Monday, April 26, 2010

Bill Street - No Blues.

This restaurant has closed. Read about the restaurant in this space now, Buenos Aires Grill & Cafe, here

Is Bill’s Burger Better Than The Bevy of Other Burgers Battling For The Best of Arkansas?  Bill St. in Little Rock’s River Market District is making a run for the title.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

There's barbecue sauce on my notebook.

Pardon the language, but suck it, Mobile. No, I’m not upset. I’m not even slightly irritated. I’m just giving directions on how to eat that fabulous barbecue from The Shed.

Now, before you get your panties in a wad (as Alton Brown once told my husband, no kidding), you need to know something. There is no formality at this joint. No fancy-pants dinnerware, no tablecloths, no fine dining of any sort. There is beer, and a lot of it. There’s a heavy aroma of spice that hangs in the air and never goes away. And there are a hell of a lot of Christmas lights.

But if that’s all you take away from The Shed (BBQ and Blues Joint, in case you were wondering), you’re not getting the whole picture. Heck, you could spend an hour inside and not get the whole picture. Seriously.

Because somehow, some way, you go in and you feel like you’ve walked into a firmly established decades old barbecue shack. There’s memorabilia from all over the place all over the walls and the bars and the ceiling and the tables. And some of those tables are… unique. You can actually sit in a hot tub and eat your barbecue if you want.

Let me start at the start. The Shed was actually started in Ocean Springs, MS -- a completely different place and restaurant. It has plenty of fame itself. In fact, it was featured on The Food Network’s Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins. That’s sorta where the Alabama place got started. Darrin and Jennifer Jasgur (pronounced like Jasper, but with a G) were expecting a little boy over 2008. She saw the show and demanded that Darrin take her there for dinner. Sure enough, that temporarily quelled those pregnancy cravings, so the Jasgurs were on the road three to four times a week. Being pregnant at roughly the same time, I can completely understand this.

Anyway, over those summer and fall months, Darrin got to befriendin’ Brad Orrison, the founder of the original The Shed, and they came up with a plan to bring The Shed to Mobile (and considerably shorten Darrin’s barbecue quest, I’m sure). Darrin and Jennifer’s son Finn was born October 15th of that year, and the restaurant opened December 1st. There you go.

I happened to be there on a gorgeous evening in March 2010... Frankly, when I was told we were going to The Shed I was thinking about Ed’s Shed, the place out in Spanish Fort on Highway 90 that my husband and I had visited several years ago. No barbecue there. Nope, hadn’t heard about The Shed and was interested in the new experience. Besides, barbecue sounded good.

And let me tell you what… barbecue at The Shed is an interesting experience. First off, a good portion of the place is outside, except when the weather’s iffy, then it’s all inside. Huh? Yeah. Sturdy plastic curtains keep out the cold or the rain when the situation warrants. Our group walked in through those big honkin’ curtains and through to the interior of the structure. There wasn’t a table free in sight… at least, not on first inspection. That first free seat I saw was over in a corner… as I previously mentioned, a former hot tub converted to seating for four. Yeah, took me all of 30 seconds to realize the recumbent position the unusual seating placed me in was completely unconductive for barbecue eating, unless I was interested in eating it off my own chest. Went and found a booth instead.

Now, if you go to The Shed, there are a few things you need to know. You go place your order at the bar like everyone else. If you get a non-alcoholic beverage they’ll give you a cup and point you in the general direction of the drink station. If you get a beer you may have to wait a minute for it or it might get brought to you. You order your food whilst you’re there… and when you’re done ordering you go sit. When it’s done, the waitress will holler out the name you have chosen to give them -- and they’ll walk in amongst the tables here and there and find you. Don’t be shy, holler for your big old Styrofoam container. There’s no dishonor in that.

And yes, it will be in Styrofoam, whether you’ve ordered it to stay or to go. The portions are big and they are soft, and sides come along, too. This here’s a barbecue joint, and you’re expected to get a little messy. Don’t fight it.

