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.
Here at The Delta Review, we have discussed the excellent Brunswick Kitchen restaurant before, and it is enough here to restate that it is a great and fun getaway from Memphis for a Friday evening dinner of catfish or pulled pork barbecue, in an old general store building which makes for a fun and pleasant setting.
But on this particular Friday night, there was a mysterious golden glow in the sky, after a day that had seen pop-up showers. Not only did the sunlight seem to make all the colors of buildings and trees more brilliant, but for the first time I noticed that the old abandoned house in the block north of the restaurant was situated in the middle of a pecan orchard. I had never noticed the perfectly straight rows of trees until that precise moment. It was a gorgeous sight to go along with a great meal.
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.
Shelby County, Tennessee is largely dominated by Memphis and its suburban satellites, but it was not always so. The county had a long past as an agricultural and rural region, and a few areas still retain that atmosphere, perhaps none so much as the twin communities of Rosemark and Barretville in Northeast Shelby County between Millington and Arlington.
Rosemark, originally called Richland but renamed when it became apparent that there was a Richland elsewhere in Tennessee, was a good-sized place with a telephone company, gin, school and several churches, but Barretville, just to the north, was something of a one-man town, or at least a one-family town. The Barret family dominated this area of Shelby County, opening the J. H. Barret Company store, the Barret cotton gin and the Barretville bank. The nearby Black high school was named Barret’s Chapel, probably after a church the Barret family had donated the land for, and the Barrets were deeply involved with the Bolton Agricultural High School located to the south and east of their community.
Of course, times change. The Barretville Bank became Patriot Bank, and the general store closed, and Millington placed both Rosemark and Barretville in its annexation reserves. Barret’s Chapel High School was closed and merged with Bolton High School. Most recently, the general store had been a cider brewery called Long Road Cider Company. Although the place also featured some light salads and sandwiches and live music, I never had occasion to visit it.
But here, during the summer of the pandemic, the cider company closed and was replaced by a new J. H. Barret & Company General Store, also known as the Barretville General Store. Although the building features some gourmet grocery items for take-home, and a few locally made arts, crafts and clothing items, the place is primarily a restaurant, and one with a number of different choices. Pizza is at the top of the menu, and the pizzas look absolutely delicious, but on my visit, I decided to try one of the burgers. There are two options, including one with bleu cheese called the “Bobby Blue” (Bobby “Blue” Bland was born in nearby Rosemark). I had that burger, plain except for bacon and bleu cheese, and found it delightful. The fries it came with were good as well. In addition to the two burger choices, there is a patty melt, and then two chicken sandwich options. Besides that, Barretville General Store offers barbecue, and a whole sandwich menu as well. At a time when many restaurants are suffering from the pandemic, I was amazed at how many people were enjoying the general store, and the atmosphere was fun and upbeat. Of course, masks are required everywhere in Shelby County.
As for the surroundings, the place has been restored to its former glory. Plenty of wooden chairs and benches have been placed on the front porch for sitting, which was, of course, the main feature of any rural country store back in the day. The primary color scheme is black and white, but the aquamarine benches offset that and add a dash of color. Despite progress in the area, Barretville has changed little, and the area still has the look of a small rural community. For fun and good food, the drive out from Memphis is worth it. Plan a weekend trip to Barretville General Store, eat a great meal, and buy some baked goods to take back home with you.
With travel curtailed by the pandemic, many of us who love New Orleans have been unable to travel to our favorite city this summer, but Memphians who love the Big Easy got a little bit of consolation in June with the opening of the Parish Grocery in the former Atomic Tiki Bar location. (A transition from the South Pacific to South Rampart Street is quite a transition indeed!). Despite the name, Parish Grocery is not a grocery store, but a New Orleans-style deli, with po-boys and muffulettas. The sandwiches are made with Liedenheimer bread, which is considered the gold standard when it comes to po-boys. (Gambino’s is a beloved competitor in that regard as well). On a broiling day in June, I ventured in to try a shrimp po-boy after seeing a Facebook friend check in a few days before. The building on Overton Park Avenue in the Crosstown section of Memphis is old and historic, and has the sort of look I associate with New Orleans, including the door facing the corner rather than either street. As for the shrimp po-boy, it was the authentic article and quite good. Soft drinks come in cans, but were cold and refreshing, and for a treat after the meal, they advertise New Orleans-style snowballs, but I didn’t try one, so I cannot say how authentic they are. (For the uninitiated, a New Orleans snowball and a snow cone are vastly different.) The surroundings were pleasant, and included memorabilia from the TV show Treme, as well as various musician photos and concert posters.
