Memphis Barbecue Restaurants Ghost Pit Chronicles

   My work schedule got shifted around this week, which gave me Friday off, so I decided to head up Thomas for a new barbecue place. No, it wasn’t the ‘cue truck above (thanks for the photo op, though; I’ll try to stop another time), but this local legend

    It usually makes the “best of” lists for Memphis barbecue, and I agree: The sandwich was one of the best I’ve had in Shelby County.

    It was a “regular,” but likely the biggest barbecue sandwich I’ve ever eaten. I can’t imagine what a jumbo is like. Now I don’t feel so bad about ordering two at Tops. It hits the trifecta – meat, sauce and slaw in near-perfect harmony. The only problem is that you can’t eat it on the spot, unless you come prepared to deal with the mess. On a West Tennessee barbecue road trip, John T. Edge and his son set up on the hood of their car (great Garden & Gun article from June/July 2012). Probably the best idea.

   Some might consider Woodstock out of the way, but that description would never apply when the destination is as good as this. 6055 Woodstock-Cuba Road.
  Heading home, I left Thomas for a ride down North Watkins, which I hadn’t done in a while, and saw this at Watkins and Delano.

   I couldn’t stop since I had the Woodstock sandwich riding shotgun, but I did grab some photos and went back today for a sandwich. 

    Nothing fancy here – old U-Haul truck, sides and rear cut away and replaced with metal screen to let the smoke escape, and a charcoal smoker sticking out the back. The guy inside (not the owner) said the truck has been smoking for about 15 years. He said it’s at Watkins and Delano six days a week.

   Good sandwich for $4. Only quibble was that the sauce was sweeter than I like. A more vinegary flavor would play better against the slaw, which is sweet also. The side of the truck says “Home of the Famous Pork Shoulder.” Meat was done well. Here’s the menu and phone.



     As noted a few posts back, reading Craig Meek’s book “Memphis Barbecue” got me thinking about the oldest continuously operating pit in the city. From what I already knew about the Tops chain, launched in 1952, it was my first pick for the title, but which one? This isn’t 100 percent authoritative, because I haven’t heard back from the folks at Tops after a couple of letters and phone calls, and the usual timeline sources aren’t definitive, either, but my choice is this one



   The main determinant here is the company’s designation of it as #4, and the first three no longer exist. The assessor’s office gives a date of 1955 for this building — which looks nothing like any other Tops, mainly like a house that was converted into a restaurant. Here’s a rundown of the usual phone book/city directory suspects from the 1950s, starting with the 1955 phone list for cue shops


Lots of great names there; just a few ghost pits remaining. The 1956 city directory for the address shows this


Finally, Tops shows up in the 1958 phone book (maybe in 1957, but the library doesn’t have a 1957 book) with the first three


As noted, they’re all gone, but here’s what they looked like within the past 3-4 years (Macon, Park, then Jackson). Park and Jackson were in previous posts, burned and demolished, respectively




The 1960 city directory shows the Rhodes shop, along with the one on Thomas


The Rhodes store is pretty small, but was doing a steady business the day I stopped in. It has been spiffed up with a patio, but no drive-thru, just the old-school walk up window 


The pit is showing its age after 50-plus years of service,


but it still gets the job done in fine fashion.
    So there’s my nominee. I hope I’ll hear from the Tops folks at some point (hey, you can’t buy this kind of publicity). No prize to bestow, other than some business from time to time.

* * * * *

CAVE’S SOUL FOOD & MORE:  If you are a fan, as I am, and have been missing their smoked chicken, ribs, pot roast and burgers, you should be able to get a fix this week.
Yes, the restaurant has been closed, but it was planned, and for a good reason. Carl had knee surgery in early September, and was looking at a two-week recovery, so he and Veronica decided to take the entire month for a well-deserved vacation.  You could probably count on one hand the number of days off they’ve taken since the restaurant opened more than three years ago.
Anyway, Carl said he would reopen Oct. 1. Stop in and welcome him back.

* * * * *

TV NEELYS: Sorry to hear about the breakup; show biz is another universe, and I’m sure the pressures are great.  You have to wonder if there will be any ripple effect back here. I haven’t seen anything about their former Memphis locations since the news a few months back that they wanted a loan to help them reopen (after that little matter of back taxes was resolved first). I think a show with Ms. Neely and Paula Deen could be interesting.  



    It’s tough a lot of times to walk past a co-worker’s desk and not have your eyes wander over it. Guilty. I saw enough of this shirt to know I wanted to see the rest of it. This colleague was gone for the day, but sensing a blog post idea, I spread it out, quickly perused the front and back, and carefully refolded it.
    This is a neat idea from, a wearable document of your barbecue adventures in the Bluff City. On the back


of the shirt is a list of 29 barbecue places that you can check off as you eat your way across Greater Memphis, plus rankings to see how your progress measures up.


