Friday, July 1, 2016

Robert Gordon: The Memphis Fridge

Published July 1, 2016 in Edible Memphis

Grammy-Award winning writer Robert Gordon is the author of six books (It Came From Memphis), and producer/director of eight feature documentaries (Best of Enemies). Born and raised in Memphis, he has focused on the American South — its music, art, and politics — to create an insider’s portrait of his home. We met up with him in Central Gardens where he lives with his wife of 22 years and BFF of 37 years, Tara, and their two teenaged daughters, Esther and Lila. (Lila is a good eater and Esther is currently expanding her palate from foods that are white to foods that are orange. “I think mac & cheese was the bridge,” Robert says.)

Robert is currently working on a book of collected essays that are connected musically and says he has a number of documentaries percolating. He spends the majority of his day at the computer, writing. “I get up early, work, eat, shower, work, eat, etc.” he says.

Tara, who does the bulk of the cooking, has been out of town for ten days, but Robert and the girls went grocery shopping and were planning a burger night.

What is the first thing you remember cooking?

Cinnamon toast. My technique was to melt the butter on top of the toaster while the toast was toasting. I also learned to mix my own cinnamon and sugar combo. I was six.

What was your first food-related job?

I was a baker the first summer of high school at the Super Sub Bakery. A family friend was the owner.

I met Tara in a food truck in 1979 in Philly. It was called Le Bus and was in an old school bus. They made gourmet sandwiches. After college, the guy was expanding Le Bus — he had two trucks — into a restaurant. He wanted it to include a bakery — oh I also worked at La Baguette — so that was good for me because it was night work. It kept me out of the clubs so I could focus on my writing. I used to get up at noon and write. Tara was the manager of the restaurant. It’s still open. They make a really good hard crust rye and pumpernickel. I send it to my mom. She’s says it’s like the Messiah in a FedEx truck.

What is your “default” thing to cook when you’re hungry and need to make something fast?

I usually go for the freezer — La Rosa tamales from Charlie’s Meat Market. The best are Delta tamales. I’ve tried all but Solly’s. The best I’ve tried are Hicks in Clarksdale. He’ll ship five dozen if you call.

Any memorable mishaps in the kitchen?

Oh yes. In the bakery I nearly cut off my thumb and had to go to the ER. You can see the scar. [Shows us his thumb.]

We shared a kitchen with the restaurant. I would go in at night when they were closed. They kept the salt and MSG in similar containers…one night I baked the most beautiful breads, but used MSG instead of salt. They weren’t edible so we dumped them in the dumpster. Homeless people scooped them up all day and were similarly disappointed.

One day at home I was pouring hot oil and somehow it hit my leg and I only knew that I was in excruciating pain. I ran through the house taking my pants off as I went and the girls had friends over. I was howling like a monkey.

Name any ingredients that you couldn’t live without.

Hot sauce. Salt. My dad put red pepper on everything when I was a kid. He kept it on the table. That’s how I got into hot flavors. Oh, and lime — from the pre-cooking cocktail to the final accent to the dish.

What’s your favorite indulgence?

I guess I gotta go with ice cream. It’s a treat. I try to stay in shape and exercise pretty regularly. I’m subject to whatever the kids pick, but Breyer’s Frozen Dairy Dessert is disgusting. It tastes like puffed plastic.

Favorite thing to do in the kitchen?

With minimal exception, I am the sous chef. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Tara really knows what she’s doing and I don’t. Wistfully, he says, “She used to leave a big pot of spaghetti and meatballs when she’d leave town.’ I’m good at chopping on demand and keeping the sink clear. I used to cook a lot but after kids and after work got intense, we split the duties.

What’s your least favorite thing to do in the kitchen?

My first job when I had to wash lettuce — twenty heads of Romaine — I really hated that. Now, I don’t know. I’m sure Tara would take great glee in answering that.

Favorite kitchen tool?

I went to Davis Kitchen Supply in Nashville and got Tara a mallet with a smooth side and a pulverizing side. At first she was like, “Why did you get that?” and now she’s like, “This is the best thing ever!” I am also a big fan of the lemon squeezer. Our stove (Kenmore Elite gas) was a great investment and pays in dividends nightly. Tara has cooked some great meals on it. I also really like our defective Fiestaware from Schwab’s.

