When you talk a lot of smack about barbecue like I do, a lot of well-meaning folks want to challenge your culinary discernment. Actually, being from the barbecue capitol of the world, I’m quite accustomed to gainsayers making a play for the title. Comes with the territory. Champions don’t mind. You line ‘em up, we knock ‘em down.

So, I wasn’t surprised when Dr. Tim Russell approached me after the conference on Saturday and insisted I accompany him to the guaranteed best Memphis BBQ available. We’re far enough south that my inner-southerner took over. I smiled a broad smile, shook his hand, and traded a few “aw shucks” retorts. Southerners are polite, you see. But Russell knows the routine and I could tell we were having a real festival of southern trash talk. My kind of man.

I knew he was serious when he offered to pick me up from my hotel. Not just a recommendation, but a little added hospitality, too. Truth be told it pained me to leave the Mustang parked, and I think she had a touch more attitude, too. But who can refuse southern hospitality? I graciously accepted the ride but mentally cued my theme song–my own version of Shaft.

Who’s the black BBQ chef 
That judges others without a ref? 
SHAFT! 
Ya darn right! 

Who is the man that would risk his neck 
To make sure Lexington gets respect? 
SHAFT! 
Can you dig it? 

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out 
When there’s BBQ all about? 
SHAFT! 
Right On! 

I am to wannabe barbecue restaurants what Shaft was to “da man.” Sitting in the back of a sedan is not going to make me soft. He better bring it.

But I knew we just might be headed toward a real barbecue joint when I noticed the houses gradually shrinking. The change in geography proved that “lawn” is a thoroughly upper middle-class word. We soon entered neighborhoods with “yards,” and before long all I saw were “stoops.” We’re getting there.

Then there she was: the Cozy Corner. It was the only open unit in a 70′s styled strip center. The strip center itself floated alone in a vacant lot. No neon anywhere. In fact, I think we’re talking whatever lightbulbs they used before fluorescent was invented. I felt warmed basking in the soft golden glow radiating from inside the restaurant.

Location: Hood

When we arrived at Cozy Corner’s my clothes still smelled of faux roadhouse commercial atmosphere, like cigarette smoke from a bar. So the throw-back interior of Cozy Corner’s felt like walking in a fresh spring shower. “Right as rain” probably got its start right here in this restaurant. There was the dark brown wood paneling on the walls, an ancient heater hanging from the ceiling, old diner furniture with formica tops, and the collage of fading family photos mixed with articles clipped from local newspapers, honors awards earned by school children, and a picture of the odd visiting dignitary or two– the mayor of Memphis, President Obama. The menu, a red-trim white-background lettering board with the little black movable letters, hung overhead. Old school.  Banners commemorating their 35th anniversary hung across the doorway dividing the ordering area from the dining room. My eyes scanned the ordering counter cluttered with flyers and leaflets  beckoning to community events. My attention landed on the large-print Bible open to Psalm 83, the text for the morning’s staff devotion. This place has spirit, character, integrity.

Ambience: Classic Hole-in-the Wall

As it turns out, the light in the restaurant comes from the beaming face and generous hospitality of its owner, Mrs. Desiree Robinson. Tim introduced us to her, donning her trademark bandanna tied in a stylish knot just off to one side and covered with a knit baseball cap. After the introduction she took it from there, explaining the menu, welcoming us to Memphis, and giving us a history lesson on Cozy Corner. Started in 1977 along with her husband Raymond, now in glory, it’s a family business. Up until 2010, when her mother went to her reward, there were five generations of Robinsons working there. Now there are four, many of whom are college graduates who serve at least part-time in the family eatery. The youngest start working in the family business as soon as they’re able to toddle and talk. Being able to say, “Thank you for coming” and “Welcome” gets you a spot as greeter. Judging by the cute kids running around, I’d say that’s darn smart marketing.

Between Tim’s encyclopedic knowledge and deep rolodex (he’s never met a stranger) and Mrs. Robinson’s wonderful charm, I felt right at home, as if everything I could ever need was just over in the cupboard. As if kicking my shoes off might just be acceptable. I decided not to, though. Good home training.

