First Look: The Big Apple Inn
A Mississippi institution brings 'smokes' and 'ears' to AtlantaMonday July 16, 2012 04:00 am EDT
I'll give you a topic: the Big Apple Inn. It's neither big nor an inn, and it has nothing to do with apples. Discuss among yourselves.
In case you haven't heard, the Big Apple Inn — an institution of old-school Southern sandwiches from Jackson, Miss. — has arrived in Atlanta. It brings with it "smokes" and "ears" and tamales and a whole lot of history and hospitality. What? You haven't heard of smokes or ears? Go. Right now. Watch Joe York's typically brilliant Southern Foodways Alliance-sponsored short film titled (what else?) "Smokes & Ears," then come back and keep reading. Or, better yet, head over to the Atlanta outpost of the Big Apple Inn to place your sandwich order.
Now, I understand that ears — pig ear sandwiches to be exact — may not be your cup of tea. Or fire-truck red smoked sausages smashed up on a griddle, for that matter (that would be the smokes). But if you have any interest whatsoever in a uniquely enduring little anomaly of Southern-Mexican fusion cuisine, you must visit the Big Apple Inn. Yes, this is fusion, the kind of immigrants-to-America fusion that happened well before the word fusion had anything to do with food. The original Big Apple Inn was founded in 1939 by Juan "Big John" Mora, who made his way from Mexico to Mississippi. Mora had been peddling tamales from a cart before opening his own place in Jackson, a restaurant apparently named after his favorite dance (hence "the Big Apple"). The focus was first on tamales, but the lasting legacy of the Big Apple has been the smokes and ears that came later on, a product of Mississippi as seen through the eyes of a Mexican immigrant and his African-American wife.
So, other than a healthy dose of history and a possibly unhealthy dose of pork, what can you expect from Atlanta's Big Apple Inn? First, be warned, this is a takeout shop. Owner April Patton, great-granddaughter of Mora, will greet you as she takes orders, fixes up sandwiches, and simply treats people right. The short menu has its smokes and ears (order them both "hot," trust me) and a handful of different types of thick tamales wrapped in corn husks that do the Mississippi Delta fairly proud, though I was hoping for the thin cigar-shaped tamales of pure cornmeal and spice that fuel my own Mississippi memories. The menu also features more mainstream offerings — hot dogs and burgers of the beef, chicken, and turkey varieties, plus a nice selection of ice cream, including a banana pudding flavor from Atlanta's own Greenwood Ice Cream that's a perfect follow-up (or appetizer) to a few sandwiches to go.
But me? I've seen the film. I'm hungry for smokes and ears. All of the sandwiches here are served on soft slider-style buns, usually with spoonfuls of a simple cabbage slaw, thin mustard sauce, and equally thin but heat-packed hot sauce. Those soft buns get a bit of soaking and toasting from the fat on the griddle while the toppings are piled on, then a quick wrap in paper. The addition of several minutes (if you can wait that long) in the bag lets all of the flavors become friendly, like a long, happy group hug.
The ears are exceedingly tender and, frankly, could benefit from a bit more of the typical pig ear chewiness. They're basically semisolid meat butter, melting into the bun, providing the platform for the traces of tangy mustard and crispy slaw and zingy sauce to tingle your tongue. Anyone who has had the pleasure of eating a slaw-topped barbecue sandwich with hot sauce knows this flavor profile well: bright and acidic and spicy and rich. (Can someone please try making a fancified version of this with coppa di testa? Are you listening, Holeman & Finch?) The standard amount of slaw on these sandwiches is a bit small, so I recommend asking for a good-size helping to add some extra crunch.
As for the smokes, they are greasy little boogers. And I mean that in the best possible way. The crumbled-up pork offers more of a textural counterpoint to the soft bun than the ears do, and the smokiness and built-in heat of the sausage adds another layer of flavor. Hot dang if this is not one of the guiltiest little $2 pleasures in town. If you don't dig on swine, give the beef bologna sandwich a shot. It may not pack the same heat, but the nicely browned slice 'o' meat still works well against the tender bun.
Yes, the prices are good, the service comes with a very big smile, and the sense of a special Southern history is priceless. After all of these years and a trek across the South from Jackson to Atlanta, the Big Apple Inn has earned the right to carry a name that invokes being cream of the crop, top of the heap, and full of hospitality.