Pork Paradise

While driving down Poplar Avenue, a little over an hour after arriving in the wonderful city of Memphis for our annual Spring Break trip, a small SUV passed us on the right. Among the ten or twelve bumper stickers plastered across the back of the bright blue vehicle, one immediately caught our eyes. It said “MEAT IS GROSS”. I looked over at the driver and said, “No. No, meat is wonderful. While I respect your right to have an opinion, in this case you are just wrong. We just drove FOUR hours in order to spend FOUR days consuming as much barbecued meat as humanly possible in the world capital of smoked pork. Meat is most certainly NOT gross!”

Of course, no one heard me say any of this besides my wife, who just giggled and rolled her eyes.

We decided to begin this year’s visit with a quick stop at Leonard’s Pit Barbecue for a hearty meal before checking into our hotel downtown. We had been to Leonard’s before, but only for the buffet. We ordered off the menu this time – and in a rare move, we ended up ordering the exact same thing; the rib and pork shoulder combo platters. We also ordered a basket of onion rings for an appetizer, which honestly was a mistake on our part. They were delicious, but there were too many of them and our bodies just aren’t used to that much fried food. We barely ate half of the basket.

The ribs were very good, but not quite knock-your-socks-off good. We ordered them dry, and they were tender and juicy. I only had two complaints; first, even though it had a very visible pink smoke ring, I didn’t get a strong smoky flavor from the meat. My second complaint was with the rub. It was very seasoned-salt heavy which really made it a bit too salty for my taste. The pork shoulder was better though. Probably the best bite I had was when I made my own slider by piling some of the meat on a small dinner roll with a little of their sauce and a fork-full of slaw. It was an overall above-average barbecue meal, even with my few minor complaints.

We then made our way to our hotel and finished the night off with a high-energy Red Hot Chili Peppers concert at the FedEx Forum. I’m sure that helped us work off any excess calories we consumed with those onion rings (not).

On day two, we started early with a quick sandwich at what is apparently a Memphis institution, but one we had never actually tried, Tops BBQ. I learned quickly that there is a reason they’ve been around for 60 years and have 14 locations – and it’s definitely NOT the service, which was frankly rude and impatient. Fortunately the food made up for it. It was an honest-to-goodness Memphis-style BBQ sandwich served lightning fast. It was a nice way to start the day.

Later on we found our way to Cozy Corner, another place we had been to before, but just had to try again. I ordered the large rib plate and she got the Cornish hen – then we split the meat so that we could each try both. They don’t serve their meat dry, which I prefer, but instead covered in their signature sweet and spicy sauce (more spicy than sweet actually, which works for me). I will say this – if I have to eat “wet” ribs, these are the ones I want! Both entrees were outstanding – even if they’re impossible to eat with even an ounce of decorum.

We laid pretty low on Saturday, choosing instead to walk around downtown, make the obligatory trip up Beale Street, and ride the trolley around the loop before enjoying a large mid-day meal at one of our favorite que joints; Charlie Vegos’ Rendezvous. Unlike some people, we like the fact that there are virtually no choices at the ‘Vous. We want ribs and they come dry (just like we like them), there’s no such thing as unsweetened tea, and every meal is served with slaw & beans (period). But it has yet to disappoint us.

Before heading home on Sunday, we had to try somewhere we had never been, so on the advice of the blogger over at Memphis Que, we went to a place we might’ve passed right by otherwise; Double J Smokehouse & Saloon. It’s not just “new” to the Memphis barbecue landscape, it just officially opened in March – but it was immediately obvious that they knew what they were doing. I ordered ribs (duh) and the wife got pork steak. I am usually suspicious of too many options at a place that is supposed to be a BBQ joint, fearing that what I’m there for will suffer from lack of attention. But that wasn’t the case at the Double J. Everything we had there was amazing, from the BBQ Egg Rolls appetizer to the grilled asparagus. But the star of the show, as it should be, was the meat. The ribs were tender and juicy. I could be wrong, but I think they were a different, slightly fattier cut than most of the ribs in town which gave it kind of a bacon flavor – not that I’m complaining. And the pork steak was equally tender and delicious. What a great way to end our 2012 spring break!

