Tuesday, January 19, 2016

travelogue: three days of eating (and other things) in and around Memphis, Tennessee

Despite getting to do my fair share of traveling, there are still huge swaths of this country I've never seen. With all of the family together over winter break, I aimed to make a small dent in the long list of "Places I Haven't Been" with a week-long, three-city trek that started in Memphis, Tennessee. As always, my pre-trip research resulted in a list of places to visit about five times longer than could possibly be achieved in the time we had. To see the complete list and plot your own adventure, click on this Memphis / Nashville / Louisville google map. Here's where we ate, with a few inedible highlights along the way.

If I knew one thing about Memphis food before this trip, it was dry-rub ribs. And if I knew one place to get them, it was Charles Vergos' Rendezvous, a nearly 70-year old restaurant downtown where you enter through a back alley and head downstairs into the basement. The ribs here are swabbed with a vinegar and spice mop, cooked over hot charcoal, then dusted with a heavy shower of dried spices. Except for a small puddle of the meat's own juices, there's not touched by any sauce, though there are a couple squeeze bottles on the table. These are not your fall-off-the-bone kind of ribs; they've still got some traction, matching the assertive flavors of pork and spice.

It's not your typical barbecue (in fact some might say it's not barbecue at all), and the place has a little bit of a tourist trap feel to it, but I've had plenty worse ribs than these. I was also fond of their slaw, which had a pronounced yellow mustard kick, and am grateful to Allison Riley for counseling me not to miss the simple pleasures of a sausage and cheese appetizer plate.

(You can see all my pictures in this Charles Vergos' Rendezvous flickr set).

Charles Vergos' Rendezvous
52 S. Second Street, Memphis, Tennessee

Our first night in Memphis found us at The Second Line, a New Orleans inspired restaurant from Chef Kelly English. The Louisiana-born chef first started cooking professionally in New Orleans with culinary godfather John Besh, then made his way to Memphis to open his first spot, Restaurant Iris, in 2009. A few years later he opened The Second Line, a more casual place featuring lots of Big Easy staples, right next door to the fancier Iris.[1]

What better way to start an evening than a sazerac? Followed by some New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp (with a shout-out to English's mentor: "Besh's BBQ Shrimp") and a nice loaf of French bread? All that was missing was, alas, my favorite part: the shrimp's heads. When I'd order these at Mr. B's Bistro in New Orleans or Red Light in Miami, I'd give Mrs. F all the meat and just suck on all the heads.[2]

English's fried gulf oyster poboy, dressed with lettuce tomato mayo and pickles, was as good as any I've had in New Orleans (seen up close in cross-section here), with a hearty sidecar of red beans and rice. And while much of the menu consists of several other varieties of poboys, there's also a good beet and feta shwarma, and even a "reasonably healthy dinner salad" if you had ribs for lunch and don't see a fried oyster sandwich as an exercise in moderation.

For our first night in town, this hit all the right spots.

(You can see all my pictures in this The Second Line flickr set).

The Second Line
2144 Monroe Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee

Much like eating dry-rub ribs, you can't go to Memphis and not go to Beale Street. This three-block stretch, with a history as an entertainment district stretching back to the 1800's, feels a bit like a low-budget Bourbon Street. It has its share of kitsch, but it also has its share of charm. I couldn't figure out why I was hearing an extra horn line over the recorded music coming from one of the bars until I spied a wandering trumpeter playing as he walked down the sidewalk.[3] And a troupe of street gymnasts used Beale as the stage for an impressively athletic series of flips, culminating in this high air in front of the 140-year old A. Schwab Trading Co. store.

(continued ...)

The next morning we set off for another Memphis institution: Graceland (all my pics in this Graceland flickr set, if you're interested). But first, a little sustenance.

The story of how tamales made their way from Mexico up the Mississippi Delta is a fascinating bit of food history, and a Delta style tamale was high on the list of things I wanted to try during this trip. While there were a few bookmarks pegged on my map, we stumbled across Mose Tamales by pure chance – a truck parked alongside a gas station on the way between downtown and Graceland.

I got three tamales for $3, despite being cautioned that I'd regret not getting six for $5. He was right. These were among the best things I ate the whole trip: the tightly wrapped corn husks encased cigars of hearty, pleasantly gritty corn meal molded around a ground beef filling, all permeated with a ruddy, spicy broth. I could have easily eaten another three, and then some.

Mose Tamales
1681 Winchester Road (Valero Station), Memphis, Tennessee

After paying our respects to the King, I spotted another place I'd bookmarked: A&R Bar-B-Que on Elvis Presley Boulevard. I'm pretty sure I picked this up from the Southern Living "Top 50 Barbecue Joints" list and cross-checked it against Jane and Michael Stern's Road Foods.

The best in show was the pork shoulder sandwich, the tender meat chopped and then heaped onto a bun with sauce (choice of spicy or mild) and cole slaw. That combination – also, if I have my barbecue genres correct, a Memphis thing – is pretty magical.