Ever watch cooking shows on TV?

I don’t. I never watch TV. Now that I’ve started to try and make TV shows, I have to force myself to watch. I did briefly binge on Transparent, but I can never seem to make myself watch. It’s a luxury I feel like I can’t afford.

What condiments are in your fridge right now?

Condiments! Do you do recipes? I’ll have to find Tara’s recipe for condiment gravy. It’s so good — ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise mixed together.

[Opens fridge] Okay, we have BBQ sauce, Sriracha, salsa…gotta have sliced jalapenos…I’ve got white wine if you want some…My daughter would say Hershey’s chocolate syrup. There’s usually a big jug of Tara’s homemade dressing, but I finished it while she’s been away.

Fruits and vegetables?

Oh, we keep them out here — apples, pears when available, bananas…blueberries now that they’re coming around. In the fridge we have celery — the most underrated vegetable of all time — carrots, bell peppers of various colors, garlic, Brussels sprouts — a personal favorite, leeks — I didn’t know we had leeks; I haven’t spent much time in the vegetable drawer — asparagus, salad, and onions.

Most embarrassing thing in the fridge?

Well I would leave that up to you. You did come on a day that it doesn’t smell.

[Chip and I do due diligence but find nothing. Not even in the freezer. Or pantry. Finally we settle on a piece of pizza sitting on the cutting board next to a half-eaten pepper. Robert is perplexed by our choice and says both will be eaten before the night is over.]

How about cottage cheese? I’m embarrassed that Tara likes that.

What’s in the freezer right now?

Three boxes of waffles, tamales, Skinny Cow mint ice cream sandwiches, four boxes of butter, big bag of frozen blueberries, chicken burgers, edamame, pot stickers, wild corvina, and Dr. Praeger’s kale & quinoa burgers. We have a vegetarian coming to burger night tonight.

What’s in the pantry?

Our shelf of replenishments — salsa, soy sauce, etc. Tomato products, beans, rice, nuts, dried fruits, oils, baked goods stuff…caster sugar? I don’t even know what that is.

Favorite thing your mom cooked when you were a kid?

My mom makes really good chicken and matzah ball soup. She complained that all I wanted as a kid was hamburgers. So she made hamburgers every day to try and punish me, but I never had a problem with it. Now she smokes salmon. She’s a great salmon smoker.

Will you share a recipe that you cook at home?

It’s been years since I made this, but I learned to make it before I dropped out of film school in Austin. There was a cowboy who made fideo. It’s cactus with super hot, canned, smoked peppers. You break up thin noodles and cook them like risotto, letting the chicken stock absorb. Then you throw in the cactus and hot peppers. It really used to annoy Tara when I made it.

Building a Market at Overton Park

Published July 1, 2016 in Edible Memphis

Kimberly Kasper is in her fifth year as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Rhodes College. As an archaeologist, studying food inequality in the South, she and her students have been reconstructing how the slaves lived at nearby Ames Plantation — the landscape and their dietary and medicinal use of plants. “My students are interested in history, but they also wanted to engage with the present day community to overcome food access and insecurity,” she says.

So, in the fall of 2012, they launched a small farmers’ market on campus. There was a lot of support from students and faculty, but not the surrounding community as hoped. “The 38107 zip code around Rhodes is a food dessert,” explains Kimberly. The next year, they moved the market to the parking lot of Evergreen Church hoping it would be more accessible, but it still wasn’t measuring up.

In the spring of 2015, Kimberly was in Overton Park having an unrelated meeting about the old forest when the idea of moving the farmers’ market to the East Parkway pavilion came up. Susannah Barton, who is the Director of Development for the Overton Park Conservancy, thought it would be a great use of space and also help to draw in the community. “A farmers’ market would help activate all sides of the park, especially during the week,” she explains. “I love the idea of bringing people into the park to buy healthy food and then having them stay to play on the playground or hike the Old Forest. It was a perfect fit.”

