photograph by Lance Murphey / Memphis in May
During the third weekend of Memphis in May, the city’s international celebration of music, culture, and food, more than 250 competitive barbecue cooking teams erect a tantalizing village of smokers and structures on the banks of the Mississippi River. They build two-story party tents, cook whole hogs all night, and tempt visitors with some of the world’s most succulent and flavorful barbecue.
Unfortunately, many of the 100,000 people who flock to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest don’t get to taste award-winning pork. Instead, they buy barbecue sandwiches from concession stands or pour into the dozens of barbecue restaurants scattered across the city.
While concessions and local rib joints remain on this year’s menu, a new two-day event for the contest, called the Kingsford Tour of Champions, lets visitors sample and judge barbecue from four of 16 competitive teams. “The event is open to everyone,” says Diane Hampton, executive vice president of Memphis in May. “It’s a great way for visitors and novice judges to sample championship barbecue and to have a little fun.”
Here’s how the Tour of Champions works: Participants pay a $10 fee and pre-register online by May 14th for judging sessions scheduled May 16th and 17th from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 4 to 6 p.m. Then they meet at the official judges’ tent before each session to receive scorecards and tips on judging. (Hint: If meat falls off the bone, it’s overcooked.)
Flavor, tenderness, appearance, and overall impression also influence participants’ decision-making. Memories of an excellent barbecue plate do not. “For Memphis in May, judges only compare samples against each other, not against the great barbecue they ate growing up,” Hampton explains.
For barbecue fans who like sides and sit-down service more than judging, downtown Memphis also offers a number of places to eat. Some of the barbecue restaurants, such as Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, are internationally acclaimed. Others are equally good, but less recognized. The Cozy Corner, for instance, is tucked on the corner of North Parkway and Manassas and sometimes missed by visitors and local residents.
Hungry visitors can also easily miss some of downtown’s independent eateries that offer a delightful break from pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, and sweet tea. Here are three of our favorite restaurant hideaways well-suited to the international focus of Memphis in May. At each restaurant, menus are unique, informed by global flavors, and mindful of the South’s storied culinary traditions.
At Beale Street’s recently opened Twelve Bar Supper Club, chef Andrew Armstrong serves rich and sexy mash-ups such as Memphis Soul Stew, along with updated standards like cedar planked salmon with fried Brussels sprouts, bacon, and sweet potatoes. At Lunchbox Eats, owner Kaia Brewer deconstructs classic mid-day meals into delectable reinventions. For example, smoked catfish salad, fried onions, and sliced egg is her nod to the classic tuna fish sandwich. And at Evelyn & Olive, Kingston-born Tony Hall and his Memphis wife Vicki Newsum Hall marry Southern sensibilities with Jamaican spice with dishes like glazed pork tenderloin with rice, peas, and pineapple slaw.
Twelve Bar Supper Club
A soulful throwback to dinner and drinks
At first, Twelve Bar Supper Club, located on the second floor of Dancin’ Jimmy’s, is a little tricky to figure out. Is it a New Orleans speakeasy with French doors, brocade drapes, and balcony views up Beale Street? Is it a jazz club with aged bourbon cocktails and sultry lounge acts? Or is it a supper club, where food, service, and a cozy fire make late-night dining intimate and fun?
Even owner Bud Chittom, a veteran operator of bars and restaurants in downtown Memphis, had to wait and see. “I start slow and let my clubs decide what they want to be,” Chittom says. “And this one really wanted to be a supper club.”
Open since March, Twelve Bar had a good start thanks in part to the building’s $4 million development by former occupant Pat O’Brien’s. Chef Andrew Armstrong also adds considerable clout. A three-year veteran of Restaurant Iris and more recently Fuel Café, Armstrong’s new American cooking complements Twelve Bar’s namesake, the most popular chord progression in blues music. Memphis Soul Stew, for example, is a multistep love affair that starts with ham stock and builds to duck confit, mustard greens, pork belly, poached egg, black-eyed peas, and a single crispy sage leaf. Oysters Thermadore wraps warm salty mollusks in tarragon, lemon, and Dijon cream. And the Shaker, one of the menu’s three French bread sandwiches served with duck fat fries, informs pulled roasted chicken with remoulade, cabbage, herbs, and Josie’s pickles.
Similar detail extends to the restaurant’s salads. Shaved rounds of carrots and cucumbers wrapped with smoked buttermilk dressing nestle inside Bibb lettuce leaves, like babies in a cradle. Pistachios, whole anchovies, and shaved Parmesan update a classic Caesar. And the farmhouse charcuterie plate with locally sourced meats and cheese hints at the fresh and local ingredients on every plate.
Happily, Twelve Bar gives equal play to a carefully culled list of handcrafted cocktails. Try Death in the Afternoon, a heady mix of absinthe, orange bitters and champagne; a classic Brandy Alexander with hazelnut, amaretto or crème de menthe; or Aviation, a fragrant gin cocktail muddled with lemon, lavender syrup, and crème de violette and garnished with a swirl of lemon zest.
