Sunday, April 4, 2010

On the Road: Southern BBQ

A few weeks back, my work travels took me to Charlotte, NC followed by a nice couple of days in Memphis, TN with a quick jaunt up to Jonesboro, AR thrown in between.  Naturally, I did what any man who loves southern food would do - I ate BBQ.  Every.  Single.  Day.

I arrived in Charlotte on a Saturday morning to help one of my customers prepare for a trade show.  I had worked this same show last year and remembered it was a good 20 minutes outside the city.  Without a car, I was limited for eating options but I remembered having some decent 'cue at a chain called Smoky Bones that was right across the street from my hotel.  An industry buddy of mine that I'd met the year before at this show was there again so we decided to head over to Smoky Bones for lunch and then made a return visit on Sunday for dinner.  The ribs at Smoky Bones are pretty good but not awe inspiring.  They give you a choice of BBQ sauces on the side, one being a sweet BBQ sauce and the other a mustard based sauce.  I love mustard based BBQ sauce and this sauce was pretty good and made a tender, moist pulled pork that much better.  They do a nice side of grilled corn at Smoky Bones with char marks on the kernels and a little mesquite flavor added.  It was nice to have a BBQ option close by, made even better with good, friendly service and decent pricing.

After surviving a scary but surprisingly tame car accident involving my cab and an 18-wheeler, I was on my way to Memphis.  I rented a car and drove up to Jonesboro, AR to see some good customers.  Did you know Arkansas is responsible for 48% of rice production in the United States?  Rice paddies are strewn throughout the land as I observed on my drive North from Memphis to Jonesboro.  Yup, lots of farmland there.  After meeting with a few customers, I was starving.  That's when I looked up and saw this sign...

 Bar-B-Que + Pig = Awesome

The word "Bar-B-Que" and a picture of a pig was all I needed to know that I'd probably be in good hands at Couch's Bar-B-Que.  I was a little surprised to find a lone woman inside setting tables when I walked in around 4pm (very late lunch).  She said it was just about to get busy and she was right.  I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and went with her recommendation on getting it piled with slaw.

Pulled Pork sandwich @ Couch's, Paragould, AR

The pork wasn't smothered in BBQ sauce, rather lightly spritzed with a somewhat spicy vinegar based sauce like one might expect to find in North Carolina.  I liked it.  A lot.  It really allowed the flavor of the pork to shine.  The slaw was a great call too, providing a nice crunchy texture and a contrasting cool to the spicy sauce that I was now squirting onto each bite.  After downing some unsweetened tea (I can't do sweet tea, regardless of how prevalent it is in the South.  It's just too sweet for me.) and a side of fried zucchini that was pretty good for being previously frozen, I headed on my way back to Memphis.

I had told my Dad I was looking forward to BBQ and live blues in Memphis and, being the great Dad that he is, he did some research for me.  He found out that Corky's BBQ had won best BBQ ribs in Memphis for the past 21 years!  Naturally, I had to check it out.

The location on Poplar Ave in Memphis is the original Corky's location, with additional locations that have taken root in Cordova and Collierville.  It was a Monday night around 8pm when I walked through the door and the place was packed!  "This must be some good 'cue", I thought to myself.  As luck would have it, a bar seat opened up immediately at the packed bar and I capitalized on my good fortune by hopping in the saddle and ordering a Sam Adams Nobel Pils.  Latty, the Bartender, was friendly as hell.  He offered me a menu and let me browse a minute before asking if it was my first visit to Corky's.  When I replied that it indeed was my first visit, he pointed to the pulled pork and ribs combo and said, "That is what you're having and you're getting the ribs with the rub.  No sauce."  I loved the confidence and went with it.

While I waited for my dinner at the bar, Latty pointed out to me and some other bar folk that there was a birthday in the dining room and that meant that Kelly would be singing Happy Birthday.  Sure enough, a waitress named Kelly asked for the crowd to say "Happy Birthday" and then be quiet so she could sing it.  Everyone got a kick out of that.  We said our part and then Kelly belted out a killer version of the Happy Birthday song.  Latty remarked that one of the great things about working at Corky's was that they encourage everyone to be themselves.  It was clear this was no problem for Kelly the waitress.