The rib tip sandwich, on the other hand, was kind of a letdown. To start, I was a bit stumped as to how you're supposed to eat the thing: it's theoretically a sandwich, but the rib tips are still loaded with bones. So I did a sort of reverse Costanza and picked the whole thing apart with my hands, sucking meat off the bones and occasionally swabbing bits of meat, sauce and slaw with a slice of bread. Not sure it was worth the effort: the meat was tender but tasted mostly of the sauce, with barely a whiff of smoke. And the chicken sandwich Mrs. F ordered was not worth of mention.

I think the secret here is that the deeper you work your way down the menu, the further you stray from their strengths. If you go, stick with the pork sandwich.

(You can see all my pictures in this A&R Bar-B-Que flickr set).

A&R Bar-B-Que
1802 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee

Instead of Sun Studio, one of the other Memphis stations of the cross, we instead took a little side trip that afternoon to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Located at the site of the original Stax Records recording studio, it tells the history of that studio and the music that came out of it – which happens to be some of the greatest music ever made. I never fully grasped the list of artists who passed through Stax: Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MG's, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers. The museum is run by the Soulsville Foundation, a non-profit organization that also runs a charter school and music academy next door. Our visit was one of the highlights of the trip.

(You can see all my pictures in this Stax Museum flickr set).

Stax Museum of American Soul Music
926 E. McLemore Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee

For dinner we headed to East Memphis to check out Hog & Hominy. The food at Hog & Hominy is Southern Italian – by which I mean the cooking style is mostly Italian, but the ingredients and inspiration are often Southern. To add still one more variable to the mix, Sunday is "Sunday Funday" there, which means they serve brunch all day and all night. So you'll find wood oven fired pizzas sharing space on the menu with bacon egg and cheese biscuits. In lesser hands this could all be a recipe for disaster; but chefs Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer make it all work.

I've already sung the praises of their "Thunderbird! Forty Twice!" pizza in the "best thing i ate last week," so let me mention a few other things: the earthy but delicate lady peas topped with burnished slabs of house-cured guanciale, with a rich chicken liver mousse that acted as a sauce binding the dish together; the romaine salad in a pecorino vinaigrette that ingeniously used crispy chicken skins as the croutons; the appropriately named "Gut Bomb" which crammed fluffy scrambled eggs, house-cured bacon, pepperjack cheese and grits inside a flaky biscuit.

Desserts at Hog & Hominy don't try to be fancy, just good; they are eminently successful. A peanut butter and banana pie looked as if it could have come straight out of the refrigerator case of a 1950's diner; while "Carol's Delightful Smile" started with an Oreo crust, filled it with a malted chocolate mousse, then topped it with crumbled Whoppers. The junk food aisle never tasted so good.

(You can see all my pictures in this Hog & Hominy flickr set).

Hog & Hominy
707 W. Brookhaven Circle, Memphis, Tennessee

We were driving down to Clarksdale, Mississippi the next day, so a hearty breakfast was in order. The Arcade Restaurant was exactly what we needed. I have a real fondness for old diners, and the Arcade, opened by Speros Zepatos in 1919, is as old as they get in Memphis. We didn't see Elvis' ghost (a good bit of Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train" was shot in and around the restaurant), but we did have a good breakfast.

I have a weakness for biscuits and gravy. So how was I supposed to pass up the "Eggs Redneck," which put together a couple biscuits, topped with sausage patties, doused in country gravy, along with a couple eggs and hash browns? I could not. I did not. I had no regrets.

(You can see all my pictures in this Arcade Restaurant flickr set).

Arcade Restaurant
540 S. Main Street, Memphis, Tennessee

Clarksdale is only about a ninety minute drive from Memphis – pretty much a straight shot along the Mississippi River down Highway 61, until it runs into Highway 49. That also happens to be the crossroads where legend has it that Robert Johnson met the devil and learned to play the blues (Actually, there are several crossroads in the area that make the same claim). Whether you believe such stories or not, there's no question that Clarksdale and the surrounding Mississippi Delta area was fertile ground for the original blues musicians. The Delta Blues Museum (no pictures allowed) is not quite as tightly orchestrated as the Stax Museum, but still conveys a good sense of that history.

The town of Clarksdale itself feels a bit like a land that time forgot. Maybe things perk up at night when the music starts playing at places like the Ground Zero Blues Club (opened by Morgan Freeman, who we happened to see at dinner that night in Oxford) and Red's, but by day it was kind of a ghost town. One of the few signs of life we saw was at Deak's Mississippi Saxophones and Blues Emporium. Never mind the saxophones – Deak Harp is a harmonica guy, and within minutes after we walked in he was putting on a demo for us. His custom built harmonicas were too pricey for a beginner to start with, but Little Miss F did walk out with a ready-made model (and serenaded us for the rest of the drive).

