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.
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.
After a hot afternoon of interviewing people for my masters’ thesis, I had driven down into Marshall County to a spot where my iPhone indicated that Coldwater Church Cemetery would be located. Coldwater Church had played a role in an incident in the 1870’s, in which a Black benevolent society, led by a fife and drum band, marched toward Collierville to protest the shooting death of the society’s president. But in the area indicated by my phone, I found no sign of a church nor of a cemetery. It is entirely possible that the cemetery is in someone’s backyard on private land, so I gave up looking for it and ventured into Collierville looking for something cold and sweet.
I ended up at Levee Creamery, a welcoming and inviting spot at the corner of Houston Levee and Wolf River Parkway, which, as it turns out, is owned by the folks behind Pyro’s Fire-Fresh Pizzas and the Wolf River Brisket Company. The place was sleek, colorful and comfortable, with a full espresso menu as well as ice cream, and soft serve. I opted for the latter, a chocolate soft-serve with Oreo toppings. The lack of Reese’s peanut-butter cups as an available topping was a minor quibble, but not a big deal, and I found the soft-serve absolutely amazing, even more delicious than Dairy Queen, and I am a DQ fan.
The Creamery also has an interesting jukebox, which people can control from an app on their phone, to which they can upload money in order to play songs. They are open at 6:30 AM weekdays, so that people can get their caffeine fix before heading to nearby Houston or Collierville High Schools, and have recently opened a second location on Highland near the University of Memphis. They are a good, reliable option for your coffee or ice cream needs.
On November 4, 2017, Senatobia launched its inaugural Blues and Brews festival in Gabbert Park, in unusually warm and wet weather. In fact, dense fog enveloped the whole park, and made it hard to see the crowd from the stage area. But a small crowd braved the wet (although not technically rainy) weather to celebrate the unveiling of an historic marker in honor of Sid Hemphill, and the rededication of another to Black country pioneer O. B. McClinton, as well as beer, good food, and great blues. Of particular interest was the opening performer, Glen Faulkner, a master of the one-string guitar from the Gravel Springs community, which was also home to the better-known Otha Turner and his fife-and-drum band. Faulkner has been recorded little, perhaps because he doesn’t sing, and clearly was not feeling his best, having to be helped onto the stage. But once on stage, he demonstrated his absolute mastery of his somewhat unusual instrument, treating the audience to his version of Hill Country standards like “My Babe” and “When I Lay My Burdens Down.” Faulkner was followed by Little Joe Ayers, one of the original generation of Hill Country bluesmen who for many years was part of Junior Kimbrough’s band, and then by Kent Burnside, one of R. L. Burnside’s grandsons, who rarely appears in this part of the country, although he performs frequently in the Midwest and internationally. Mark “Muleman” Massey was next on the lineup, followed by Garry Burnside and his girlfriend Beverly Davis, along with the seldom-seen guitarist Joe Burnside, to close the evening’s festivities. There were quite a few local food vendors as well, including Alma Jean’s Southern Kookin and Bliss Handcrafted Ice Cream. It was a memorable night of blues on an unusually warm day in November.
After the second-line, we were so hot when we got back to the car that I immediately started searching in my phone for ice cream options, and soon found a place listed on Prytania Street called The Creole Creamery. The location was a small business strip in an area I had somehow managed to miss all the years I had been going to New Orleans, and with the weather as hot as it was, the place was crowded. After enjoying some homemade ice cream, I realized that Sherena had never had an authentic New Orleans snowball (snowballs are nothing like snow cones, by the way), so I took her to Hansen’s on Tchoupitoulas Street, since that is the place that claims to have invented the snowball. Whether that is true or not, Hansen’s has been selling this frosty, New Orleans goodness for 75 years, and although I’ve had their snowballs many times before, this time I decided to act like a local and try the nectar flavor. I found it to be unique, and delicious, although I cannot really describe in words what it tasted like, and unfortunately, it is not a flavor you can get in Memphis. Later, we headed to Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar and Fish House on North Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City for a seafood dinner on our last night in New Orleans. After dinner, I had wanted to head to a club in the Seventh Ward called Josie’s Playhouse in order to see the Big 6 Brass Band perform, but Sherena wanted to see Guitar Lightning Lee, who had opened up for her dad on a previous trip to New Orleans, so we headed to a dive bar on St. Claude Avenue called The Saturn and met him and his friends.
If Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival is sort of a family-friendly approach to the Mississippi Blues, at least during the daytime, the Goat Fest, now in its fourth year, is something wilder. After all, its slogan is “Sin, Repent, Repeat.” Yet despite the adult image, the main focus is blues and other forms of roots music, over two days, at two venues in the greater Clarksdale area, one the open-air New Roxy theatre, the other, the Juke Joint Chapel at the Shack Up Inn at Hopson, a few miles out from Clarksdale proper. On Friday, June 2, the focus at the Juke Joint Chapel location was classic Mississippi Hill Country blues, with excellent performances from Cedric Burnside, the Robert Kimbrough Blues Connection band, and Lightnin’ Malcolm, and the chapel, with its odd array of historic signs, instruments and artifacts made a perfect venue for the musical happenings of the evening. Adding to the good-time vibe was excellent pulled-pork barbecue, as well as containers of Clarksdale’s superb Sweet Magnolia gelato. And the only thing really wild was some of the dancing!
A few years ago, the Commercial Appeal newspaper compared Memphis to Austin in an article, a rather strange and forced comparison perhaps, despite the fact that both are music cities. When it comes to business, economy and culture, the two cities are nothing alike, but Memphis often seems envious of the kind of weirdness and success that Austin seems to represent. At any rate, over the last year, Memphis has witnessed the opening of two music venues that resemble the way things are done in Austin, Loflin Yard and now Railgarten. The similarities between them prove to be more than coincidence, as some of the same people are involved with both.
