News » Cover Feature

’Cued Up

Memphis, are you ready? It’s barbecue time!

by

comment

Where There's Smoke

Cozy Corner rises from the ashes.

By Chris Davis

It's the kind of story that instantly becomes a local legend. Should you ever find yourself in a position where you need to communicate the essence of Memphis to an outsider who knows nothing of the region's peculiarities, all you need to do is to describe the events of Thursday, January 8, 2015: the day Cozy Corner, a beloved barbecue shack in a city overflowing with beloved barbecue shacks, caught fire and burned. It sounds like a readymade urban myth, too perfect to be true. But every bit of it is "actual fact," according to Cozy Corner pit master Bobby Bradley Jr., the grandson of the restaurant's founders Raymond and Desiree Robinson. "It really happened, and my sister can tell you all about it."

The day started out like any other Thursday, although the lunch rush was somewhat slower than usual. Customers were still dribbling in, but by 1:30 p.m., things seemed to be winding down. That's when a member of the Cozy Corner kitchen staff informed Bradley's sister India Howard that she'd been hearing popping sounds coming from the back of the building.

India kept her cool and went immediately to warn her customers. "I'm sorry to interrupt your lunch," she said, stepping out from behind the counter and into the restaurant's tiny dining area. "But we've just learned that we have a fire here. What I need is for everyone to stay calm, grab your things, and exit the building as quickly and as orderly as possible." When Howard stopped talking she expected to see some movement. "I was thinking it was going to look like ants running here and there," she says. Nobody moved. They just sat there as if nothing was happening, sucking on their spicy rib bones and digging into the restaurant's signature smoked game hens.

"It was the strangest thing ever," Howard says, recalling that perfect Memphis moment when even the threat of a burning building wasn't enough to make people put down their barbecue. "Because I'm thinking to myself, Did I not just run in here and and yell fire? And nobody — not one single person in the whole restaurant — moved?"

Howard began to clap her hands emphatically and took on a more authoritative tone. "WE. HAVE. A. FIRE!" she repeated. "And unless you want to go down with the building, you need to pick up your things and leave right now." Reluctantly, and in no obvious hurry, the customers packed up their belongings and the remainder of their lunches and began to exit the building. Many of them lingered for a while longer, to finish off their plates in the parking lot.

"All the customers were leaving when I pulled up," says Bradley, who was returning from a trip to the nearby Lit Restaurant Supply on Union Avenue. "Because of what I do, I kind of think of myself as a moonlight fireman anyway, so I went in and grabbed a fire extinguisher. My brother-in-law, he grabbed one as well, and we both went back to see what we could do. We're trying to stay low, but when we got to the room where the fire had started the smoke was serious."

Cozy Corner after the fire - CHRIS DAVIS
  • Chris Davis
  • Cozy Corner after the fire

Eight firetrucks arrived on the scene from every direction. "It was really funny," Howard says, remembering how the firemen had anticipated a pit fire instead of an electrical malfunction. "At first, they didn't have the right equipment," she says, remembering how the firefighters had to take axes to the back door and cut an enormous hole in the ceiling. "But they did a great job."

Bradley didn't realize just how badly his building had been damaged. "I thought we'd be able to open up right away," he says. "I think I even went on the TV news that night, right after the fire, and said that we'd be opening back up the next day, or something stupid like that." Although the original location remains shuttered and won't be reopening anytime soon, there is at least some good news for Cozy Corner fans in need of a fix. A limited version of the restaurant's meaty menu is currently being served from a window inside the Encore Cafe at 726 N. Parkway, directly across the street. The partnership is a fortunate one that lets Bradley "sling a little barbecue" and exposes Cozy Corner regulars to the newer business.

The sign directing diners to its temporary location - CHRIS DAVIS
  • Chris Davis
  • The sign directing diners to its temporary location

Before the fire, Encore Cafe owner Monroe Ballard had been one of Bradley's tenants, operating Optimum Studios in the Cozy Corner building's westernmost bay. But Ballard had already purchased the empty building across the street and was laying the groundwork for his own restaurant.

