Food halls, sort of like food courts without the mall, have become something of a trend in other cities; for the customer, they allow people to sample many different kinds of food in one place, while, for the restauranteur, they allow lower overhead for new startups. The concept has worked well at the St. Roch Market in New Orleans, and at Cultivation Food Hall in Jackson, Mississippi, so when I heard that Puck Food Hall was opening at the 409 South Main building on the south end of downtown, I expected it would do well. Instead, it struggled from day one, and undoubtedly the COVID-19 pandemic piled on. By the time I first visited in November, it was already winding down toward an inevitable closing.
Although Puck Food Hall will close for good in December, it was still home to Dr. Bean’s Coffee and Tea Emporium and to a retail outlet for Clarksdale-based Sweet Magnolia Gelato Company on my last visit. Dr. Bean’s will be relocating to the former Lo Fi Coffee stand within Stock and Belle at 387 South Main. Sweet Magnolia Gelato will likely be leaving downtown for a location in the east county suburbs.
Here’s hoping that after the pandemic, someone will try again to bring the food hall concept to Memphis. I think with the right management and in the right location, it could do well.
New Orleans-themed restaurants have come and gone over the years in Memphis; few of them offered beignets, those delightful doughnuts we learned to love at the Cafe du Monde in Jackson Square. Fortunately, there is now a place called Ben Yay’s on the Main Street Mall in downtown Memphis that offers the best in New Orleans cuisine and the delicious beignets as well.
Located in a space that has housed several New Orleans-themed restaurants over the years including most notably Chef Gary’s Deja Vu, which closed when he passed away, Ben yay’s proclaims itself a “Gumbo Shop,” but they have an absolutely delicious shrimp po-boy, and one that is fairly authentic. Nothing fancy, of course; po-boys are not fancy food. But it is, as all good po-boys are, a thing of beauty. There are too many shrimp for the french loaf; they fall off the sandwich onto your plate, which is the mark of a good po-boy. The french fries that came with it were delicious as well.
But it is what came afterwards that sets Ben Yay’s apart. Authentic New Orleans-style beignets, covered with powdered sugar. There have been beignet places in Memphis before, including several locations of Crescent City Beignet that have since closed, and a suburban place called Voodoo Cafe in Bartlett which sells sweet and savory beignets shaped like voodoo dolls. But the beignets at Ben Yay’s give the place its name, and are the most like what you would find in New Orleans I have seen in Memphis. They are delicious, but messy, and your clothes WILL be covered in powdered sugar when you are through enjoying them. All the same, it’s worth it.
Halloween this year fell on a Saturday, and early in the afternoon, I drove over to Backermann’s Country Market in Whiteville, Tennessee, an Amish bakery known for its fried pies and other desserts. I had hoped to buy a chocolate peanut butter pie to take back home, but to my disappointment, I found that they do not stock them, and only bake them when ordered. I ended up not buying anything, and upon my return to Somerville in Fayette County, discovered that the new coffee bar I heard about there had closed at 3 PM. So I decided to head down to Moscow and into Mississippi on my way to Como.
With my car having been in the shop for two months, this was my first opportunity to visit Como in some time, and I had heard that Micol Davis of the band Blue Mother Tupelo had opened a coffee bar there called Como Coffee Stop. As it turned out, the new coffee shop is in the former Delta Recording Service building next to the post office, which has more recently been an ice cream parlor, an arts and crafts store, and a drum lesson studio (at least in the back room). The Coffee Stop is a business born of necessity, as the COVID pandemic has canceled almost all of Blue Mother Tupelo’s shows; for now, it does not have an espresso machine, but serves brewed Community Coffee and baked goods. I enjoyed visiting with Micol, and had planned on walking down to Windy City Grille for a dinner, but my friend Sherena Boyce (R. L.’s daughter) called me and wanted to go to Tribecca Allie Cafe in Sardis.
So I drove back to Senatobia to pick her up, and we rode down to Sardis to Tribecca, which has been proclaimed some of the best pizza in the United States. After a period of time when they were closed to inside dining and allowing to-go orders only, they are now back to allowing at least limited dine-in service. The pizzas at Tribecca are unique because they are cooked over a wood fire, which imparts a special flavor to them. After dinner, we were invited by our waitress to attend the Panola Playhouse’s performance of Little Shop of Horrors next door, but Sherena did not particularly want to go, and I was tired. It was late enough that trick or treating was largely over, and so we both went home.
