2006 Roadtrip REPORT Memphis/St.Louis/Little Rock
2006 BaseballRoadfood roadtrip complete!
Flew from Newark to Memphis. Headed straight to Ellen’s Café in Memphis for a quick meal before the first leg of driving. Alas, we were denied as they were not yet open for the day (denial will be the recurring theme of this trip). Since it was still before noon, we decided to make our first stop breakfast, and for that, we headed for the famous Arcade Restaurant in downtown Memphis:
ARCADE RESTAURANT, Memphis, TN: This place definitely deserves it’s rep for some of the finest southern breakfasts in Memphis. The bacon is thick-cut and smoky, the grits were creamy and wonderful, and their Sweet potato pancakes simply were one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. They are not fried like standard potato pancakes, rather, they are prepared like regular buttermilk pancakes, only they put tons of cooked sweet potatoes in the batter. The only thing that would have made them better, would have been real maple syrup, instead of the Mrs. Butterworth’s that they served us. As we were eating, we knew that this would not be our last visit to the Arcade….
After breakfast, we headed north towards St. Louis. We had a 7:10 game to catch, so no time for meandering. We did, however take a slight detour to check out New Madrid, MO, which I knew was famous for the largest earthquake ever recorded in the lower 48, in 1811 (8.1, as compared to 7.8 in SF, 1906). We were just looking for a historical marker, but instead, we found a very quaint little museum a few dozen yards from the Mississippi River. Americana at it’s best.
Back in the car, with little time to spare, we were pretty hungry for lunch. Sikeston, MO was directly in our path, so we felt obligated to eat at Lambert’s.
LAMBERT’S CAFÉ, Sikeston, MO: I can honestly say that this was the absolute worst meal I’ve ever had in a restaurant in my life. I can sort-of understand why they draw such big crowds: tons of free side dishes and low prices. The food was absolutely disgusting. I ordered Chicken and Dumplings, which was positively indistinguishable from a can of Campbell’s Soup with someone’s leftover dried out chicken thrown in. The atrocity that they called “dumplings” were gummy sheets of a yellow starchy substance, the size and shape of sticks of gum. Really. My buddy had the Fried Chicken, which had the texture and appearance of the commercial frozen variety I had in grade school. Over breaded, dry and inedible. Enthusiastic young servers circled the dining room with huge bowls of greasy fried okra, canned black-eyed peas and an oily concoction of macaroni with tomatoes- dumping huge scoops of this dreck onto everyone’s plates as it were feeding time at a zoo. The famous “throwed rolls” were definitely fresh and hot out of the oven, and were passably good, but throwing food doesn’t make it taste any better, and I found the whole practice to be pretty unappealing. The “sorghum” they passed around to drip over the rolls was actually corn syrup with flavorings and colorings (I looked at the label on the jars for sale in the gift shop). This was a pitiful dining experience to say the very least. The absurd amount of food they give you for the price doesn’t come within a mile of making up for the criminally low quality of what they’re serving. This place is as bad as it gets.
With Lambert’s thankfully in our rear-view mirror, we got back on track an headed up to New Busch Stadium for a 7:10 start. Great game, good crowd (the biggest one thus far in the new stadium). The new stadium is fine, I guess. Except for it’s location, and the great view of the Arch beyond the outfield wall, New Busch is nearly indistinguishable from many of the new crop of stadia that have opened in the past decade. Frankly, I like the old Busch better (but only the version with real grass). The Cards lead 4-2 in the 9th when Scott Rolen let a grounder go right between his legs, Buckner-style- which led to the Cubbies tying it up. It was getting late, and we knew that Ted Drewes closed around midnight, so we gave it one more inning. After the bottom of the 10th, we decided that this particular frozen custard was far too important to miss, so for only the second time in 13 years of roadtrips, we left a game early. A short foot race to the car and off to route 66 we sped.
TED DREWES FROZEN CUSTARD, St. Louis, MO: Sometimes in life, it’s wonderful when reality surpasses expectation. I had been to Ted Drewe’s once before, about 5 years ago, and loved it then. I don’t know how it’s possible, but it was even better than I had remembered. I had a banana concrete and a dish of plain vanilla on the side. My buddy had a cappuccino concrete and a small strawberry sundae on the side. I can’t say anything more than it was absolutely heavenly. Perfectly creamy, flavorful and just a tad melty on a warm June night, dished out by a flurry of clean cut teenagers- eager to serve quickly and efficiently. This place deserves landmark status.