"Support from the community has just been incredible," Bradley says, as he takes orders from the kitchen and tends to racks of ribs and stacks of Cornish hens in the cramped trailer he built this past winter with the help of family and friends. It gets hot in the mobile unit, built around a flatbed car hauler, and it's just large enough to contain a pair of Chicago-style aquarium smokers and a small work station. But it smells like barbecue heaven.

A benefit was quickly organized by Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Porcellino's Craft Butcher, and Hog & Hominy. The ongoing Cozy Corner GoFundMe campaign raised $7,612.

"We're so grateful. We've had so much help from people," Howard says. "We've had so much help from other restaurants offering storage and refrigeration and even sending over workers to help us do anything we need."

Bobby Bradley Jr. - CHRIS DAVIS
  • Chris Davis
  • Bobby Bradley Jr.

Bradley doesn't want to be compared to his grandfather, whom he describes as a "people person" and the best barbecue cook he's ever known. "It's not fair to compare Michael Jordan's son to Michael Jordan," he says, reaching deep into the smoker and pulling out a mahogany-colored hen. "But there aren't many family businesses that survive when the founder dies, let alone continue for three generations. I'm the third generation. And I'd like to think that he would be proud of what we're doing."

Workin' Man's 'Cue

Craig David Meek hits the road to find the best barbecue in the

Mid-South.

By Toby Sells

Craig David Meek peeks inside the smokehouse. Like Dorothy at Emerald City, Meek is hoping to see the pit master, the Wizard of A&R Bar-B-Que.

Meek gets closer to the screen door, takes off his sunglasses, shades his eyes with a hand, squints, but still can't tell if anyone's home. A thick fog of wood smoke obscures every corner inside the one-room brick house and the beautiful, complex smell of burning wood and rendering fat permeates the air outside. Meek knocks politely and soon the door is open with a "Hey, Craig, come on in!" from the smiling pit master inside. Smoke pours profusely — comically — from the opened door like maybe Cheech and Chong are inside the smokehouse, too.

Craig David Meek talks with the pit master at A&R Bar-B-Que - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • Craig David Meek talks with the pit master at A&R Bar-B-Que

About 15 minutes before, Meek sat in his big, white work van collecting an assortment of small auto parts from his mobile inventory of nuts, bolts, rivets, fuses, spray paint, and more. He supplies these small parts to a list of auto body shops, car dealerships, or "basically anybody who's putting cars back together." He and his van visit shops from Jackson, Tennessee, to West Memphis, Arkansas. From Hernando to Atoka.

I meet him at a body shop on Elvis Presley Boulevard. He fills out an invoice slip, slips quickly inside (knowing the secret to the trick door), and in a flash he's back in the parking lot with a smile. "All right, want to go eat?"

I do. Because if eating barbecue around Memphis was like a fishing trip, I was on the boat with the best guide around. For this trip, he suggests A&R's South Memphis location, just down the street from the body shop.

Meek's been making his rounds in the van for about 10 years. But nearly three years ago, he stopped at Collierville's Captain John's Barbecue and found a question that would change his route, his hobby, and writing career: "How many places like this do I drive by all the time?"

He set out to find out. He told Facebook friends that he was going to eat at every barbecue place he encountered on his routes.

• That's where Craig David Meek barbecue tip No. 1 comes from: You can lose weight and eat barbecue. Drink water and don't eat the bread.

"When I started eating barbecue every single day, my friends were taking bets on how huge I was going to get," Meek says. "Then, I lost like 20 pounds and it dumbfounded them. Like I said, I drink water and only eat the meat, beans, and slaw."

The menu board during lunch at A&R Bar-B-Que - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • The menu board during lunch at A&R Bar-B-Que

A&R was busy, not packed, but I was a newbie and felt the need to be quick and get out of the locals' way. But I got lost in the two-column letter board menu over the cash register with barbecue, sides, and drinks. I mean, barbecue's barbecue unless you're on the hunt for the good stuff. Meek read my expression and stepped to the register.

