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BBQ Research–Memphis Edition

BBQ Research—Memphis Edition

Day 1

A nice group of adventurers joined me for this trip. Thanks to Gary Guesnier, Jennifer Biggs, Ashley Dior Thomas, Wayne Lohman, Chef Raymond Jackson, Angie King Keesee, Dave Mekeel and Joe York! 

Me and the Memphis BBQ research assistants.

I really appreciated y’all’s help in ordering a lot of food so that I could sample a lot of the menu, your barbecue insight, and your company!

Payne’s sliced pork sandwich

Payne’s Bar-B-Q

We started our barbecue trek at Payne’s, a longtime favorite for Memphis locals. We ordered the following: bologna sandwich, chopped pork shoulder, pork spareribs, sliced pork sandwich, smoked sausage (in a bun), baked beans (topped with chopped pork), mustard-based slaw (topped everything), and sliced white bread. Payne’s was thin and peppery. Our favorites were the bologna, sliced pork and the slaw. The latter seems particular to Memphis.

Helen’s Bar-B-Q (Brownsville, TN)

Next we made the hour drive to Brownsville where we visited Helen’s. This place is a disappearing breed because they cook entirely with wood, in a non-mechanized pit. We ordered: bbq nachos (jalapenos were added tableside), hand-sliced bologna, whole chicken, pulled pork shoulder (came out in chunks), smoked sausage, pork spareribs, and a chopped pork sandwich, a finely-chopped slaw, and bbq spaghetti.  Helen’s sauce is thicker and a chocolate color. We loved the whole chicken (moist, good smoke flavor in the skin). Please note that the chicken is made by request, so you have to call ahead. We also loved the slaw which you could tell was made in-house.

Cozy Corner Restaurant

Cozy Corner is another local favorite. We ordered: beef brisket (thinly sliced), BBQ bologna, smoked sausage (cut in two halves), BBQ spaghetti (meatless, sweet sauce), BBQ nachos, Cornish hen, pork baby back ribs (tender, a nice char, nice fine slice). Our faves here were the bologna, BBQ nachos and the ribs. I’ve loved the Cornish hen in the past, but it was just OK this time around.

Bar-B-Q Shop

It was a long day of eating, so we ordered here. We ordered pork spareribs and bbq spaghetti, and both were fantastic!  It was served baked beans, slaw and toasted, buttered, white bread. The competition barbecue judges tagging along with me said that these ribs were the “closest to competition quality.” The Bar-B-Q Shop inherited the original recipe for BBQ spaghetti, so it’s no surprise that it’s wonderful. Their version includes chopped barbecue meat along with a slightly sweet sauce that had great seasoning.

Day 2

Bartlett UMC homemade bread and pot holder

I began the day by worshipping at a church near my hotel. I selected Bartlett United Methodist Church. I enjoyed the service, and I loved the fact that visitors get a loaf of homemade bread baked by one of the congregants . . . and a hand-knitted pot holder.

A&R’s meaty rib tips

A&R Bar-B-Que

Next stop was a place that’s been around a couple of decades, but I’m embarrassed to write that I had never of A&R until very recently. We lucked out in many ways because we beat the afternoon rush by a few minutes. We ordered: ½ chicken (dusted with a spice rub), beef brisket (chopped), bologna sandwich, pork spareribs (uncut, dusted with rub, the last half slab, too), rib tips, chopped turkey, smoked turkey sausage, bbq spaghetti (meatless), baked beans, green beans, slaw and fried pickles with a buttermilk ranch dressing dip. We liked the bologna, and the rib tips.

Jim Neely’s Interstate Barbecue

Next up was Interstate Barbecue, another legendary place nearing four decades in business. We were lucky that, thanks to local food writer Jennifer Biggs, Mr. Jim Neely himself, sat down with us, and shared his story.

The full spread we ordered at Neely’s

We ordered: the family platter (beef brisket, pulled pork, hot link, and pork spareribs), bologna (beef and pork), beef ribs, rib tips, BBQ spaghetti (with a little meat), baked beans, potato salad, slaw, white bread, and I got a red drink. The beef ribs were an unexpected item, and Neely says that he was the first one “to have beef anything on the menu in a Memphis barbecue restaurant.” They were surprisingly delightful. Don’t laugh if you live in Texas, these ribs would make you smile. This was the first truly, spicy hot link that I’ve had since I began my research. We also liked the ribs.

Neely’s beef ribs

Also thanks to Jennifer Biggs, we made a side trek to Gibson’s Donuts, and got a mixed dozen. The plain glazed was pretty glorious.

Then, I saw a beacon of light across the street, and it was the neon sign of my favorite fast food chicken: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken! I was in a quandary because I was already stuffed, I really wanted that chicken, but I worried it wouldn’t hold up after being in the fridge and then in my carry-on for the flight to Denver. My inventive friends came up with a solution: vacuum-sealing!! So, I got a half bird, gobbled up a wing, so that I could have an immediate experience. We then went to my new friend’s house, and used their Food Saver. Voila! I now had something that would hold the flavor for months without fear of freezer burn!

Day 3

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner (Marianna, AR)

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner is reportedly the oldest, continuously-operating, black-owned barbecue restaurant in the U.S. It may be the oldest black-owned business in the U.S., period. The menu at Jones is pretty simple: a chopped pork sandwich with or without slaw or purchase by barbecue by the pound. Some days, you might be able to get a hot link, but not today. The sandwich is sliced white bread, a nice layer of chopped pork, topped with slaw and another slice of white bread. You can add a thin peppery sauce if you’d like. I couldn’t help but think of North Carolina as I ate this sandwich. As we were leaving, I overheard a potential customer asking “Do you have any skin today?” Mr. Jones said “No,” and the young woman began to leave. I stopped her and asked what “skin” was. She said it was a special request item that was pork skin that the diner sold in sections, and she loved to break it off and eat it. I’ve definitely got to find out more about that!