It’s a good mix of high and low profiles. I’ve been to 15 of them in my years in Memphis. Starting over, I’d do well to make pitmaster, simply because there are some places, such as Beale Street, that I have no interest in visiting. But we’ll see.
    I’m sure most cue fanatics will look at the list and wonder why this restaurant or that one isn’t on there (and why 29?). If you had 29 people submit lists, no two would agree. Mine is Showboat Barbecue on Hickory Hill, a real old-school experience overseen by the legendary Porter Moss, who has been featured previously here.
    So, I’ll take a Sharpie and add this to my shirt:


    I figure it will be like those amps in “Spinal Tap” that go to 11.

    “What I do is, if I need that extra push over the cliff, you know what i do?”
    “Go to Showboat.”
    “Showboat. Exactly. One more.”

    The space is there. Add your missing fave.


    After the previous post, I figured this site needed to aim higher, so here we have Jamie Wyeth’s 1970 “Portrait of Pig.”  You can see it now at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston through December 28 as part of a comprehensive Wyeth retrospective. It’s a life-size rendering (51 1/2 by 83 1/4) of a real animal, Den Den.
     Speaking of art retrospectives and real pigs, this time last weekend we were in Knoxville, catching the last day of the “Marion Greenwood in Tennessee” exhibition at the University of Tennessee Downtown Gallery 

and just a few hours away from dining on some “real” pig, courtesy of my daughter and her young man.
    They did some farm-sitting for a friend who operates Crooked Road Farm in Knoxville — feeding pigs and chickens, gathering eggs and making sure the animals were tucked in at night — and received a 2-plus-pound blade steak for their work. This farm-to-table cut was light years from grocery-store meat counter pork in every respect, and got expert handling on the grill.

    My daughter’s young man is quite adept with ribs and shoulders, has good command of the fire and the eye for when things are right. It was our first time to enjoy his cooking, and it was his first time to try a blade cut. It did time in some Wicker’s, got a rub and went on the upper rack of the smoker. Rather than bank the coals, he uses foil as a barrier on the lower grate to get the indirect heat. After a quick trip to the store, a beer boat was added.

   Aside from a few minutes on the lower grate, the steak got low-slow treatment on the upper rack. It was dark by the time it was done, so no pics; we were ready to chow down. Grilled squash, and slices of CRF’s heirloom tomatoes (voted best at the farmers market) and mozzarella, and a birthday cake from daughter to mom finished the meal. Wonderful.
    If you’re at the Market Square Farmers Market in downtown Knoxville, one of the best I’ve been to, be sure to look for Crooked Road Farm.



     My wife is teaching a different grade this year, which also means she has to move to a different classroom. She’s been going through stuff at home and school, trying to thin the herd a bit, and enlisted my help Saturday to move some boxes at school and get a pile of trash down to the dumpster.  In the trash pile was a storage bin, inside of which were these masks. (What!? I’m not throwing those away!)

    They go back at least a decade, when she was teaching eighth-graders “Animal Farm” and “Lord of the Flies,” and hadn’t seen the light of day since. My eighth-grade English class never had such things, at least that I can remember. What has never faded from eighth-grade English is the spelling bee in which I couldn’t spell “initiative” … .

ANOTHER YEAR    Thanks to the Tumblr folks for the birthday reminder, and thanks to my daughter for encouraging me to do this, to all the people who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the site, and to the 35 or so folks who consider it interesting enough to follow. (David A. Barrett, (aka Carsonman, Blaz’r Steaks, Little Pigs of America), I’m still waiting to hear from you.)

    Thanks to the Tumblr folks for the birthday reminder, and thanks to my daughter for encouraging me to do this, to all the people who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the site, and to the 35 or so folks who consider it interesting enough to follow. (David A. Barrett, (aka Carsonman, Blaz’r Steaks, Little Pigs of America), I’m still waiting to hear from you.)


     I’ve been thinking about candidates for Memphis’ oldest pit still standing. Friday, after dropping off some recycling at First Congo, I took the back way out of Cooper-Young to revisit one of my choices — Charlie’s Lunch Room at 1730 Lamar — and sadly saw this.
     Charlie’s was a classic ghost pit — ‘cue shop for decades, now a day care. It dates to the 1940s; the assessor lists construction in 1944, but it’s listed in the 1942 phone book.

