Smokin’ to the Oldies
I’ve enjoyed smoky, succulent bbq from roadside pits, food trucks, dine-in restaurants, drive-thru windows, backyard barbecues, bbq competitions and even church pot-lucks-the place doesn’t really matter.
But barbecue in a restaurant with a fun atmosphere too-that’s a plus. The swanky 50’s and 60’s music and décor at Corky’s Bar-B-Q is both relaxing and fun with their wood-planked walls, tin roofs and classic oldies hits. I most always experience some nostalgia in this oldies-themed restaurant because it reminds me of my dad, Tom Shirley. He used to talk about Buddy Holly, the iconic “cool nerd,” with his signature hiccup sound and falsetto voice. Daddy was always sure to mention that his sister, Peggy Sue Shirley, was named after the classic Buddy Holly song of the same name. You’ll hear the likes of Buddy Holly and enjoy music, album covers, movie posters and memorabilia of the era in Corky’s. And of course, any 50’s and 60’s music collection would be incomplete without Elvis and the Beetles. According to my dad, my uncle Butch used to play football with Elvis. Of course, as you ask around town you’ll find that almost every old-timer in Memphis “knew” Elvis in some way or the other. If you get “all shook up” about oldies hits, Corky’s is a cool place to eat, even if you just order a salad.
BBQ Chicken, Smoked Sausages, Buffet
Growing up at my house, if daddy said we were having barbecue, nine times out of ten we were having barbecue chicken. That’s what my dad usually barbecued. He set the bar pretty high, but barbecued bird I had at Corky’s passed the test. The last time I had it was from their Wednesday the buffet. Don’t get your hopes up. They don’t serve all you can eat ribs on that buffet. At least they didn’t when I was there. But they did serve bbq shoulder, smoked sausages, bbq chicken and southern sides.
In Memphis two kings share the pork barbecue throne-the smoky Memphis-style bbq pork shoulder sandwich with sauce and slaw and of course, smoked ribs. And in this town, ribs come two ways-wet (served with sauce on them) or dry (served without sauce on them). At Corky’s a slab of ribs can be ordered “half-n-half,” to get them half wet and half dry. That way you get the best of both worlds. One can get ribs half and half at many other Memphis-area bbq joints, but they won’t be the same. Many restaurants’ version of wet ribs are nothing more than dry ribs with bbq sauce poured on top just before they’re served to create the half-n-half-something you can easily do yourself at the table. At Corky’s wet ribs are served with bbq sauce that has been basted on during the last few minutes of cooking. Ribs go from the smoker to a hot grill, where sauce is basted on a few minutes before service to allow the sauce to caramelize onto the meat. That kind of basting the sauce on is how I grew up on barbecue at home
in Memphis. Pouring bbq sauce over ribs if the sauce is warm can be good, like getting bbq gravy poured over the meat, if done in moderation so as not to overpower the smoky flavor of the barbecued meat. But for the basted sweet-n-sticky kind, Corky’s wet ribs are done right. As far as smoky flavor, I’ve had some with wonderful wood-smoked savor at Corky’s. At other times, the meat tasted like it could have been oven-baked. Tenderness has never been an issue for me at Corky’s, but I’d like to find more consistency in smoke flavor from them, which is the real essence of real pit barbecue. To maximize your chance of enjoying some good smoke flavor at Corky’s, order the “dry” ribs.
What’s the big deal about dry ribs? Eating dry ribs is all about getting that unadulterated smoky barbecue flavor, not masked by the sauce. When eating dry ribs, dismiss any expectation of sweet and sticky ribs and embrace a different type of flavor. Dry ribs are all about the smoke flavor and the meat itself; lightly crispy bark on the outer texture, tender and smoky inside and with sauce served on the side to control the sauce-to-meat ratio. It’s pure barbecue paradise when it’s done right. A dry rub seasoning can also accent the meat flavor if applied with care. I like Corky’s seasoning, but I think that they should tone it down a bit. It’s poured on heavily and dubbed, “dry sauce,” which is overkill and gimmicky-a mere marketing technique. I usually ask them to go light on the
seasoning or just dust some of it off myself. Sauces and seasonings are only intended to compliment the flavor of meat, not overpower it. But if getting dry ribs allows one to focus on the smokiness of the meat, without covering it up with sauce, why recommend the wet ribs? It is a different barbecue experience, but plenty tasty, especially if done right. Usually just enough sauce is basted on to compliment the meat, not overpower it. Extra sauce can easily be available on the side. Again, Corky’s is one of few places I’ve found in Memphis that brushes the sauce onto the ribs during the cooking process so that the sauce caramelizes and cooks onto the meat, making sticky bbq goodness. That’s how I grew up eating bbq in Memphis-how my dad used to barbecue chicken. The idea is that you still get some good smokiness since the meat isn’t drowned in sauce.