Relaxing as I waited for the food, I realized something sitting in Cozy Corner that night. Memphis BBQ has a soundtrack. Surprisingly, it’s the sound of 70′s and 80′s soul and funk. I’d heard similar tunes at Central’s. But at Cozy Corner I was table dancing and head bobbing before the food arrived. I tried to keep the bop subtle, since I’m a pastor and all. But then boom: “Outstanding… girl you knock me out.” I was gone. Thrown back in a slow drag with memories of blue light parties. Mr. Marvin Gaye joined in with “Mercy, Mercy Me.” Then the O’Jays piped up with “Forever Mine.” I forgot where I was sitting, closed my eyes, and sang to my wife. Then the mood and tempo picked up with the Jackson 5 singing, “I’ll Be There.” Just look over your shoulder, honey! That’s Michael back in the day. By this time I was ready for the ribs.

Service: Down Home

Now you can’t eat ambience. So the ultimate test of Cozy Corner’s pit skill would be the meat on the plate. As I did with the other establishments, I allowed my host and the family-staff at Cozy Corner to order for me.

They’re known for their ribs. And their barbecued Cornish hen and barbecue balogna sandwich are fabled throughout Memphis. To be honest, I was skeptical. I grew up on balogna (pronounced “baloney”). I loved the sound of the sizzling frying pan and watching that circular meat bubble in the middle, edges crisp, and then relax with a little slit in the side. Add some government cheese and you’ve got my favorite summer time recipe! If she was going to work with baloney she would have to bring her A game.

Now, the ribs, hen, and baloney sandwich didn’t arrive as quickly as it had in other restaurants. There’s a reason. Some restaurants par boil their meat before they barbecue. It’s the equivalent of getting a head start in a foot race. Of course, the folks who need a head start aren’t really the superior athletes. They’re the chubby kids who know they can’t win and won’t race unless you spot them some distance. Real athletes toe the line and go head up. That’s the case at Cozy Corner. No par boiled meat here. Everything goes raw into the pit! they’re not competing against other shops, they’re competing with the meat and setting the standard! I nearly hugged and kissed Mrs. Desiree when she commented with a hint of disdain, “You don’t need sauce to make good barbecue. All you need is salt and pepper to make it taste good. Especially if you use quality meat.” Chil’ ain’t that the truth!

We shared four heaping plates of ribs, a barbecued cornish hen, and I had my very own baloney sandwich. For sides, baked beans and cole slaw, chased with sweet tea. The sweet tea was good. The baked beans were okay. But the cole slaw was excellent. The first decent batch I’ve had in Memphis. Finely chopped ingredients, good consistency, a small burst of sweetness. That’s how you do it!

The hen must’ve been hand raised because it was about as tender a bird as I’ve eaten. I prefer white meat, which can sometimes dry on you. But not this hen. She came plucked, plump and rewarded every bite with comfort.

But let me tell you about these ribs. First, they didn’t need any sauce. The sauce was nice, but there was real flavor in the meat itself. Tender and ready to be eaten. In fact, these ribs walked right off the bone and into your mouth. I’m pretty sure that as I ate my fifth rib Paliament blasted over the radio, “We want the funk. Gotta have that funk.” They wanted it; we had it! We hammered three of the four plates of ribs in a matter of minutes. The fourth, my otherwise generous host, wrapped up and took home without offering us visitors any of the loot! I can’t blame him.

Oh? My baloney sandwich? This woman redefined the limits of possibility with that mystery meat! First, we’re talking a nice thick slice of baloney. Second, they managed to get that crispy ring around the outside. Served on a bun with barbecue sauce and that delicious cole slaw, it was off da hook! Don’t take my word for it. Chris Wright, theologian and expert on European cuisine, had never heard of “baloney.” We translated it back to “balogna” and he understood a little. I shared one bite with him and heard him muttering in a Northern Ireland accent something about the mission of God including baloney in the new heavens and new earth.

We chased it all down with sweet potato pie.

Sides: What sides? It’s all about the meat!