Susannah managed a successful farmers’ market in Buffalo, NY before moving to Memphis. “I’m the person who thinks markets shouldn’t be on every corner. There needs to be a strong demand for vendors and producers,” she says.

In the fall of 2015 they had a full two-month season in the park and increased patronage and sales 300 to 400 percent. “The vendors were really excited,” notes Kimberly. The spring season started in April and they are already seeing an increase in participation.

The market is open every Thursday in April-October from 3:00–7:00 pm, rain or shine. They have 22 to 24 vendors per week. Of those, about 8 to 10 focus on vegetables, bread and prepared foods and there are also two meat vendors. “We have a great diversity of products and not a lot of overlap,” says Kimberly. “About 30 percent of our vendors also participate in the Cooper Young market, but most of them are from Bartlett and this is their only midtown stop.” Susannah adds that many of their vendors have also started stocking their goods at the Curb Market.

Students have been a part of the market since its inception. Each semester there are two Food Security Fellows. They conduct ethnographic studies at the market and in the surrounding communities, like Binghampton. “They try to understand what’s going on,” says Kimberly. “It’s a really great facet — learning about the community while being embedded in it.”

Susannah agrees, “They are at the market tracking sales, counting people, etc. They also attend advisory board meetings.”

“It’s great for them to see local food markets in action,” says Kimberly. “The 10 to 15 students who have rotated through the program have gone on to continue with local food movements in a variety of cities.”

In addition to involving students, Kimberly and Susannah wrote and received a grant from the USDA to implement some other programs. First of all, they initiated SNAP bags at the market in collaboration with Bring It Food Hub. SNAP/EBT recipients can get a produce membership that allows them to swipe their EBT card at the market and receive a bag of fresh produce each week. In addition, they get $10 extra dollars in “Fresh savings” tokens to spend at the market. The goal is to get 40 families participating in the program.

“There’s a perception that farmers’ markets are super expensive,” says Susannah. “We really want to open up the environment to be welcoming so people see that it’s accessible and that there are real opportunities to get great food at reasonable rates. It’s also really great for the vendors.”

While other farmers’ markets offer the “fresh savings,” Overton Park’s Community Farmers Market is the only one to offer the SNAP bags. [There’s an additional pick up location on Tuesdays at Caritas Village.]

The USDA grant also allows five farmers per season to receive $1,000 stipends to train community members in sustainable farming. They’ll be launching this program in June and implementing in the summer/fall season. “It will all be in town. They’ll plant and harvest themselves,” says Kimberly.

They also plan to use grant funds to create foodscape maps — one in the park, one in Cooper-Young, and one in VECA along the bike lane. “The maps will direct people to where food can be accessed,” explains Kimberly. “There will be also permanent, food related art installations around the maps.”

Additionally they will be partnering with the Cooper Young Farmers Market starting in June. They’ll share a marketing manager and have joint marketing and outreach efforts. They will also implement a streamlined application process for vendors. The long term goal is to collaborate on funding and grants, but to have the markets remain autonomous.

The best parts of for-profit business operations — collaboration, synergy, market analysis, consumer research, and business partner mentoring — are helping the market to evolve. It’s another example of progress in our ever-evolving food system.

For more information or to participate in the Overton Park Community Farmers’ Market visit or email

Food Truck Nation: Summer 2016

Published July, 2016 in Edible Memphis

RAWK’n Grub

Steph Cook has been everything in the food industry for 25 years. He’s been a server, a chef/owner, and everything in between. He’s studied under numerous well known chefs and cultivated a passion for cooking. Chef Steph created Memphis Mojo Café in Bartlett a couple of years ago, which was originally intended to be a food truck. After parting ways with his partner, he took some time to think up his next concept. “I knew I wanted it to be a truck this time that could franchise and grow,” he says.

A year and a half later, in November 2015, he launched RAWK’n Grub. On the truck, he takes raw local ingredients and uses his Southern roots influence to put a rock’n chef’s spin on classics. (For example, Cheesy Like Sunday Morning is a smoked gouda pimento cheese grilled cheese and Kung Fu Al Greens is Chef Steph’s signature collards and kimchi rolled in egg roll wrappers and then deep fried.)

