A STORY IN EVERY BITE. As I listened, I remembered comedian David Brenner discussing directions in the South. He noted that directions come with a story, and they may include turn left at the three-legged dog, and that everything comes with grits.
The teller this time was friend Hal – world traveler, retired pilot, former Tiger lineman and current gourmand. The subject was my recent column on recommended things to chew on around here, but not really. That was just the skillet grease to get the stories fired up.
“When you’re about 10 minutes out of Walnut,” Hal said, assuming everybody not only knows where Walnut is, but also when they’re ten minutes out, “just give the Express Shop #17 a call and they’ll throw some chicken livers on the grill.” He then paused, simply nodded twice, and you knew that was as good as it gets. “And,” he rebooted, “look for the guy on the shoulder of Highway 7 around Abbeville, got him an oil drum grill and a plastic sign that says ‘Ribs.’ Lord, Lord. Here I am, driving to Oxford with a pile of pig and aluminum foil in my lap, throwing bones out the window and laughing out loud. I swear that was better than the five-star New York restaurant I was in the night before.”
As any good reviewer will tell you, it’s not just food; it’s presentation and ambience.
A while back, headed home and hungry, I saw the South Parkway exit in my headlights, almost the driveway to the original Coletta’s, home to the original barbecue pizza. I ordered one to go, and asked for a beer while I waited. They directed me to the bar. The bar? I’d been coming to Coletta’s since Caesar came to Gaul and I’d never noticed a bar, but there it was down the hall, a walk past the bathrooms right into somewhere around 1963. In an instant, you knew that all the people in there knew each other, knew exactly what was right and wrong with the world – and didn’t know you. They were all sizes and colors, both sexes, and aged somewhere between early middle age and early Jurassic.
“Draft’s two-for-one,” the bartender said. “That’s Harry’s seat,” somebody else said. “Shut up, Moose,” the bartender said, “Harry’s not here.” “How about some baloney?” yet another voice questioned. I turned and there, holding a big pan of savory, was the man I’d seen cooking something outside when I pulled in. “Can’t have mine,” Moose said. The restaurant couldn’t have it either. It was the bar’s and not for sale. Over the course of two beers – remember, two-for-one – I learned that one night every week (I’m not telling which one or they’ll come after me) a different bar regular cooked for the rest. I hope they still do.
Might be ribs or chicken, catfish or chicken livers. Or it might be barbecued, blackened and blissful baloney – the stuff of good stories.
I’m a Memphian, and the number for Express Shop #17 is 662-223-6399.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.