From Clarksdale we veered east before heading back to Memphis to visit Oxford, Mississippi, a scenic town that's home to the University of Mississippi and also was William Faulkner's home town. (Lafayette County, of which Oxford is the county seat, was supposedly the model for Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County). Oxford is also home to chef John Currence's City Grocery, one of the region's most celebrated restaurants. I wish we'd found more to celebrate there, but unfortunately it was one of the more disappointing meals of the trip.

I started with some tamales. The updated garnishes had some good flavors – chili-inflected caramelized onions, buttermilk crema, a pumpkin seed pesto – but the tamales themselves were chalky. A daily soup of Indian-spiced black lentils (a sort of dal makhani) likewise had great flavors, but arrived maybe a couple degrees above room temperature, and had to be sent back to be rewarmed. If you have pommes frites on your menu as an appetizer rather than a side dish, they ought to be pretty special – but these were limp and soggy.

The best of the main courses was the grilled trout I ordered, which was plated over a creamy roasted eggplant purée and topped with a roughly chopped pecan and herb pistou, given a bit of brightness and intrigue by some slivers of preserved lemon. But the shrimp and grits, which were strongly pushed by our waiter, had the faint whiff of ammonia of past-its-prime seafood, and the pan fried garlic chicken with mushroom fried rice, with a sticky sweet and sour sauce, tasted like airplane food.[4]

A pavlova is a dessert whose primary feature typically is an airy meringue with a crisp shell and a fluffy, light interior. This was described on the menu as a chocolate pavlova, but what arrived was a hard, dense disk that had the appearance and texture of a hockey puck. Again, the flavors were fine, but the execution was off.

I feel like a bit of a turd parachuting in from a thousand miles away only to criticize a place that's earned such plaudits, run by someone who is rightly recognized as among the most influential Southern chefs of his generation. But this just wasn't a very good meal, and I was disappointed it didn't meet expectations.

(You can see all my pictures in this City Grocery flickr set).

City Grocery
152 Courthouse Square, Oxford, Mississippi

The following morning we headed for Nashville, about a 3 1/2 hour drive in an east-north-easterly direction. We got a bit of a late start and started thinking about lunch within an hour of hitting the road. I checked my map, and happily saw we were in the vicinity of Bozo's Hot Pit Bar-B-Q, just a brief detour off Highway 40 in Mason, Tennessee.

Bozo's is another place with a history – one that goes back to 1923, when it was opened by Thomas Jefferson "Bozo" Williams, who served 15 cent pig sandwiches from a counter. Two years later, it moved into a small building at the present location, which it originally shared with a gas station, and added a few tables; the current building was constructed in 1950. The last time the menu was updated was in 1991, when they added onion rings. That same year, after years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider an appellate court ruling in the restaurant's favor on a trademark suit by Bozo the Clown (which the restaurant won because it had been doing business as "Bozo's" long before Larry Harmon, a/k/a Bozo the Clown, stuck on a red nose).

The restaurant stayed in the Williams family until 2004, when it was sold to John Papageorgon, who continues to run things pretty much as they've always been run at Bozo's.

The thing to get, of course, is the Pig Sandwich. It comes with a mix of pulled "white" (tender, moist meat from the inside of the shoulder) and "brown" (crusty, smoky outside bark) hickory smoked pork, and you can specify more of one or the other if you have a preference. It's topped with a dainty handful of either a sweet vinegar or creamy mayo-based slaw, all mounded on a soft, lightly toasted bun. There are a few bottled sauces on the table with varying degrees of heat with which your sandwich can be anointed. That's it; and it's perfect. Take a peek at the dessert case before you order – there was nothing wrong with our German chocolate pie, but I regretted not getting something with a puffy meringue crown.

Bozo's Hot Pit Bar-B-Q
342 Highway 70 W, Mason, Tennessee

Next: on to Nashville.

[1] Though Iris is the flagship, English spent most of this evening at Second Line. I'm not sure whether the bar at Second Line really needed all that much attention; maybe it was just a coincidence that the fourth quarter of a Grizzlies game was playing on the TV above it.

[2] Truth, not just being a homer: these were good, but Wessel's version at Red Light was better.

[3] Memphis is a great music town but it can be challenging to find a place where you can see live music with under-21 kids. We grown-ups nursed a couple of beers while suspiciously eyeing the food menu and listening to the Will Tucker Band belt out some blues at B.B. King's Blues Club on Beale Street, but juke joints like Earnestine & Hazel's or Wild Bill's were off the agenda.

[4] I can thank Grassroots Farm for the knowledge that the name-check of "Springer Mountain" chicken on the menu is basically bullshit. For more about "Springer Mountain Farms," read Wyatt Williams' "The Future of Big Chicken."

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic line-up! Next time you're in Memphis, I can show you some additional must-try spots. Glad you enjoyed it.