Of course, we also went to two Redbirds ballgames, and though they lost both nights, we did get to partake in one of the best reasons to go to AutoZone Park – Rendezvous BBQ Nachos. We have always just got the standard pulled pork ones in the past so we decided to mix it up by ordering the smoked sausage one night and the pulled chicken the next. Both were amazing. That’s right, we ate barbecue in one form or another seven times in four days.

So, NO – meat is absolutely NOT gross.

Especially in Memphis.

The Annual Pilgrimage

The eleventh all-time most popular search term that brings people to my blog is “Memphis”. Actually, if you combine it with searches for “Memphis Tennessee” it jumps up to number seven, right after “Cassoulet Forever”.

I guess that’s not really surprising since I have written 21 different posts and one whole page with a Memphis tag.

Anyone that knows me knows that the “Home of the Blues & Birthplace of Rock & Roll” is one of my favorite destinations.

“If Music was a religion, then Memphis would be Jerusalem and Sun Studio its most holy shrine.” So once a year, my wife and I make a pilgrimage to the slow-smoked Mecca of western Tennessee to commune with the saints (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, etc.) and partake in the Eucharist of barbeque ribs and sweet tea.

It has become one of our personal traditions. And at long last, the time for 2010 has arrived. Only one more day of work and we will be driving south.

When we return, there will be stories to tell (there always are), pictures to develop (my wife calls me “Ansel”), diets to resume (but it’s SO worth it), and memories to hold us over until the next trip.

In the meantime, here’s another blog post tagged affectionately “Memphis”.

Hungry?

Tom's BBQ & DeliOne of the stops on our barbecue agenda this year was a little joint on the edge of an industrial park called Tom’s BBQ & Deli. Since we typically only eat one real meal a day on vacation, it ends up being at odd hours when the restaurants aren’t too busy. So when we entered the little red shack at the corner of Getwell & Raines, the lady at the counter asked if this was our first time at Tom’s. We replied with an affirmative, “yup”, which immediately prompted a rousing chorus of “THEY’RE NEW” across the kitchen. We talked to what we presumed to be someone of authority at the counter for a few minutes and explained to them that we come to Memphis once a year and always seek out a barbecue joint that we haven’t tried. We chose them as one of our stops this time because we had seen them featured on the food network’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, which he referred to as “Triple D”. They mumbled something about hooking us up as we meandered towards the “Pick Up” end of the counter. When they brought the trays out, there were the two plates that we had ordered, ribs and rib tips with two side dishes each, plus a pulled pork sandwich, a beef brisket sandwich, some smoked bologna (aka Tennessee Round-Steak), a cup of each of their three sauces and two deserts. And on top of that, they didn’t charge us for our drinks! We had a mountain of food, more than we could possibly dream of eating, for less than $20. Our conclusion; Tom’s tries to kill newcomers. Haven’t quite figured out why yet though.

And as far as the food goes, it was all excellent! The ribs, though not my favorite cut, were meaty and cooked perfectly. The rub was complex and flavorful without being overpowering. The brisket, shoulder and bologna were all great. The sauce was sweeter than I normally like but otherwise good. The sides were inconsequential, with that much meat we barely ate them anyway. But the standout was the rib tips. They call the particular cut they use “button bone” which is right where the rib meets the loin, and the meat is actually closer to loin. They are nowhere near as fatty as most of the rib tips in town, and there’s just something about that meat that really absorbs the flavors of the rub and smoke. They were “off the hook” as Triple D’s Guy Fieri would say!

I feel like I need to only eat salad and raw veggies for the rest of the week to make up for all of it. In Memphis, for those who aren’t familiar, the only vegetable you can get most of these places is slaw, and it’s usually piled on top of your sandwich. Meanwhile, I am still eating the leftovers today for lunch. Not that I’m complaining.

