Off the Beaten Path
Out-of-the-way places offer out-of-this-world fare.
"No!" Abdul bellows vehemently from behind the counter, waving a spatula in the air and shaking his head. "Do not write about me! I will have even more customers and have to cook more, and I am tired!"
Having been innocently tipped off by a friend that I may be including his Kwik Mart & Grill at Central and East Parkway in a magazine article, the ever-jovial and boisterous Abdul is, of course, joking. But then, he has been at it all day, and he does look exhausted. He is completely, utterly disheveled, with hours' worth of cooking apparent on his shirt like any hardworking, hands-on chef who's worth his salt and secret herbs should be. Behind him, shelves are crammed with a cattywampus collection of those industrial-sized plastic bins of various seasoning mixtures and other containers that make the kitchen look like it belongs to someone who doesn't have time to slow down and organize things. At first glance, it looks like a train wreck. To me it has the feeling of a William Eggleston photograph: the seemingly mundane acting as a disguise for something that's really a thing of true beauty. And what Abdul does with his food and spices is indeed a thing of beauty and a testament to the notion that simplicity is sometimes best in a world where Hidden Valley commercials actually condone mixing ranch dressing with peanut butter for a zingy and different kind of pasta sauce.
And how much simpler can you get than a huge, fat, juicy, seasoned cheeseburger (regular ground beef or Black Angus) grilled to perfection and served with broad-cut fried potatoes served in the back of a convenience store, where diners can eat at small tables situated between racks of pantyhose and stacks of two-liter bottles of A&W root beer while playing chess and working crossword puzzles? Or wolfing down a football-size Gyros sandwich packed with a mixture of beef and lamb and slathered in a cool cucumber sauce? On a recent trip here to get these two meals to go, I thought that, with the other customers waiting and more coming in to pick up orders (including 100 chicken wings prepared with an hour's advance notice), there would be a fairly long wait. About eight minutes and under $10 later (try doing that in a fast-food line at dinnertime!), we were out the door, at home in the air-conditioned confines of my den, watching a Law & Order Special Victims Unit rerun and moaning with satisfaction. You tell me that is not a thing of beauty.
Abdul's little corner in the often-flashy culinary world further cements my belief that some of the best food around can be found in some of the most unlikely places, especially in neighborhood grocery stores. A block from LeMoyne-Owen College there's a cinderblock building painted as purple as a grape. It's Williams Street Grocery and Deli, and behind the partitioned wall at the back of the store something quite special is bubbling and brewing every day of the week.
Williams serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, both to eat in at the spotlessly clean dining area and to take out. And while the menu varies from day to day, just some of the stalwarts you'll find on a regular basis include meats such as chitterlings, ham hocks, oxtails, meatloaf, turkey wings, smothered pork chops, fried chicken, beef liver, neck bones, barbecued short ribs, and fried fish (catfish, big-bone buffalo, and whiting). Starting at $5.99 per plate with rolls, hot-buttered cornbread, or one of the most overlooked hard-to-find delicacies ever to come out of the South (hot water cornbread) it gets even better when you add two of their vegetables. That selection includes cabbage, boiled okra, yams, mashed potatoes, squash, purple hull peas, butter beans, northern beans, lima beans, green beans, coleslaw, corn, sweet peas, black-eyed peas, greens, and two of my favorite soul food "vegetables," spaghetti and macaroni and cheese. Yes, in Memphis, those are vegetables. What is not to love?
I'm a strong believer in the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that's why I breathed a sigh of relief the first time I got one foot in the door at the Happy Mexican Restaurant and Cantina. While not off the beaten path since it is just a stone's throw from the South Main Historic Arts District downtown, you might never know the Happy Mexican is there, located literally in a fork in the road on Second Street, in the shadows of the National Civil Rights Museum and a few blocks of generic-looking old warehouses and now a construction site for a new hotel. But, with its new outdoor patio/deck, bright flags, and neon signs reminiscent of 1950s Tijuana, it's pretty hard to miss if you find yourself in that area. And you should definitely find yourself in that area.
I never ate at the Happy Mexican in its first incarnation because I'd heard that it wasn't so great, and that is one of the challenges the current owners have faced since taking it over earlier this year. Having had successes years ago with Cancun in Overton Square (the building now sadly torn down) and more recently developing a following with their Las Margaritas eatery in the Artisan Hotel in Midtown, they took over the Second Street place when it came available and set up shop in a full-scale, grand style. The place is dark but cheery, clean, cold in the summertime, decorated just enough without being over the top, and absolutely bustling with regulars who are the epitome of "happy." Between those customers and the large family staff, it's been almost like a party every time I've been. But don't think for a minute that it's all show.
