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Yesterday I had the privilege of joining Chris Wright and the saints at Second Presbyterian Church for their Christian Life Conference. What a warm and gracious body of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ! These guys make you feel like family and they serve enthusiastically and selflessly. At lunch, they treated me to the opportunity to speak on the “Contributions and Challenges of African-American Theology” using a “big God theology” framework borrowed from Michael Campbell and Jemar Tisby. In the evening Chris and I began the conference in earnest with messages on evangelism in the mission of God and engaging our Muslim neighbors and friends. It was a good evening of worship and fellowship–one that works up an appetite for barbecue!

Now, following my post on Central’s BBQ, a number of Memphis aficionados emailed and tweeted their personal favorites. I love the Memphis spirit. They don’t go down without fight! Convinced I hadn’t yet tasted the best Memphis has to offer, they wanted to direct my culinary attention to more deserving establishments. Now, just to refresh the newcomers to this conversation, it’s not that I disliked Central’s BBQ. It was quite tasty. I’d eat there repeatedly. But I’m a BBQ snob born from stock and pedigree in the world’s BBQ capitol. So while Central was really good, their chop BBQ just wasn’t in the same league as NC chop BBQ–either Lexington-styled or Eastern NC. It’s like trying to match up the NBA Grizzlies against one of these fine Tennessee middle school girls’ basketball teams. Which isn’t exactly an insult since in TN “you play like a girl” is a real compliment given the legacy of the Lady Vols. But pairing Central’s chop with Lexington’s won’t be pretty. That’s an unbiased, scientific fact.

But feeling gracious and generous and all Christian-like I decided to check the next fine establishment recommended by a number of Memphisonians: Corky’s. One brother tweeted: “Corky’s is the best! Reminds me, I need to have them FedEx some.” Another tweeted: “you need to hit up Corky’s BBQ. Not exaggerating when I say it changed my BBQ life.” With  these boasts… I mean “recommendations”… I gathered new friends Michael and Serena Davis to check it out.

Hit the ignition on the black Mustang and she purred… if that’s what full grown lions do. Who started this nonsense about muscle cars “purring like kittens”? This is a real man’s car and she roars! Leaned in the cut and rumbled up Poplar Avenue looking for a pig to eat.

Now, one really should judge a BBQ joint by its cover. You can’t judge books that way, but you can judge a real BBQ restaurant just by the looks of the thing. You see, a BBQ restaurant should look something like an old man sitting on a porch watching life pass slowly, face weathered, hands wrinkled, slightly bent over, eyes a marble of faded blue-gray, wizened by the years and unpersuaded by the fashions of “young people,” which he spits out more than he pronounces. There needs to be something earthy, ramshackle, slightly dilapidated about it. BBQ joints are to restaurants what clapboard shacks are to housing–the meager, functional dwelling place of something homey and good.

When I pulled into Corky’s, I was worried. It was located off a major thoroughfare with paved and marked parking lot . Neatly parked cars. No obvious sign of a pit. Neon–the Kryptonite of super Q joints. It looked like the kind of place with a good sanitary rating.

I wasn’t helped when I entered. Celebrity pictures and posters donned the walls. The interior designer seemed to be reaching for a roadhouse feel. But it was all too… what’s the word… polished. Clean. New. I hated when new-fangled made-in-China kitch tries to masquerade as memorabilia. They even had carpet. When’s the last time you seen that in a roadhouse? It left me feeling like I was in one of those 80’s “Porky’s” movies. But I dutifully took the place in as Elvis did his thing over the speakers.

Ambience: Faux roadhouse nostalgia

It was nearing closing when we arrived. There were still some customers there, eating quietly in their booths. The hostess escorted us to our table and provided a couple menus. After taking a look at the offerings, I decided I’d have the young man serving us order for me. He seemed confident about their ribs and decided to bring me a combo platter: ribs and chopped BBQ. That was great because now I could compare apples to apples, or in this case dry rub to dry rub and chop to chop. The sides were also the same: baked beans, cole slaw, rolls and iced tea.