Truck/Business Name: RAWK’n Grub Food Truck. (“Black Betty” is the truck’s nickname)

Chef/Owner: Steph Cook

Vehicle: Chevy P-30 step van with a full kitchen (minus a freezer)

Regular hangouts: All of their locations are listed on Become “a groupie” to receive email alerts.

Sample Menu offerings: All menu items are playful puns on musicians, a song or an album name such as Livin’ La Vida Porka (a Southern take on a Cuban), Bahn Mi Jovi, KISS Burger (Keep It Simple Stoopid), Bat Outta Hell Meatloaf, CC Slider, etc.

Most popular item: It varies with the area of town, but in general CC Sliders, Patti LaMellte, Phish Tacos, and Bahn Mi Jovi

Most able to serve: The most they’ve served to date is 400.

Price range: $6 – $10 for burgers, tacos, and wraps; $2.50 for sides

Local purveyors used: Grit Girl Grits, D&R Bakery, The Cheesecake Connection, Nikki’s Hot A$$ Chips, and Crazy Good hot sauces. (They are always on the lookout for more.)

Contact: @rawkngrubfoodtruck on social media

Say Cheese

Terry and Allison LaRue were searching for a way to have more flexibility in their busy lives. With four children and two full time jobs, there was little time left for anything else. Terry worked nights at Germantown Methodist and Allison taught third grade at PDS. Terry noticed a huge need for access to decent food in the middle of the night for coworkers and families with someone in the hospital, and got the idea for a food truck that would be willing to work odd hours.

They found out quickly that hospitals are nearly impossible to get into for a variety of reasons, but they’ll still work odd hours when it’s requested. “We’ve done gigs at Rhodes starting at midnight or even later and we’ve done Project Graduation parties that start really late as well,” says Allison.

Terry became a bit of a grilled cheese expert while still working at Methodist. “Anytime anyone would have a birthday, baby, leaving, moving, etc., Terry would bring our electric griddle to work and everyone would chip in for ingredients,” says Allison. “Grilled cheese is relatively easy to cook quickly and you can change up the sandwiches each time to keep it interesting. We got very creative with new sandwiches to try each time.”

That’s essentially where the grilled cheese was born. They opened February 13, 2015 and have been trucking ever since.

Chef/Owners: Terry and Allison LaRue

Vehicle: Currently a concession trailer, but they are working on a new, enclosed truck that should be finished by the end of summer.

Regular hangouts: Vary depending on time of year. They love going to Court Square and the Ridgeway Loop, but during the busy season, they are booked in advance for corporate lunches, school functions, private parties, and festivals/fairs as well as Food Truck Fridays (Dixon Galleries and Gardens) and Food Truck Garden Parties (Memphis Botanic Garden).

Days/Times: Typically, their lunches run from about 11:00 am – 1:00 pm. Fairs and festivals are usually all-day events.

Most popular item: Triple Decker (grilled cheese with colby, provolone, pepperjack, and homemade garlic aioli).

Most able to serve: Comfortably, about 70 people an hour. With a restricted menu, or preorders, they can serve more than 100 per hour.

Price range: $5 – $7 for sandwiches; drinks and sides $1 –$2

Contact: @Saycheese901 on social media

Edible Road Trip: NOLA on Veggies

Published on July 1, 2016 in Edible Memphis

I went to New Orleans with a vegetarian — the kind that doesn’t actually eat any meat or seafood. Thankfully, I make it down to the Big Easy several times a year, so I viewed this trip as a happy challenge rather than an impossible task.

I keep a running list on my phone of places to try, and I have my favorites. Before leaving Memphis I looked at the menus of my top three restaurants (MoPho, Killer PoBoys, and Shaya) and they all had plenty of vegetarian, even vegan, options that appealed to me. At that point I had a crazy idea. I decided that I would also maintain a strict vegetarian diet during our four day stay.

It’s not like I decided to go and not drink any alcohol. I’m not that crazy.

