. So as a regular listener of the Gary Parrish Show on sports radio while I am in my work vehicle I dropped the computer off at Cooper Systems since Gary is constantly hawking the place and it is in a section of Mt. Moriah I frequent at work. That was last Friday and they are still running tests to figure out what all is bogging the Windows setup down, which is why I had been without a computer for nearly a week. This isn't a criticism of Cooper Systems. They have been very knowledgeable and friendly. I had a messed up Windows system. If I had a 1985
Yugo I wouldn't criticize a mechanic for having trouble making it work.

Right before I dropped the computer off I'd also checked some laptop prices on ebay. There are plenty of places, Cooper Systems included, that buy used computers in bulk from businesses and refurbish them for resale. Usually that includes wiping the hard drive and reinstalling Windows. But I noticed an Acer laptop on ebay that was being sold without an operating system since it was missing its COA sticker. The COA (Certificate of Authenticity) verifies that a computer had a licensed copy of Windows. Without the sticker a refurbisher can't reinstall Windows without buying a new copy specifically for that machine.

The laptop had pretty good specs for a used machine (15-inch screen, 2 GHz, 2 GB RAM, 100 GB HD) so I placed a bid and, since there are still plenty of people out there who think the Windows operating system is worth money, I ended up getting it shipped to my door for $78 total. It showed up yesterday and within five minutes I already had it up and running by simply loading Linux from a USB flash drive. I'm typing this post with it right now while still waiting on the Windows desktop to come home from the repair shop.

Kountry Cookin on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Simple, Unpretentious Good Food - Patrick's

I've driven past Patrick's on Park near Mt. Moriah at least hundreds, and possibly thousands, of times without ever stopping there. Last spring at the Memphis Italian Festival across the street from the restaurant in Marquette Park someone asked about the place and it turned out that nobody in the group of friends I was with had been inside the building, but a few people thought barbecue was on the menu.

Since then I'd been determined to drop in and try lunch there. But I still kept putting it off. The parking lot was usually full enough at lunchtime to indicate satisfied repeat customers. The biggest issue keeping me from stopping there was Patrick's location. If I am nearby at lunchtime it means I am working on Mt. Moriah that day, which means I am also near some of the best pulled pork in Memphis at Three Little Pigs and some of the best ribs in Memphis at Leonard's.

I was actually headed to Leonard's last Friday with an intense craving for the ribs there when I noticed Patrick's as I was driving past and decided on impulse that it was time to give it a try. When I got seated and got a menu from my friendly server I realized that barbecue nachos were the only barbecue item on the menu. But along with all the standard pub food I'd assumed the place served based on its appearance  there was a wide selection of country cooking on the menu. So I ordered a plate of meatloaf, turnip greens and sauteed mushrooms.

Granted I could have looked at a menu online before visiting but where is the adventure in doing that? I still got a great meal.

Patrick's automatically got points with me for having healthy and delicious real butter at the table instead of the nasty heart-damaging margarine spreads that so many restaurants try to pass off on their customers.

I was even more impressed when my massive plate of food came out. The kitchen at Patrick's believes in generous servings. The tasty meatloaf was loaded with peppers and onions and light on the ketchup. The greens and mushrooms were also simple in their flavoring but done right and tasty. The entire meal featured plentiful portions of simple, unfussy but well-cooked food, which explains the parking lot full of cars that is routinely outside and which will draw me back for future visits.

Patrick's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 7, 2013

More Medical District Soul Food - Ellen's

The Medical District in between Midtown and Downtown Memphis stands out as a good place to find quality soul food. I've already been impressed by the cooking at Peggy's Heavenly Home Cooking, which is right down Cleveland from Rudabagas Restaurant and Lounge. Last Thursday I finally got around to trying Ellen's Soul Food just north of the corner of Bellevue and Lamar.

For those of you still confused by the multiple names used for Mid-south streets, Bellevue is the street that becomes Elvis Presley Boulevard as it travels through South Memphis.

The little restaurant is easy to miss. Two small signs next to the street along Bellevue are the only indications it is there. Even when you pull into the narrow entrance to the parking lot there isn't much on the plain brick store front to indicate you have just stumbled across a great source for delicious home cooking.

When I arrived last Thursday the restaurant was closed and I was about to leave when I noticed a man in an apron and an Ellen's shirt taking out the garbage. I asked if the restaurant was about to open and he told me it would in just a few minutes. It was 11:20 and the place opens at 11:30. I was glad I spotted him and chose to wait around for ten minutes. Once the front door was unlocked my biggest problem was deciding what to order from the plentiful menu. I ultimately went with neckbones, turnip greens and pickled beets.

I noticed some complaints about the wait time on Urbanspoon page for Ellen's. It isn't a fast food restaurant. It's much, much better than any fast food restaurant. Everything on my plate was excellent. And everything I saw on other plates coming out of the kitchen looked excellent too. I wish I had photographs of some of the fried chicken, pork chops, broccoli cheese casserole, cabbage and fried okra I saw going to other tables. The star of my own order was the neckbones seasoned with a combination of black and crushed red pepper that added a nice extra spark to the savory dish.

The neckbones were even better when I added some of Ellen's homemade hot sauce to them. Red hot sauce and vinegar sauce are the divine combination of soul food condiments and making them from scratch is the kind of attention to detail that makes a soul food restaurant stand out. Also, in an attempt to keep my barbecue and soul food quest healthy I usually avoid eating any bread with my meals. That ended up being impossible at Ellen's where the steaming fresh hot water cornbread pancakes that came with my meal proved to be truly irresistible. 

Ellen's Soul Food on Urbanspoon

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