Tom's Barbecue & Deli on Urbanspoon

The Killer B’s

On Wednesday the great Memphis Barbeque Tour continues! For those who don’t know, the wife and I take an annual trip to Memphis during her Spring Break to enjoy all of the big B’s: Barbeque (Memphis is the home of the best BBQ in the world), Baseball (Cardinals AAA affiliate Memphis Redbirds), Beale Street & the Blues. I occasionally also partake of a beer or two, and sometimes, if the weather is nice enough, we even visit the Botanical Gardens.

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I always look forward to our Spring Break trips; not really a full-fledged vacation, but better than a weekend getaway. I love the way Memphis seems to revolve around music. The sign on the way into town says, “Home of the Blues – Birthplace of Rock N’ Roll“. And it’s true; there is always music in the air everywhere you go. Plus we are self-proclaimed BBQ Snobs. We always try to hit one of our favorites, usually the Rendezvous, and at least two places we haven’t tried yet. Here’s where we’ve been so far in no particular order (at least the ones we can remember);

And we’ve loved them all. Some were better than others. Some were in fairly scary locations. But we’ve never had bad, or even mediocre barbeque anywhere in Memphis. Among the ones that we haven’t tried yet are Marlowe’s, Tom’s, Leonard’s Downtown, Pig -N- Whistle, A & R, and Tops. So if anyone has any recommendations, we are always open to suggestion.

The Parable of the Panhandler & the Pimp

We drove to Memphis on Thursday and arrived around 3:00pm. So after checking in to the hotel, we decided to stay close to that neighborhood rather than venturing out very far. And since our hotel was directly across handouts don’t help!the street from both the Redbirds’ ballpark and the Peabody hotel, a mere two blocks off of Beale, it wasn’t difficult to find something to do. We started by grabbing a meal at the Rendezvous followed by a pit-stop in the room to wash up. Then we headed to Beale Street to see what was going on, where we spent most of our time in a bar watching and laughing at a really bad Elvis impersonator / lounge singer!

But on the way there, on the sidewalk that runs beside the Peabody, we passed a very nicely dressed older lady holding her wallet wide open while fishing through it to give the panhandler standing in front of her a handout. The guy’s eyes were wide with anticipation as he stared at the wad of cash being exposed in front of him. We slowed our pace to covertly keep an eye on the transaction just in case something happened. Luckily it didn’t. He accepted the handout & they quickly separated, so we continued our walk. It became immediately apparent though that we were the panhandler’s next targets. I watched as he power-walked directly toward us. I motioned to the wife to cross the street in order to see if he would follow, which of course he did.

For the rest of the city block the three of us had an uncomfortable conversation consisting of fake names, home-towns & motivations – on both of our parts. We were Allen & Gertrude from Chicago visiting relatives. He never said his name, but he was from New Orleans displaced to Memphis by Katrina and really only wanted six bucks so that he could get some hot wings at Hooters which was there on the corner. (That’s right; he expected a handout so that he could go to Hooters!) But when Gertrude mentioned that we had seen the lovely lady back there give him some money and why couldn’t he get his wings with that, he replied that she was only giving him the twelve dollars he needed to stay at the shelter that night. (A shelter that charges a nightly rate? Maybe I’m the naïve one, but I had never heard of that before.) Anyway, we walked & talked for what seemed like several more minutes before he finally realized that we weren’t going to give him a dime & ran down the alley in search of his next target.

Honestly, if I had had a few bucks in my pocket, I would’ve probably given it to him if for no other reason than to get him to leave us alone. But I certainly wasn’t going to flip my wallet out in front of him, especially since we had just been to the bank to get money for the trip and that it would be too easy for him, if he were so inclined, to grab it out of my hands and run. It’s not like my old fat body could’ve caught him! But that wasn’t the end of the story.