Now, back to what I told you off the top. Suck it. Seriously. My dining companions were literally picking ribs up out of their containers and sucking off the meat. It was kinda amusing. Talked with pit master Bennett and his assistant Bo, and they both told me it takes about three to four hours of good smoking with pecan wood to get them to that state. Ribs and just about everything else The Shed serves come wet (with the sauce on) -- and if you don’t like it you’d better tell them when they order because they’re not going to dry that meat off for you.

The sauce is sweet and tangy, but also thick, with good notes of pecan and brown sugar and is that molasses? But no one’s telling. It’s peppery, too, and has a nice vinegar smack to it. It’s a damn good sauce. Someone should bottle that stuff. Oh, they do.

I had myself a nice platter of chicken with a side of chicken -- darn my allergies! -- and enjoyed a leg quarter of chicken and a nice order of Chicken Wangs. Now you know me… I take photos of everything I eat. But I couldn’t this time. I took a couple of photos of The Shed Sampler Platter ($18.99) down the table but when I got my Styrofoam clamshell box I dug right in -- and while that sauce is divine it’s also sticky, and I had to make a choice to eat or take photos. And I chose to eat. I also ended up getting sauce on my notebook, but that’s a hazard for the job and no big sin.

And those Chicken Wangs (getcher mind outta the gutter, boy), those nice big Chicken Wing segments, they’d been smoked too and then covered in sauce and they were just as suckable as those ribs. I really had no reason to utilize my teeth most of the night.

I also sampled the Beef Brisket… nice and dark from what I could tell, but of course covered in sauce. On its own it’s powerful… on a sandwich it’s perfect. When you get a dinner, they bring out “barbecue bread,” which is a long sesame seeded roll sliced up and thrown on the grill. It is the perfect accompaniment to any of the barbecue, and is also good soaked in barbecue sauce on its own. This is what folks in South Arkansas call “soppin’ bread.”

I was pretty pleased with the sides, too. The Mamma Mia’s Mac Salad was my favorite, nice and creamy and a bit sweet with small chunks of green onions and red onions topped with some Cheddar cheese. I could have made a meal on that, the bread and the sauce and been happy. The Daddy-O’s Creamy Coleslaw was thick and relied more on the cabbage than the mayo for flavor. And the beans… dang, can’t read that bit, there’s a smudge of barbecue sauce on my notepad. Ah, well.

The food’s good; the music’s pretty good, too. It’s loud. You can’t have that many people in one place without there being a high volume of volume. The bands that come through just add to that. But as I said, this ain’t fine dining. A four piece string quartet would look sorta odd here.

Then there’s dessert. There’s the Nanner Pudding, which is an old secret family recipe. It’s good… really good. But then there’s the Peanut Butter Pie. I went online after my dinner date out there and couldn’t find mention of it. But regulars know. Jenn told me they make up about 100 slices of Peanut Butter Pie each morning, and when it’s gone it’s gone. And it’s nice. Summertime afternoon on the porch nice. Creamy and a little sweet and a little chocolately and a lot good.

So really, how good is it? I’ll tell ya. It’s good enough to go sneaking back over there before heading back to Arkansas good. It’s put-ice-in-the-cooler-so-I-can-take-some-home good. It’s not sharing with the family when you do get home good. And for someone who’s had a whole heck of a lot of barbecue… well, there you go. In fact, right now I really wish I had another order of Chicken Wangs and a big pack of Wet Wipes. Yeah, that didn’t sound bad at all.

If you go seeking out The Shed, you’ll find it at 5753 Old Shell Road in Mobile -- at least, this location. I was told the place was established in August 2001 -- I guess that’s the original place. I was also told it took two and a half months to decorate the Mobile spot -- and I believe that. That’s on University just south of The University of South Alabama. The restaurant has a top notch website with music, too. Not too sloppy. Can’t say the same for the ‘cue, but at least for the ‘cue you have plenty of paper towels and even Wet Wipes if you need them. No shame in that.

Oh, you could just call them at (251) 342-SHED. Yeah.

The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 16, 2010

Oh, for the love of pie.