Periodically, I receive sponsored messages in my Facebook timeline, and on one afternoon, a message from a restaurant called The Biscuitry caught my attention. The restaurant turned out to be in Bolivar, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, and the message was to the effect that they were going to start opening for happy hour and dinner on Fridays (the restaurant was otherwise open only for breakfast and lunch). With Bolivar only about an hour from my house in Bartlett, I decided to drive over there on the following Friday and try it out.
Like many other West Tennessee towns, Bolivar is historic, built around a typical Southern town square. A statue of Simon Bolivar, for whom the town is named, stands in front of the courthouse. As it turned out, The Biscuitry was located across the street from a historic Big Star supermarket, and next door to the historic Luez Theatre. I found the restaurant lovingly restored and decorated, and the place was full, with an upbeat and convivial atmosphere, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
My waitress was also cheerful and upbeat, and she helped me greatly in negotiating all the various menu choices. Indeed, one of my difficulties was in deciding which of the many delicious menu options to try. Ultimately, I tried a burger, which, uniquely, was seared with a sugar-based dry rub. This caramelized and crusted on the outside, which made the burger absolutely amazing. It came with bacon and cheese on it, and nearly a whole plate of french fries. Afterwards, I enjoyed a slice of dark chocolate cake and a cup of coffee before heading back out to the square.
There was actually a live music concert on the court square as I was coming out of the restaurant, but it was country music, which is not my cup of tea, and it was beginning to drizzle somewhat. Instead I drove down into the southside of Bolivar, where I finally managed to find the old lodge hall of the United Sons and Daughters of Charity, which was a Black benevolent society in Bolivar. The historic building seems abandoned and in poor shape, but it was amazing to see it and photograph it. Altogether I had a satisfying meal and an enjoyable evening.
Many years ago, Memphis arguably had one of the country’s best Black coffee bars. Precious Cargo, in the Pinch District, was both a coffee bar and one of the best places in the city for Black spoken word, avant-garde jazz, reggae, neo-soul and fellowship. Unfortunately, a fire set it back, and though it reopened for another year or so, it eventually closed. The opening this summer, during a pandemic no less, of a new Black coffee bar called Muggin Coffee House in Whitehaven is an exciting new addition to the city of Memphis. Not only does Muggin fill a gap in the Black community of Memphis, but it is also the only coffee bar in Whitehaven that is not inside of the airport or the Graceland complex. Although the coffee bar is located in an ancient strip mall, the inside is bright and cheerful. Muggin features the usual array of hot espresso-based drinks, as well as a selection of baked goods including chocolate chip and brown butter cookies, and two frozen concoctions which are worthy of further discussion. The “Zippin Pippin” (named for a long-lost and beloved Memphis roller coaster) is a white chocolate and caramel frappe, while the “Flickin’ on Beale” is a delicious chocolate and espresso frappe. The latter, unlike the Starbucks equivalent, is not overwhelmingly sweet, with some of the sweetness cut by strong coffee, making for a perfectly refreshing summer treat. Roasted bags of whole bean coffees are available for purchase, and the different varieties have clever names, including the Miles Davis-inspired “Kinda Brew,” the Three-6 Mafia inspired “Hard Out Here For A Drip,” and the DJ Squeaky-inspired “Lookin’ For The Brewin’.” The name of the establishment cleverly combines the slang-term “muggin'” suggesting confidence and bravado, with the idea of coffee mugs. Currently, Muggin’ closes early, about 6 PM, and no live performances are currently planned, with COVID-19 concerns still in play. However, it seems likely that at some future point, Muggin’ may also be an evening spot for live performances, at least occasionally. One can certainly hope.
Just a few short years ago, no coffees were being roasted in Memphis. All of sudden, there is seemingly an endless array of locally-based coffee brands, and most of them of very high quality. One can imagine my surprise when yet another new one appeared on my Facebook timeline recently, Ethnos Coffee. Ethnos specializes in roasts of beans from various parts of the world….they recently got acclaim for the cleverly-named Guji Mane Ethiopian coffee, and have coffees from Nicaragua, Brazil and many other parts of the world. Locally, they can be purchased at Cool Beans Coffee Shop, a new coffee bar inside the Cordova Farmer’s Market. Prices are reasonable, and the coffee is really good. For those who don’t live in the Memphis area, their coffees can be ordered from their website, and they ship.
