Rum Boogie Café
182 Beale Street
I was still recovering from the stomach flu when friends arrived from England to spend their two-week vacation with us, and one of them would be celebrating a milestone birthday while here. His wish: to be sipping a cold one in a blues bar somewhere in America. Originally we considered just wandering up the road to Mansion Hill Tavern, but when we learned that his companion was a huge Elvis fan it seemed silly not to simply pack up the car and drive to Memphis – Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock & Roll - and kill two birds with one stone.
This was not my first visit to Memphis. My husband and I had been there years ago, doing the touristy stuff like Graceland, Sun Studios and Beale Street, so I already knew what to expect food-wise but remained optimistic that Southern cooking had advanced enough to include the odd vegetarian dish.
Y’all can stop laughing any time.
There’s nothing like a visit to the South to remind oneself just how difficult it remains to find decent vegetarian fare in some parts of the United States. We wandered up and down Beale Street reading the posted menus and moving on. Lest I give the impression that there was absolutely nothing, let me say that we did find one place on the Beale Street strip that listed a vegetarian entrée - The Hard Rock Café offers a veggie burger.
Our criteria, however, was to find an American blues bar, and the HRC is neither American nor blues, having originated in London in the early 1980’s, so we gave it a miss and trudged on.
Finally we settled on the Rum Boogie Café, which listed a couple of vegetarian appetizers on the menu but more importantly boasted a boogie blues band with a pedigree so enticing that we simply could not turn down the chance to see them live. Elmo & The Shades includes former members of Stax and Hi Records house bands (one of which toured with Jimi Hendrix during his Army years and also played with him at Woodstock), amazing drummer Lawrence Harper (he’s behind the kit in the movie The Blues Brothers) and legendary guitarist Skip Pitts, “the master of the wah-wah,” whose signature licks on Isaac Hayes’s “Theme From Shaft” are instantly recognizable. Awwwww yeah.
Musically we were in for a real treat, and my three dining companions couldn’t get enough of the BBQ pulled pork shoulder, BBQ ribs and red beans & rice, so for them the food also got two thumbs up. Me? Not so much.
It wasn’t that my selections tasted bad or that the choices were poor, it was the sad fact that while my friends were able to order a full meal from the menu for under fifteen bucks, I had to cobble together a selection of disparate appetizers that ended up totaling more for substantially less food than any of my friend’s meals.
I ordered the Café House Salad ($6.75), Nacho Momma’s ($8.75 for a handful of tortilla chips slathered in processed cheese and topped with a sprinkling of tomatoes, jalapenos and lettuce) and Fried Green Tomatoes ($7.75). Of the three, the latter selection was the only one I felt was money well spent, even though it ran nearly $8 for a measly six slices of tomato. Oh they were good though! I could have eaten my weight in them, given the chance.
We knew in advance that it wouldn’t be a cheap night out, and I realize that the restaurants and bars along Beale Street can charge a premium based on their tourist mecca status, but as a vegetarian I felt ripped off. On the whole, the sandwiches, dinner entrées and platters were all very reasonably priced at Rum Boogie and the portions were typically Southern and massive. Their appetizers on the other hand were poor value for money, especially so when you need several of them to fill you up.
The logical solution would have been to eat at the Hard Rock Café and then go on to the Rum Boogie for the show, but I didn’t think it was fair for our friends to come all this way to eat at a restaurant they already know like the back of their hand. That’d be like me going to England and eating at Subway. I wanted them to experience Memphis gastronomically as well as musically, so I don’t begrudge letting them choose the venue. They got a taste of excellent Southern cooking, we had a great time enjoying a fantastically tight band that played a boogie-fied version of Happy Birthday to our friend Julian, and after a few pints I didn’t much mind the lack of veggie options anymore.
Thank goodness for beer!