Archive for the ‘Memphis’ Category

A barbecued bologna sandwich

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

It was time for lunch, we were in downtown Memphis and I was hungry for some barbecue.

It dawned on me that my wife and two sons had never had the pleasure of eating at Cozy Corner, the little place at 745 N. Parkway, just off Interstate 40 near the empty Pyramid (Bass Pro, where are you?).

Cozy Corner is different.

Yes, you can get pulled pork.

Yes, you can get beef brisket.

But after the ribs (which are excellent, by the way), the top-selling items are the smoked Cornish game hens, the bologna and the chicken wings.

I considered ordering the Cornish game hen dinner (the most expensive dinner on the menu at $11.75). But I decided I wasn’t quite that hungry. A bologna sandwich was calling my name for just $3.75. And I could get a side order of the restaurant’s barbecued spaghetti for $1.25.

Melissa tried the sliced pork sandwich for $4.95. Evan had the sliced beef sandwich for $5.15. And Austin went for the wing dinner for $7.95.

Everyone left happy.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that the weekend section of Friday’s Commercial Appeal had included a short feature on Cozy Corner.

“When I think of Cozy Corner, I think of Cornish game hen,” Michael Donahue wrote. “This is the only barbecue restaurant — or anywhere else for that matter — I know of that serves them.”

Owner Desiree Robinson and her late husband, Raymond Robinson, began eating Cornish game hens at a Denver restaurant when they lived in Colorado. They later opened their own restaurant, known as Ray’s BBQ, in Denver.

They bought Cozy Corner in Memphis in August 1977, the month Elivis died. They kept the name.

“They also kept the old place’s phone number and furniture,” Donahue wrote. “Her husband didn’t like to spend money. ‘He would hold a nickel until the eagle faded off.’ Desiree doesn’t know what the old Cozy Corner was.”

Suffice it to say that it was a “joint.”

“The last time I was in there, I saw a woman sitting up on the counter shooting dice,” a customer told Desiree.

There was, however, a Chicago-style barbecue pit, which is still the one that’s used. A Chicago-style pit places the charcoal further away from the grill than a conventional pit.

Asked by the reporter why the Cornish hens are so popular, Desiree answered, “First of all, it’s so pretty. Look at that. Isn’t that cute?”

I’ve had the game hens before. And I’ll likely have them again. But I’ve always liked bologna, and the smoked bologna was what I wanted Saturday.

I was reminded how much I miss the old Coy Po’ Boy Supper, once an annual event during the heat of August in which the late Charles “Chicken” Jeans of England (a former Lonoke County road supervisor) would serve his version of barbecued bologna. When “Chicken” died, the Po’ Boy Supper died along with him.

“Chicken” also would host regular barbecued bologna luncheons during the rest of the year, which I often would attend when I worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and in the governor’s office. A favored location for these luncheons was a dive on U.S. Highway 70 in North Little Rock known as Drover’s. The lights were so dim and the cigarette smoke was so thick that it was hard to find your table some days.

As for Cozy Corner, the bologna sandwich goes high on my list of favorite Memphis dishes, right up there with the barbecued spaghetti at Interstate Bar-B-Que on South Third Street.

Famed food reviewer Michael Stern of www.roadfood.com wrote this gushing review last year: “If you have time for just one barbecue meal in Memphis (or anywhere on earth), go to Cozy Corner. It is a hazy storefront shop with a self-service counter, a smoker in the vestibule and blues music playing in the small dining room to the side. Presiding over this small, sweet-smelling empire is Desiree Robinson, widow of the founder, Raymond Robinson, who had been the city’s supreme pitmaster for more than two decades until his passing in 2001. Mrs. Robinson and her children are maintaining the Cozy Corner exactly as it was when Raymond was boss, and it remains THE place to go for unsurpassed barbecue in a city that is full of great barbecue parlors. Virtually everything you can order off the wall-mounted menu is ecstatically wonderful.”

Reviews don’t get much more positive than that.

Here’s how Stern described the bologna sandwich: “Understand that this is no paper-thin slice of precut baloney like you buy in a pack from the cold cut rack of the supermarket. It is a thick slab that gets dry-rubbed with pepper and spice, charcoal cooked, then sauced and put into a bun with coleslaw: a delicious piggy mess.”

He added, “When it’s properly barbecued, as it is in many Memphis smokehouses, baloney trancends its status as lunch meat and becomes a whole other category of food. Here it is served in typical local style, with coleslaw piled in the bun. The slaw and sauce pool together on the plate to make a wonderful sweet and hot gravy.”