Any day that I am leaving New Orleans tends to be depressing, and Ash Wednesday always seems doubly so. Perhaps it is supposed to be depressing, or at least sobering. It starts the penitential season of Lent, when we are supposed to focus on our own sinfulness, and the monumental nature of what Christ did for us. But knowing that the fun times of Mardi Gras are over for another year is just a little saddening.
Most years, a good breakfast helps cheer me up before I get on the road. This year, my friend Darren Towns of the TBC Brass Band and his four daughters joined me at Polly’s Bywater Cafe, one of my favorite breakfast places in New Orleans. The place is usually not all that busy, particularly on the average weekday, but this particular day was an exception. The place was packed, the kitchen and waitstaff way behind. We ultimately got our food, and it was as good as ever, but it took awhile.
I chose to leave the city on the Causeway, going across the lake to the north shore. I was in the mood for some coffee, so instead of going to a Starbucks or another chain, I ventured off the main road into the small town of Madisonville where there was a place called Abita Coffee Roasters.
As I have noted on a previous visit, Madisonville is one of the most beautiful towns in Louisiana. North of Lake Pontchartrain, its historic downtown along Water Street fronts on the Tchefuncte River, which is navigable down to the lake, by which boats can make their way to the Gulf of Mexico. There are a number of waterfront houses, and several marinas, as well as a handful of restaurants. But Abita Coffee Roasters is by far the most beautiful building in downtown Madisonville, with the look of an old creole home, surrounded by towering mossy oaks. Its front porch faces the river, and in back is a lovely patio/courtyard.
Of course people go to a coffee house for the coffee, and that is excellent too. Not only does Abita have espresso-based coffee drinks, but they also do their own coffee roasting, and have plenty of bags of different varieties of whole bean coffees for purchase. I was actually tempted to buy some, but I already had a lot of bean coffee at home waiting to be brewed. So I contented myself with a breve latte and a chocolate brownie, and then continued on my way toward Memphis. Although nothing could completely cure my sadness, the beauty of Madisonville was comforting.
The end of Zulu is followed almost immediately by Rex, and although they follow different routes to a point, they end up coming right behind each other on St. Charles. Back up at St. Charles and Sixth, the crowds were not nearly as thick, and it was easier to photograph marching bands, such as Warren Easton from New Orleans. It also seemed easier to catch beads, and this time I managed to duck a cup rather than getting hit by it! Also, as in 2018, the Gracious Bakery and Cafe was open, giving us access to baked goods, cold drinks and coffee. However, one of the difficulties of Mardi Gras is the way that many different events conflict with one another. Doing one thing often precludes doing others; I had been invited to spend the day with Joe Maize from TBC, who was playing the drums for a Black Indian gang, the Golden Eagles, but I feared that if I spent the whole day out there with them, I would miss the parades. Even so, at 1 PM, I decided to leave the parade route and see if I could find the Indians uptown. Their parades are unscheduled, and wander through the neighborhoods as the spirit moves them, looking for rival gangs to confront ritually. They no longer fight violently as they once did; the battles are all danced, but it is still a one-of-a-kind experience. The parades are full of beauty and grandeur, but it is more of planned beauty. The Indians are something entirely different, a beauty more spontaneous and indigenous.
I was awakened by children’s laughter. My friend Darren Towns’ four daughters were as excited by Mardi Gras morning as kids usually are on Christmas Day. Their mother had stayed up late making them special screen-printed shirts to wear, and Darren was soon up as well, playing a recording of Kermit Ruffin’s reading of the Dr. John classic “All On A Mardi Gras Day.” Most people in New Orleans, if they are in a hurry to get to the parades, skip breakfast, but that was not an option for me, so I told Darren I would catch up with them uptown, and then headed out to look for breakfast. I didn’t have to look far this year, because Coffee & in Marrero was not only open but packed from wall to wall. I could only sit at the bar, but that was fine, while the TV screens showed the people already gathered along St. Charles Avenue for the day’s parades. Although the weather was grey, it was quite warm, and the forecast had been revised, reducing the chance of rain. The man sitting at the bar beside me said “I hate Mardi Gras,” and I had to ask him why. It turned out that he was retired from law enforcement and had worked the holiday for eighteen years. I could somewhat understand. He also indicated that people were not supposed to be throwing cups from floats, like the one that hit me in face the day before. By ordinance, they are supposed to hand them to people in the crowd.