Any time I tell people I’m headed to Shreveport, I end up with a handful of recommendations. These vary from time to time and may include a bed and breakfast, an attraction, or a particular restaurant. Always -- and I do mean always -- someone asks me “have you had the fresh strawberry pie at Strawn’s Eat Shop?” And I have to answer them “indeed I have!” And their next response is “so why haven’t you written about it?”

I confess. I’ve been holding back, partly because I want to have a reason to go back again in the name of research and partly because frankly, when I go they’d better have pie. If for some reason they’ve run out, I’m blaming my readers. I’m sure you’ll handle that well.

But it is time… to talk about this great little diner that’s been serving up good eating for some 66 years now. That’s no typo. The original Mr. Strawn went into business back in 1944. I have not been made privy to the details of his restaurant, or how it came into the hands of one Gus Alexander back in 1958, but the Strawn’s website will tell you Under Gus's leadership, Lula McCoy ("the fried chicken maker"), Ella Hamilton ("the pie lady"), and Gladys Duncan ("the great waitress") joined him to make Strawn's Eat Shop a success. It was during this time that Strawn's became known as a "Shreveport Tradition."

And then there were the Gauthiers, who took over in 1989. Buddy and Nancy made some changes, but the food stayed the same. Eventually their two daughter each opened up locations of their own.

You know me. I had to find the original. And I did… back in November 2007. We went for breakfast and I got one of those great omelets and Paul ate into some hot cakes with strawberries and cream. But what was the only food I actually shot that day? The pie. Oh my. It was that impressive… Paul made the mistake of getting the chocolate pie (which I’m sure was fine, but I didn’t try it) but I got the strawberry pie and became an instant convert.

I’d meant to get back there after I got a new camera and started seriously writing about food. Really I did. But life intervened, and I didn’t find myself back in the vicinity until January of this year. I went with my mom and daughter… both of them for the first time. I’d talked up the pie… but we were going for lunch.

When you walk in -- whether from the front right off the street or from the back up the staircase, the first thing you’ll likely notice are the large murals on the walls. They’re a lot younger than the restaurant itself, but they’re important. At this location, there’s one section on the wall over the end of the restaurant that shows off four ladies -- reportedly the ladies responsible for the pies over all those years. Images of the owners appear elsewhere. Over a drink station in the back dining room there’s one that’s a scene representing all the local college and high school mascots sitting down together for a meal at the restaurant. Over one of the two cook areas (there are two kitchens, one in each dining room) you can look up and see the likes of John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein and The Three Stooges. Everywhere you look, the art of Shawn Gillespie looks over at ya. It adds interest, sure -- it also ties the shop into the community in a unique way. I like it.

Because the restaurant is open for just breakfast and lunch, there’s a lot of crossover. Every day the restaurant’s open at six for the breakfast crowd. Every day the restaurant closes at three to catch the last lunch stragglers. The breakfast menu includes hot cakes, omelettes (that’s how it’s written, I’m not contradicting it), eggs and buttered toast. Breakfast meats include bacon, ham and sausage. But if you’re really wanting chicken fried steak or roast beef for breakfast, no one’s going to stop you.

There’s a daily lunch special for $7.25, too. We were there on a Monday… my mom chose the Meatloaf (Chicken Fried Steak and Fried Chicken were the other choices) and was presented with a big fat plate full of green beans, corn, mashed potatoes and the slab of somehow juicy meatloaf. She was given a choice of three gravies -- white, brown, or red -- and went for the red that was a blend of ketchup and spices and something sweet and just perfect for that meatloaf. My daughter tried to eat her out of green beans and almost succeeded.

I was in the diner-food sort of mood and needed to check out the Double Meat Cheeseburger ($4.50, fries are an extra $2.25). I mean, seriously, how else can you rate a griddle without checking out the burger? What’d I get? Two nicely cooked-through patties with a thorough melting of American cheese on top just under that top bun, sitting atop a decently thick slice of tomato, a pile of shredded iceberg lettuce, a scattering of pickles and onions and a slight smear of mayo on the bottom. The ketchup was under the top bun (I had omitted the mustard). The bun was nicely toasted, and the French fries while of the shoestring variety were very crisp and still that lovely light shade of yellow they needed to be. And the ketchup was Heinz.

