Look, Memphis isn't an "it" city. Its population is declining, it's been ranked one of the poorest cities in the United States, and outside of the South, people routinely pass over it for its rival to the east, Nashville, or Nashvegas, or whatever nickname hipsters trot out as they unpack their stupid acoustic guitars and try on their first stupid pair of cowboy boots.
But Memphis has it together when it comes to a few things -- our music (Sun Studio, Stax, Graceland), our food (barbecue, fried chicken, barbecue) -- and so when Tiny Diner announced its rotating menu would feature some Memphis-inspired dishes, this particular Memphian-cum-Minneapolitan got a little giddy. As an old friend used to say, "It was on like a pot of neck bones."
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First of all, Tiny Diner launched its Memphis menu a while back, so this is likely the last week you'll be able to try these items for yourselves. Starting next week, they'll be doing a little culinary tour of San Fran, and our waitress promised some of that fresh, avocado-rich, seafood-y goodness one would expect from California.
But we're not here to talk about healthier tomorrows. We're here to talk about down-home, Delta-style, crispy fried delights that you get when you dip your toe into Memphis's culinary tradition. We're talking sweet tea, fried catfish, barbecued pork, and Elvis. Yes, Elvis.
1. Sweet Tea This was a no-brainer for Tiny Diner. Anyone who knows anything about the South knows that they take their iced tea with approximately 7,000 spoons of sugar, thank you kindly. We use the term "they" here because this writer isn't particularly fond of sweet tea. But we took one for the team and got a big old glass to sip. As far as sweet tea goes, this is both sweet and tea, and so it passes muster.
2. Catfish Sandwich Ah, but sweet tea isn't so hard to handle, is it? If you want to grab the South by the gut, you've got to heat up the frying oil. This puppy (oh Lord, would that it had been served with hush puppies) was right on the money in terms of its catfish filet -- fried golden brown and crunchy on the outside, moist and flaky on the inside. We'd have liked a more French bread-style roll -- New French Bakery's crumbly version wasn't cutting it in terms of flavor or chew -- but the red pepper remoulade was a nice elevation on the New Orleans standard. (We'll forgive them for essentially putting a po'boy on the Memphis menu. It's a Louisiana specialty, but no one in the South can tell one square-shaped Midwestern state from another, so we'll call it even.)
3. Saucy Soul Swine Things started to get serious with the pulled pork sandwich. There is nothing more sacred, more holy in Memphis cuisine than the trinity of pork, smoke, and spice. Our neck of the woods is known for its dry-rub approach, which produces a meat so succulent and flavorful that sauce isn't really necessary. But when we sauce it up, we typically (though not always) use a thick, sweet nectar of the gods that is then topped with a crispy, tangy cole slaw. Tiny Diner's version, while commendable in flavor and presentation, was not really Memphis-style. A thin, more Carolina-style vinegar sauce was mixed into the mound of pork, which while tender and juicy, was not nearly smoky enough, nor was it laced with the fat and bits of crust we like to see on a pork sandwich. Plus, there was a pickle on it. (A pickle!)
4. The King Oh, if Elvis only knew the things we do in his name. Kidding, Presley was not exactly taking care of business health-wise in his final days, and chowing down on his namesake flavor combination -- which we've since encountered in French toast form, milkshake form, and burger form -- was not even the worst of his problems. And with that sobering reminder, we dug into this decadent doozy of a sandwich: whipped peanut butter, chewy, meaty bacon, and caramelized bananas on buttery brioche toast. It is exactly what it sounds like, and should probably only be eaten one half per sitting for arterial safety.
On the whole, we're pretty impressed with Tiny Diner's effort. The side of crispy skin-on fries was excellent. Even though when our waitress said, "You want greens with that?" we assumed she meant meaty, rich collard greens, the side salad was actually pretty impressive, made with ingredients harvested from Tiny Diner's own garden and dressed with a light, spicy dressing.
There are a few other Memphis-influenced items that we didn't get to, including the pulled pork omelet and the Mavis' Staple Breakfast which features grits and red-eye gravy (pan drippings mixed with coffee), but everything we sampled was quite tasty, even if less than authentic. And that's okay. They've got to leave something for Memphis to brag about. If we can't have a hit country music soap opera to hang our hats on, we'll be happy to claim the best damn pork barbecue anywhere.
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