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?
Ya darn right!
Who is the man that would risk his neck
To make sure Lexington gets respect?
Can you dig it?
Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s BBQ all about?
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.
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!