This blog is devoted to highlighting restaurants of Memphis, Tennessee.

Friday, August 31, 2012

King's Grocery and Deli

"Hunting" For Pizza, Found A Piece Of Africa

When I decided to do a review of King's Grocery and Deli, my intention was to write about Hunt Brothers Pizza. This brand of pizza is sold in many convenient stores in America, including the ones in Memphis' Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood (the exceptions are Mapco and Mid Town Mini Mart, which has a great beer selection). However, in doing my research on King's, I discovered that it serves East African food. That really piqued my interest because I've been on a quest to try all of Memphis' African restaurants. My journey has me to places such as Whitehaven's Africa Restaurant that serves West African dishes to Raleigh's Somali-centric Salaama Restaurant and Market. Although I enjoyed all those places (except for one), I longed for an African Restaurant close to home. Actually, there was one that used to be close by (Genery) but it recently closed. I don't know the reasons for its demise, but if poor customer service was a factor, I'm not surprised. I didn't have good experiences in either of my visits to Genery, and I'm guessing others might not have had any. But Genery's loss could be King's gain.

King's has actually been around for several years. When it opened, the grocery/deli was run by African-Americans (aka American-born blacks) who served soul food. If they were still running the place, I'm sure my friend and fellow V & E resident Craig of the brilliant blog Memphis Que would have reviewed it. In addition to the obvious, Craig's niche is soul food that goes hand-in-hand with barbecue. Although I technically don't specialize in any one cuisine, as one of Memphis' two black food bloggers that I know of, (the lovely Tiffany Langston of Tiffany Tastes being the other), I decided to take it upon myself to highlight restaurants of the Motherland. That said, I couldn't resist a restaurant that I see every morning when I jog.

It took awhile to find time to make an "official" visit (as opposed to my typical "beer runs" and cravings for deli meat), but last Wednesday (August 8, 2012) was the day that I stopped by. The kitchen for Ethiopian food is normally open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., but because my visit was during Ramadan, the kitchen wasn't open during my initial visit at 11:30 a.m. The deli's cashier told me that the cook wouldn't open until 12:00 p.m. (and closes at 9:00 p.m.) Upon learning this, I went home and waited 45 minutes before returning at 12:15 p.m. From past experiences, I've learned that Africans don't abide by a strict schedule, so I wasn't surprised that the cook wasn't there on the second visit. After hanging out at the Flying Saucer for a couple of hours, I went there again. Fortunately, the third time was the charm.

The "restaurant" portion of King's consists of a small dining area in back of the store with the kitchen behind it. To place an order, one must go to a window in the wall separating the kitchen and dining area. Because King's lacks printed menus, the cook has to recite everything that's being served that day. I personally don't like that, because it doesn't give me a chance to carefully review everything prior to ordering (UPDATE: King's now has a menu). Therefore, I impulsively chose the fish and rice plate with a side salad because I haven't had an East African seafood dish. After I placed my order, I asked the cook if the food was Somali (I was told this by the cashier). The cook answered "Ethiopian" and said that it was the same as Somali cuisine. Not that I'm an expert, but saying that all East African cuisine is the same is like saying Memphis and Kansas City barbecue are interchangeable. Like with barbecue, there are subtle differences in East African cuisine. Still, I avoided debating him by nodding my head and took a seat at a table. After about ten minutes, my order was ready. The "fish" component of the meal was two tender catfish steaks, which I thought was strictly within the domain of Southern United States cuisine. Ground beef topped the rice, which made it easier to eat with a fork. Everything (minus the salad) was seasoned with what I believe was Ethiopian Berebere, which is a combination of pepper and other spices. It was very spicy and judging from the taste of it, it seemed that chili pepper was a part of it. Fortunately, the side salad, drenched in cucumber-flavored vinaigrette, provided a cool balance to the fish and rice. In all, everything was wonderful and well worth the wait.

The meal itself was huge. For ten dollars, I got enough food for two people so it stands to reason that I didn't I eat everything at the deli. After knocking out half of it, I packed up the rest and took it home. The next day, I ate the leftovers that consisted of one catfish steak and most of the rice. Unlike the water I had with it the day before, I ate the rest of it with a Corona Light that nicely complemented the meal. The light malty flavor of the lager meshed well with the unique spiciness of the Ethiopian meal. Halfway through my meal, I had finished off the catfish, so I mixed in smoked sausage as a substitute. While not a perfect match, it worked well with the rice and provided a good finishing touch to my lunch.