Abe’s BBQ (Clarksdale, MS)

The last stop on this research trip was Abe’s in historic, blues-soaked, Clarksdale, Mississippi. This isn’t a black-run restaurant, but it’s a place that I’ve wanted to try for some time. We ordered: chopped barbecue beef, chopped pork, baby back ribs and Delta-style tamales. All were served with a very coarsely-sliced slaw with spices and light vinegar and saltine crackers. We liked the baby back ribs (great flavor) and the tamales (nice and hearty).

At the end of my journey, I offer this BBQ research pro tip: if leaving Memphis with carry-on luggage full of barbecue and Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, put all of your food in a separate bin. You lessen the chance of additional screening, and you might even get a “That’s what’s up!” from the TSA agent.

BBQ Advisory–Bludso’s Bar & Que, Los Angeles, CA

This is a throwback post! I was in Los Angeles last January for the 2018 NAACP Image Awards. My book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinetwas nominated for “Outstanding Literary Work–Non-fiction.” As you probably know, I’m always “researching” soul food and barbecue whenever I travel. My friend, Eddie Gehman Kohan, told me about a place called Bludso’s. By the time I got to LA, the original location in Compton had closed, but there was another location in the city.

 

Here’s my rundown:

Meat

Pork spareribs: a true delight! It was everything I want in a sparerib: tender but with a slightly crunchy exterior, and a wonderful smoky flavor.

Beef brisket: If the option is available, I always get a mix of lean and moist (fatty) brisket slices. It too was tender, and had a good smoky flavor.

Hot link and jalapeno cheddar sausage: These were also tasty. The jalapeno cheddar sausage had a nice kick, and I love that the cheese was oozing out as I bit into it.

Sides

Baked beans: Pretty standard, and wonderfully spiked with small chunks of brisket.

Collards–With so many restaurants serving vegetarian greens, I was surprised to find nice, delicious bits of pork to season this dish. Very solid culinary performance.

Potato salad: This version is creamier than what one might expect, headed in the direction of mashed potatoes. I like mine a little chunkier, but this was fine nonetheless.

Cornbread: a nice sweet, soulful cornbread.

Drinks

Cheerwine: This cherry-flavored drink is a local favorite in North Carolina.

Hibiscus agua fresca: My heart leapt for joy when I saw this on the menu. Hisbicus drinks connect this African diaspora, but in the U.S., they are more associated with herbal tea companies and Latinx. Hibiscus is native to West Africa, and is used to make a popular drink called bissap. As a consequence of the Atlantic Slave Trade, that drink was transplanted in the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica, where it is known as sorrel. As it spread throughout the region and was embraced by Latinx, it became agua de Jamaica (literally “Jamaica water”). It has a tart cranberry taste that is mellowed out with some sweetener. This is a WONDERFUL soft drink, and I hope that you will try it.

Dessert

Chocolate chess pie: As Nancie McDermott writes in her authoritative book Southern Pieschess pies are similar to custard pies and are “a luscious combination of eggs, butter, and something truly sweet, such as molasses, sorghum syrup, or brown or white sugar.”

Sweet potato burnt sugar ice cream: Just like a dream. I was expecting a heavy-handed approach with this ice cream, but the flavors are subtle. A great way to end my meal.

I highly recommend this place!

Bludso’s Bar & Cue
609 N. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036

 

My First Tastes of Brooklyn Kosher Barbecue

Me and Andrew Newman

The first time that I’d heard about kosher barbecue was in the context of the annual kosher barbecue contests held around the U.S. I didn’t know that more kosher barbecue restaurants are opening up across the country as well. I was in New York City a few months ago, and my friend Andrew Newman hipped me to a couple of spots in Brooklyn. I owe him everything for this excellent “taste” of kosher barbecue.

Our first stop was Izzy’s Brooklyn Smokehouse.

Izzy’s website indicates that it is supervised by OK Kosher Certification which is practically next door. Izzy’s isn’t a huge place, but I liked  the feel of it when we entered.

Knowing that we had another spot to hit, Andrew and I ordered enough food to get a good sampling.

Izzy’s assertively adopts a central Texas barbecue aesthetic with the tin rectangular plates, butcher paper and pickle condiments. The sliced, beef brisket had a nice smoky flavor, the burnt ends (a daily special) were fantastic, but I really liked the smoked fried chicken sandwich: a nicely seasoned crust, and lightly smoked meat. I could definitely grub on that for a long time!

Izzy’s Brooklyn Smokehouse
397 Troy Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

Next up was Main House BBQ. It took awhile to get there (I had no idea Brooklyn is so big), but it was definitely worth the wait.

Main House BBQ

Main House BBQ is a spacious location, and it has a casual feel. Though the décor doesn’t scream central Texas, the plating does: tin rectangular plates, butcher papers with sliced pickles served on the side.

Lots of tempting options here, but we ordered:

The beef brisket was solid with nice smoke and seasoning, and the house-smoked pastrami was transcendent! That’s the definite thing to get if you only had one choice. The cornbread was soulful which means it was on the sweet side. I really wanted to try the “Sloppy Yosef” sandwich (sauoy burnt ends with pickles/slaw), if only for the name, but I was already pretty stuffed. Next time!

Main House BBQ
6001 Strickland Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11234