On Track

The Trolley Stop Market puts a local spin on homestyle cooking.

The Trolley Stop Market BLT with spicy pimento cheese served on lightly grilled Texas toast and garnished with pickles, is a three-inch-high show stopper.

Some food trends are more memorable than others. Remember the minimalist plating of the 1980s? I'd rather not. The '70s, on the other hand, was a standout decade for wholesome food, and nothing captured this shift in eating more symbolically than Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York, a collectively run mecca for vegetarians still operating today.

I hadn't reminisced about the place until a recent visit with my husband to Trolley Stop Market, a restaurant, gift shop, and grocery store on Madison Avenue near the downtown medical district. We went one Saturday for lunch, and after placing our order, browsed the market's mix of folk art, crafts, crystals, cosmetics, candles, groceries, and produce.

"There's some cool stuff in here," my husband said. "It's like Moosewood meets Cracker Barrel, done Jill and Keith style."

He was referring to Jill and Keith Forrester, the energetic duo from Whitton Farms in nearby Arkansas who see Trolley Stop Market as an extension of their locavore mantra: Know your farmer, know your food. Unpretentious and charming, the couple are popular with customers who appreciate their cut flowers and heirloom vegetables — sold at Trolley Stop and seasonal farmers markets — and their tireless promotion of locally grown food.

Thanks to these roots, the restaurant at Trolley Stop eschews a pricey farm-to-table format. Salads, sandwiches, and hoagies top out at $8. The kitchen is called Jillbilly's (a nod to Jill's nickname from college), and the restaurant's trademark dish is the humble pizza pie, made exceptional by farm-fresh toppings and the expert hand toss of Jeremy "don't-call-me-a-chef" Denno.

A former merchant marine, Denno started throwing pies as a teenager in Massachusetts at the pizza place of a family friend. His recipes started there, but he tweaked them a little for Trolley Stop, reducing the sugar in the tomato sauce and blending a secret three-cheese combo that includes a skim milk variety to lower the fat. Not that you will notice when you sink into the Three Cheese Masterpiece, or better yet, the Margherita (as they spell it on their menu). Little wonder the Margherita is Trolley Stop's most popular pie. A slice is lovely to look at (white mozzarella, quartered red tomatoes, and drifts of fresh basil melt into a warm and happy Christmas tree on a plate) and the dough is sublime (hand-tossed New York-style with some added heft to the crust for extra munching).

My friend calls the Margherita the best slice in town. I concur, but must add this: Don't stop at a slice. Order the entire pie. Our large pizza needed two boxes to carry it home. "I made it a little oversized," Denno explained with a grin.

At Trolley Stop, the Margherita is one of 10 specialty pies. Protein Lovers is another favorite, loaded with sausage, beef, and bacon from Newman Farms and Neola Farms, Mid-South farmers who raise pork and beef responsibly. You can also build-your-own pizza from a list of seasonal toppings: sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, zucchini, squash, eggplant, peppers, spinach, carrots, corn, olives, onions, and — believe it or not — sweet potatoes.

"We did a pizza with roasted golden beets and shiitake mushrooms, and it was delicious," Denno said.

Trolley Stop's commitment to local produce and meat is what unifies a somewhat eclectic menu that spans breakfast (burritos, bacon and egg sandwiches, biscuits and gravy), lunch (burgers, wraps, meat and vegetable plates), and dinner (nightly specials such as "Vegan Mondays" and "Taco Tuesdays" are posted on Facebook).

I've had lunch at Trolley Stop a number of times because I can never eat too many of the restaurant's BLTs with spicy pimento cheese. Served on lightly grilled Texas toast and garnished with pickles, the sandwich is a three-inch-high show-stopper: freshly grated cheddar, mayo, and pimentos (grown locally and frozen this summer) topped with green leaf lettuce, tomatoes, and two thick slices of bacon fried extra crispy.

True to its description, this updated Southern classic is seasoned with plenty of cayenne pepper, so I like to skip chips for a side of homemade potato salad. The oversized chunks of potatoes are unpeeled and lightly dressed, a pleasing complement to the cayenne's kick.

My coworkers prefer Trolley Stop's hearty plate lunches, served Monday through Friday until 2:30 p.m. So on the Friday after Thanksgiving, I ordered the day's special: catfish fried or blackened. When my plate arrived, the fish was barely warm. I should have sent it back, but it was such a tasty companion to the vegetables, I ate it all anyway.

The plate's sides were expertly prepared. (No mushy veggies here; Jill checks every pot!) The sweet-potato casserole tasted like creamy pumpkin pie with a hint of brown sugar. The tender Crowder peas were swimming in a flavorful broth seasoned with nothing but their own juices. The peas were delicious, and I spooned up every last one.

Across the menu at Trolley Stop, fresh ingredients from local farmers take center stage. Bite into the restaurant's signature beef burger — there are turkey and veggie options too — and you'll swear the patty is seasoned with something more than sea salt and cracked pepper. Dressed up with bacon, avocado, and cheddar cheese, the burger is a hefty meal on a bun. Pair it with Memphis brewed Ghost River Golden Ale, the hipster darling Yuengling, or an ice-cold, 8-ounce Coke in a bottle. Or stick with sweet tea. Any way, you will leave content and guilt-free. Fresh food is good for you, remember?

Open since early summer, Trolley Stop Market has hit its stride, putting an upbeat local spin on homestyle cooking and giving like-minded customers a place to shop, eat, and greet. And the future looks bright. By the end of February, look for a take-out deli on Madison located two doors down. "We knew someone was going to move into that corner," Jill said. "So we figured it might as well be us." 

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