With our bellies full of custard and the horrors of Lamberts just a fading gaseous memory, we lit out on a 2 hour drive down I-44 to Rolla, MO for some much needed sleep. We listened on the radio as the Card/Cubs game went a full 14 innings and ran past the 5 hour mark. After a 3 hour flight, a 4 hour drive, 3 hours of a ballgame and a 2 hour drive ahead of us, we were very comfortable with our decision to leave the game early. Arrived at the brand spankin new Holliday Inn Express in Rolla at 2am.
Started out from Rolla towards Little Rock, AR. 285 miles through VERY rural Missouri and Arkansas. We figured we would get on the road and grab breakfast in the first decent place we saw. Well a full hour of driving later, we finally hit a town: Licking, MO, home of the PJ’s Café.
PJ’S CAFÉ, Licking, MO: This isn’t a small-town café, it’s a TINY town café. Licking has a population of about 1,000, and there’s not another town around for many miles. Needless to say, everyone in PJ’s knew one another (everyone except us two hipster doofuses from New York). People came in and out and just sat where ever there was an open chair, even if it was in the middle of a family having a meal. Pretty darn quaint. The entire staff consisted of ladies, and all the food that I spied on other tables looked pretty good. I had a slab of country ham, biscuits, eggs, grits, and a freshly made pecan waffle. My buddy had a similar meal. It was a very good breakfast, but we waited a full hour for the food to arrive from the kitchen. NO ONE is in a rush in Licking. While paying at the register, I eyeballed two pies resting on the counter. Turned out to be Raisin Pie and Butterscotch Pie. No way I was passing that up. Go a slice of each to go, and we got back on the road. Both slices were consumed within an hour of breakfast by the way. Both super sweet, but very good.
From Licking we headed out towards Little Rock. Nice leisurely drive through Ozark country. We got to Little Rock and headed straight for the Clinton Presidential Center, not knowing what time they closed. Well, they close at 5, we got there at 5. Pretty disappointing, considering the fact that I’ll probably never be in Little Rock again. Still, it’s a gorgeous building in a beautiful setting, right on the Arkansas river. Pictures don’t do it justice. Anyway, with 2 hours before game time, we headed to Jacksonville, AR (about 10 minutes from downtown Little Rock) to the Crooked Hook Catfish Restaurant, at the suggestion of Roadfooder WanderingJew.
THE CROOKED HOOK CATFISH RESTAURANT, Jacksonville, AR: This is a pretty large restaurant for the relative size of the area. Situated in a non-descript strip-mall off the beaten track, The Crooked Hook has 3 large rooms, and no frills. I had very low expectations for the food when I saw all the packets of sterilized Kraft tartar sauce and the plastic bottle of imitation lemon juice. I hate that kind of stuff in restaurants. Along with our drinks, the waitress brought over little plastic cups; one with pickled green tomatoes and another with a hunk of raw onion. I ate the tomatoes, I’m still not sure what the raw onion was for. I ordered the regular catfish platter, which came with fries and cole slaw, plus I tacked on a side of fried shrimp. First the bad: everything that was served to me ~except the catfish~ was commercial grade. The fries and the fried shrimp were definitely pulled from 10 pound freezer bags, and the cole slaw was of the wholesale variety. Not good. However….the catfish was absolutely great. I was served 8 fillets, all breaded and fried to perfection. The thick end was tender without falling apart, and the thin end was crisp and flavorful. Best catfish I’ve ever had. Oh yeah, the hush puppies were outstanding too. Sweet, fried spheres of corny-goodness.
From Jacksonville, we took side streets and local roads through Little Rock to ancient Ray Winder Field, about 10 minutes away. The stadium is 74 years old, one of the oldest ballparks in the south, and it due to close after this year. A brand-spankin new stadium is being built in North Little Rock on the Arkansas River, overlooking the city. Another cookie cutter replaces yet another gem. I had better get used to that idea. Ray Winder Field has the look and feel of depression-era ball, with a wood and iron grandstand, big industrial belt-driven fans in the rafters cooling the “crowd” (about 400 folks that night), and an ancient looking organ (the kind that everyone had in their basements in the 1970's) sitting in the last row of seats behind home plate. I chatted with the organist a while. He was having a grand old time mixing in Edgar Winter and Foghat with the traditional baseball noodling. After the game, we headed straight to Memphis, which is only 2 hours east from Little Rock. We headed towards our hotel, the Hampton Inn, not realizing that it would be just adjacent to Beale Street...and it was Saturday night. After taking a full hour to go 3 blocks, we finally checked in to the hotel and headed straight out to join the insane crowds on Beale...and to find some BBQ. We were a little shocked to find that we had to be ID’ed for 21, and get wanded by a cop just to set foot on Beale: a public street. So much for civil liberties! We strolled from one end of Beale to the other, with a Turbo Dog beer in hand, checking out the loonies and the “last night” bridal parties, till we came upon the Blues City Café. On a street where almost nothing seemed authentic, the Blues City Café felt like it’s been there all along (and it hasn’t. I think it opened in 1991).