While I enjoyed my lunch, it wasn’t a genuine Ethiopian experience. Based on my visit to Abyssinia and what I’ve seen on TV shows like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, my lunch at King’s didn’t seem like the real deal. First, my meal didn’t come with Injera bread, a staple of Ethiopian cuisine. It is thin spongy bread that is used in pieces to pick up other morsels of food, thereby allowing a diner to eat with his/her hands. When I dined at Abyssinia, I was clueless about the bread’s purpose and ate everything with a knife and fork. Only later through TV shows on the Travel Channel did I learn of Injera bread’s purpose. I’m not sure why King’s doesn’t serve it, for making it is similar to cooking crepes. The way I see it, an Ethiopian restaurant not serving Injera is like a Mexican restaurant not having tortillas. By the way, Somali cuisine has a similar bread called Canjeelo (or Lahooh), but some of the ingredients used to make it (including the dough) are different from Injera.

The meal itself, while dubbed “Ethiopian” by King’s cook, was likely Somali. Most Ethiopian dishes are either stews or Tibs (aka Tibes) which is a type of sautéed entrée. The meal I had consisted largely of rice, which is a key component in many Somali dishes such as Suqaar, a beef stew entrée that I had at Salaama. By the way, I’m not saying that rice isn’t a part of Ethiopian cuisine, but from what I’ve seen and read, it seems to be more of a side item. Also, while reciting the menu, the cook mentioned some spaghetti entrées. At first, I thought this was King’s way of accommodating the locals, but I’ve learned that pasta is a part of Somali cuisine due to the country’s legacy as a former Italian colony. And because the country is located on the Horn of Africa, maritime trade has also allowed culinary influences from Ethiopia, The Middle East, India and Southeast Asia into Somali culture. In the end, I believe that both the deli’s cashier and cook were right, for my meal was likely a Somali/Ethiopian hybrid. Still, it was satisfying and I look forward to ordering it again.

UPDATE: Speaking of spaghetti, I recently (December 26, 2013) went back to King's for one of its pasta dishes. I got a "half plate" of pasta mixed with Suugo (also spelled "Sugo"), a Somali pasta sauce. The main component in the African pasta is boiled beef cubes (similar to Suqaar; defined by some as "Suugo Suqaar"). Unlike the last meal, the spaghetti was mildly spicy but I still enjoyed it. As for my gripe about the deli not having a printed menu, it now has one posted on its wall. I'm glad it has it, for I now know that I can get a "half plate" for five dollars as opposed to ordering a "whole plate" that is usually more than I need.

Somali/Ethiopian Menu

Good Pizza That's Worth The "Hunt"

With the first objective complete, I refocused on my original goal. Three weeks after having an East African lunch. I decided to get my first Hunt Brothers pizza. My expectation of its quality was something akin to typical frozen pizza like DiGiorno. As sort of a side item, I also got a single order of Hunt Brothers' Hot 'n Spicy Wings. I didn't expect much from the wings either, but both turned out well in the end.

The pizza I ordered was a pepperoni pizza. Unlike most pizza joints, Hunt Brothers pizzas come in only one size, twelve inches. I wished I could have gotten something smaller, but the excess allowed me to share the pizza with my mom. As for crust, my options were "original" and thin. For the purpose of comparison, I chose the thin crust. It's also the reason why I chose pepperoni, for it's the one ingredient that nearly all pizza-serving restaurants have on their menu, including the Majestic Grille (called "flatbreads" on its menu). Even though I only chose pepperoni, I could've gotten up to ten toppings on it and still paid the same price of $9.99. In hindsight, I should've gotten half the pizza loaded with toppings and the other half with just pepperoni. If I decide to get another pizza, I will do that and amend this review accordingly.

As for the pizza I had, I was very satisfied with what I got. The crust was the best part of the pizza. Although it was a thin crust, it was slightly thicker than average. While its edges were crispy, the crust's interior was fluffy and chewy with a taste akin to fresh bread. This took me by surprise, given that the dough for the crust was likely pre-made at a distant Hunt Brothers' facility. To maintain that freshness, good Quality Assurance standards are essential. Seemingly, Hunt Brothers have those in place and King's is adhering to them. For that, I want to commend the deli for its efforts.

The rest of the pizza was quite good, too. The taste of the tomato sauce and pepperoni were on par with most pizza joints. With particular regard to the pepperoni, it was fresh with all the zesty characteristics associated with it. To literally top it off, Parmesan cheese added a savory kick that accentuated the pizza's flavor. In all, I was quite impressed because the pizza exceeded my expectations.