We had arrived in Memphis on Friday afternoon. I had a gift certificate for a free night at the Westin, and we decided to use it to celebrate the final day of school for the two boys.

Friday dinner was at Sole, the seafood restaurant and raw bar in the hotel. Sole is decidedly more upscale than the tourist traps around the corner on Beale Street, and I’ve found the seafood to be excellent on several visits there.

Sole opened in November 2008, replacing The Daily Grill. I had a fish known as walu, Melissa had salmon, Austin had scallops and Evan had a cheeseburger with grass-fed beef from Neola Farms in Tipton County, Tenn.

With the restaurant directly across from the FedEx Forum, service can become a bit rushed on evenings where there’s an event across the street. On Friday, though, the arena was not in use, and we were eating at 5 p.m. So things were relaxed, and the service was superb.

We were dining early in the evening so we could walk down the street in time to see a Memphis Redbirds game at AutoZone Park. When it opened in 2000, AutoZone was the most expensive minor league ballpark ever built. Designed by Looney Ricks Kiss Architects of Memphis in consultation with HOK Sports of Kansas City, AutoZone Park remains one of the best places in the country to watch baseball.

“If this was set in a parking lot on the outskirts of the city, AutoZone Park certainly would not rate as high in my book,” states the review at the website www.ballparkreviews.com. “But because of its downtown location, it’s certainly one of the top new ballparks in the country. Yes, it is a bit big for a minor league park, and therefore almost has a major league feel to it. But its downtown location, tucked in among large buildings, gives it a more intimate feel than it otherwise would have.”

The game went 11 innings. We stayed until the end. That was followed by a lengthy fireworks show. And even though it was well past 11 p.m., a band was playing in the plaza as we left.

Friday night dinner at Sole.

A Rebirds game at AutoZone Park followed by fireworks.

An evening in one of those Westin “heavenly beds.”

Coffee, a blueberry muffin and The New York Times at the Starbucks in the Westin.

A bologna sandwich for lunch at Cozy Corner.

It all made for quite a nice 24-hour trip to Memphis.

By the way, which is your favorite of the many barbecue restaurants in Memphis?

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A Memphis Friday night

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Though he’s a native Arkansan who still lives in Forrest City, he does the pregame and postgame shows on the radio network that carries Ole Miss football.

He’s also one of the most popular sports talk radio personalities in Memphis.

And he works for one of the nation’s famous old AM radio stations.

He’s Brett “Stats” Norsworthy, and he came by his nickname honestly. He can spit out more sports trivia, history and statistics than anyone I know.

On Friday night, he hosted Kane Webb and me for a delightful evening in Memphis. Brett has long enjoyed Kane’s writing, and who doesn’t? Kane is, after all, one of the best writers in our state. Brett wanted to meet Kane, and so we set this trip up many weeks ago.

We started in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. Where else are you going to start in Memphis?

It’s the place where the Delta begins, according to Greenville writer David Cohn. And the Peabody lobby is still the place to see and be seen in the Mid-South. Hundreds of people crowded the lobby on this Friday afternoon for the 5 p.m. march of the Peabody ducks.

I enjoy visiting the lobby of the Peabody Little Rock, but it simply cannot compare to the history and charm of the original in Memphis.

From the Peabody, we walked over to the Rendezvous for dinner.

From the Rendezvous, we headed to the Fed-Ex Forum to see a much-improved Memphis Grizzlies team defeat the New York Knicks.

Brett began his Memphis radio career back in 1992, helping Memphis sports legend George Lapides (once the sports editor of the late Memphis Press-Scimitar, which was the city’s afternoon newspaper) host his radio show. Brett has worked on a number of shows in the market since then, currently hosting “Sportstime Extra” each morning on WHBQ.

WHBQ, which was long owned by RKO before being sold to Flinn Broadcasting in 1988, was the home of Dewey Phillips. He was the DJ who first played a recording of “That’s Alright Mama” by an unknown singer named Elvis Presley. It was the first time an Elvis recording had been on the radio. The year was 1954.

Phillips hosted an evening show known as “Red, Hot and Blue” that attracted both black and white audiences, something that was rare in those days.

RKO DJs who would later become famous — people such as Rick Dees and Wink Martindale — would get their start at WHBQ before moving own to bigger RKO markets in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

I love what the call letters stood for — We Have Better Quartets.