BLUES CITY CAFÉ, Memphis, TN: With a window seat to view the madness outside, and a pretty good band honking out the blues behind us, this was really the perfect venue for a late night meal in Memphis. I had been in the south for 2 days and I hadn’t had ribs yet, so I got the half rack platter (it was close to midnight, any other time I would get the big boy). The ribs were not exactly wet, not exactly dry, but kind of sticky. The sauce hade a smoky maple twinge to it and were tender without turning to mush. Really, really good ribs. The beans, fries and slaw were all standard. Beer was ice cold. My friend just had the seafood gumbo appetizer, which looked decent enough to me. He was unimpressed. However, the lasting impression we will take away from this place, unfortunately, will be of the doofus 20-something year old waiter making small talk with us, telling us how lucky we were that there didn’t seem to be too many “Black people” on Beale that night. Seems he hates it when it gets “too dark”. Goddamn, it’s amazing how one moron can ruin the image of an establishment.
After a good night’s sleep in the Hampton Inn (I can highly recommend this place for it’s convenience and it’s clean, comfortable rooms), we strolled back down to the ARCADE for another amazing breakfast. I couldn’t get those sweet potato pancakes out of my head! I had biscuits and gravy this time, too. The gravy was thick and bacon-y with specks of black pepper throughout. Yowza!
With a few hours to kill before the baseball game, we wandered around some neighborhoods, and checked out Mud Island, which is a little isle in the Mississippi River. The actual “Memphis Belle” is there, along with a mile-long physical representation of the entire Mississippi River. Pretty cool. With a 2:10 game time, I figured I would have my lunch at Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous before the game. When we finally found it down that dark alley- we saw the dreaded sign: CLOSED SUNDAYS AND MONDAYS. Damn. All the way to Memphis, and I’m gonna miss Vergo’s. I was not happy. I hung my head and made my way around the corner to Autozone Park, the downtown home of the AAA Memphis Redbirds. This place is yet another cookie-cutter monstrosity, indistinguishable from a thousand other minor league parks. The location is unbeatable, but the physical structure is about as un-original as it gets- right down to the hunter-green seats. The biggest surprise to me was that Charlie Vergo’s had a food stand right in the stadium. I had no choice but to indulge, with a platter of BBQ Pork Nachos, which was a pile of chips, a big heap of pulled pork, a ladle of Whiz-type cheese (I fully admit that I love that stuff), a squirt of BBQ sauce, and a sprinkle of dry rub seasoning. It was pretty good, but you can imagine that the pork was totally smothered and overshadowed by all the other stuff. I cannot consider this an actual “Rendezvous” experience.
After the game, we raced over to Sun Studios to catch the last tour at 5:30. There is not a whole lot to see on the tour, just one small room of memorabilia followed by the studio itself. But man-oh-man, the studio was awesome. You get to stand in the actual tiny room where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and many others did their best stuff. I had goose bumps the whole time. The muttonchopped-hipster giving the tour was very enthusiastic, and added a lot to the experience. When the tour ended, I made a quick call to Interstate BBQ, and it turned out that we had just 30 minutes to get down there to make a take out order before they closed (the dining room had already closed at that point). We raced over there and made it just in time…
INTERSTATE BAR-B-Q, Memphis, TN. The minute we walked in and the amazing aroma of hickory smoke filled our nostrils and the sound of chopping filled our ears, we knew we were in for a treat. I was plenty hungry, so I ordered a small pork rib dinner and a large pork shoulder sandwich. My friend got the combo smoked turkey and BBQ chicken platter. We threw in an order of Bar-B-Q spaghetti on the side and a couple of slices of pie: pecan and sweet potato. Since theyonly had take out only at that point, we decided it was too big and messy of a meal to eat in the car (no, we didn’t have car-bibs). After a quick glance at a map, we drove over to the park by the zoo and found a picnic area and set out our feast. First: the ribs. The meat was smoky, tender and very tasty, but they were slathered in too much sauce and fell apart to the point that the meat was almost mush. It reminded me of the texture of my mother’s brisket, when she cooked it 3 hours too long. The Pork Shoulder sandwich was outstanding. Both tender and chewy pieces, along with just enough burnt ends, complimented by that wonderfully creamy yellow-ish cole slaw. This was one of the great sandwiches of all times. The beans were nice and porky, but the Bar-B-Q Spaghetti was very disappointing. Somehow I thought it would be more than just spaghetti and BBQ sauce. It wasn’t. To me, BBQ sauce is a condiment, not a main entrée. The sauce was tasty, but I saw no need for a huge container spaghetti soaking in it. The pies were not slices, but individual little tins, from a local commercial bakery. They were good, but missed that homemade touch.
