Thursday, February 7, 2008
Alcenia's Home Cooking is Better Than A Lot of Memphis Barbecue.
When you tell someone you're going to Memphis -- with no other added information -- they're probably going to assume one of two things: that you're going to visit Graceland, or that you're going for the barbeque.
Actually, that's quite a generalization. In my three years in Jonesboro in the mid-90s, I traveled to Memphis numerous times -- to visit friends or to enjoy the comfort of a good football game and a nice hot bowl of potato soup at T.J. Mulligan's at Kirby and Quince. I didn't make my first pilgrimage to Graceland until 2002, when my mom and brother and I decided it was time to see what all the fuss was about. And why did I need to go to Memphis for barbeque when there was great barbeque right here in Little Rock?
But I do love good food, and during my stay in Memphis in January I made a point of trying out just about anything I could find that wasn't connected with some big national chain.
Of course, I was using the appropriate Memphis tourist book to look for my next location. But when I confessed the reasons for my trip to different people along the way, I kept hearing the same thing.
"Now, if you want the real thing, you don't want to go no over there," a lady at the trolley stop right out front of the Center for Southern Folklore told me. "You want to go see Miss B.J. down at Alcenia's."
"I know you're looking for a good place to review," the nice, white collared guy told me in Swig's Martini Bar, "but you need to check Alcenia's out. It's tacky, but the food is really, really good."
"Yes, Dolores, it was really good fried chicken. We're going back as soon as you get into town," I overheard in A. Schwab's General Store.
"Yes, Mrs. Robinson, it's just down the trolley tracks. I usually go down once or twice a week. The Ghetto-Aid is very, very sweet," said the nice hotel clerk at the Sleep Inn when I asked him about it that particular Wednesday morning.
I almost hopped a trolley from the hotel, but reasoned the day was nice, if a little blustery and cold. I hiked up the scarf around my ears and headed north along Main Street.
The way was buzzing with workers on a construction site, locals trying to walk from car to job, and a few panhandlers. Two of the trolleys passing my way slowed down to see if I was going to jump on, but I waived them off.
It was straight up 11 a.m., so I tapped on the door. A gentle woman came to the front door, peered out, and smiled at me. She let me in and told me I could take my seat at any of the tables.
The color overload was immediate. Alcenia's is decked out in bright colors, lots of plastic, lots of eye-popping things to entertain the brain. From the wicker chairs to the purple plastic tablecloths to the deep orange walls, everything swelled with color. It was like looking into a packet of gumdrops.
Out of the kitchen comes this little powerhouse of a woman. This would be B.J. Chester-Tamayo, the proprietor. She came over to my table, asked me where I was from, and chatted with me for a while. She made sure I had my tea and started telling
B.J. had to make sure to come over and give me a hug and a peck on the cheek. She's an exuberant woman, full of fire and energy and completely genuine.
She ducked back into the back, then poked out and asked if a leg and thigh were all right. Well, of course they were!
While my food was being prepared, I got up and took pictures. A guy came through from the kitchen and started to dismantle the old white aluminum Christmas tree in the window.
stuff. And that bread pudding? I'd been told it'd been voted one of the ten best desserts in Memphis.
And the Ghetto-Aid. Well now. Ghetto-Aid's just Kool-Aid -- that's about twice as sweet. My husband would love this stuff. Me? Not so much. But it is the drink especiale at the restaurant, so if that's your cup of tea (which mine actually was tea), go for it.
A couple of ladies came in and sat down across from me on the other side of the big room. They ordered without looking at the menu. They chatted happily away while our waitress kept an eye on us.
"That may be, but I am sure you're gonna want something to eat those yams with." She chuckled and smiled at me, and poked back into the kitchen.
The chicken was too hot to handle, steamy hot from being fried in a skillet. The aroma was incredible. I used my knife and fork to ply open the thigh and take a picture of the rich meat within. The scent was heady.
But it was the yams that really won my heart.
B.J. came out and asked me if I liked what I had. I told her the truth -- this was the kind of food I'd grown up on, but man -- it was so good.
She laughed heartily, and told me I needed to get over and sign that guest book when I was done -- no hurry! I sat back and consumed my repast, taking my time and listening to the chatter.
The plates at Alcenia's are reasonably priced -- $5-8 for just about anything there. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Friday for lunch and early dinners, and Saturday for breakfast and lunch.
UPDATE: I went back again. Read about it here.