Travel eats: Barbecue sings the blues — on Beale Street

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Beale Street: Home of the blues and some great grub too.

Former Restaurant News writer Kathy Passage writes about her food adventure in Memphis.

Pork. It’s why I can never become a vegetarian. There I’ve said it, not ashamed to admit I’ve never found anything that quite replicates a texture, taste and aroma of bacon sizzling in the skillet. I adore pork chops. I could write poetry about my favorite pulled pork and odes to all the barbecue joints I’ve frequented.

I accompanied my son Nick Baker to Memphis last week for the “IBC,” which stands for International Blues Competition, held in Memphis, but also means “International BBQ Capital” — and I believe Beale Street establishments have a firm grip on that title.

Passing by Rum Boogie Cafe.

Even in cold, wintry January, a stroll down the iconic street was a full sensory experience. Delicious aromas floated in the air, grabbed one by the nose, so to speak. As we passed establishments with names like Rum Boogie and Club 152, we hummed along on the music, boogied to the beat, literally danced right in the door.  Clubs, bars, schools, churches — every property sported equipment to grill or smoke meat. Imagine mid-summer when every shiny black barbecue smoker is employed to produce levels of smoke particulates equal to pre-EPA air quality in Los Angeles.

Friends who’d been to past competitions gave us recommendations, and since we were only in town for two full days we had to make every bite count.

Breakfast at our hotel, the Doubletree, launched our foray into southern style breakfast.

No limp pink slabs in the chafing-dishes — it was crisp bacon and bone-in slices of ham browned in the skillet to accompany the grits, biscuits and gravy at breakfast buffet. Perfection.

We had an ability to customize our eggs each morning. Grits pretty much required over-easy eggs, to blend all that lovely golden liquor into the pale mounds of fluffy white grits.

Day two was an omelet, which I’m proud to say had greater proportions of vegetables than meat. The skilled chef coated the skillet with just enough egg to stretch around and contain cheese and the holy trinity of Cajun cooking — onions, bell peppers and celery — with a few little tidbits of pork tucked in for good measure.

Pork is at home on Beale Street.

The proper name of the restaurant we dined at is Pig on Beale, but it is know by locals as “pork with an attitude.” If you were slow-roasted all night and told you were perfect, you’d have an attitude too!

The menu echoes the sentiment.

Appetizers appealed — From barbecue pork nachos, chicken or pulled pork nachos, pork rinds and onion rings, to mozzarella cheese sticks. And there were plenty of sides, followed by sandwiches. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, chicken…barbecued or not?

There’s “Regular” pork barbecue, “Jumbo” pork barbecue, smoked chicken, smoked turkey. Wow — their shiny black unit must run full time!

The Full Deal Platter

Plates include a complete barbecue pork dinner, ditto one with smoked chicken — legs and thighs. But then my eyes drifted over to the other side of the page, which listed all the choices, plus barbecued ribs. Bingo — a platter containing a large rack of ribs and a complete barbecue sampler got my vote. With three other individuals to help me taste all of this wonderful fare, sides of barbecued beans, coleslaw and onion rings had to be sampled — along with, of course, a slice of pecan pie for dessert.

Attitude for sure, and not just the pig.

“I’d like the whole left side of the menu…please.”  Another friend popped in and joined our table.

Pecan pie for dessert

Our waitress didn’t miss a beat — she just grinned. “Would you like some of that to go?”

All cuts of pork and other meat, too, were served up grilled, coated with a dry rub before the trip to the coals. Patrons are left to avail themselves of the wet sauce in large plastic bottles on the tables.

Hmmm, only one choice of sauce? We all agreed it was great. A “Carolina-style” barbecue fan, I missed the vinegary/mustard taste with my pork, but enjoyed the tomato-based, spicy flavor –not too hot, or too sweet

Portions were generous on all meat items, but all of us were dismayed at the tiny portions of the sides. Slaw (heavy on the mayo in the dressing to boot) and baked beans (tangy and well-seasoned at least), seemed insignificant presented on the large platter of ribs, pulled pork and chicken thighs. The obligatory slices of soft, white sandwich bread were all that was left on the large platter by the end of the meal.

Pulled pork and fries

Onion rings were more generous and we all were able to crunch on the tasty tubes of crust that surrounded soft rings of onion. Fries that accompanied the Pulled Pork sandwich were a generous pile and the crispy sticks quickly disappeared.

There were two local beers on tap – we sampled both. Ghost River’s Golden Ale was light and not fussy — it went with everything on the table. Memphis Made’s Fireside had more heft, malty and robust. This delicious amber ale pairs with a wide variety of food, including chicken, burgers and spicy cuisine…and barbecue, of course.

Not pretentious, just great food.

Standard issue in a basket at the door is white waxed paper sleeve containing one white plastic fork, one white plastic knife, and a foiled square containing a wet wipe. Could one use a fork and knife for grilled meat? Yep. Meats and ribs are “fork tender” and easily succumb to pressure of this tiny tableware. A roll of paper towels on the table sufficed to protect clothes from dripping ribs or other fare. Beer is served up in plastic cups.

Based on others’ reports, I’ll say it is difficult to get a bad meal in any of the spots on Beale Street. Even the kitchens at our hotel, manned by Friday’s Restaurant, turned out fare that had the “Memphis” taste profile down pat.

Need to do a return trip and get into neighborhoods with names like “Soulsville” — during summer, when grills and smokers, located at every corner, are going full tilt.

— By Kathy Passage

A specialty gourmet food broker for over 30 years, Edmonds resident Kathy Passage has in-depth knowledge on food and the special qualities of ingredients used in the exquisite products she helped bring to market.

 

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