Now, it’s all sports and no music on WHBQ. And Mempis residents love their sports.

As we walked down the alley toward the Rendezvous, I could see that the line was out the door. I worried that we would be late for the game. I should not have worried. At the Rendezvous, they all know Stats.

“Come on, we already have a table,” he said.

We were immediately seated in a corner, and the food started coming without us having to place an order — sausages and cheese with that wonderful Rendezvous dry rub to start. The ribs came later.

It was 1948 when Charlie Vergos was cleaning the basement below his diner and discovered a coal chute. That chute gave him the vent he needed to do barbecue. Since then, the basement in downtown Memphis has become a legend.

There are those who will tell you that the Rendezvous is too much of a place for tourists. And, yes, I will tell you that my favorite dish in Memphis is still the barbecue spaghetti at Interstate Barbecue down on South Third Street. But I still enjoy the Rendezvous. I like the history, I like the downtown location, I like the vibe and I like the fact that they have waiters who have been there 30 and even 40 years.

On the Rendezvous website, you can read about those waiters. Robert Sr. has been around for 45 years. Big Jack has been there since 1969. Albert, known as Red, started in 1973. Percy started in 1970. Geno, known as The Fixer, has been around for 34 years. Robert Jr. has been there 24 years.

One after another, managers and waiters stopped by our table to talk college and professional sports with Brett.

And we still made it to the Fed-Ex Forum in time for the 7 p.m. tip.

After the game, Brett headed to the interview room to work. Kane and I took a stroll down Beale Street. The place was hopping. It was good to see an active downtown on a Friday night.

Like the downtowns of many Southern cities, downtown Memphis has had its problems. After years of progress that began in the early 1980s, the recession has slowed or killed a number of downtown development projects. The Belz family, for instance, has halted construction on the Peabody Suites in the former Peabody Place Retail & Entertainment Center next to the hotel. For now, the focus is on a massive expansion of the Peabody Orlando Hotel. And one of my favorite downtown Memphis restaurants that was in that location — Encore — closed last fall. The Muvico cinema is also gone.

The Belz family usually does things right, however. So when the project goes forward, I have no doubt it will be a classy development.

One piece of good news is that the empty space on Beale Street that once held a franchise location of the New Orleans bar Pat O’Brien’s will soon be the home an expanded location of the Memphis version of Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. The original Ground Zero is in Clarksdale, Miss. The Mississippi location opened in May 2001. The Memphis location, which was a block off Beale, opened in May 2008.

The two-hour trip from Little Rock to Memphis remains an easy and fun getaway. There’s still plenty to do just over the bridge in downtown. My recipe — meet in the Peabody lobby, have dinner at the Rendezvous and attend an event at the Fed-Ex Forum. And, if you like sports, listen to WHBQ-AM, 560, on the way over and back.

Thanks, Stats.

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Memphis blues

Friday, November 20th, 2009

I’ve written about Memphis before. It’s a city where I spent a lot of time in my job with the Delta Regional Authority and a city I’ve always enjoyed visiting.

It’s a city blessed with that great location on the Mississippi River and a fascinating history. It also has been a city cursed in recent decades with high crime rates, spiraling poverty rates, rapid outmigration and racial tension. Little Rock has its own problems, but those problems often pale in comparison to what’s happening two hours down the road in Memphis.

As a place that’s important to tens of thousands of people who live in east Arkansas, it’s important to all Arkansans that Memphis does well. The late Willie Morris of Mississippi, who might just be my favorite writer, once said that the two most imporant cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans. In that vein, it would be safe to say that the most important city in east Arkansas is Memphis.

I sometimes find myself feeling sorry for Memphis, even in the realm of sports. Memphis residents love to talk about sports. The city, in fact, has three all-sports radio stations. Driving around the Delta, I often would alternate between shows on 560 AM, 680 AM and 730 AM out of Memphis.

I was in a hotel room in downtown St. Louis on the night of April 7, 2008, watching the Memphis Tigers blow that big lead down the stretch and lose to Kansas in overtime in the NCAA title game. I grieved for the city, knowing what a boost in morale this would have been for people who were hungry for something good to happen.