We hit the road at 6:00 am on a Sunday and drove straight to Buffa’s on Esplanade for the Sunday jazz brunch. This was more for the music — the band, “Some Like It Hot” is backed by a close friend’s female cousin who learned to play the drums at age 50 — than the food. However, the menu featured eggs, hash browns, and biscuits, so we were off to a fine start.

After brunch we checked into our Airbnb in the Bywater and consulted with our host about vegetarian dinner options. We were going out with a group, and decided the St. Roch Market on Saint Claude was the way to go. St. Roch is an indoor market with several incubator restaurants. You can order from whichever one (or more) that you like then meet up with your group at a table in the middle or on the patio. It’s basically a hipster food court. With a bar.

Said bar, The Mayhaw, features ingredient-driven cocktails, classic cocktails, local beers, and eclectic wines. You can also grab a bottle of wine and a few glasses from the retail section to drink on site. We ordered a fancy cantaloupe and tequila cocktail and a local Gnarly Barley Rye P.A.

Foodwise, La Mezcla won us over with their fresh California- and Texas-style Mexican cuisine. They serve homemade tamales and tacos, refried pinto beans and aguas frescas. And, they are super cheap. We split several $4 tostadas loaded with beans, lettuce, cheese, fresh salsa, and guacamole.

The best part about St. Roch is its location. After dinner we were within walking distance of several bars that we wanted to visit — the Hi Ho Lounge, Siberia, and Saturn. The Hi Ho, which has a very original Hi Tone kind of feel inside also has a cozy Cove-like courtyard in back that features various pop up restaurants that serve food from 5:00 pm to 1:00 am every day. On our visit, Fry and Pie was set up selling — are you ready for it — fries and pies! They had several loaded fry options that were vegetarian friendly (such as Pesto Presto Margherita with tomato, pesto, fresh mozzarella, parmesan and provolone). One of the two pie options featured marshmallow (read gelatin) filling, which is a no-no for my vegetarian, but maybe not yours.

Siberia, which is a hard rocking late night place, has a full restaurant in back, Kukhnya, which offers burgers, Eastern European style crepes, and Slavic soul food. The bulk of the menu is rather meaty, but if you are a fan of beets, there’s a beet salad, soup, and veggie burger. A few other salads, a couple of blinis, and the pierogi are also vegetarian. I kind of love that you can see a death metal show and have a bowl of borscht in the same place. They open at 4:00 pm daily.

For breakfast on day two, we walked over to the Satsuma Café, which specializes in freshly made juices, breakfast, and lunch using quality, local and organic ingredients. Almost everything in the kitchen is created from scratch. We tried the Mexican breakfast and a hearty egg sandwich. Satsuma has a quaint side patio and it’s always full of interesting people with plenty more walking by.

Somehow we never ate lunch (Who skips a meal in Nola?), so naturally, we had two dinners. We met some Memphis transplants at Josephine Estelle, the new Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman restaurant in the recently opened Ace Hotel in the CBD (Central Business District). I worried that there would be very few menu items that came without some form of pork, but the few they had were stellar. We sampled the Josephine Estelle salad, three pastas — gemelli, canestri, and gnocchi along with a trio of vegetables — beets, broccoli rabe, and polenta. The canestri with cacao and pepe (Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper) was the stand out. (We didn’t time it right, but there’s a public pool and a bar on the roof of the Ace. It’s definitely worth checking out before or after a meal at Josephine Estelle.)

For our second dinner we went back to the Marigny to try Paladar 511, which opened last year in a gorgeous warehouse. It’s become our friends’ go-to spot in their hood and it did not disappoint. Started by a San Francisco duo, the focus is on seasonal, local cuisine both on and off a pizza crust. We split a damn fine margherita pizza, a salad, and the panna cotta.

We got our third day off to the perfect start at the Sneaky Pickle on Saint Claude — a vibrant, yet subdued spot that caters to vegans, but also offers a sustainable meat dish or two. The owner/chef uses locally sourced ingredients, so the menu is ever changing. I was instructed by a local to get the “bowl of food” which changes often but always includes one grain, one legume, and an assortment of vegetables. Mine had rice, lentils, potatoes, red pepper, onion, and a spicy, savory secret sauce. It was incredible. And filling! This may have been my favorite meal, and if we had more time, I would have tried everything on the menu. My vegetarian had the almost equally delicious breakfast flatbread with tofu, potatoes, caramelized onions, chipotle aioli, topped with seasonal slaw.