After we’d had our lunch delivered and we’d had our share, I got up and walked around to make more room for that pie. Our meals had been filling, but I was determined to be able to at least sample that pie I’d been craving for so long.

And all around us, the whole business of a well-run diner continued. Orders were called up and take out. Eggs sizzled away in skillets. Pancakes browned on their grill next to tater tots and the like. Balls of burger meat were dropped onto the griddle and then squished down into perfect burger-sized rounds. A few regulars sat at the counter for their lunches while larger groups huddled in booths or around tables. Stories were swapped. Drinks were refilled. And orders kept getting called up for pie.

We ordered a single slice of strawberry pie (which, by the way, is $3.50 a slice or $13.75 for a whole pie) after being warned that the peach pie was out of season. It was delivered to our table with three forks -- one for each of us -- and it almost didn’t make it to the rest of it. My daughter launched herself after the confection. Hey, what can I say? She has a sweet tooth.

Finally getting our table sorted out, Mom and I both tried the pie. The topping is neither meringue or whipped cream from a can but a not-too-sweet delicate, creamy and cold confection that’s not too heavy but substantial enough. Below, fresh strawberries, nestled in a strawberry gel that bound the berries to the bottom crust. So fresh, yet not too tart or too sweet. A perfect summertime pie for sure, but moreso a perfect anytime pie. Pie you can have for breakfast and not be embarrassed about. Pie… that we ended up having to share with my daughter so she wouldn’t holler so loudly as to turn heads. Every bite we shared with her she crowed about, and made motion to grab for when we weren’t quick enough with the next bite.

We were thankful for the kind attention of our waitress, who never rushed us and asked a few times if she could acquire more milk for the girl child. She even brought us take-home boxes for what little remained of our meals. Much of my fries went in the box, the burger being more than I should have eaten.

And then we were up to pay for our repast and out the door, my mom agreeing that once again I had chosen wisely for lunch. I peered back at the giant strawberries on the sign before we walked down the sidewalk and to the back of the building where we had parked.

The original Strawn’s Eat Shop is located on Kingshighway not too far east of I-49. There are two other locations now -- one at Youree and 70th in Shreveport and the other on Airline in Bossier City. There’s a website, too, with more information. It’s worth a stop in, even if you’ve eaten elsewhere already, just for that pie. You’ll think about it a long time.

Strawn's Eat Shop on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Where the Barbecue Began.

Everyone seems to know about the Neely’s. Pat and Gina Neely have Neely’s BBQ in Memphis, they have their show Down Home with the Neely’s on Food Network, they have a famous catering business and even cookbooks and cookware and all the trappings of Food Network Stars. But the Neely barbecue dynasty doesn’t begin with Pat and Gina. It begins with Pat’s uncle, Jim. And it didn’t start with barbecue… it started with a grocery store.

Back in 1979, Jim Neely bought a grocery store in the 22nd block of South Third Street in Memphis. Some might have looked at the failing neighborhood and the local street element and thought better of the idea. But Jim Neely had an idea. He’d done pretty well for years with an insurance business; now with a son discharged from the military after a spleen removal and Neely’s own impending retirement from insurance sales, it seemed like a good idea. It took a lot though… and you can read all about it on the restaurant’s website. No need to rehash it all.

To summarize, though, he got the grocery store started and he kept trying to figure out what would draw in the customers. And he decided to pursue that Memphis barbecue taste he’d grown up with. A friend from California taught him how to keep the fire going under his smoker and how to get his business underway, and there you go -- barbecue in the grocery store. By 1989, the barbecue business had become so successful Neely didn’t need the grocery store so the barbecue joint took over the building. There have been expansions since then, and today 275 people can fit inside for lunch or dinner (there’s also a drive-thru).