       Demolition occurred within the past 18 months or so. I last snapped Charlie’s in September 2012, and I think I’ve been past it at least once since then. The field of possibilities for oldest pit still standing is much smaller, maybe by as much as 50 percent. Here’s the first time I saw Charlie’s, a Sunday afternoon in June 2010.


Meanwhile, at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, just east on Lamar …



   I learned about this fire at Tops #6 on Summer — the most attractive pit in the city, to my eye — several weeks back on the Memphis Que site. Driving past last weekend, I saw that all has been restored to its pre-fire glory.

   I played guitar in an old-time string band 10-15 years ago. We jammed a lot and played the contra dances at Idlewild Presbyterian. One of our favorite fiddle tunes was the one that gives this post its title.

     I have no idea anymore how it goes, but I remember it was a blast to play. The source notes for the tune say it comes from, appropriately, North Carolina.
    I got to make one of Craig Meek’s book events — last week’s signing/tasting at the Cotton Museum in Downtown.

   It was a great evening of barbecue — lore and food, courtesy of Leonard’s Pit Barbecue, perfect, considering its role in the city’s barbecue history.

   Reading Craig’s book has given me ideas for a couple of topics to pursue — the oldest pit still standing in the city, and the city’s oldest continuously operating pit. I have contenders for both, but need to do a bit more looking. If anyone has any nominations, I’d like to hear them.  


     Ripleys are finally here, so that means summer is, too. We got our first ones Saturday at Easy Way. They were a bit green, so they spent a couple of days in a paper bag with an apple. We got more today at Easy Way, and they looked great. BLTs have been had.
     Here’s an ad from May 1966, pre-Ripleys, I guess.


    Tonight is the release party and book signing for Craig Meek’s “Memphis Barbecue,” and it’s a bash befitting this excellent book — whole-hog barbecue and live music at the Hi-Tone, 412-414 North Cleveland, starting at 9 p.m. if you have other plans, change them (I’d be there, but I’m working).
    Also, if you want to buy the book and can’t get it at the book signing, support your local bookstores — Burke’s in Cooper-Young, or Booksellers at Laurelwood, which hosted Craig for a signing earlier this month. i got mine at Burke’s. It was the last one they had, but I’m sure they’ll have more, if they don’t already. They’ll order anything, and it only takes a couple of days. Don’t buy it from Amazon.
    I’m a couple of chapters into it, and Craig has done a terrific job of research and storytelling.


     Craig Meek, creator of the great Memphis Que blog, signs his new book tomorrow (June 10) at The Booksellers at Laurelwood starting at 6 p.m.
    His local book tour has two other events scheduled:
     Friday, June 27, 9 p.m., at the Hi-Tone: Whole hog barbecue, live music and book party,
     Thursday, July 10, 6-8 p.m., at The Cotton Museum, book signing.
     If you’re a fan of his blog, you know it’s going to be a great read.   


72 years ago …


   It’s still amazing what turns up, even after nearly four years. Not what I expected while checking something else on a satellite view. I have one lead to pursue, but otherwise it’s a mystery.

    The past couple of weeks have been a blur of work and, mercifully, some time off. On the way to Ohio to visit my brother, I stopped in Knoxville to see my daughter. She had been plugged into a new/old breakfast/meat-and-three place, The Roundup,

and took me there for dinner. Nothing fancy, just your basic neighborhood diner.

The Bob Ross-inspired ventilation covers are cool any time. Happy little air molecules.

My daughter ordered better than I did; her meatloaf was excellent, with tomato sauce, as God intended.

I was already beefed-out for the day, so I got a salmon patty – it was OK – but the mashed potatoes were stellar. Real, with lumps, perfectly seasoned. Swap them for her mac and cheese, and that would have been the meal.

I hadn’t seen my brother and his wife in three years, and not since they moved back to Ohio. I got to visit and revisit some of their favorite places.  We had a good breakfast at this drive-in in Guerne.

Most every burg seems to have a little place like it.

It’s also Amish country, so buggies are common on the roads.

I got a drive-through of the new J.M. Smucker campus in Orrville and a stop at the Smucker retail destination.  The store has everything made and/or sold under the Smucker umbrella, and an interesting museum area that sets out the company’s history.

The Coccia House, my brother’s favorite pizza place for eons and a Wooster institution (ad from 1959), was not to be missed.

