For a taste of this town, try the Tastin' Round Town Tour
photographs by Jonathan Postal
Lance Silkes, aka Limo Lance, is many things. He’s a proud Italian American, a blues enthusiast, a former optometrist, a husband and father, a talker, a self-described wise guy, a good singer.
And, yes, Limo Lance did once drive limousines for a living. This last bit is important, because, says Silkes, “I’m a transportation guy.”
Specifically, he transports tourists and citizens alike to some of the city’s best bites while stuffing them full of Memphis history through the Tastin’ ‘Round Town tour company he founded two years ago with his wife Carol and another couple (who have since been bought out).
Tastin’ ‘Round Town currently offers four tours: BBQ Tasting, Downtown Burger Tour, Sweet Life Downtown Dessert Tour, and Taste of Downtown Memphis.
Participants meet up with Silkes (his wife and assistant also lead tours) at a designated spot. He’s not easy to miss, as he’s the one carrying a giant whisk. The whisk, bought at an odds-and-ends store on Summer, is about two-and-a-half feet long. In restaurants, it’s used to mix large amounts of food. For the purposes of the tour, the whisk not only makes Silkes stand out in the crowd, it also serves as a tool for breaking the ice with a quip or two. “I’m causing a stir,” Silkes might say. Or, if it’s Elvis week, “Elvis ordered an omelet.”
Silkes has the tour planned out in what he calls “modules,” historic facts that he shares along with each restaurant stop.
“When we audition restaurants, the dishes we choose fit into my story,” Silkes says. For example, for a recent dessert tour, Silkes starts things off with cannoli he’s brought in from Little Italy. A good source of water is essential to the cannoli’s delicate pastry and that source in Memphis is the aquifer, he explains.
The modules work in any order, for any tour. Topics cover everything from the Chickasaw Bluffs and the resurgence of blues music to preservation efforts of historic buildings and the future of such areas as the Pinch District. All this is told around mouthfuls of divided-up plates of food — banana pudding, tamales, burgers, shrimp and grits, lemon icebox pie, barbecue nachos, hot water cornbread, and on and on.
The list of restaurants included on the tours is long, with five to six restaurants visited during each three-hour tour. They are mostly in the downtown area. Among them are Automatic Slim’s, Huey’s, bleu, The Arcade, Central BBQ, Cozy Corner, Majestic Grille, Lunchbox Eats, Blues City Cafe, and the Center for Southern Folklore.
Silkes tends to shuffle them in what he says is a “deck of cards” approach, so that if an event is happening at the Orpheum, he might skip the Majestic, which does brisk business during shows. Basketball games at the FedExForum, too, will cause detours.
Silkes, who’s worked developing restaurant concepts, is ever mindful of what is going on in both the front and the back of the house of restaurants. When he has a large group coming in, he’ll call ahead. He makes sure to tip well. With some restaurants, he has a contract dictating what dish will be served, with a price per-head. He says that while some restaurants don’t quite understand what the tour’s about, others have contacted him to ask that they be included.
BBQ Tasting, Tastin’ ‘Round Town’s most popular tour, breaks the usual script. While the other tours can be done on foot around downtown, this one calls for wheels. Silkes also expands his talk to include the history of barbecue and myriad barbecue-facts offshoots involving dry rub, family traditions, the meaning of a meat’s “bark,” the role of sauce, and how some folks in the area are breaking the mold.
The barbecue tour also happened to shake up Silkes’ own beliefs. For the tours, Silkes says he strives to choose a distinctive dish from each restaurant. For the Bar-B-Q Shop, that dish is barbecue spaghetti, but Silkes, as a proud Italian American, wasn’t willing to accept it. He remembers saying to owner Eric Vernon, “I don’t want to be insulting, but it sounds horrifying.”
Vernon urged him to try the dish, and he was so taken with the smokiness of the pork and the way the noodles were prepared that he says his chin hit the floor.
These days, Silkes is a full-on barbecue spaghetti convert preaching the gospel to others. He tells the story of one of his tour group members from California who mistook the noodles that had been browned from sauce and oil as a healthy wheat alternative. He corrected her right away. “Honey, this is Memphis,” he says. “We don’t care about our health. We don’t care about your health.”
Silkes says that he has never had a tour member lose his lunch, though he’s seen them slow down after the fifth stop, particularly during the barbecue tour. He tells them, “You’ll be all right” and coaxes them to that last stop, the Cozy Corner.
Inevitably, that full-up tour member will say, “That was worth it.” And with that, says Silkes, Cozy Corner’s owner Desiree Robinson “just beams.”
“When that happens,” Silkes says, “it makes it all worthwhile.”