One Sunday in March around noontime, a group of us showed up on the doorstep. The legend of Neely’s juicy barbecue had brought us together for a meal. We looked over the menu, placed our orders, and relaxed with beverages and talk about what we were about to receive.

The walls of Interstate BBQ are covered with photographs of celebrities offering their endorsements, with certificates of thanks and recognition and banners and this and that, like any long-established neighborhood joint should have. We’d taken over one of the large tables in the middle of the larger dining room. Others filled in the booths and tables around us as we waited. While there were just a few there when we arrived, by the time the food came out the place was packed with hungry patrons.

The orders varied at our table. My husband went for a large order of California Beef Links ($8.25), sliced hunks of sausage that had been smoked and then dumped into the sauce. The sausage bits had soaked up a good deal of the barbecue spices and were very yummy, a good match for the pasty yellow potato salad and the white bread that comes with most any order.

And this is where I diverge from my normal descriptions of the food. Because this was the point where my daughter reached a milestone. I’d ordered up a large order of Beef Ribs ($9.75, $8.75 for a small order) with the intention of sharing the meal with my child. With a butter knife and fork I pried meat off half of one of the bones, stripped it down a little, and then held it out for Hunter to try. At first she looked at me like I was crazy. She stuck her tongue out and touched it to the rib. She laughed a little and did it again.

I was hungry. I wanted to eat. So I held that rib out to her in my left hand while I picked up one with my right and gnawed down. The beef rib was soft with a nice pink interior that a good smoking will give you. Notes of the peppery dry rub beneath were evident under the generously soaked wet rub above, full of pepper and tangy goodness. The sauce was sticky, and it got everywhere, but without a free hand I threw caution to the wind and let a little sauce dribble down my chin.

And then I felt this very sharp pain in the meaty part of my left hand. I turned to look. Hunter had chawed her way down the bone and when she’d run out of meat she’d latched onto my sauce-covered palm. A row of her little teeth marks were scratched onto the rib. I alerted the rest of the table about what had happened and there was a good laugh. I put down my rib, turned the bone she’d been working on and handed it to her. She took it hesitantly, started to bite back into it and then went after it with gusto, even ignoring my attempts to share a little potato salad with her.

I noticed a few moments later that one of my five ribs had disappeared. The hubster couldn’t wait for a taste and had decided to dig in on my order as well. I couldn’t fault him.

Our friend Leif (who took those great photos of Hunter) ordered up a Combination Dinner ($14.50 with choice of two of the restaurant’s barbecued meats) of pulled pork and pork ribs. The ribs were nice and meaty and the sliced pork had that nice hickory flavor a good smoking will give a pork butt.

And then there was the meal that our friends Jerry and Terri decided to share… the Sampler Platter ($18.75). Billed as “A Trip To Hog Heaven,” the meal consisted of pork ribs, beef ribs, links, a bit of beef brisket and a bit of pulled pork shoulder, some BBQ spaghetti and cole slaw and beans and bread. It was… well, decadent.

There was no way to make an elegant meal of it. This sort of creation is meant for rolling up your sleeves. The sort of dinner Wet Wipes were made for. The sort… well, you get the picture.

Eventually, most everyone was done. But I wanted to try some pie. I mean, Hunter ate part of my meal and Paul ate another part of it, and even though I’d had a decent portion of beef ribs and some of Paul’s hot links and some side items, I wanted to try the pie. It’s part of what makes me me, dontchaknow. Though the Sock It To Me cake ($2.50) cried out to me, I had to go with the pie that best goes with barbecue, Sweet Potato Pie ($1.90). I could have gone with pecan as well, but I passed.

I was surprised when it came out in its own individual shell. It was creamy for that sort of pie, with a good dose of pumpkin pie spice. And it was small enough that I didn’t have to share it with anyone. Bonus!

When we were done, we took our turns standing in line at the register and checking out. It took both the hubster and I to get Hunter cleaned up enough to get her to the car, where we tackled her with baby wipes and a fresh outfit.

