A restaurant in the back of a dive bar doesn't seem like a promising place. But when it involves chef Kelly English, you rethink things.
The restaurant is Five Spot. The dive bar is Earnestine & Hazel's. And English did the menu.
"I would describe it as fancy shitty bar food," English reflects. "The kind of thing I would wanna eat in college when I was drunk."
Must have been quite a college. Take the Watch Yo' Head sweetbreads ($12). For those who don't know, sweetbread is another name for the thymus gland, a brain-like organ in the neck.
In other words, as SNL's Linda Richman might say, neither sweet nor a bread.
But in this case, quite tasty. English's bright idea lies in treating the spongy organ like a buffalo wing — double-frying it and dousing it with all manner of tasty sauces: buffalo sauce, buttermilk drizzle, and crumbled blue cheese. Personally, I had never really gotten into sweetbreads. But these will remind you of fried oysters. Try them.
At least as interesting as the menu is the space itself. Back in the '20s, before it was a dive bar, Earnestine & Hazel's was a pharmacy, the place where entrepreneur Abe Plough developed his revolutionary hair-straightening cream. And then, of course, there was the brothel, which started around World War II.
"When we bought it in the '90s," remembers owner Bud Chittom, "there were still whores upstairs. Russell [George] and I were worried they would go on strike."
Five Spot's interior carries traces of both the pharmacy and the brothel, but it has been pleasingly updated for the new millennium. Rustic brick walls and brass table tops are offset by modern furnishings and globed light fixtures. The design, says Chittom, is an homage to Earnestine & Hazel's proprietor Russell George, who died in 2013.
"We took our cues from what Russell would have wanted it to be," he says.
Before you ask: The Soul Burger ($6) isn't going anywhere. English says it has saved his life far too many times for that. But if you're feeling adventurous, you might instead try the Chicken Skin BLT ($10). Here, deep-fried chicken skin replaces bacon in the classic formulation, and the results are frankly dreamy.
"I think Earnestine & Hazel's is a lot like Memphis," muses English. "Everything here is broken, but it works. Nothing is perfect, but there's a lot that's really special."
In recent years, a clutch of food businesses have opened along Cooper: Tart, Soul Fish, Philip Ashley Chocolates, Cooper Street 20/20, Memphis Made Brewing, and Muddy's Grind House, to name a few. And you know what that means?
It means Memphis may finally knit Overton Square and Cooper Young into a single shopping-dining district. Call it Overton Cooper. Call it Cooperton Squang. Call it whatever you want — but let's make it happen.
The latest stitch in this promising tapestry is Aldo's Pizza Pies. Its new location occupies the old Two Way Inn, just across the street from Memphis Made Brewing Co. Formerly a forgettable beige box, the building has been heavily remodeled, and the results are contemporary and inviting.
Chief among its charms is the rooftop patio — the only one in Midtown, says owner Aldo Dean. Kissed by the sun and cooled by breezes, it's the kind of place where you can forget about work for an hour.
Aldo's menu — consistently tasty — remains largely unchanged from the downtown location. Everyone talks about the garlic knots, but have you tried the stuffed peppers ($8)? Loaded with goat cheese and marinara, they make an appealing crostini for summer.
As far as the pizza, I stand by old favorites like the Vodka Pie and the Trippy Truffle. But lately, I discovered a new winner in Bring Out the Gump ($17). Here, a savory poblano cream sauce is complemented by fresh basil, onion, and sun-dried tomato. The grilled shrimp only sweetens the deal.
Looking to take in a Grizzlies game? Order a pint of the Memphis Made Plaid Attack ($5) and belly up to the bar. This limited-edition Scottish ale combines a solid malt backbone with notes of cherry and chocolate — perfect for a tense fourth quarter.