Back to the hotel to shower off all that sauce, take a quick dip in the indoor pool, a little workout in the gym, and a 10:00 movie at the silly gentrification known as the Peabody Center (not much nightlife happening on Sunday night in Memphis).
Being our last day, we had to plan our tourism and meals carefully. We got up pretty early to be at the National Civil Rights Museum when it opened. Where was the perfect stop for breakfast? Well, The Arcade is 1 block from the museum, so yes, we had our 3rd breakfast in 4 days at that awesome restaurant. This time, I had sausages, biscuits and gravy, wonderfully crispy hash browns, and yes, another platter of those amazing sweet potato pancakes. YES, they are THAT good.
The National Civil Rights Museum is a must-visit for all Americans. The façade of the museum is the original front of the Florence Motel, preserved exactly as it was on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony. Just turning the corner and seeing that Motel is chilling. The interior of the museum itself is a comprehensive history of the struggle for civil rights in America, from the days of slavery to today, set in chronological order. The museum is short on memorabilia, but very long on information, an almost overwhelming amount. There are exhibits on The Civil War, The freeing of the slaves, Civil Rights Acts, Jim Crow Laws, Booker T Washington, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Little Rock, The Montgomery Bus Boycott, Students Sit-Ins, Freedom Rides, The March on Washington, the assassinations of the 1960’s, and much, much more, including a special section on Gandhi. The museum tour culminated with an exhibit on assassination of MLK, including the actual motel room (preserved as it was) and the balcony of the motel. Across the street, a separate wing focuses on the assassination itself, the hunt for James Earl Ray (who, by the way, I NEVER knew was captured in England by Scotland Yard), and the continuing struggle for Civil Rights around the world. It was a remarkable educational experience. If you go, and I highly recommend that you do, leave yourself at least 2 hours, optimally 3 to take everything in.
With time for one more meal before our flight, we headed straight over to the Cozy Corner to try the Bar-B-Q Cornish Hens. With our mouths watering we pulled into the deserted parking lot to see the dreaded sign: CLOSED SUNDAY AND MONDAY. Nooooo!!!! Not again!!! Three times in 4 days!!!! Not to be deterred, I checked my notes, perused the map and headed straight over to A&R Bar-B-Q.
A&R BAR-B-Q, Memphis, TN. A neat little operation a few miles from Graceland on Elvis Presley Boulevard, this place had the look and smell to be the real deal. After reading all the comments here for years about Bar-B-Q Bologna, I had to try it. I also got a Chopped Pork Sandwich and some beans. The Bologna was a thick slice, slathered in sauce, topped with yellow-y slaw, served on Wonder Bread. It was delicious, but nothing really more than warm bologna with BBQ sauce. There wasn’t enough of the outer crust of the meat to make it worth while. The Pork sandwich was delicious, and the slaw was outstanding. While we were eating a big tour bus full of High School girl’s athletes pulled up, so I figured I had better get myself some of those fried pies before they get wiped out. I grabbed a peach and a sweet potato for dessert. These were the first real fried pies I ever had. The crust was flaky with a sprinkling of sugar, and the filling was most certainly home-made and deliciously sweet. There was, however a slight “burnt oil” taste to the pies that kina ruined the whole thing. I passed on most of the crust because of it, but happily ate all the filling.
From there it was onto the airport for my flight home. It was a great trip over all, but I am sorely disappointed that I missed my opportunity to hit The Rendezvous, Ellen’s and The Cozy Corner. Thanks to everyone here who’s postings made my 2006 Roadtrip a successful eating orgy!
P.S. I got some great food pictures. I'll post them here once I get a chance to put them on the web somewhere.