For those who only want a slice, Hunt Brothers can accommodate that. Called "hunks," the slices are served from pizzas encased in a glass roaster. From my experiences, food that is prepared beforehand doesn't hold up well (I talk about this in detail in my review of Jack's Bar-B-Q Rib Shack). However, at $2.89, it is a cheaper alternative for those with small appetites.

The Hot 'n Spicy wings were quite decent for what they were, frozen wings that were heated in the same oven as my pizza. For Buffalo wings, they were not doused with a lot of sauce which led to a mess-free experience. Also typical with hot wings served from places like Pizza Hut, they lacked the crispiness that deep fried chicken should have. Although the wings were spicy, they weren't nearly as hot as its name would imply. The wings could be called "Mild 'n Spicy" because while they had some pepper flavor, it wasn't overwhelming. As a "side" for the pepperoni pizza, it complemented it well and rounded out my dinner.

dining area
Dining area
Overall, my first Hunt Brothers experience was a positive one. Based on the pepperoni pizza I had, I will say that Hunt Brothers rate above most frozen pizzas and "budget" eateries like CiCi's and lower than restaurant chains such as Domino’s and Papa John's. It's definitely better than the over-hyped Memphis Pizza Cafe that somehow manages to get top honors in every survey rating Memphis' top restaurants (it's the pizza equivalent of Huey's, but worse). I also like the availability of the numerous franchises that sell the pizza. You can't go a quarter-mile in any direction without running into one. Unfortunately, most of the convenient stores that have them don't have a dining room like King's where a person can dine-in if needed. Other than this drawback, I don't think too many people will be dissatisfied with anything from Hunt Brothers.

In conclusion, although my two experiences at King's Grocery and Deli were vastly different, both resulted in positive outcomes. For me, the experiences were very enlightening for I know more about East African cuisine and places to get a good pizza. As this concerns King's, I hope the word gets out in the neighborhood that it is a viable dining option to be considered along with places like Cafe Eclectic and Cave's Soul Food and More. The quality of its food earned a place among my choices within the neighborhood, and I will exercise it often. It's that good.

Hunt Brothers Pizza:
Pizza Menu

King's Grocery and Deli on Urbanspoon

LabelsAfrican, Beer, Deli, Gas Station/Convenience Store, Midtown, Pasta, Pizza, Wings

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Pork and Beef Burgers at Tops

Combining The Best Of Both Worlds

After reading a blog review by Memphis Que, I decided to try the pork and beef burger at Tops. The barbecue chain is renowned for its burgers and its pork shoulder is legendary, so combining the two seemed very interesting. So on a day where I had time to kill, I stopped by my neighborhood Tops to get this burger concoction.

The burger that I decided to go with was the quarter-pound cheeseburger. To make it a well-rounded meal, I got it as a combo with fries and beans. In getting pork shoulder added to a burger, it has to be ordered in one ounce increments that cost forty-five cents each. With this being my first time, I only got an ounce of pork for my burger. In hindsight, I should have gotten at least two ounces, for the small amount of pork was overwhelmed by the ground beef. As it was, the pork shoulder served as a role player in contributing to the overall taste of the burger. For the most part, the perfectly seasoned ground beef dominated the burger's flavor. However, the tender pork added a smoky element that blended well with the rest of the burger. Although it was satisfying, I felt that a better pork-to-beef ratio could make this burger even better.

For my second go-around, I got the double cheeseburger that comes with two quarter-pound beef patties. For the pork shoulder portion of it, I got four ounces of meat which gave me a two-to-one beef-pork patio. Although I had a closer meat ratio, I still didn't get that true barbecue experience. Even though I was getting a better taste of the pork shoulder, it still felt like more of a cheeseburger. The seasoning of salt and pepper in the ground beef dominated the smoky flavor of the pork shoulder. For the hell of it, I removed one of the beef patties to see if it made a difference. While the balance between the pork and beef were even, I felt something was missing. It seems that the pork shoulder wasn't as smoky as I felt it should have been (I talk about this in more detail in my other review of Tops). At that point, I decided to put some of Tops' mild barbecue sauce on the burger. This made a huge difference, for the tanginess of the sauce bolstered both the pork shoulder and ground beef. The end result was a well balanced marriage of barbecue and burger that I really enjoyed. After taking a few bites, I inserted the second beef patty back into the cheeseburger. Even with two beef patties, the barbecue sauce remained prominent in the burger. In all, it turned out to be a great cheeseburger that I have no regrets about ordering.

UPDATE: I recently (February 10, 2014) had another one of these, a half-and-half pork/beef ½ lb. cheeseburgers. Last the previous ones, it was damn good!