I had meant to go across the Huey P. Long Bridge, fearing that the Crescent City Connector would be gridlocked by the parade crowds, but it was surprisingly easy to get across, and I exited at Magazine and Camp streets. Staying between the river and St. Charles, I was easily able to make my way to Sixth street, and found that I had no problem finding a place to park. But Zulu does not go down that end of St. Charles, and though there were crowds around, they were largely waiting for the Rex parade. I also did not find Darren and his family at Sixth and St. Charles, so I had to call him, and I found that they had gone to Washington Avenue in order to catch the end of the Zulu parade. It took some walking, but I soon made it there, and had no trouble meeting up with them. Here the crowds were thick indeed, everyone in a festive mood. I need not have worried about missing Zulu, for I caught the vast majority of it. What I didn’t catch was any coconuts. They are actually quite stingy with them, and I had noticed that in previous years as well. I also found that the drastic press of crowds made filming the various marching bands difficult. But the weather was great, and everyone had a good time.
Lundi Gras is really a holiday in New Orleans, with schools and some businesses closed, and a lot of people off work. My friend Darren Towns, his wife, his four daughters and I all headed across the Huey P. Long bridge fairly early in the morning to the Elmwood neighborhood in Jefferson Parish to a new restaurant called Sunny Side Up. It wasn’t a fancy place, but it had really good food, and the kids particularly enjoyed it.
The parades were not until the evening, and we missed the first one, but Orpheus started later, and we managed to find parking south of St. Charles Avenue near Sixth Street. I had heard a great marching band as I walked up to the parade route, but I didn’t know who it was. When I caught up with Darren and his dad at the parade route, I learned I had missed Jackson State’s Sonic Boom of the South. Stillman College and Coahoma Community College bands were two of the first to go past after I arrived, and the darkness was illuminated by brilliant-lit and colored floats, as well as the traditional flambeaux carried by young men which used to be part of all Mardi Gras parades. While the floats interested the younger kids, the interest for Darren, his dad and myself were the marching bands. Despite the obvious differences between marching band and brass band styles and cultures, New Orleans is a city of serious “band heads,” as they are known, and most of the city’s better brass band musicians began their musical careers in school bands, some of which are now famous. Bands from St. Augustine, Marion Abramson, Edna Karr and Landry Walker were among those marching in Orpheus on Monday night. Despite being focused on the bands, I managed to catch some beads, but one thing that was not very much fun was getting hit below the left eye by a cup thrown from a float. Even though I was standing a considerable distance from the float, the cup struck me hard, and led to soreness and swelling below the eye. Darren managed to get the cup, which was emblazoned with Orpheus 2020, and gave it to me, even though I was not at all sure that I wanted it! I later learned that float riders were supposed to hand the cups to people, not throw them.
All too soon, the parade was over, and although we had talked about going down to the Central Business District for pizza at Tommy G’s Coal-Fired Pizza, that was near the end of the parade route, and we thought better of it. Instead, we headed the opposite direction to Pizza Domenica, way uptown on Magazine Street, arriving just before they were scheduled to close. This restaurant makes a good mainstay during the Mardi Gras holidays, as they remain open normal hours, and cheerfully serve people coming from the parades. And the pizza is outstanding as well.
Afterwards, I had suggested to Darren that we go to Cafe du Monde in the Quarter for coffee and beignets, but he was tired. Instead, he informed me that a place called Coffee & in Marrero was open 24 hours a day and had coffee and beignets. So I stopped there and got a cafe au lait and an order of beignets. If they weren’t quite as good as the Cafe du Monde, they were certainly good enough, cost less, and were more convenient. I was surprised at how crowded the place was on the night before Mardi Gras, and it was nearly midnight, at which time Mardi Gras day would begin.
We were all thoroughly exhausted. Even after drinking cafe au lait, I had no problem drifting off to sleep.