What we ate in Memphis

Earlier this month, four Post-Gazette food writers attended the Association of Food Journalists annual conference, which this year was held in Memphis, Tenn. At events organized by the group and on their own, Gretchen McKay, Bob Batz Jr., Miriam Rubin and Hal B. Klein ate and drank a lot of great stuff, including loads of barbecue and Southern and soul-food specialties such as biscuits, greens and sweet tea.

The four sat at the same table for a Mississippi River-themed repast at AFJ’s swanky awards banquet in a ballroom at The Peabody Memphis, where the PG won two awards: Bob won third place in the category best newspaper food feature, below 200,000 circulation, for “Trees to Table: Maple sap from Penn’s woods makes serious syrup,” published March 14, 2013. Hal won second place in the category best story on food policy or food issues for “Pittsburgh is at the forefront of an unruly food movement: Permaculture,” published Aug. 15, 2013.

Here are some of our favorite tastes of Memphis:


Breakfast Biscuit at Miss Polly’s

Memphis is famous for its killer pulled-pork barbecue, and rightly so: slow-cooked in a pit, with a sweet-and-tangy sauce redolent of vinegar and cayenne, it leaves a peppery heat on the tongue that marries perfectly with the smoky, fall-off-the-bone meat.

And it’s just not piled high onto sandwiches with crunchy, tart slaw. Memphians also love their barbecue spaghetti and go equally crazy over barbecue pizza. Elvis, the story goes, was such a fan of Coletta’s BBQ pies, which the Italian restaurant invented in the 1950s, that Col. Tom Parker set up a monthly charge account.

I ate — and very much enjoyed — all three iconic barbecue dishes while in Memphis. The meal I can’t get out of my mind, though, was much simpler. Counter food, really. We’re talking the paper-wrapped breakfast sandwich I picked early one morning at Miss Polly’s Soul City Cafe on Beale Street.

One of my favorite foods in the world is a fresh-baked buttermilk biscuit. Miss Polly’s makes one fine one.

Super flaky, with peelable layers, it would have melted in my mouth had it not been stuffed with fluffy scrambled eggs, smoky bacon and a melty slice of American cheese — for $5.

“Just like Grandma used to make,” my waitress told me, if  Grandma was raised in the South instead of Franklin, Venango County.

Mmmmm. I can always diet tomorrow!

— Gretchen McKay

Dinner at Hog & Hominy 

“Where are you taking us, Hal? Nashville?” quipped the PG’s Gretchen McKay as the taxi she, Bob Batz Jr. and I were in cruised deeper into the Memphis sprawl. I was starting to feel nervous about my choice of restaurant. It didn’t help things when the driver told us he’d made a wrong turn. I hoped I’d made the right suggestion for our first Memphis meal.

I did.

My only regret turned out to be not wearing a plaid shirt. I wear them a lot, and I would have blended in nicely with the waitstaff and bar regulars, who all looked like they dressed from my closet.

Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer’s restaurant Hog & Hominy — the pair also own Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen across the street — should be on everyone’s Memphis dining list.

The restaurant’s menu is a mash-up of the chefs’ Southern and Italian roots. Geographical purists might turn their noses, and fair enough, because “biscuit gnocchi” sounds like it could be the introduction to a very bad theme night. Instead, the pillowed biscuits floating in hambone broth with greens and tomatoes echoed the comfort food cooked by both Nona and Memaw.

My favorite dish was the okra stufato. Stufato is a Northern Italian garden vegetable stew, and the Southern addition of okra added texture and substance. I particularly enjoyed how the okra flavor played off the sweet fennel.

I’m not a huge dessert person, but I’m glad we split the insanely decadent Carol’s Delightful Smile, a rich chocolate silk pie served in an Oreo crust and gilded with crushed Whoppers. Next time I’m in Memphis I’m going to crush the rest of the small-plate list, try one of the pizzas, and explore the excellent cocktail menu. While wearing plaid, of course.

— Hal B. Klein

Quail Tamales at STAX

An AFJ conference tradition is to hold a “Taste of” event in the host city, bringing together chefs and cooks to one place where food writers can sample their wares.

The “Smokin’ Taste of Memphis” was spread out over the STAX Museum of American Soul Music, so that as we wandered from exhibit to exhibit in the famed recording studio, we could nibble on everything from barbecue Cornish hen and barbecue spaghetti and barbecue pizza to local beer and Tennessee whiskey and coffee to persimmon fried pies and chocolate-covered bacon and, yes, barbecue chocolates.

But my favorite taste was a five-spice quail tamale served by Jonathan Magallanes of Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana, which was started by his father. You could hear the care and love in his voice, and see and taste it in the prettily presented tamales. He also brought pork ones, but the quail ones were a more out-there but not too-out-there twist. Delish. It didn’t hurt that I was eating them in view of Isaac Hayes’ green Cadillac Eldorado.   

— Bob Batz Jr.

Fried chicken at Gus’s

Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in downtown Memphis isn’t much to look at. Located in a non-descript brick building adorned with white-and-yellow aluminum awnings, on a street flush with boarded-up windows, it’s the kind of place ’fraidy-cat tourists would steer clear of for fear of getting mugged. I’ll admit my first thought was, “This is it? The place so many people are talking about?” 

Big mistake to judge this book by its cover.

An outpost of the tiny original in Mason, Tenn., Gus’s has some of the best fried chicken you'll ever taste, if your taste tends to spicy.

Soul food tends to be more intensely flavored than traditional Southern food, Adrian Miller notes in “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.”  Simply put, it’s sweeter, saltier, spicier and loaded with more fat. 

Gus’s is a perfect example. 

Crispy brown on the outside and super-juicy on the inside (the dark meat, anyway), the chicken’s got kick, thanks to a secret recipe developed in 1953 that includes just the right amount of cayenne pepper — enough that your tongue knows it's there but not so much that it’s still stinging when you've licked the last bit of grease off your fingers.