The sides I had were decent. The slightly salty and mildly crispy fries didn't have a lot of zing. The beans had a strong vinegar flavor that complemented the cheeseburger. The coleslaw (which I got with the second burger) had a creamy mix of mustard, mayo and the usual veggies that was thick yet crunchy. Although the sides are decent by themselves, they are great companions to an excellent burger.

Overall, I like the pork and beef burger concept of Tops. My only criticism is that the barbecue chain doesn't promote it. Because of this, a lot of people are missing out on something great. Hopefully word-of-mouth will change that, for it would be a shame if the pork and beef burger remained in the shadows of Memphis cuisine. It deserves better.


Tops Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Labels: Barbecue, Burgers, Multiple Locations

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Macon Texaco

My First Green Tamale

Recently, I discovered a Mexican grill at the Macon Texaco (aka Javier) gas station in Memphis’ Berclair neighborhood. This part of town has one of the highest Hispanic populations in the city, so naturally a lot Mexican restaurants are located there. Normally, I would have chosen a traditional establishment to eat lunch at during the week where I “temped” at a Family Dollar store. Unfortunately, I only had thirty minutes for lunch so my options were limited. To get the most out of my time, I decided to eat at the gas station next door to it. Not expecting much, I planned on eating a hot dog and bag of chips. As I approached the gas station, I saw “Mexican Grill” plastered across the windows of the building. Seeing this raised my hopes a bit, for I know that good food can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Once inside, I saw that the place had a setup that included a kitchen, a serving line displaying a combination of Mexican and Soul Food and a one-table dining area. The menu consisted of a mix of Mexican and fast food items (including Hunt Brothers Pizza), but I was set on getting some Latin flavor. Being short on cash, I got a beef taco with a small bag of Cool Ranch Doritos that cost $2.62. Along with a small cup of water, this had the makings of a nice lunch.

While I waited for my taco to cook, I noticed some green, tubular-shaped items at the end of the serving line. I asked the cashier what they were, and he said they were tamales. I was surprised at first, then one of the “temps” who was with me said the tamales were wrapped in plantain (a fruit very similar to banana) leaves. I had read about this type of tamale while doing research for my review of Tamale Trolley but I didn’t believe I would actually see one. However, I decided to pass on it and stuck with what I ordered. It didn’t take long for the kitchen to prepare my taco, for I got it a few minutes later. While I ate my lunch, another “temp” sat at my table with only a bottle of water. In the past when I made “real money,” I would have bought the guy something. Although my lack of cash prevented me from doing the right thing, the grill’s cashier took pity on this literally poor soul and gave him a tamale. When the guy got it, he placed it on the table and did nothing with it. When I asked him why he wasn’t eating his tamale, he eloquently replied “man, I ain’t eatin’ that shit.” His response didn’t surprise me because he is a bit of a sour puss that seems very unhappy with his life. With this rejection of the convenience store’s generosity, I asked if I could have it. Once he agreed, I grabbed the basket that the tamale was in and unwrapped it. After I got through the first layer of plastic wrapping, I immediately took a picture of it without noticing the other layer of wrapping. With this being the second anniversary of my blog, you would assume that I would be better at taking pictures, but my anxiousness preempted good judgment. Once the tamale’s inner plastic wrapping was removed, I opened it and discovered something interesting. Unlike most tamales that have a combination of chili pepper seasoning and pork mixed with either corn meal or masa, Macon Texaco’s is different. Its version consists of masa mixed with a jalapeño sauce and chunks of chicken (mostly “white meat”). For a tamale, the masa mix was both light on the stomach and satisfying at the same time. The jalapeño sauce made it very spicy, but that was tempered by lime juice that I squeezed from the slice provided. Ultimately, I ended up with a very unique tamale that was one of the best I ever had. My grumpy cohort really missed out on something great.

The other component of my lunch (aside from the Doritos) was the beef taco. It consisted of beef, sautéed onions and cilantro wrapped around two tortilla flatbreads. As you can see in the picture, a lot of cilantro was put into the taco, which resulted in a dominating floral flavor. Fortunately, a squeeze of lime toned it down enough to make it a great tasting taco.

When we finished our lunch (including Señor Sour Puss), I thanked the kitchen staff for both a wonderful meal and their generosity. I was very fortunate to have found this place and I hope more people discover it. It is places like this that makes Memphis a great city to live in.

