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?