The birthday song was a nice prelude to the tasty notes that would soon be doing a jig on my palate.  My plate arrived with a 1/2 rack of ribs, pulled pork smothered in Corky's BBQ sauce, slaw, and corn on the cob.  I attacked the ribs first and immediately noticed the smoky aroma of the meat along with the spices of the dry rub.  The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender but not sloppy at all and your could really taste the flavor of the pork itself.  The dry rub added an awesome punch of flavor, enhancing every bite.  After mowing down about half of my ribs, I noticed that the pulled pork was a little lonely and gave it a try.  The pork was super tender but I didn't like the sauce.  For one, there was too much of it and it overpowered the flavor of the pork.  Second, the sauce was just too sweet for me.  Next time, I'd order it sans sauce and maybe add some of Corky's Spicy BBQ sauce which seemed less sweet.  Overall, it was a kickass meal and the ribs really blew me away.  Having eaten a fair share of ribs in my life, I feel confident saying that Corky's BBQ ribs are the best I've ever had.

 photo courtesy: "zeller" on Panoramio

Latty had made me promise that if I had time for a lunch stop on Tuesday, that I would try Gus' Famous Fried Chicken, claiming it to be the best fried chicken in the world.  When my 1pm meeting was moved to 3pm, I made good on that promise.

Lots of people waiting 30+ minutes for a table says something...

Latty had warned that I'd better have a substantial amount of time for lunch since the popularity of Gus' sometimes meant a 30+ minute wait for a table to open up and then another 30 minutes for your food to arrive.  He also advised that service can be somewhat non-existent but I didn't have a problem with it at all.  I checked in with the guy at the counter and he said I was lucky for two reasons: they had just sat a bunch and I was next on the list and he and I shared the same name so he wouldn't forget who was up next.  A few tables opened up and I grabbed one.  I ordered an unsweetened iced tea, the best I'd had yet on my trip, and then ordered the fried chicken breast along with sides of slaw and baked beans.  Twenty minutes and an iced tea later, my fried chicken plate arrived.

Crappy iPhone pic of a slightly dominated fried chicken plate @ Gus' Famous Fried Chicken

The chicken was fortified by a crisp exterior that held together nicely (rather than crumbling like some fried chicken can) and the meat was tender, releasing a little steam with each bite.  The breading mix was slightly spicy with the flavor of the spice gaining heat as I continued to eat but I don't think it was spicy enough to scare off a person who doesn't like spicy food.  I liked the baked beans.  They were smokey and not too sweet.  The slaw had an incredibly fresh flavor and texture.  I loved it even if it was a bit runnier than I usually prefer.  All of this food came at a price tag of around $10 and I'm pretty sure that included tip.  It was a great lunch.

Later that night I ventured down to historic Beale Street to check out Blues City Cafe which is down by the Mississippi River that divides Tennessee and Arkansas.  Lots of blues history on this street and lots of blues bars.  Even B.B. King is in on the action with a blues bar bearing his name.  I met some local guys at the bar and we talked as they demolished some ribs.  When I asked if the ribs were any good, one guy said, "Maaaan, did you see how fast we just demolished that plate?"  So, my decision was made.  Ribs.  Again.  The ribs were covered in a sweet sauce that, once again, I found a little too sweet.  The slaw and corn was pretty good though.

(A brief sidebar here...  The two dudes I met at the bar were the 5th and 6th locals to tell me that, while Corky's had won best BBQ ribs for the past 21 years, they favored Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous.  In fact, every local I asked said to go there.  Mr. Vergos passed away as a barbecue legend a few days after I left town.  This is a must try on my next visit.  For what it's worth, both ship their famous ribs all over the country, to which Latty at Corky's attested that they keep their awesomeness even when cooked at home.  I'd rather be there though.)

After dinner, I headed over to The Band Box part of Blues City Cafe where a band was covering Johnny Cash and Elvis on stage.  That's not what I was looking for so I strolled down Beale in search of some down and dirty blues.  About 2 joints down is where I heard the wail of a harmonica coming from Blues Hall Juke Joint and I knew I'd found my spot for the night.  The lead singer cranked on the harmonica and a guy who was in the audience got up and melted my face off with a killer solo during one of the tunes.  I now understood why they call Memphis the "home of the blues and the birthplace of rock n' roll".

As I made my way to the airport the following morning, I thought about the great time I'd had in Memphis.  It's a fun city with a lot of American history and spirit, especially when it comes to food and music.  I also really enjoyed seeing the diversity of the city.  Memphis was definitely my favorite stop.  It was a productive work trip and a nice time away from Miami.  I sampled some great barbecue and met a lot of really cool people while learning about each city and it's history.  I'm hopeful that my travels will take me back to Memphis someday to explore and taste more of what the city has to offer.

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