Although I was born and raised below the Mason-Dixon line, I'm about as Southern as John Kerry. For a shamefully long time, I assumed everything thrown on a grill was barbecue. I thought grits and creamed corn were one and the same.
These days I can consult my fiancée about matters Southern. She was born in Florida, raised in Dallas and went to college in Memphis. Half a decade living in the Midwest has smoothed out her accent some, but she's still got a hankering for Southern cuisine.
Since Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen opened in Webster Groves in October, few weeks have passed without my fiancée asking whether it was time to visit. Highway 61's menu is like an encyclopedia of stick-to-your-ribs Southern food but this alone didn't account for her excitement.
The real reason, she said, was that Highway 61 has barbecue spaghetti. This, according to her and the restaurant's menu, is a Memphis tradition. I'd never heard of it, of course, but after a moment's fear that barbecue spaghetti belongs to the same group of foods as deep-fried mac 'n' cheese, I decided to trust her.
As it turns out, barbecue spaghetti is exactly what it sounds like: thick-cut spaghetti and pulled pork in Highway 61's tangy, peppery barbecue sauce. It's a simple dish, as filling as can be, and if I'd attended college in Memphis, I probably would have eaten it once a day, at least.
U.S. Route 61 starts in New Orleans and ends in the tiny town of Wyoming, Minnesota, but in the mythos of American music and the kitchen of Highway 61 Roadhouse, everything north of St. Louis is boring old blacktop. It's an iconic road, and basing a restaurant on its food and musical heritage could easily come off as a gimmick and nothing more.
But Highway 61 feels more like a celebration. The restaurant took over the space whose previous tenant was Ellie Forcella, part of local restaurateur Tim Mallett's Great Restaurants group (Blue Water Grill in Kirkwood, Remy's in Clayton and Big Sky Cafe a little ways up Old Orchard). Now the cavernous room features a sweeping mural of Route 61's legendary musicians too many to count, really, which is why the mural stretches over three high walls. When I ate there during the open-mic blues jam session, the musicians waiting their turn sat with their guitars out, pretending to strum along. Another night a group of women danced in the narrow space between tables.
The menu developed by owners Bill Kunz and Dave Freese and kitchen manager Steve Meyer is nearly as long as Route 61 itself: barbecue, naturally; seafood, meat and pasta; pizza and burgers; po' boy and muffaletta sandwiches; nearly two dozen starters, soups and salads. And that's not to mention the side dishes, several of which are enough for a small meal by themselves, or (if you somehow save room) the desserts.
Almost every starter I tried was good, though the generous portions threatened to end my meals before I ordered any entrées. The standouts: the fried tamales and the andouille arancini. The tamales, from the Mississippi Delta, were crisp and not at all greasy on the outside, and moist inside, with an authentic cornmeal flavor and a piquant note. Arancini, breaded and fried balls of rice, are an Italian specialty. Highway 61 adds andouille sausage and Asiago cheese, and the result is much like the savory, spicy mixture you find inside stuffed peppers.
Waffle-cut French fries drowning in a Gorgonzola cheese sauce were a simple (guilty) pleasure. I also loved the "Louisiana BBQ Shrimp" or, more accurately, I liked the shrimp but loved the Worcestershire sauce-spiked butter that was served with the shrimp, which I happily soaked up with slices of French bread. The only unsuccessful starter was a thick slice of grilled provolone cheese; it was bland and more chewy than gooey.
From Highway 61's barbecue pit, you can get pulled pork, spare ribs, a pork steak or chicken, all of it served with the same excellent barbecue sauce that accompanies the barbecue spaghetti. I tried a half-slab of St. Louis-style spare ribs, which were very meaty and tender, with a nice, blush-colored smoke ring and the right touch of smoky flavor to round out the flavor of the sauce.
On my next visit I wanted to try the fillet of red snapper grilled on a cedar plank, but it was sold out, so I ordered chicken breast stuffed with andouille sausage and tasso ham. The boneless, skinless breast was divided into four pieces and topped with "andouille cream sauce." I couldn't taste much andouille in the sauce, and the dish as a whole fell flat. The stuffing didn't have as much kick as the pairing of andouille and tasso might suggest, and the chicken was overdone.
Pan-fried chicken, on the other hand, was excellent. This too was a boneless and skinless breast, but it remained perfectly tender beneath its crisp crust. It was served in a "white gravy," but its color and flavor suggested a hint of sherry.
I'm not a huge fan of catfish. Wild catfish has an almost oily flavor that I find unpleasant, and farm-raised catfish can be mild to the point of irrelevance. Highway 61's fried catfish split the difference, with just enough fishiness to stand up to its cornmeal breading. Among the seafood selections, though, I preferred the shrimp-and-crawfish étouffée, which had a mellow and mildly spicy flavor that contrasted nicely with the buttery shellfish.
With your entrées you have your choice of one or two sides. (You can also order them á la carte.) These are the secret weapons of Highway 61, huge portions of just about every Southern comfort-food classic. My disappointment with my stuffed chicken faded with each spoonful of a gumbo dense with chicken and andouille. "Cream corn soufflé" was like cornbread pie if that description doesn't sell you, you have no soul while grilled corn on the cob was, as promised by the menu, like eating popcorn, the texture fluffy, the taste caramel-sweet. Surprisingly, the only dud among the side dishes was the red beans and rice, which was underseasoned.
I could barely walk, let alone consider dessert, after all this food, but I couldn't resist "The King." I'll just let the menu speak for itself here: "Peanut butter and bananas on honey wheat bread dipped in vanilla custard, griddled and topped with shaved chocolate." Are we sure Elvis didn't overdose on this? It's that good. It's sweet good Lord, yes, it's sweet but not as sweet as you might think. The key is the wheat bread, which provides the ballast (as well as some textural crunch) to keep the dish from tipping into absurdity.
Then again, I'm not the expert on Southern food. My fiancée assures me that Highway 61 is "authentic," though, and she can't wait to return.
Actually, her most telling comment came near the end of our first visit. Local favorite Kim Massie was on stage, belting out tunes to a rapidly crowding room. We knew Highway 61 had live music, but we hadn't checked the schedule for that night and were pleasantly surprised to see Massie.
"This reminds me of so many places in Memphis," my fiancée said. "You come in to eat and, without meaning to, you get to see someone you've always wanted to see."
It was kind of bittersweet. Even if you don't drive all the way to Wyoming, Minnesota, there's too much along Route 61 for most of us to see in one lifetime. But Highway 61 does a pretty good job of capturing the best of that route under one roof, and I'm more than happy to go along for the ride.