Hen: Yardbird the way you like it.

Baloney sandwich: Ain’t no baloney

Ribs: Smack ya mama good

Desert: C’mon. It’s sweet. potato. pie.

I rolled out of Cozy Corner convinced I’d tasted the best of Memphis so far. My brother Chris Wright was snapping photos to show the folks across the pond (thank Chris for the pics above!). In fact, Cozy Corner was so scrumptious I decided I’d better not ruin it by visiting some other eatery on this trip. Commissary and Rendezvous will have to wait a future jaunt. I was thankful for Tim and Kathy Russell and the introduction to Cozy Corner. I’m going to have to bring the whole family to this spot.

But I do leave Memphis with Lexington’s BBQ title in hand. Cozy Corner didn’t serve any pulled pork. That makes it by forfeit: Lexington 3, Memphis 0. Memphis, step it up on the chopped pork before I return. The Mustang is growling and prowling!

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Comments:


13 thoughts on “The BBQ Chronicles: Memphis Edition, 3”

  1. david carlson says:

    you had me with “give up the funk” Of course you just outed yourself as not a ‘real’ baptist my demonstrating that you dance…

  2. Sam says:

    from Curious In NC — Have you ever eaten at Short Sugars in Reidsville?

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hey Sam,

      Never heard of it. Should it be on my bucket list?

      T-

      1. Sam says:

        Well, not “bucket list”. More like “THAT was different” list. I’ve eaten there a couple of times, and don’t know yet what I think about it. It’s not bad . . . but it’s different. neither Eastern NC nor Western NC. Don’t make a special trip, but if you have occasion to drive that way, you might stop in.

      2. Sam says:

        One of Sugars’ online fans compares it favorably to Monks in Lexington, if that gives you an idea about it. But be warned — they only serve ribs on Tuesday and Saturday evenings.

  3. Tim says:

    Brother Pastor,
    I read all that delightful smack, but the bottom line is you saw and salivated over the ribs, you gazed longingly on the ribs, you ate the ribs (and a goodly helping it was noticed)–and with gusto! So, the proof is in the puddin’, and I don’t mean the banana puddin, either! And they DO serve pulled pork there, but our table was overflowing with other examples of Memphis’ finest.
    Return for more….

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Ha! Boy you crazy! I was hittin’ those ribs pretty hard! “Gusto” is puttin’ it mildly. :-)

      So you hid the pulled pork from me? Now I definitely have to come back and bring the family. I think my wife is jealous :-).

      Thanks for showing us such a wonderful time. I’d have to agree that as far as I can tell Cozy Corner is “Memphis’ finest” indeed!

      Much grace to you and the family,
      T-

  4. Rachael Starke says:

    More great stuff. I look forward to your follow up series, “How I Came Home and Learned to Love the Treadmill and the Blood Glucometer.” :)

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      :-)

  5. Joyce Moore says:

    You got me wanting a bologna sandwich now. Have not had one in many years, I prefer mustard on mines though.
    And i know you heading for a gym when you get back home somewhere.

  6. hans Maja says:

    I have enjoyed reading these series. Rib, nor pig rib, cracking!!:) Who said religion was designed to make even such pleasures less?

  7. Tony Zabala says:

    Hi pastor,

    Have you tried Lucille’s Smokehouse BBQ. We have one out here in Los Angeles. My wife and I and a couple of friends went there recently.

  8. Cynthia Bates says:

    So enjoyed many of your posts, and can relate to many of them…even about being a BBQ snob. Only I’m from Alabama where the pulled pork, ribs, and smoked turkey makes me think I am from the BBQ capitol of the world too. BBQ requirement: true hickory smoked goodness. I now live in Kentucky where I haven’t tasted anything remotely close to good BBQ, although there are other good things. If you are ever in North Alabama, you must try Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ in Decatur. Easy to find, always packed with customers, and the aroma of hickory smoke will draw you in. The best coleslaw, honey-hush good sweet tea and the fresh pies will please your palate along with all the meats. They even ship it. Thanks for all your helpful posts.

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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