Macon Texaco on Urbanspoon

LabelsCheap Eats, Gas Station/Convenience Store, Mexican, Nutbush/Berclair, Pizza, Tacos, Tamales

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Los Pilares

Coming "Home"

Recently, I've worked as a "temp" doing various jobs in and around Memphis. During my assignments, I've visited many restaurants that I never knew existed. From the quaint Heritage Cafe in Munford, Tennessee where I had a delicious Philly Cheesesteak omelet, to the Asian Palace Restaurant that served me my first and only Dim Sum dish, I have had great experiences. However, it's nice to return to a familiar place. Fortunately, while working in Millington, I've had a chance to do that.

During my stint in Millington, I visited three restaurants that were among my favorite places to dine at when I worked in Shelby Forest: Kelvin's Hot Wings (formally a barbecue restaurant) in Frayser, Mandarin Wok II and Los Pilares. Unlike the first two restaurants mentioned, I never went on the record about my thoughts of one of my favorite Mexican restaurants. I've always liked Los Pilares because it combined great food with outstanding service. During a recent visit, I got the chance to experience it again.

The day I visited Los Pilares, I tagged along with other "temps" who wanted to eat at Taco Bell for lunch. With Los Pilares being next door, I chose authenticity over Faux Mexican. My choice of entrée was the Quesadilla Rellena, a delicious favorite stuffed with cheese and a choice of beef, chicken or shrimp. Wrapped around a baked tortilla shell, the quesadilla comes with the requisite Mexican side items of rice, refried beans, tomato, guacamole, lettuce and sour cream. The latter four items came in handy, for it turned my chicken quesadilla into a creamy mix of flavor. To spice it up, I added salsa that resulted in the quesadilla tasting great. It helped that the fluffy tortilla shell, while firm, was malleable enough to enclose the added items that I put in without breaking apart. In all, it was a pleasure to eat that cost a little more than a comparable meal at most fast food joints.

The service at Los Pilares was excellent, as always. The second I sat at my table, a server was there with a menu and an eagerness to take my order. Less than a minute after taking it, my chips and salsa arrived. A few minutes later, the server brought out the main course with a big smile on his face. This all took place in about six to eight minutes, which is really good for a restaurant. Maybe the reason for that could have been the paucity of diners inside the restaurant (this was during a Saturday afternoon). Or it might have been due to the restaurant’s staff being in a great mood after Mexico won the gold medal in soccer by beating powerhouse Brazil in the 2012 Olympics in London. Whatever the reason, I appreciated the restaurant’s efforts in providing excellent service.

While I enjoyed my quesadilla, my fellow “temps” were happy with what they had at Taco Bell. Nothing against it, but Mexican fast food will never substitute for the real thing. I won't outline why Taco Bell is inferior to even crappy Mexican restaurants like the blog Memphis Que did in a barbecue comparison. Even those who will never visit Memphis will likely assume that a genuine barbecue joint like Jack's Bar-B-Que Rib Shack serves better tasting ribs than a perfectly made McRib sandwich from McDonald's. Likewise, a quesadilla from Taco Bell (even if renowned chef Lorena Garcia created it) will never stack up against a genuine Mexican restaurant like Los Pilares. The reasons are obvious, such as cheaper ingredients and a lesser skilled kitchen staff who are more focused on quantity than quality. I hope I'm not coming off like a food snob, but I like eating at places run by chefs whose reputation is on the line every time they serve something from the kitchen. That's something that a fast food manager never has to worry about, for his/her concern is more about profitability and towing the company line. But fast food serves a useful function in society, for it quickly provides a cheap meal for those who don't either have the time or money to savor something better. I just hope that those who regularly eat at Taco Bell don't fall into the belief that they are eating genuine Mexican food. If that's all they know, then they need to get to a Mexican restaurant ASAP. For those who believe that Taco Bell is genuine Mexican cuisine despite having the real thing, then they should never talk about food. Instead, they should focus on subjects that even morons can't screw up, like women in tube tops.

I wish Los Pilares was closer to where I live. Actually, Los Pilares has two locations in Metro Memphis (the other is in Bartlett at 6249 Stage Road). If the owners are looking for another location to open a restaurant, there's vacant space in the building that houses Dino's Grill in my neighborhood. It would be a great addition to Midtown's Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood that currently enjoys great restaurants like Dino's and Cafe Eclectic (UPDATE: that location is currently the home of a Goodwill bookstore/donation center). Whatever its plans for the future, I will always be a loyal supporter of Los Pilares and I wish it future success.



Los Pilares on Urbanspoon

Labels: Bartlett, Commentary, Family Friendly, Mexican, Millington, Multiple Locations

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