"The rib tips are good today," the cashier said. "Just off the pit."

Without blinking an eye or looking at the menu, Meek said, "We'll have a plate of that with onion rings and beans. We'll also have a pulled pork plate with greens, slaw, and beans."

The pulled pork plate at A&R Bar-B-Que - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • The pulled pork plate at A&R Bar-B-Que

• Craig David Meek barbecue tip No. 2: Ask "What's good right now?" Pit-fresh specials and seasonal dishes come and go and don't always make the menu.

Meek says he stayed true to his intent, just seeing a barbecue place and stopping in. He started a barbecue blog mainly to answer his friends' questions, but it spread to a larger audience.

As we wait, he tells me about KC's Southern Style Rice, a red trailer in a flea market that serves rib-tip fried rice that's "just unreal." He says Big Bill's Barbecue is just around the corner, and even though it's in a strip mall, they have a real charcoal pit and the food is good. You can get hot links "ultimate style," topped with peppers, onions, and tomatoes.

• Craig David Meek barbecue tip No. 3: When you're looking for good barbecue, follow your nose. Sniff out the wood smoke. "Anytime you see a big smoke house like the one here [at A&R] you're in for some good barbecue. Or, look for a big barrel smoker with plenty of wood and real charcoal."

"Craig! I got a Craig!" the cashier shouts in the next room. We shoot out of our chairs and return with legal-pad-sized platters heavy with a saucy pile of rib tips, pulled pork perfected with strata of red, brown, and burnt ends, and all of the accoutrements.

With portions of this-and-that divvied up between us, we get to work and things get quiet. Eyes meet. Heads nod. Napkins pile up. If I were a food writer, my one-sentence review would be more poetic. But here goes: That food was damn good.

Meek's book Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Sauce, Smoke & Soul was published last year and covers a spectrum from DeSoto bringing pigs to the Mid-South to Corky's on QVC. History Press liked his barbecue blog and approached him about writing a book. He revisited his favorite restaurants, introduced himself, interviewed owners, pit masters, and more.

• Craig David Meek barbecue tip No. 4: Get off the beaten path. "I do feel bad when people come in from out of town and say, 'I wanna go to Beale Street and get great Memphis barbecue.' There is some pretty good barbecue on Beale, but there's nothing there that is that real Memphis-style [barbecue]."

Meek grew up eating Memphis barbecue. His childhood favorites were Jack's Rib Shack and Three Little Pigs at Quince and White Station. But as a Memphian, he wasn't aware barbecue was in his cultural DNA. It was always just there.

"You sort of assume that whenever people get together to watch a game or for a family reunion, that there is always big aluminum tubs of barbecue sitting out," Meek says. "You realize that it's a regional thing a little later and that other places either don't have barbecue or have something they call barbecue, but it's not the quality you were used to growing up."

Scraping the last of the greens from the bowl, I think about it. I don't want to do it, really, but I know I kind of have to. I know he's heard the question a thousand times. But I go ahead and blurt, "Where do you like to eat barbecue?"

But he's nice about it and quick with a good answer. He points me to his list of favorites he recently wrote for Thrillist. It includes everything from A&R, Germantown Commissary, Cozy Corner, Elwood's Shack, and the Bar-B-Que Shop in Midtown.

Craig David Meek pays a visit to A&R Bar-B-Que in South Memphis - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • Craig David Meek pays a visit to A&R Bar-B-Que in South Memphis

We bus our table, shake hands, and head out the door. I eye him in the back parking lot talking with an older guy. Meek shakes his hand and approaches me, laughing. He says the guy had a Canadian accent and asked if the barbecue was good here. He said it was and showed him a picture of the place in his book. Looking confused, the man eyed him suspiciously until Meek turned the book over and showed him his own picture on the jacket. The man laughed, thanked him, and carried on inside. Call that the official Craig David Meek stamp of approval.

Add a comment