Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Road Trip: Memphis

Five days, 2300 miles, four new states. And even better, two winter storms avoided. January is not the best month for traveling, in case you weren't aware. Besides the possibility of bad weather, a number of the fun places to stop along the road are closed. Still, it was a good road trip.

One of the things I've learned about eating on the road is the delight of discovering local cuisine. I used to think local cuisine was a Cracker Barrel or a Waffle House (or any other chain restaurant not available in my area). Recently, though, I've tried to turn away from chains. I want to eat somewhere that serves fresh, scratch-made local food (this desire is possibly linked to my love of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network). Of course, unless I've done a lot of pre-planning, that isn't always what I get. But even a mediocre local place is generally just as good as a chain, and taking that risk is part of the travel experience.

On this trip, we did a bit of pre-planning to find some good places to eat. We looked through Food Network's resources (mostly Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and The Best Thing I Ever Ate) to see if we were passing anything promising. We also looked at some Memphis tourism sites to get ratings for area restaurants. We ended up with a short list of places we wanted to stop.

The first was from an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives that we watched back in the fall. They stopped at the Parkette Drive-in in Lexington, KY. We actually planned our route around staying overnight in Lexington so we could eat there. We had thought the plan had fallen through when we learned they opened at 11 am, so there was no chance of having breakfast. We had assumed we'd be in too late for dinner the night before, so we didn't even bother bringing the Parkette's address with us. But a change in our itinerary got us into Lexington around dinner time and we passed right by it on the way to our hotel (right after Jeff told me it was a big city and it was totally unlikely that we'd come across it accidentally). Jeff had their specialty poor boy sandwich, which is essentially a breaded and fried burger patty. I thought it was interesting, but much preferred my own meal, which was two thin burger patties with barbecue sauce and grilled onions in between on two slices of Texas toast. Don't get me wrong - it was greasy, but it was totally worth it. The grilled onions were to die for. And I believe our bill came in under $10. It was a fun retro diner experience with delicious food - I'd totally stop there again.

Since we were in the South, we knew we'd need to have some barbecue. We ended up stopping at the Nashville location of Neely's Bar-B-Q (yes, the Neelys from the Food Network - I am slightly obsessed with it). This time we had the address off of their website, but it turned out to be incorrect. But the food gods were on our side once again - as we were doubling back, I just spied it out of the corner of my eye, tucked into a corner of a shopping plaza.

 I'm glad we didn't miss out on this. Jeff and I had the same barbecue pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw on a nice soft roll. The pork was delightfully tender with a smoky sauce. The heat from the sauce built slowly as you ate it - my mouth was tingly by the time I was done. The coleslaw complemented it deliciously. And while it looks like my sandwich was going to be a hot mess once I picked it up, it actually stayed together and was hardly messy at all.

Although we'd already had barbecue, I knew I'd be missing something it I didn't get some ribs in Memphis. We'd intended to stop at a place called Charlie's Rendezvous, and some locals also recommended we go there, but they were closed for vacation while we were in town. Instead, we ended up at B. B. King's Blues Club on Beale Street (looking at the website, I see that they also seem to be a chain, but this was the original location). I expected a totally touristy place with mediocre food. And yes, touristy it was. But the food we had was phenomenal. 

This picture certainly doesn't do it justice (it was hard to get a good shot in such a dark, crowded place). I had a half rack of ribs with coleslaw, beans, and cornbread. Jeff had the same thing plus half a barbecue chicken. I know Memphis style ribs are dry, but I do love a wet sauce so I had them that way. I was still able to taste the spicy smokiness of the rub, which was beautifully complimented by the sweet sauce. The ribs were so tender that I managed to eat the whole thing with fork and knife, hardly getting my hands dirty (I'm sure I looked a bit prissy, but I hate sticky hands!). The beans were made using some of the barbecue sauce and were probably the best I've ever had. I would have been perfectly happy eating a whole plate of them for dinner. The coleslaw was a bit bland, but was fine when mixed with other items. The same for the cornbread - I thought it was really dry, but it was great for sopping up the sauce from my beans. And while we were eating, we got to listen to a great blues band. What could be better?

On the way back we stopped in Louisville, where our search for good local food was stymied. Apparently many major cities are dead on Sunday nights - the concierge at our hotel wasn't even sure many places would be open. We went to a street that was lined with (mostly chain) restaurants and, though many were open, they didn't meet our criteria. We both just wanted something light - I was hoping for vegetables in some form - and it's amazing how few restaurants can provide this. After a ten minute search in the freezing cold, we ended up at TGI Fridays where we could get the salads we desired. That's one good thing about chains.

Monday we drove all day - 8 am to 6 pm with only about 20 minutes of stops before we had dinner in Adamstown, PA. I had been in the area antique shopping once before and knew there would be something. We ended up stopping at Stoudt's Black Angus and eating at the pub. Since we were in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, I went for the grilled kielbasa (ok, so it's Polish, but I prefer it over bratwurst). It came with sauerkraut, sweet and sour red cabbage and German potato salad. It was delicious. My favorite part was actually the red cabbage, which the waitress said was made with applesauce. I'm going to have to try out some recipes for that because I could eat it by the jar.

So all in all, we had a great food vacation. We certainly benefited from our pre-planning, but also stumbled across some good local cuisine on our own. If you can look past McDonald's and Applebees (which is, sadly, all most of the road signs will advertise), delicious local food adventures await you. So next time you're on the road, don't settle for chain eating and let me know what you discover!

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