The beans were okay. Happy to eat them but they wouldn’t bring me back. The cole slaw was a crunchy shredded cabbage swimming in a white pond. I was kinda hard on Central’s cole slaw, saying it “lacked character.” This cole slaw lacked everything. The tea was decent. Now, you northerners might not know what that means since you like your tea hot, dressed in little baggies, and sometimes flavored with all kinds of grasses and spices. “Decent” tea means “at least it was sweet.” And that’s saying a little something because not everyone can sweeten iced tea. But Corky’s tea, even though it was sweet, tasted like the restaurant looked: a little too cosmetic to be genuine. The rolls, however, were outstanding for taste, piping hot, and melt in your mouth.

Sides: Be thankful.

I have to admit that I was a little taken aback at the sight of the ribs. Something neon orange was dusted all over them. Now, neon signs is one thing, but neon ribs is another! I wanted to make sure this farm animal hadn’t been raised at Chernobyl. So, I asked, “What’s this orange stuff on my ribs?” Will, our waiter, trying hard to remain enthusiastic just before quitting time, said, “That’s part of the rub we use. It’s paprika.” Huh. A real surprise that. As for taste, though, pretty good! The ribs peeled off the bones with an ease that was downright southern, maintained a nice juiciness, and the paprika punched. Who knew you could enjoy ribs and get a healthy dose of vitamin C and anti-oxidants? I felt self-righteous eating BBQ that could almost be called “healthy,” even “organic.”

Corky’s served their ribs and the chop with three sauces: apple (sweet), spicy (hot), and mild. I tried them all and came to this conclusion, something I’ve told my wife repeatedly in our 20+ years of made-in-pulled-pork-heaven marriage: “If you have to add sauce to it, it ain’t really BBQ.” Once again, I felt like I was trying to rescue the pulled pork with the sauce. Corky’s chop had a much better color than Central’s and a slightly better taste. But it needed the help of the sauce and that’s a real negative in my book.

If you’re keeping score, that’s Lexington chopped BBQ 2–Memphis chopped BBQ 0.

Ribs: Orange delight

Chop: Uninspired

Overall, Corky’s rates a “good.” The service was good and so was the food. But I would be lying if I said it was the best in Memphis or that it “changed my BBQ life.” Actually, it managed to strengthen the opinion I already had: Lexington-styled chop is #1. But we’re taking all comers and I’m eager to see what the next establishment has to offer.

Oh… there were no free BBQ pork skins at Corky’s. I shook my head at that little revelation as I walked back to the Mustang waiting too orderly in the parking lot. Somehow the neat yellow lines made her look as out of place as a bulldog with a pink knit sweater. I think the Mustang knew things were wrong, too, because she growled with an attitude when I hit the ignition. To make up for parking her under a neon sign, I let her open up and own the road on the way back to the hotel. Once again I felt like a bad–shut yo’ mouth. Gonna have to buy some Isaac Hayes to make sure we keep the edge.

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8 thoughts on “BBQ Chronicles: The Memphis Edition, 2”

  1. Don G says:

    I tried to warn you. Every time a Memphis visitor eats at Corky’s, a kitten dies (or something).

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Ha! You’re too funny! And, yes, you did try to warn me :-)

  2. T.Newbell says:

    Ditto what Don said. Corky’s is chain-like. stick with the old man on the porch. Look for a dump and find gold. :)

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Amen sis!

  3. Robb Roaten says:

    You nailed it! Corky’s is for tourists. You need Interstate or Payne’s on Lamar, Cozy Corner or Interstate before you leave.

  4. Dillon says:

    Thabiti, we’ve got to get you to come to the midwest and hit up Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City. The original gas station location is the best bbq on the planet.

  5. Joyce Moore says:

    LMHO, you are so funny. I have enjoyed reading your post on the BBQ. First a word of warning you are eating way to much BBQ. Now back to the Que. Eastern NC BBQ is the best by all means but since you are from Lexington and we are from Eastern naturally we will have a difference of opinion.
    I am glad your taste of the good life gives you the chance to be reminded that nothing can be finer than to be in Carolina.
    Looking forward to the next report on the road to BBQ.

  6. Rachael Starke says:

    You know, brother, if this preaching thing ever gets old for you, you could have an amazing career as a food writer. This was great stuff.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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