Having failed in its long effort to secure an NFL franchise — the old Houston Oilers went to Nashville after one lonely season in exile at Memphis — Memphis finally secured an NBA franchise. But that team has been terrible. It has a bad owner and has been poorly managed. The Fed-Ex Forum is a gorgeous downtown facility, but most seats are empty these days whenever the Grizzlies play. The recent effort to bring Allen Iverson to the team was a disaster. The 34-year-old guard played only three games with Memphis, all in California. He began an indefinite leave of absence on Nov. 7 to deal with a “personal issue” and then was waived by the team earlier this week.

Over at the University of Memphis, head football coach Tommy West was fired earlier this month and went out firing at the school. During a news conference, he said: “Put something in it, or do away with it. One or the other. That’s what they should do. … There’s a negativity here that, in the end, eats you up. It’s hard to win. In today’s game, it’s harder to win than it has ever been. And if you have to fight battles around your own program and around your own campus and around your own city, it’s hard. It makes it very difficult.”

Take that, Memphis.

This all comes in the same year that John Calipari took off for Kentucky, leaving forfeited games in his wake.

There simply are no bright spots when it comes to the Grizzlies. But, at the college level, the Tigers appear to have a bright young basketball coach in Josh Pastner. The Tigers came close to knocking off Kansas earlier this week, falling 57-55 in a nationally televised game and proving that Memphis basketball is still relevant. And Pastner’s recruiting efforts have been outstanding thus far. At least one recruiting ranking now has Memphis at No. 1 based on current commitments.

Columnist Geoff Calkins wrote in The Commercial Appeal earlier this week: “In the seven months since Pastner was given the Memphis coaching job by default, he has persuaded half a dozen elite recruits to play for the Tigers. Imagine what Pastner will do when he has a full year to recruit. Which is a joke, of course. The guy can’t do better than this. Because this is impossible. This was the job that couldn’t be done. There was no way anyone could replace John Calipari. There was no way any other coach could get national recruits to come to a Conference USA school. Without Calipari, Memphis would go back to being a nice, plucky regional program. Instead, Memphis is No. 1.”

By the way, central Arkansas basketball enthusiasts will have a chance to see this Memphis team when the Tigers play UALR at 2 p.m. on Dec. 12 in North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena.

The city received another dose of great news Wednesday when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $90 million grant to the Memphis public schools. The seven-year project is designed to raise teaching levels. Under the plan, the most talented teachers will be moved into the classrooms where they are needed most. The district will now pay top-tier salaries approaching six figures.

The best news of all, though, is that Memphis has a new mayor. Finally. It’s not that he’s a fresh face. The city’s new mayor, A.C. Wharton, previously served as Shelby County mayor. Wharton is not spring chicken, either. He’s 65. But after 18 years, the controversial, often incompetent Willie Herenton is gone from the Memphis mayor’s office, having retired from his fifth term on July 30 under the cloud of a federal investigation.

Wharton cruised to victory last month with 60 percent of the vote against 24 opponents (that’s right — 24) in the special election to replace the man they called King Willie. Memphis badly needed a change at the top, and Wharton provides just that as he serves the final two years of Herenton’s term. Wharton said his victory marked the end of an era “apathy, of divisiveness, of hatred, of discord.”

Once can only hope he’s right. A Commercial Appeal investigation revealed that between 2004 and July of this year, Herenton managed to steer an extra $240,000 of government money into his pockets. Herenton’s salary as mayor was $171,500.

As Calkins wrote back in August: “Willie Herenton wants you to know that he is not crazy. Just as Richard Nixon wanted you to know that he was not a crook. Just as Roger Clemens wanted you to know that he did not take steroids. Just as Bill Clinton wanted you to know that he did not have sexual relations with that woman. Just as Larry Craig wanted you to know that he was not gay. All these centuries later, that other Willie — Shakespeare — had it right, didn’t he? Thou dost protest too much.”

Good luck, Memphis.

The Grizzlies stink. Your college football team is just as bad. You will never have an NFL franchise. Razorback fans are hoping for the Cotton Bowl rather than your Liberty Bowl. The Pyramid is still empty. And you even lost the Mid-South Fair.

But Mayor Herenton is out of office. Something positive finally happened in your public schools. You stumbled upon one of the most exciting young coaches in college basketball. So stop being so down on yourselves, Memphis residents. You’re beginning to make the infamous Arkansas inferiority complex seem minor.

Your city is authentic, funky and fun, far from one of those manufactured New South cities. I’ll be back soon.

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Room with a river view

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

The River Inn on Mud Island at Memphis opened in October 2007. I stayed there for the first time Saturday night — it was Melissa’s birthday, but I won’t dare tell you how many — and the experience was a good one.