The next morning, as we were waiting for the valet to bring our car around (not a word – it was one of the only hotels with any vacancy that weekend & valet was the only option for parking! Fifteen extra bucks per night – I wasn’t very happy) I stepped out of the door to see what the weather was like & looked out toward the street. And there he was. Mr. Hooters Hurricane right there on the street corner, but not in his bum clothes. Nope; that morning he was all pimped-out in a shirt and tie, brown tweed sport coat, sunglasses & a fashionable wooden-handle umbrella that he seemed to be using as an accessory. He looked back down the alley at one point, noticed us, and for some reason quickly ducked around the corner of the building! I can’t imagine why. (cough cough…)

I had heard stories like that before and had probably questioned their authenticity at the time, but nothing quite like that had ever happened to me. It’s not up to me to decide when someone asks for help, who is sincere and who is just taking advantage of unsuspecting tourists. But the audacity of this guy to hang out just half a block from the street he was “working” the night before was just astounding to us both. I want to be a generous man. I want to help those less fortunate than myself. And God has blessed me with the means to do so. But when something like this happens, it just reaffirms my own skepticism and cynicism towards the whole mess of our society. Is it possible to be philanthropic and be so totally untrusting simultaneously? I don’t know.

So did I learn anything in the process, besides to be even more skeptical of anyone asking for a handout than I already was? Maybe not. But at least I got a good story out of it, right?

Monday Miscellany

Memphis BBQ 2008

 

 Back From Memphis:

Four BBQ joints later (I think we’re que’d out for a while)! It was a nice trip over-all, barring the rain Saturday & Sunday. The ballgame was good, even though it was odd to be at a game with no one specific to root for. The people in front of us, also Cardinal fans, decided to root for the Mets because they were a National League team. We however decided to root for the WhiteSox just because of our animosity toward that other Chicago team. ;) We also visited STAX Records which, while very cool as far as their collection & presentation is concerned, was slightly disappointing compared to Sun Studios because it is not the original structure. The original studio was demolished in 1989 and the “replica” was built on the same location fourteen years later to serve as a museum & music academy, so you just don’t get that same sense of awe. I’m glad I can say that I’ve been there, but I can’t say that we will return.

I will have at least one more Memphis story to share later this week. It will be worth the wait, but I need to figure out if I learned anything from the experience first.

 

Side Note From Sun:

Hey Art: we stopped at Sun Studios before heading home yesterday, not to take the tour again, but just because we were looking for something for our daughter. And guess who I met? Your tour guide from your visit last year – tattoo & all! I didn’t say anything or ask to see the ink in question; I just kind of chuckled under my breath thinking about how I had to tell you when we got back!

 

St. Jude Visit & Devan Update:

We spent quite a bit of time Friday on the St. Jude campus. That was certainly awe inspiring. We took the tour first before finding & spending time with Devan and his family. The work that that hospital is able to do is just unimaginable. There just aren’t words to describe it that would do it justice.

Devan is actually doing much better. By the time we saw him he had been released from ICU and was preparing to continue his chemo treatments. He was however still in isolation, which basically means he’s not allowed to play with the other kids because he is still testing positive for traces of RSV. He’s staying in the “Grizzlies House” on campus which is essentially a small apartment where the kids can stay with their parents and still be within reach of the main hospital building. It was really quite nice considering. He is obviously very weak and wobbly from the treatments and his little head is almost completely bald, but he seemed to be in pretty good spirits. He lit up when he saw Leah & while looking through all of the stuff her class had sent him. It was nice to hear him laugh and act silly. He got up several times while we there to walk around the table and hug Leah. If this had been the only thing we had done in Memphis, it would’ve been worth the trip.

Thanks for all of your thoughts and prayers – they have certainly not been in vain. Please continue as the treatment plan for this type of leukemia spans approximately two years, but the survival rate, at least at St. Jude, is 94%!