Unless, of course, the grease has soaked into the piece of white bread that accompanies the small foam cups of baked beans and so-so coleslaw that comprise a plate. Then you might not need the napkins stacked on the table. (Substitutions will cost you 50 cents.)

I’d just polished off a pretty fabulous four-course vegetarian lunch at Felicia Suzanne on the historic Main Street Trolley Line when I got there. So sadly, despite a vigorous 10-minute walk from downtown, all I had room for was a thigh ($2.05) and a side of slaw. I washed it down with an icy-cold bottle of root beer.

My total bill was something like 6 bucks. It was worth every penny, not to mention the extra calories.

In 2001, Q Magazine declared Gus’s one of the top five restaurants in the country worth hopping on a plane for a meal. I’m not sure I’d fly to Memphis for a plate of Gus's chicken, but it’s definitely worth the visit if you’re within driving distance.

Next time I’ll also try to fried pickles and maybe also spring for the fried green tomatoes. I definitely won’t fill up on lunch beforehand (duh). 

No reservations, and lines can sometimes be long, but you can always call ahead for take-out.

— Gretchen McKay

Lamb ribs at Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous

Memphis barbecued ribs are most often pork. Generally grilled over charcoal in a pit, slabs are served one of two ways: dry, liberally sprinkled with a mixture of (always secret) spices, or wet, which is seasoned and mopped with sauce. At Rendezvous, the ribs are served dry, which is my choice. If you want sauce, Robert Jr., our waiter, who’s worked there since 1981, will tell you: “Sauce is on the table.” His father, Robert Sr., has been a waiter at the restaurant since 1963.

While the pork ribs and brisket at Rendezvous are terrific, I was blown away by the succulent charcoal-broiled lamb riblets. It’s my theory that the owners serve lamb ribs because they are of Greek heritage.

The ribs are deep red, spiced it seems with lots of paprika and there’s some vinegar in there, too. There’s enough fat, but not too much -- just the right amount to keep them juicy and to keep you eating. You pull off pieces of the almost crisp, heavily seasoned outer meat, nibble on the bones, all the while looking for the next rib and the next.

We enjoyed a second order at our table -- they were that good.

-- Miriam Rubin

Cheese Biscuits in the Delta

The Cheese Biscuit recipe comes from my aunt Lillian and if I divulge it to you I’d have to kill you said caterer, cookbook author and farmer Elizabeth Heiskell of Oxford, Miss., with a broad smile.

She had prepared an amazing brunch spread we dove into during a side trip to the birth-of-the-blues town of Clarksdale, Miss. Many of us had been up late tapping toes and bobbing heads as 82-year-old Bud Welch sang the blues at Red’s Lounge Juke Joint. We badly needed the ham, biscuits, peach and fig jam, strawberry butter and signature bloody Marys.

I loved the ham but the cheese biscuits were my favorite. Crisp, buttery, perfectly cheddared and spicy with cayenne. Charlotte Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis promised me a recipe and said that these were pressed out of a pastry bag with a flat, fluted tip, instead of being rolled out on a board. But the tender texture, due to the soft Southern wheat flour (also used for her flaky, petite biscuits), may make them hard to duplicate up North. I’ll just have to try.

-- Miriam Rubin

Pint of Tiny Bomb American Pilsner at Pearl’s Oyster House 

I was so impressed and moved by our group tour of the newly renovated National Civil Rights Museum, which is located at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, that I went through a second time with my family.

Afterwards, I felt like I could use a drink.

We settled into a table at red-neon-signed Pearl’s Oyster House and I was disappointed when the server said the place had no Memphis brew, but in the same breath she offered Wiseacre, which I knew to be the Memphis craft brewery that many people think is the best. It’s also not yet available outside of Tennessee. The server brought me a beautiful pint of Tiny Bomb American Pilsner, which is brewed with German and American malt and some local honey.

It was gold and bold and cold and just the thing for ruminating on the history I’d immersed myself in, just up the street. 

-- Bob Batz Jr. 

Sunday dinner at the Orange Mound Grill

Over the course of two conference sessions we explored the role African-Americans played in the development of American cuisine. At the second session, at the second session, held at the National Civil Rights Museum, I met Ms. Daisy Miller, chef and owner of the Orange Mound Grill. I was captivated by her story, as well as her sweet potato pie. Afterwards she told me I should come visit her before I left town. Her restaurant is a scant 10 minutes from the airport, so before taking off for Pittsburgh, I did.

Ms. Miller started working at the Orange Mound Grill in 1959. She purchased the restaurant from her aunt and uncle in 1976 and now runs the 67-year-old establishment with her granddaughter Hope, who’s expected to take over in four years. It was late in the afternoon when I arrived and Ms. Miller told me to put my book away and to sit with her son and daughter at a table while she fixed my meal. Other family members walked in and out of our conversation, which ranged from the fate of the Steelers (her son is a former long-haul truck driver and developed an affinity for the team) to American race relations. Sometimes the most memorable meals aren’t at all about the food.

Of course, the best meals — like this one — have great conversation and great food. At Ms. Miller’s suggestion, I ordered a plate of chicken with dressing, which was basically a Thanksgiving preview. She served it with stewed turnip greens and the best bowl of black-eyed peas I’ve ever had. The hoecake, a precursor to cornbread that’s almost never made right, was so fantastic that I asked for another one.

I’d just come from a lunch of tamales in the Mississippi Delta, so I didn’t finish my generous portion of food. I hope Ms. Miller knew how much I enjoyed it, and how much I enjoyed the rest of it on the flight home.

— Hal B. Klein 

Learn more about Memphis food at memphistravel.com/dining.


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