Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bynum's Barbecue: OPEN! Just not always.

I had an errand to run in Midtown at lunch today, and driving up Airways I noticed that, unlike the past ten times I'd driven past, the "OPEN" light was on in the window of Bynum's Barbecue. I took that as a sign from the Barbecue Gods that it was time for a visit on the way back to work.

You park in a fenced-in, potholed lot in the back of the restaurant and enter through a windowless door, which leads to another locked door. The signs were looking good already. The proprietor (Anthony Terrell this afternoon, not Claude Bynum) let me in, and explained that they'd had some staffing problems and were closed on Mondays (a normal restaurant closing day) and Tuesdays, when he catered lunches for the Kellogg's cereal plant just down the road--so it had just been bad luck that I hadn't seen a light on in the place for the past several months. I ordered a small hot sandwich with a side of potato salad and lemonade, so I'm writing this on a starch and sugar high.

Terrell and I made some small talk about their barbecued and deep-fried turkeys that had been featured in the Commercial Appeal last Thanksgiving as he assembled the sandwich--I noted the distinct sound of a microwave--I'm not sure precisely whether a bun was being warmed from being stored in the cooler, or if the barbecue gets reheated in it. It's cooked in a pit on the back wall, however, and was larger than what I expected to find in a "small" sandwich.

The meat has just a little little smokiness, but is fairly tender, and has the distinct flavor (in the sections from the outer part of the shoulder) of having been exposed to a little more direct heat than you normally find around town. The sauce is thin, vinegary, and not exceptionally hot--I'm not certain if the mild sauce might have been sweeter and less vinegar-based. Cole slaw and potato salad were both made there; the slaw didn't contribute much in terms of flavor, but the potato salad was excellent. All in all, a very good sandwich, but I expect that the ribs and other items that can hold up to more direct heat are probably finer examples of Bynum's art--that little bit of crust ("bark" in barbecue parlance, although if I wanted to eat bark I would have been born a beaver) and the thin sauce would are a delicious combination in my head.

Speaking of art, there's a website called Bad Paintings of Barack Obama, where various homegrown artwork dedicated to our 44th President can be found--if you'd like to see an actual real-life bad painting of Barack Obama, there's one on the wall at Bynum's (also on my Flickr page). I should note here that "bad" is a subjective term--it's actually a quite good folk-art representation of the Commander-in-Chief.

Bynum's Barbecue
1404 Airways Blvd
Memphis, TN 38114
(901) 323-8227‎

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The psycology and subjectivity of barbecue.

There's the traditional "Here Comes Barbecue Contest Weekend" debate going on over at The Commercial Appeal's Whining & Dining blog--but there's a particular note about Memphis being represented by Leonard's in a list of the best barbecue in the nation by one Paul Kirk, the self-appointed "KC Baron of Barbecue." I thought I'd take a moment to make some notes and help you understand where my tastes run, so you can compare and contrast your own.

Barbecue is a quintessential comfort food--it's borne out of poverty, generally using the cheapest cuts of the most available animal and cooking it in a method that would make otherwise inedible (too much gristle, too many bones) parts of the pig or cow or sheep succulent and delicious. As such, your tastes will run to where you were raised, and a sample of barbecue that tastes like childhood will trigger an emotional response (several readers will be having Rattatouille flashbacks at this point. That film actually did an admirable job of conveying precisely the visceral reaction to comfort food, as prepared by vermin). If you were raised in Texas or Kansas City (as I presume Paul Kirk was), you are hard-wired to love brisket, which I generally like, but won't make a special trip to sample.

Good barbecue will transport you to your grandparents' backyard, sitting in a lawn chair with the rest of your family, watching a pit cooking on a warm summer night while people told stories, or to a family reunion having that certain variety of creamed corn that you can really only find at family reunions and church potlucks (although the corn pudding at The Cupboard comes close). I get the same reaction from a certain brand of sausage, or italian-style green beans cooked to death, or proper fried chicken. Done properly, it will trigger memories of when times were easier; because in theory the grown-ups took care of everything bad in life.

Naturally, this means that "Certified Barbecue Judges" and "Barbecue Judging Schools" are pure hokum, because they base their "objective" criteria about what makes good barbecue on one person's subjective set of memories--and that person probably died of coronary failure some time ago. Barbecue is good because it tastes good--because it takes the smoke from that backyard fire and the sweet & sour of pickle vinegar and a bottle of Kraft barbecue sauce, if that was the combination that did it for you and your family. A robot can cook barbecue to proper "judging" specifications, but only a precious few of us were raised by a family of barbecue-cooking robots--for the rest of us, it's ribs over charcoal, or brisket over mesquite, or saffron-infused coffee-glazed shoulder, if your family didn't get the memo--BUT THAT'S STILL RIGHT FOR YOU.

For me, there will be wood smoke--hickory, pecan, oak--because that's what grew in my grandparents' back yard. The sauce will likely be doctored supermarket sauce, and there's a good chance that some of the tougher cuts of meat will have been braised after their initial searing. Translating that into a sandwich, I look for something that's a little (but not overwhelmingly) smoky, with a bit of sweet and a lot of sour to the sauce. Since I wasn't raised in Memphis, slaw on the sandwich has been an acquired taste, but in most places around town it's a necessity to balance out either the sweetness or the hotness (or, on some less-auspicious occasions, the blandness) of the remaining components. I try to compensate in my descriptions to account for other tastes, 'cause we all got different mammas, but ultimately things are gonna trend toward the subjective.

Naturally, anyone's welcome to make their own judgements, and map, even--especially the folks who are shilling for their personal restaurants on the Commercial Appeal site. And Paul Kirk (as Calvin Trillin before him) can make his own special briskophilic selections over in Kansas City. And the Texans can rate their beef ribs as magnificent, and the North Carolinians can wax poetic about the virtues of hush puppies with theirs, and we'll all be right.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Arnold's Barbecue

Since the neighbor- hood where I work isn't in the classiest part of town, a lot of the more "authentic" barbecue places use the collapsed commercial real-estate market to set up shop. Google Maps lists no fewer than four barbecue places within a ten-minute drive of my workplace that have appeared within the past six months. I thought today would be a good day to give Arnold's on Elvis Presley a try.

Arnold's may have been there for longer than the past six months, mind you--I rarely pass its location. Still, I doubt it's been there long, if only based on the fact that the ubiquitous television in the corner is a flatscreen model. It did seem pretty busy, however, so it's been there long enough to generate a clientele. And for good reason.

The sandwich at Arnold's is powerfully smoky; the meat's 75% pink from smoke exposure, but not dried out. It's chopped a little fine for my tastes--it looks like it would do well just being pulled, which would be a little less labor intensive. It's not doused in sauce, and looks to be assembled with some care. The slaw's made somewhere else, I'm pretty sure, and adds only a little to the sandwich. Still, a good-to-great lunch, depending on how your tastes run.

Ribs, rib tips, and burgers are all available on the menu. Definitely worth a visit.

Arnold's BBQ
4560 Elvis Presley Blvd
Memphis, TN 38116
(901) 345-5992

(If you check the map, you can see that Arnold's is yellow--if my tastes ran just a little differently, it would easily be green--the finely chopped meat and the Sysco slaw really are the only caveats.)