I’m sure their revenue has surged since he moved back. I had pizza there once in the previous millennium. It may have been a contest/challenge; I didn’t win. My brother says he orders the specials as much or more than he does the pizzas,  but I went with a small veg pie and got one slice past half way. No need to order double cheese. The standard amount seems to be double what I run into around here.
     Of course, there was barbecue, at this place

the town’s lone purveyor.  It’s on a neat little two-block stretch that included Spoon Market, a deli/bakery/butcher shop/ restaurant that also sells all manner of exotic ingredients for cooking; a used record store and a real newsstand.
    Omahoma Bob describes his “barbeque” this way: “We use USDA choice beef, select pork and fresh poultry. Our meats are hand-massaged using a blend of fresh spices and allowed to rest for 24 hours before moving to the smoker. Adding a blend of seasoning woods, then slow cook smoking, our meat takes on its unique color and flavor, giving it the distinctive smoke ring. We call this “dry BBQ.” Barbeque sauce can be added, if you wish.”

    I got a pork sandwich, had to ask for slaw on it, and used the sauce at the table – a really nice sweet/smoky/pleasantly hot sauce. The pork was good, probably mid-pack in this town. Brisket would have been a better order, given his Texas style.

    Driving back to Memphis, I was hoping to find some ‘cue in Kentucky. I didn’t have time to do a lot of research, except to find out that the restaurant near Louisville owned by Vince Staten, author of “Real Barbecue,” had closed. (In a protest candidacy against Greek dominance of UT’s Homecoming Week in 1970, he was elected homecoming queen, but officials wouldn’t give him the crown.) The interstate signs were no help, so barbecue had to wait until Memorial Day, when I did ribs. My wife had bought them as a meat manager special for Memorial Day last year, but they ended up going right into the freezer (some things just can’t be rushed). I hadn’t tried to really barbecue anything in several years.

I rubbed them with a spice mix of uncertain vintage, made a foil packet of soaked hickory chips, and let them go for a couple of hours. I’ve never been good at managing a fire; the temp flirted with 300 degrees most of the time, more medium-low and medium-slow. I sauced them about 15 minutes before taking them off.

Not too bad.



     A couple of posts ago I mentioned going up to a wing joint on Peres, just off Chelsea, and that took me past this place, Little Bob’s Bar-B-Q Drive In. It was one of the earlier places I photographed (these pics are from May 2010); I have no good reason for why it has taken so long to post them.


The pits are striking; this was probably a jumping place.
     It opened circa 1958. I don’t know if there was a “little Bob” involved, but here is the 1960 city directory information:



This phone book listing is from 1961.


Hollywood Liquor was at 1994 Chelsea, next door basically, just across University. It looks like this today.


   Harry Blen died in 1968, and the 1970 city directory reflects some changes: Georgia Blen is running the liquor store, and Felestine  Robinson is listed as the owner or manager of Little Bob’s. This would hold throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s. Georgia Blen died in 1995. The 1998 city directory has no listing for Little Bob’s; Felestine Robinson died in 2008.
    I don’t know anything about the life of Little Bob’s as a sports bar. When I photographed it in January, it looked closed and, sadly, the distinctive chimneys had been removed.


     It’s one of those places I’m regretting not going into, or maybe not. Next door, to the west, is the Memphis Gentlemen Club, a motorcycle hangout where two people were killed and three others were wounded in an early-morning shooting last month. One news account said this: “With so many shots fired, it was difficult for witnesses to say who was shooting and where the shots were coming from.”


      Also in that earlier post I urged you to mark your calendars for late June for the release of the new book by barbecue/soul food blogger Memphis Que — Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce and Soul. Well, re-mark them.
     The good news is that it will be out earlier — on June 10, and Memphis Que will read from the book and sign copies at the Booksellers at Laurelwood at 6 p.m. June 12. He’s also getting a release party on June 27 at the Hi-Tone. Pitmaster Richard Forrest will cook a whole hog and local musicians the Dead Soldiers, Switchblade Kid and Clay Otis will perform.

     Yes, it’s the barbecue contest weekend, and my tradition of late has been to head away from the river, out to Showboat Barbecue for one of Porter Moss’ superb pork sandwiches. I’m hungry just thinking about it.


     Time for the annual plea to do what you can to help out our bee population. We’re screwed without them. If you have clover, don’t mow it, and try to avoid herbicides and pesticides.
      The clover patches in our yard are growing like crazy, and bees-ness is picking up a little more every day. We had to have our big oak taken out a couple of years ago, which left a rough, ugly spot in the back yard. We’re finally getting a new tree, and I’m going to try to plant a big clover patch back there to hide the rest of it.
      The CA had a great story Friday about bee habitats, so I may have to be more ambitious than just clover. We’re usually the kiss of death for green living things, so we’ll see how this goes.

    The V&E Greenline arts festival couldn’t have ordered a better weather today. It was a nice, easygoing neighborhood event that’s getting better every year.