This is some of the freshest, most delicious Mexican food you'll find in Memphis outside Summer Avenue and all of those great mom & pop Latin American eateries on Jackson Avenue toward Raleigh. Theirs is not the plastic-plate, ridiculously cheap and authentic food you'll find in many of those places (and most of those places are really great). But it's authentic, all right, down to the massive margaritas made with freshly squeezed lime juice instead of generic bottled mixes and the flan that is made from scratch and is like a silky heaven on a plate. The sprightly homemade salsa tastes like the tomatoes and cilantro in it were picked just hours ago in a garden, and the guacamole has such big chunks of avocado in it you know it wasn't mixed the day or even the hour before. Don't order the grilled shrimp quesadilla thinking it will be a little appetizer to get you started. It's like a big, thick pie filled with briny, spicy shrimp and gooey cheese and onions and peppers, and it is a meal in itself.
Everything on the menu looks and sounds so good that you'll be tempted to want it all, but be careful. At a recent lunch with some British journalists who all but had their faces in their plates and were very "happy" from the time they walked in until the time we left, I had one chicken and cheese enchilada, one large, meat-packed tamale, and a small guacamole salad and I thought I was going to have to be removed from the restaurant by a crane.
But back to this notion of bringing back great food to the comfort of your own home — for yourself, for your family, or for an all-out dinner party for several dozen of your closest friends. In that little strip shopping center at Madison and McLean, where you can shop for antiques, you can also duck into Valenza Pasta for some of the most wonderful Italian food in the city, inspired by the cuisine of the town in Italy of the same name. Operated by Memphian Shirley Ronza Dunavant with the help of her daughter Kathey Cianciola and cousin Carol Ricossa, Valenza Pasta is not one of those places that sells just cute little packages of gourmet pasta and jars of sauces that come from God knows where. Instead, the women rely not only on the peasant farmer recipes handed down through generations from their grandmothers and great-grandmothers from Italy, but also on the tradition of making a meal an occasion. As Ricossa explains, "Even by the time they settled in the United States and Memphis, three or four times a year all of the relatives would get together from 5 a.m. until dusk and churn out batches of ravioli made from scratch at long tables to sell and to give to friends. It was a social event, like a quilting bee, and they would drink wine and gossip and my grandmother from Italy would read fortunes with Tarot cards and it was an absolute thrill."
And while the kitchen at Valenza Pasta may not have that exact kind of Old World charm and dizzying activity, it does serve as a modern-day facsimile that remains focused on one thing: flavor. You'll find that flavor in their variety of homemade raviolis, with fillings and sauces that are slow-simmered all day. If you can take one bite of their rich lobster-and-shrimp ravioli in lemon-chive pasta dough topped with their red wine- and porcini mushroom-infused Bolognese sauce without your eyes automatically closing and an Italian opera floating through your mind, I will buy you dinner there. Same for the bulbous meatballs in marinara sauce; the seafood lasagna with crab claw meat, shrimp, scallops, aromatic vegetables and cheeses in a bechemel sauce; or the traditional ravioli stuffed with a tender mixture of simmered pork and beef along with spinach, fresh sage, and other herbs. And get this: When you get home, you drop the ravioli in boiling water for four to five minutes, ladle on the heated-up sauce, and you are done. It's that easy.
Now, if you feel like a little road trip, there's a fabulous little restaurant on the town square in nearby Somerville, Tennessee, that is definitely worth the drive.
The relatively new Market Café is the brainchild of Memphian Susan Powers, who has spent her entire adult life in the food business. She started out as a caterer in 1986, then did a stint at the old Bombay Bicycle Club in Overton Square and then at Alfred's on Beale Street. She later moved on to restaurants in California, and then back here in Memphis working as a consultant to numerous eateries with obstacles that needed the kind of solutions that she could provide. But when her father-in-law's former appliance store building on the square became available a few years ago, she decided to take the plunge and open a place of her own. Good move.
Her Market Café and Catering is a cozy, family-friendly restaurant that serves up well-prepared standards such as slow-roasted prime rib, filets and rib-eyes, pastas, fresh fish specials, sandwiches, salads, barbecue chicken and pork, po-boys, a variety of stuffed potatoes, burgers, and other staples. But what got me was the dish I ordered there one night that I keep wanting to go back for again and again. It's the Catfish Lafitte, a lovely dish of catfish filets battered in a flour meal and deep fried, topped with several perfectly fried oysters, and a white wine sauce, and served over rice with a salad and whichever of the sides you choose. I usually like my fried catfish very plain and whole on the bone, and still do, but this dish had something special about it that made that drive to Somerville seem like the path to the Emerald City.
And if you find yourself out there at lunchtime, try the notch-up-from-the-norm daily plate lunch specials, including chicken and dressing, chicken and dumplings, meatloaf, pork chops, and other meats. Market Café's fresh vegetables to go along with it include cucumber-tomato salad, black-eyed peas, lima beans, squash, turnip greens, potato salad, sweet potato fries (these are great), creamed corn, and, well, the list goes on and on. And, back to the ol' take home theme, you can get most of these, and others, to go by the pint or quart. You can also get casseroles to go that serve 10 to 12 people, including asparagus and pea, carrot soufflé, squash soufflé, spinach, green bean, sweet potato, and broccoli, cheese, and rice.
Like the other restaurants and take-out places mentioned in this article, the Market Café may be a little off the beaten path, but, like the rest of them, it's worth beating the path to get there.