The River Inn is a boutique hotel with only 28 rooms and suites. That means it’s quiet, and it also means that there is a lot of personal service provided by the staff.

We arrived Saturday in time for lunch at Tug’s, the less formal of the two restaurants at the River Inn. I was worried at first when it took forever for the drinks to arrive and when the entrees appeared before the appetizer. But the fried oysters were some of the best I’ve had north of New Orleans, and a gumbo of shrimp, crawfish tails and sausage was also good. Tug’s is open from 11 a.m. until midnight Monday through Friday. The restaurant opens at 8 a.m. for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays. Bottom line — good food, nice atmosphere, service could stand some improvement.

Dinner was at Currents, the fine dining restaurant adjacent to the River Inn lobby. The three-course meal for $29 is a steal for a restaurant of this quality. Breakfast at Currents, which was also a treat, is included in the price of the room. I have no complaints about Currents. I even agreed with my waiter about how nice it is that Memphis Mayor Herenton has resigned.

There’s also a rooftop terrace with a great view of the Mississippi River. Though it’s a bit hot to be outside in August, we still sat up there for almost 30 minutes Saturday night, looking west toward Arkansas and the setting sun. The window of our third-floor room also looked out onto the river and the adjacent, well-manicured Riverwalk.

While the hotel rates are not cheap, it’s a great choice for Arkansas couples searching for a close spot to get away. Champagne is served upon arrival, and the turn-down service includes chocolate truffles and port (though it would be nice at this price if they actually turned down the bed, replaced some towels and toiletries, turned the radio on low, laid out a robe, etc. like a Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons).

It’s so quiet that you don’t realize you’re in the city. There’s almost the feel of a country inn, though you’re on the edge of downtown.

The hotel and its restaurants were built by investors Henry Turley, Lewis Holland, Tom Scott and Joe Weller to complement the surrounding Harbor Town development. The Henry Turley Co., established in 1977, is behind some of the leading developments in Memphis.

Based on the New Urbanism concept of development — think Seaside with narrow streets, front porches and lots of joggers and bikers — Harbor Town is a collection of homes, townhouses, lofts and apartments on the northern end of Mud Island. If you look to your left while driving east into Memphis over the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, you’ll see it.

The Henry Turley Co. has also developed the Shrine Building in downtown Memphis, the Uptown Memphis mixed-housing development and the South Bluffs development. It has proposed redeveloping the Mid-South Fairgrounds now that the fair is leaving Memphis for Tunica.

Most Arkansans, familiar only with the Mud Island River Park portion of the island, don’t realize that Mud Island is home to more than 5,000 residents. Harbor Town has its own Montessori school, a health center and an upscale neighborhood grocery story and sandwich shop known as Miss Cordelia’s. Harbor Town has been a favorite home for past and present Memphis Grizzlies players and coaches.

Nature trails, walking trails, ponds and a marina all are part of the Harbor Town mix.

At breakfast Sunday morning, two couples were telling the waiter about the Journey concert the night before at the Mud Island Amphitheater.

“The concert was great,” the man, who appeared to be in his mid-40s, said. “But the park is falling apart.”

Like me, he probably remembers when the park was new in the early 1980s. One of the best outdoor concerts I ever attended — was it 1982? — was Al Jarreau on Mud Island on a perfect summer evening. What great Mud Island concert memories do you have?

I also remember how much I enjoyed the Mississippi River Museum when it was new. The last time I took my kids to the museum, almost half the attractions were closed or broken.

Unfortunately, like so much that is controlled by the city government of Memphis, the park was allowed to deteriorate. With a stagnant city government and an out-of-touch mayor, crime soared, development slowed and Memphis residents fled to places like Collierville, Southaven and Hernando.

As mentioned, the fair is leaving. The Pyramid sits empty. Downtown retail at Peabody Place was a failure. And the neighborhoods surrounding Graceland remain crime-ridden.

As someone who has always enjoyed spending time in Memphis, I hope the city can get its act together. With a new mayor on the way — thank goodness — there is at least hope. I’ll have more on that in a later post.

For now, Harbor Town and the River Inn offer a respite from the crime, neglect, decay and apathy that has been eating our neighbor to the east in recent years from the inside out. It’s worth the trip. And unless you want to, there’s really no need to go to other parts of town. You’re on the bridge and back in the promised land of Arkansas within a matter of minutes.

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