Lunch ended up being of the liquid variety procured over several hours on foot between the Bywater and the Quarter — frozen Irish coffee at the Erin Rose, a daiquiri at Bar Tonique, a pint of Hopitoulas at the R Bar, and a Miller Lite at Big Daddy’s.

Dinner was meant to be at Red’s Chinese, a funky spot on St. Claude that features an assortment of vegetarian dishes like kimchi, Buddha’s delight, and Bywater eggplant, but we arrived to find it closed for the evening — the one downside of a non-weekend visit to the City. We ended up next door at Sugar Park. Sugar Park had a lovely back patio, a freshly made frozen strawberry margarita, and some pretty tasty pizza.

Our final meal (sniff) was at Seed in the Lower Garden District. Their menu is totally vegan and their motto is “Garden based Nola taste.” The menu features all of your favorite comfort foods, vegged out, wearing their Sunday best. The menu also has a stunning array of chef designed salads and a killer assortment of sides and starters. It was really difficult to narrow down what to eat, as everything sounded great, but I had to try the Seed Gumbo (traditional roux, okra, green and red peppers, collard greens, mushrooms, topped with spicy seitan) and the Southern Fried PoBoy (fried tofu, light chickpea flour breading, lettuce, tomato, vegan mayo, poboy bread). My vegetarian couldn’t resist the BBQ Sandwich (house-made seitan, BBQ sauce, slaw, whole wheat bun). We shared a kale salad with cashews, mango, and a mind blowing miso maple dressing.

The gumbo was so close to being awesome, but inexplicably included beans. (I am wondering if the kitchen accidentally mixed it up with the chili?) The tofu poboy, with the addition of hot sauce, hit the spot, though I was wishing for a slice or two of pickle. The standout ended up being the BBQ sandwich. The house made spicy seitan, which was its base and also topped the gumbo, seemed to be the secret ingredient. Again, if I had more time I would have insisted on another trip or two to try more menu items.

On our way out of town, we made a quick stop at the Nola Brewing Company’s taproom on Tchoupitoulas. I was curious to see how it compared to the ones in Memphis, and well, I wanted to buy a case of Hopitoulas. When we arrived we were a bit confused as the taproom looked a lot like a restaurant. Unlike the taprooms here that have a rotating cast of food trucks, the Nola Brewery taproom had a built-in BBQ restaurant. There were lots of folks, presumably on their lunch break, enjoying a beer with their food. Unfortunately the whole place smelled like smoky meat — not a good way to end our vegetarian trip. However, we did discover the rooftop bar on our way out, so that’ll do on the next visit.

I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and satisfying it was to eat vegetarian all weekend, and frankly I’m quite glad to have tried it. Turns out that eating healthy in New Orleans is a nice balance to all of the usual debauchery. (And I can always just get my shrimp poboy fix at The Second Line anytime I like.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Warm Up With These Hot Dishes

Published in the Memphis Flyer, November 26, 2015

Winter is (supposedly) coming. If you can't get a fire going in your fireplace, you can at least get one going in your mouth. Hot wings and Gus's spicy chicken are good places to start, but we've got some other dishes worth seeking out.

I'm considering petitioning the courts to make it legal to marry soup. Specifically, Shang Hai's tofu curry soup, also known as T12 for its position on their Thai menu. Made with red curry and coconut milk, it is creamy and soothing. And spicy! If you ever feel a head cold coming on, this soup is for you. It opens up your sinuses and makes you feel gooood. Served with rice and full of lots and lots of tofu, it'll fill you up too. If the curry is too much for you, the tom yum soup is a great alternative. It's a bit lighter and more citrusy, but still packs a punch.