 

Opening Day:

Today is officially Major League Baseball’s 2008 Season Opening Day. The Cardinals are hosting the Colorado Rockies this afternoon if they can squeeze it in between rain showers as the forecast is predicting. Opening Day used to be kind of my family’s own holiday. My wife & I attended every home opener together beginning in 1998, just before we married, until they made the tickets just too hard and too expensive to get. This is the second year we have been unable to attend. It is disappointing, but until they make ticket buying more fair we will have to live with watching it from the comfort of our living room. I might still be wearing the foam finger regardless!

cardinals foam finger

Mid-Week Rambling, aka “ADD Wednesday”

This will probably be my only post this week, not because I’m unmotivated or melancholy, but because I’m trying to squeeze a week’s worth of work into about two and a half days. I had a doctor appointment yesterday afternoon, and we’re leaving for Memphis in the morning. So, there just hasn’t been time. I probably don’t even have time to write this one.

 

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Speaking of the place Elvis called home, our discussion a few weeks ago regarding a Friday Five of “City Songs” prompted me to compile a large playlist of songs with the word “Memphis” in the title. I will be burning it as a CD today with which to drive the wife nuts during the 4 hour road trip tomorrow! I love it! She probably won’t. Thanks for everybody’s unintentional help!

Also while in the home of the blues and birthplace of rock & roll, we will be visiting Devan, for whom I have requested prayer lately. He is still at St. Jude’s. The last we heard, the chemo treatments were working for the Leukemia, but were wreaking havoc with his immune system, which in turn allowed him to contract pneumonia. He was in the ICU the last time we spoke to his mother. I will know more after our visit. If I have a chance, I will post a short update from the hotel room this weekend.

Monday Miscellany

Oops

I missed last week’s Lenten Prayer entry. It was a tough week for me in the office & by the time I remembered about the prayer – I choked. Not that I’m trying to make excuses or anything! (cough) I will try to add two this week to make up for it. And I apologize for letting that of all things slip.

Baseball After All

As my wife & I were preparing for our annual Spring Break trip to Memphis, we realized that we wouldn’t be able to do one of our regular activities. We always try to catch at least one Memphis Redbirds (The St. Louis Cardinals AAA affiliate) game at Autozone Park. But unfortunately this year Spring Break falls the week prior to the beginning of their season opener. Needless to say, we were terribly disappointed. HOWEVER; we just discovered that we WILL be able to attend a ball game after all! It just so happens that while we’re down there, Autozone Park will be hosting the second annual Civil Rights Game, which “pays tribute to one of our country’s most significant eras of social change and honors Major League Baseball’s involvement in the historic struggle through which legendary African-American players broke barriers and made important contributions to American society.” (quoted from official MLB press release.) It’s not the Cardinals or the Redbirds unfortunately. Instead it is the Chicago White Sox & the New York Mets. But at least we can still look forward to some baseball!

I Don’t Feel Very Stimulated

Like many other Americans, Friday I received a letter in the mail explaining (in a very poor way) the free money that the Government just decided to mail to us on a whim – you know, since we’re not in, or headed for, a recession. (right?)

Click HERE to read an interesting article about why President Bush’s Economic Stimulus Package not only won’t work, but why we shouldn’t want it to.

What’s on the iPod?

I’ve never been much on history museums, being drawn more to living things; zoos, aquariums, gardens. But on my first visit to Sun Studios in Memphis, TN a few years ago, I got the distinct impression I was walking into a holy place. The energy from all of the musicians that passed through before was palpable! Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison, and of course Memphis’ most famous resident, Elvis Presley all stood right there & recorded some of the best music ever; music that changed the landscape of popular music if not the world. Some people think the biggest draw to Memphis is Graceland. They’re wrong. It’s the barbeque ribs… followed closely by Sun Studios.

Elvis at Sun Record CompanyThis collection of recordings from Elvis’ Memphis sessions is far from the most complete version, but having been recently remastered it is a must-have for fans of Elvis, rockabilly… heck, just music-in-general!

Before his breakout year of 1956; before he started down the slippery slope fueled by money, fame, & drugs; before the spangled jumpsuits, weight gain & the lights of Vegas, Elvis was just a country-boy truck driver that wanted to make some music for his Momma’s birthday. This is the result! The tiny spark that started the forest fire. Elvis at Sun. Now that’s some Good Rockin’ Tonight!