This week my interest in getting out of the house and going places was piqued more than ever lately. In my second quarter class for my educational leadership graduate degree, we had to introduce ourselves to the professor on a discussion board post by answering some questions. One of the questions required us to disclose what we enjoy doing away from work or school, and another asked us to mention our favorite food.
My responses to those two questions opened a Pandora’s box of yearning for me in the midst of social distancing and isolating and quarantining. The only vacation I have taken this year has been on a Labor Day weekend trip to Mobile. My last real getaway was last October to Miami and Key West. And, oh, how I miss New Orleans. Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong had nothing on me.
I would be excited at this point just to have a getaway locally, perhaps in Memphis. A reaction to a discussion board post referenced above prompted me to respond with some of the best “hole-in-the-wall” or even just local restaurants that I have visited before. I started with my knowledge of Memphis. I didn’t mention everything that I probably could have, but I offered him a basic rundown of those at the forefront of my memory.
I began with barbecue. The best in Memphis, I believe, is Central BBQ, which was originally located on Central, although now there is a fancier downtown location as well. The pulled pork is slow-smoked and savory and pairs well with a range of sauces, including mild, hot, sweet, mustard, and vinegar. The mustard is an interesting match, one that I might never have tried had I never entered those hickory-smoked smelling doorway at Central.
My favorite place in Memphis for a burger and steak fries is the local chain Huey’s, opened in 1970 but made famous locally and expanded by the charismatic late Thomas Boggs, a drummer for the Box Tops, after his arrival to the restaurant scene in 1976. However, if you want even more character to go with that burger, head downtown to Main Street to Earnestine & Hazel’s. If any venue deserves “hole-in-the-wall” designation on my list, it is this one. They have an eclectic jukebox, an upstairs that is rumored to be haunted, and probably more peeling lead paint on the walls than any other building in the city. This location has served many purposes, including a brothel and a sundry store, and just walking in feels like venturing back in time.
When you do walk into the door, you will get a whiff of that delicious “soul burger.” That’s the only “dish” that they serve there, accompanied by Lay’s potato chips – no fries. The soul burger comes with mustard and cooked onions – and cheese, if you’d like. However, I have never been able to waffle the recipe for the secret sauce they douse on the meat with a yellow mustard bottle after it is plopped on the grill. Whatever is in that bottle must be what makes it so scrumptious.
Just across the street from Earnestine and Hazel’s is the Arcade Restaurant, purportedly the oldest restaurant in the city. Walking in there is also a bit like walking back in time. Founded in 1919 by a Greek immigrant, it was updated in 1955, and it retains that classic look Art Deco look today. The menu has been updated to include a bar and fancy pizzas, but I prefer the breakfast items, including the create-your-own loaded omelet.
Speaking of breakfast, it is difficult to beat Brother Juniper’s – which serves only breakfast/brunch from the early morning hours until the middle of the day. To get there, you have to head toward The University of Memphis, my undergraduate alma mater. Named after the monk who was the humble cook for Saint Francis of Assisi, Brother Juniper’s, I would argue offers one of the most varied but tastiest breakfasts to be had in the Bluff City. Although they offer more traditional breakfasts and omelet ingredients, one can also procure eggs here stuffed with the likes of lamb or Spanish-based chorizo sausage or enjoy a salmon-stuffed Eggs Benedict drizzled with a creamy hollandaise sauce.
If one has a penchant for more ethnic cuisine while in Memphis, then for Italian, the original Coletta’s Italian Restaurant is difficult to beat. Coletta’s has been in operation since 1923, serving up traditional Italian staples, such as antipasto, fried cheese, lasagna, ravioli, linguine, or rigatoni with a variety of accompanying sauces, including their savory tomato meat sauce. However, for Mexican, I would venture to midtown to Molly’s La Casita, or, translated, “little house.” Opened in 1974 by Molly Gonzales, the fare is probably more Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican, but when I sit down to eat their sour cream-topped chicken enchiladas, I don’t care from what region it hails. The refried beans are also the best that I have found anywhere, and the salsa deserves at least a second helping.
Last, but not least, two local midtown favorites are also Memphis Pizza Café and Young Avenue Deli. The former offers up a nondescript “alternative” pizza that features a pie with olive oil as its base (instead of traditional tomato sauce), mozzarella, crushed basil, garlic, and bubbling hot fresh tomato. The menu of the latter presents almost any sandwich you might crave, but I generally select the turkey Reuben, a little healthier choice, I rationalize, because I plan to pair it with a boatload of some of the most delicious French fries anywhere.
I suppose now that I sit writing at almost midnight and craving restaurant fare from about a hundred miles away from me, it is time to stop writing and thinking about it. It may, however, soon be time for a road trip.
Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT-Martin. She is pursuing an Ed.S. degree in Educational Leadership through Lipscomb University in Nashville. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.