Shang Hai, 1400 Poplar, 722-8692

Move over kale, cauliflower is the next big thing in vegetables. The Honey Chilli Cauliflower at the Curry Bowl is absolutely worth the drive to Hacks Cross. (I have never said that about any other food before.) The Curry Bowl specializes in Southern Indian food, and the Indo Chinese section of the menu is full of delectable and fiery dishes. Battered and deep-fried, the cauliflower florets are coated in honey and chili peppers. The resulting flavor is somewhere between Buffalo chicken and lemongrass tofu. They easily pop into your mouth and light up your taste buds. Fowlatarians should not leave without trying the Chicken 65 (yogurt-marinated chicken with curry leaves and spices), 555-Chicken (pan-fried with cashews, chili, and garlic), Chilli Chicken (fried with ginger, garlic, onion, and bell pepper), and/or the Chicken Lilly Pop (prettiest chicken wings you ever saw). Before you know it, you'll be coming up with reasons to head East.

Curry Bowl, 4141 Hacks Cross, 207-6051,

For one last vegetarian sparkler, head over to Kwik Chek for the Bloody Valentine. Their muffalettas and Bi Bim Bop Burgers typically hog the spotlight, for good reason, but there's more to discover here. The Bloody Valentine is basically the Veggie Delight (hummus, cucumber sauce, Swiss and Parmesan cheeses, lettuce, tomato, onion, mushroom, bell pepper, jalapeño, and sprouts in a pita) but with habanero sauce instead of cucumber sauce. Aw, yeah. Once addicted to the habanero sauce, and you will be, go ahead and make your way through the menu, adding it to your order every time. The gyro is a good place to start.

Kwik Chek, 2013 Madison, 274-9293

Feeling saucy, but habanero sauce is too hardcore for you? Cozy Corner and The Bar-B-Que Shop both have killer hot sauces for their 'cue. Los Camales' salsa verde has heat and an amazing flavor. The housemade green sauce at Casablanca is vibrant and hot, also worthy of slathering on everything. Lotus has a homemade pepper sauce that is made from a variety of dissimilar peppers. A dollop usually comes on the side of most dishes.

What are you waiting for? Warmth is just a bite away.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Best Gluten-Free Pizza in Memphis

Published in the Memphis Flyer October 27, 2015

Has there ever been a more hated foodstuff than gluten?

The proliferation of gluten-free pizza on local menus is indicative of this ill will held by celiacs and gluten-intolerants alike. Heck, some people choose to be gluten-free (GF) just because they can! This is America after all.

When it comes to deciding who has the best gluten-free pizza in town, it's a hard thing to judge. Andria Brown, who was diagnosed with celiac disease a couple of years ago, explains, "Non-GF people just shouldn't eat it, and GF people's opinions vary depending on how long it's been since they had real pizza. In general, the thinner, crispier crusts are better because they're not trying to be soft and chewy."

Leigh Espy, who is gluten-intolerant, agrees. "Gluten-free crust is not the same — you don't get that lovely chewy texture, but I've always preferred the thin, crispy crust anyway."

Of course, depending on how much you hate gluten (and how much it hates you), cross-contamination factors must be considered as well. Here's an overview of your current options:

Mellow Mushroom

Annica Kreider, VP of brand development, says Mellow Mushroom began offering gluten-free crust several years ago as a result of requests from guests who were no longer able to enjoy pizza. It is celiac-safe. "We pride ourselves on this aspect of our program. Our cooks have been trained on the importance of preventing cross-contamination," Kreider says. The kitchen staff will wash their hands, put on fresh gloves and a fresh apron, and only use gluten-free dedicated cooking utensils and ingredients. Everything is made to order and prepared in a separate area. A screen pan is used during the baking process so the gluten-free crust never makes direct contact with the pizza stone. "While realizing that a gluten-free crust would likely never taste the same as our signature Mellow dough, our goal was to deliver a flavor profile that was just as delicious as our regular crust for the gluten-free audience," explains Kreider.

It has totally different ingredients from the regular crust, which is thicker. "A combination of ancient grains really gives it a delicious and hearty flavor, and it crisps up very nicely. We also were able to make it vegan in the reformulation," she says.