Anyone who has visited Austin during South By Southwest has probably been to Amy’s Ice Cream or the 24 Diner, both of which are located next to Waterloo Records at the central intersection of 6th and Lamar near downtown, and the developers of Railgarten seem to have patterned their location as a merger of Amy’s, 24 Diner and an outdoor-type music venue such as Austin’s Container Bar. The decision is an inspiring one indeed. First of all, Railgarten offers great food in their diner, breakfast items at certain hours, and gourmet burgers, including the one I had with a fried egg on top for good measure. Next door to that is an ice-cream parlor, that features homemade milkshakes as well. There is a ping-pong parlor in a building to the east, outside a volleyball court, and a lawn with fire-pits, as well as an outdoor stage made of shipping containers which incorporates the Skateland “Roller Skate For Health” neon sign from the legendary Summer Avenue skating rink of long ago. A food truck provides eats and snacks for those enjoying the outdoor music. All told, the fairly-large complex offers something for everyone.
ADDENDUM: Unfortunately, after my visit, all kinds of trouble broke out for this place. Local code enforcement, responding to complaints from the residential neighborhood north of the restaurant, hit Railgarten with “Do Not Occupy” warnings in April because of their use of shipping containers (despite the fact that the area is zoned industrial), and because they allegedly did not have a permit for live music. Further complaints to the Board of Adjustment stated that Railgarten did not have sufficient parking for a venue of its size. (It is worth noting that Austin did not have a problem with the Container Bar using shipping containers as part of its permanent building). As a result of the controversy, the backyard at Railgarten remains closed during a City Council-mandated 30-day delay before the Board of Adjustment can make a ruling as to whether it can reopen. The diner, ping-pong hall and ice cream parlor remain open under curtailed hours.
In 1958, record store owner Joe Coughi of Poplar Tunes in Memphis decided to start a record label, and he named it Hi Records, with the name taken from the last two letters of his name. Purchasing the Royal Theater on South Lauderdale, he converted it into a recording studio (Jim Stewart would do the same thing a year later with the nearby Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue in forming Stax Records), and began recording country and rockabilly records. When Ruben Cherry and Celia Hodge’s Home of the Blues family of labels collapsed in 1962, producer Willie Mitchell was briefly without a musical home, but he soon ended up producing for Coughi at the Royal Studios, which he eventually purchased. Hi Records soon moved from recording rockabilly and country to recording blues, soul and gospel, particularly the work of such greats as Al Green, O.V. Wright, Don Bryant, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. The Hi label was eventually sold to Al Bennett in California, but the Royal Studios continued under Willie Mitchell. As Stax collapsed and the Memphis recording industry with it, Royal continued on, and today, under Willie Mitchell’s son Boo, has become a world-famous institution. So it was only fitting that Royal Sound Studios should celebrate with a block party for the surrounding South Memphis neighborhood on the street now called Willie Mitchell Boulevard, and all the more so as Boo Mitchell announces to the world the launch of Royal Records, a label based out of the venerable Memphis studios. The first act for the fledgling label is a rap duo called Lil Riah and Key Money, both of whom are members of the Mitchell family, and who were the featured performers at the block party. But attendees also enjoyed performances by Memphis veterans Al Kapone and Frayser Boy as well as the Royal Studio Band, and there was plenty of good food from local food trucks, including hand-crafted ice cream pops from the good folks at Mempops. Even Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland came to pay his respects.
I was looking for a frozen yogurt place (and Atlanta is full of them) but they all seemed to have closed already, as it was a weeknight. So when I saw Jeni’s Ice Cream in the Westside Atlanta area, the first thing I noticed was that it was open, and even crowded. And the second thing I recalled was that I had eaten Jeni’s Ice Cream once before, from a food truck on a South by Southwest parking lot in Austin. But the permanent stores have far more flavor choices (such as the peanut-buttery Buckeye State which I ordered) than the trucks, and the all-natural ingredients make for great flavor and texture. I also have to notice and appreciate the later hours than most other Atlanta frozen dessert shops, which means that when most places are closed, Jeni’s is likely still open. The Ohio-based company makes its ice creams with only natural ingredients and flavors, and is definitely worth a visit. In addition to the Atlanta store, Jeni’s can be found across Ohio and in Nashville, Tennessee. When all else fails, it can also be ordered online and shipped to you where you live.
Matt Sonzala had invited me out to a South Austin softball field for an early-morning after-South-by-Southwest softball game for staff and friends, but due to the extreme cold brought on by the “Blue Norther,” attendance was sparse. I left there and headed to the original location of Kerbey Lane Cafe for a brunch, but they were extremely crowded, and it took me almost two hours to get seated. When I finally did, however, I found Kerbey Lane worth the wait. Austin has an incredible array of breakfast options.
Later in the afternoon, I stopped by Teo, an espresso and gelato bar on the north side of Austin, whose owner had actually studied in Italy to learn the traditional process of making authentic gelato, and despite the cold weather, I enjoyed it greatly. For dinner, I grabbed a burger from P. Terry’s Burger Stand, but I was not pleased with the fact that they do not offer bacon as an option to go on their burgers.
Downtown Austin provided a drastic contrast from the nights of the previous week when the streets and clubs were jammed with people. Only a few people were out, and only one club seemed to have anything going on. Facing a long drive back to Memphis the next day, I grabbed a coffee from Halcyon and returned to my hotel.