Either way, stick around until manager Alston Meeks takes a turn at the club’s baby grand piano for a heartfelt melody of Frank Sinatra hits. And then head downstairs to the new Jerry Lee Lewis’ Café & Honky Tonk for a cocktail in a souvenir glass or a Strawberry Jerry, a killer combination of strawberries, Jello, crushed pretzels, and Chantilly cream.
Twelve Bar Supper Club 310 Beale St. (901) 521-4388
An A-plus sandwich shop that aces every test
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Chef Kaia Brewer was worn out. The owner of Lunchbox Eats on South Fourth Street had catered breakfast and lunch for 260 Memphis police officers and school coaches. She fed them for two days with such hearty fare as beef and mushroom lasagna, mac and cheese, and chess pie, a family recipe tweaked by her mother.
“These are big guys,” Brewer says, laughing. “They eat a lot.”
So will you when an assortment like this arrives at your table on a red school lunch tray: fried chicken, Muenster cheese, honey mustard, and green tomato relish sandwiched between two cheddar waffles; avocado wedges, deep fried and happy inside a brown paper bag; fluted cucumber slices pickled in house with ginger and cloves; and a Mason jar of kiwi lemonade served with lavender-color straws — as pretty as an Easter basket on Sunday morning.
“I’ve always liked to cook crazy things,” Brewer says about her deconstructed menu of lunchtime favorites. “And I don’t use recipes.”
A Memphis native, Brewer left her job as executive chef at downtown’s DoubleTree hotel in 2010 to open Lunchbox Eats, a charming and eclectic sandwich shop located a short block south of FedExForum. Her parents, both career teachers with Memphis City Schools, inspired the restaurant’s school lunch theme.
“I grew up around teachers,” Brewer says, waving her hand toward sets of encyclopedias lined up on the restaurant’s book shelves. “Eighty percent of those books came from my mother’s attic.”
Vintage lunchboxes, a tuba in a travel case, board games like Life and Scrabble, and fat Big Dipper pencils to check off your order continue the restaurant’s schooltime nostalgia. So do the names of sandwiches. The Principal’s Office Link blends smoked sausage, fried eggs, lettuce, tomatoes, and house sauce into a spicy grilled cheese. The Class Valedictorian is a turkey burger stuffed with Boursin cheese, topped with fresh baby spinach, and stacked between two pieces of buttery cornbread.
And like every good student, be sure to check the chalk board, where a daily list of specials (pickled okra, beet home fries, and deep-fried Brussels sprouts) shows off Brewer’s inventive interpretation of everyday cooking. For extra credit, add in dessert. Brewer’s strawberry cake, a multilayer tower of pink cake and icing, is magical. So is the changing cacophony of bread pudding made with whatever fresh fruit and ingredients are available in-house. Up next: bread pudding made with glazed donuts.
Lunchbox Eats 288 S. Fourth St. (901) 526-0820
Evelyn & Olive
A good-vibe island getaway with a nod to the South
No wonder sorrel is a traditional holiday drink in Jamaica. Brewed overnight and infused with ginger, hibiscus flowers, and sweetened cane sugar, the memory of the ice-cold drink lingers like a favorite Christmas present.
One of five thirst-quenchers on the menu at Evelyn & Olive, the city’s only Jamaican restaurant, sorrel competes impressively with a simple bottle of grapefruit Ting, Jamaica’s favorite carbonated beverage. House cocktails such as signature rum punch or Dark & Stormy, a mix of Myer’s dark rum and Jamaican ginger beer, offer more fortified companions to the restaurant’s flavorful menu that joins Jamaican dishes with Southern sass.
Opened since February of last year on a lonely block of Madison Avenue, Evelyn & Olive settled right in, thanks to the skills and sociability of owners Tony Hall and Vicki Newsum Hall. From the start, the couple kept things simple: unpretentious food; affordable prices (house wine is $6 a glass, entrees top out at $12); and an easy ambience Bob Marley would surely like.
The menu is accessible, even for customers new to Jamaican food. The restaurant’s excellent vegetable sides, also available as small plates, anchor entrees with authentic island flavors. Try pigeon peas, a popular legume in the Caribbean with a rich nutty flavor, mixed with rice, seasonings, and chopped green onions, or Jama Jama, a dish of spinach softly sautéed with garlic, Parmesan, and a kiss of cayenne. Salt fish salad is another unique addition to Evelyn & Olive’s menu. Cooks reconstitute dried cod with spices, pimentos, and olive oil into a deliciously pungent dish plated with chopped tomatoes, green onions, and a ring of cucumber slices.
Pork, shrimp, chicken, and tilapia work their way across the menu in wraps, sandwiches, entrees, and pasta dishes. Tilapia, for example, comes four ways: blackened, seasoned with Boom Boom sauce, and served on a ciabatta roll; fried crispy, piled into corn tortillas and dressed up with salsa; pan-seared with spices, scallions, and pimento; and kicked up with jerk seasoning for red pepper cream sauce fettucini topped with sweet corn relish.
Desserts circle in and out with unexpected finesse. Look for chocolate molten lava cake with kiwi sauce and strawberry compote or French toast pound cake, plated with strawberries, blueberries, vanilla ice cream, and a drizzle of Ghirardelli chocolate.
Evelyn & Olive 630 Madison Ave. (901) 748-5422