The barbecue at Interstate BBQ is really good. And that’s the problem, because it’s nowhere near a secret. That means unless you go at an off hour you should expect a bit of a wait. But that’s okay. Just budget a little extra time for your visit and you’ll be okay.

You’ll find Interstate BBQ at 2265 South Third Street in Memphis, not that far north of I-55. For more information, check out the restaurant’s website.

Busy beef barbecue at Terri-Lynn's BBQ.

For the longest time, I’ve been meaning to get by Terri-Lynn’s B-B-Q. Always seems like when they’re open I’m passing by on the way to somewhere else. And when I set aside the time to go, they’re closed. Well, I had to fix that.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Possum Farming Comes To The Delta.

“The Other Gray Meat” is beginning to make inroads in the consumer market, ending the scurrilous scourge of back counter dark alley smuggling of the delectable and tasty opossum.

Long known for their lush, thick coats in the clothing industry, opossums have been farm raised for shearing and skinning since the early part of the 20th century. But the value of their meat has been in dispute for some time.

“Yeah, not much like possum meat, nor should there be,” Vern Agnopolis of Velvet Ridge told me on a recent visit to his sweet potato stand along Highway 167. “Greasy, tough and all around inedible. But they make a fine fur coat, that’s for damn sure.”

But if that’s the case, why has opossum been popping up all over Arkansas on restaurant menus? To learn more, I quietly made contact with several local eateries, and received a bit of information on an anonymous basis. What I discovered was disconcerting: opossum roasts and chops brought in under cover of darkness for creamed possum and possum jerky;

high grade rendered possum fat ordered from “overseas” locations for use in the eponymous Ozark dish of Possum Pie, even opossum ribs secreted by former moonshine runners to big industry for use in a popular sandwich assumedly made from pork.

But those days of hiding the secret ingredient to some of Arkansas’ favorite foods are over. Through a special mandate by the Arkansas Agriculture Department, a new initiative is spurring on Arkansas farmers to seek government funding and become the first in what’s hoped to be a new wave of opossum farming.

Carly-Ann Webster of Possum Grape couldn’t be more thrilled. The 27-year old first time farmer recently inherited a plum orchard that, with the help of the Department, will be used to facilitate a new opossum crop. “Chicken houses are way too smelly, and you have to get down to scoop them up and put them on the truck. With possums, I can literally just pluck them out of the trees and throw them in a basket. Better than picking apples!”

Webster’s ready-to-start land is expected to do well in the raising of opossum crops. But for others without tree-littered land, new forms of opossum hanging has to be found. Enter companies such as Piddly’s Pre-School Playground Equipment. Hurt by a stalled economy that’s keeping tax dollars down and pre-schools from ordering up swing sets and see-saws,
Piddly’s is entering the agricultural field by building monkey bars, or in this case opossum bars, across fields throughout the Arkansas Delta. The metal structures will be painted green and brown to resemble trees. Duke Piddly of Piddly’s Pre-School Playground Equipment says it’s serendipity. “Them possums, they don’t know anyhow a tree from a hole in a barn attic. Come night, it ain’t like they can see anyway.”

Harvest locations are already accepting new opossum deliveries, and the first commercially packed opossum products are expected to hit shelves in the next seven weeks.

Yet still, there are detractors from the idea of consuming our long-tailed friends. PETA (Possum Eatin’ To Anarchy) says it will oppose the new opossum harvesting by setting up monkey bar frames in urban centers for near-naked protestors to emulate opossums upon, to bring awareness of these urban marsupials to light. No word yet on how the protestors will emulate opposum tales.

Will commercial applications change the minds of all Arkansans? “You have to be out of your ever-loving’ mind to eat one of them things,” Vern Agnopolis tells us. “I’d rather eat gar or earthworms.”

But for farmers like Carly-Ann Webster, opossum farming may be the path to prosperous living. “I can’t wait to see all those little eyes when I flash a light out the back door this summer!”

Postscript: Of course, this was written tongue-in-cheek for April Fool's Day. Imagine my surprise to discover that there is indeed a bit of research going in this direction. Perhaps I'll have updates soon.