The crust is very popular, thanks to a dedicated marketing campaign.

Rock'n Dough Pizza Co.

Amanda Denno says at Rock'n Dough they had a substantial customer demand for a gluten-free and/or low-carb option. "Some people simply preferred to eat low-carb, and other people needed to avoid gluten due to dietary sensitivities or gluten allergies," she says.

They use a pizza crust mix from local Memphis company Nourishe and prepare it in-house. The crust mix itself is 100-percent gluten-free, however, Rock'n Dough prepares this dough mix in a kitchen where flour containing gluten is heavily used. Steps they take to minimize gluten cross-contamination include storing it separately from other ingredients in a sealed container and preparing the gluten- and grain-sensitive dough at different times than gluten-containing dough.

"We take care to minimize cross-contamination, but it is possible that small amounts of gluten do get incorporated. For this reason, we cannot guarantee the crust we serve in the restaurant is 100 percent gluten free," Denno says. This pizza crust is therefore not suitable for people with severe gluten allergies or reactions. It is listed as "gluten- and grain-sensitive" on the menu, and they train their staff to discuss the possibility of cross-contamination with their guests so they can be fully informed.

Denno says the crust tastes great. It contains nut, seed, and root vegetable flours and is naturally free from gluten, grains, and soy. It is also lower in carbohydrates than many other gluten-free products and is Paleo-diet friendly. "Nourishe specializes in great-tasting gluten-free products, and we specialize in great pizza — when you combine them, it is the best!" she says.

Rock'n Dough does not currently offer gluten-free on their food truck, but they do offer it for private catering events, where the menu is decided prior to the event.

Pyro's Fire Fresh Pizza

Co-owner Chad Foreman says Pyro's offers a gluten-free crust that many guests, both those with celiac disease and those just wanting to minimize gluten in their diets, really like. "Our gluten-free crust is made with rice flour, and we offer to cook it in a pan for our more sensitive guests," he says.

However, they do not offer a 100-percent gluten-free experience. "We do not recommend any of our products for individuals that are extremely sensitive. Since we make our signature thin crust in-house everyday with flour and semolina, our restaurant has gluten particles everywhere, which makes cross-contamination virtually impossible to avoid," Foreman explains. This cross-contamination means that although their rice-based crust is gluten-free, most of the toppings and the oven they cook it in are not gluten-free.

Guests are pleasantly surprised by how light and airy the crust is.

Russo's New York Pizzeria

Chef Anthony Russo spent two years perfecting the recipe for his gluten-free crust. The secret is that it is bound together with honey and a Sicilian olive oil made specifically for Russo's.

Jackson Lewis, the franchise's PR representative, says there is a serious need for great-tasting gluten-free options, and because of this, Russo's offers guests an entirely gluten-free menu. Additionally, the retail version of the gluten-free pizza is sold in 3,000 grocery stores across the United States.

Local franchise owner, Brett Steiner, says to prevent cross-contamination in the Germantown store, they keep the pizza crust in a separate cooler and change their gloves prior to making the order. The crust is very popular. They sell at least 50 a week.

Hog & Hominy

Hog & Hominy makes its gluten-free dough in-house. For a $3 upcharge, all pizzas on the menu can be made gluten-free. They keep the dough separate and roll it separately, but it isn't guaranteed to be 100-percent safe for celiacs because regular flour is used throughout the kitchen.

Ciao Bella

Ciao Bella orders a gluten-free, pre-baked, 12-inch crust from a company in New Jersey called Conte's Pasta through their specialty foods distributor. It is prepared with separate utensils, but it is prepared in the same pizza station as the rest of the pizzas and cooked and in the same pizza oven as everything else.

Memphis Pizza Cafe

MPC also orders a frozen gluten-free crust. Like Ciao Bella, they use separate utensils, but it is prepared and cooked in the same station/oven as regular pies.

Chuck E. Cheese's

Chuck E. Cheese's has a gluten-free pizza that comes in a sealed, oven-safe bag. It isn't opened until it gets to the table, and a one-time-use pizza cutter is provided. It's celiac safe, but rumor has it, not very tasty!
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