Indeed, I had only one complaint, in that they do not offer french fries. They are of course not alone in that regard, and there are a number of New Orleans sandwich shops that do not have fries, including the venerable Domilise’s. But I am just not a fan of cajun slaw, or German potato salad, or any of the other various salads or vegetables that are offered. A shrimp po-boy, fries and a Barq’s was staple summer fare for me in my youth at Gulfport, Mississippi. All the same, Parish Grocery offers the most authentic New Orleans experience in a Memphis restaurant. They even have bread pudding, and Zapps potato chips. Pay them a visit.
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.
Growing up, my family used to meet in October for family reunions in Jackson, Mississippi. It was the “big city” in Mississippi; it had a zoo, malls, a large football stadium, a downtown with reasonably tall buildings, and a number of hotels and restaurants. There was also a large reservoir out to the northeast of town that provided a fair amount of recreation opportunities. But if we thought of Jackson as the “big city,” one thing we never thought of it as was hip. But that began changing over the years, and recently the hipness has been growing ever more rapidly. I discovered that a few weeks ago when I decided to stop at a new coffee bar called Il Lupo while on my way from Monroe to Memphis. I could not even place the location of this new coffee bar, which seemed to be located about where the old School for the Deaf and School for the Blind campuses were. I found that the area had in fact been turned into a mixed-use development called The District, which looked like something straight out of Austin, Texas. A number of apartments, with retail shops on the ground floor sat across a park-like courtyard from an upscale burger restaurant called Fine and Dandy, and another retail building which included something called Cultivation Food Hall, inside of which was the coffee bar.
Cultivation Food Hall, a bright and attractive space, is owned by the same firm that redeveloped the St. Roch Market in New Orleans as a food hall, and features a broad array of different food options. Although I went inside looking for the coffee bar, I soon came upon a gelato stand at Whisk Creperie as well, so I ended up going there first. Then I walked next door to Il Lupo to get a pour-over coffee, which was quite good. There’s no better preparation method if you want to enjoy the full flavor profile of high-quality coffee beans and coffee roasts. Had I not already eaten, there were other attractive food stalls in the hall, including one that was selling authentic Italian-style pizzas, and another that seemed to specialize in breakfast.
The District is currently not easy to get to from I-55, but it is certainly worth paying a visit to.
Monroe once had a downtown coffee bar, but the unexpected demise of RoeLa and the relocation of its successor, Bayou Brew House, means that for someone seeking an after-lunch coffee, there aren’t many options. An exception is Butter A Louisiana Bakery, in the lobby of the historic Vantage Tower. While you have to check in with the building’s front desk to explain that you are headed to Butter, because the building is basically an office tower, the bakery is worth the effort. Cookies, brownies, cakes are all there, as well as quiches and light lunch options. And, because the owner’s husband has celiac disease, all of the options are gluten-free. I chose something called a double doozie, a sandwich of two freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies with cream cheese icing and chocolate chips in between them. It was shockingly rich, and quite delicious, and a cup of coffee went well with it. The surroundings, lovingly restored by the Vantage Health Plan organization, are redolent of the Roaring 1920s, complete with marble floors.
Nearby, a short two-block walk away, is something called Art Alley, a two-block stretch of local galleries along a dead-end of North Second Street created when the city took out the rail crossing on that street. A beautiful painted pelican caught my attention, and of course the walls of buildings nearby were full of colorful murals. One of them read “Life is Messy,” which is certainly a true statement. Unfortunately, none of the galleries were open on a Friday afternoon, but I will have to make a journey to Monroe for one of the Art Crawls, which happen periodically during the year.