Corky’s is a popular place, and the celebrity-colored walls tell the story of their fame. But diehard bbq connoisseurs criticize that Corky’s is too commercial with its “touristy” décor and locations that are in “nice” areas of town. Some speak as though a bbq joint has to be run-down to be legit. The barbecue speaks for itself. Either it’s good or it isn’t. As I’ve already acknowledged, Corky’s has been inconsistent for me. But the same could be said for most every bbq joint out there, big or small. I’ve had great ‘que and I’ve had “just OK” ‘que there. The ribs and shoulder at Corky’s are slow-smoked for many hours with hickory and charcoal, the barbecued “bark” is flavorful and the meat has always been tender, sometimes smoky. When they’re good-n-smoky, they’re great. When they’re not, they’re just tender ribs without the essence of bbq flavor-the smoke. If Corky’s could be more consistent with the smoke flavor, they might fall back into the graces of serious bbq aficionados, but business doesn’t seem to be affected. They’re always busy and they still ship bbq all over the country.
The BBQ Sauces
Corky’s bbq sauce is a complex well-seasoned sweet sauce with some good tanginess as well. BBQ sauce is an individual thing. There is no such thing as a “best” sauce. Every sauce on the planet will have those who like it and those who don’t. I think Corky’s sauce is well balanced. Corky’s also has a hot version as well as an apple bbq sauce. I like all three.
One of the first inspirations for my bbq restaurant travels came from Corky’s sweet, tangy and smoky bbq sandwich in the late 90’s. I’d recently returned to Memphis after having been away for a few years. I was working with a friend Jason Strickland, who owned a lawn care and landscaping business. As we headed out for lunch one day, he asked if I’d ever had a Corky’s bbq sandwich. When I replied that I hadn’t, he insisted, “You cannot live in Memphis and not have had Corky’s barbecue!” He treated me that day to a Corky’s bbq sandwich. I couldn’t believe how much meat was given for the money. I’d be willing to say that the jumbo sandwich was a half foot tall. The meat was tender and smoky, the sauce complimented it and the creamy, crunchy slaw completed it. I enjoyed it so much that I began checking out different bbq joints to compare, looking for the best bbq that I could find. Although I’d grown up on barbecue, this was the beginning of my barbecue journey in Memphis’ bbq restaurant scene.
BBQ Nachos Another way to enjoy Corky’s smoked pork is by ordering a basket of bbq nachos. My wife Angelica probably ordered them three or four times before I ever tried one several years ago. I was on my bbq purist high horse, and remember saying to my wife, “That’s not real barbecue.” I finally took a bite and understood why they are so popular. They may not be very traditional (although they have become a Memphis tradition in recent years) but they are topped with traditional smoked pulled pork. Smoky pork is piled high on a bed of nacho chips, covered with nacho
cheese, swirled with Corky’s sweet and tangy sauce, dusted with their tasty dry rub seasoning and sprinkled with sliced jalapenos (unless ordered otherwise). This appetizer can easily make a meal for two and has for us on more than one occasion. What makes them so good is the whole combination of flavors and contrast in textures: smoky, meaty, crunchy, spicy, sweet, salty and cheesy. What’s not to love? I cannot count how many addictive baskets we’ve gone through.
Fried Catfish, Hot Tamales, Beans, Slaw
Besides bar-b-q, Corky’s has great bbq beans with pork shoulder mixed throughout, a crunchy mayo slaw with cabbage, celery seeds and bell pepper, tasty buttery yeast rolls, crispy seasoned fries, crispy cornmeal-battered fried catfish, southern style hot tamales and a variety of desserts. The desserts look delectable, but I’ve never had enough room for one after my meal.
I’ve had bbq pizza from several places around town, but the bbq chicken pizza at Corky’s didn’t really work for me. To be fair, I don’t generally care for chicken on pizza. I like bbq chicken and I like pizza, I just don’t like the combination. I think smoked pork works better on pizza.
Admittedly, Memphis isn’t particularly known for beef brisket. In the Bluff City, barbecue is all about pork shoulder and pork ribs. Most bbq joints here offer beef brisket as an alternative for non-pork eaters, but it’s not a specialty here. I‘ve had sliced smoked beef brisket from several places in Texas and smoked beef brisket “burnt” ends from several places in Kansas City. With a few exceptions, our beef just doesn’t compare. But I think we totally smoke ‘em on the pork shoulder. The brisket I had at Corky’s was void of smoke flavor. It reminded me of pot roast with bbq sauce poured over.
Drive thru windows, multiple locations and a bbq buffet on Wednesdays have made Corky’s an attractive and convenient choice among Memphis patrons. It’s swanky atmosphere, really prompt service and menu variety make it an enjoyable southern food dining experience. As for the barbecue, I would like to see more consistency in smoke flavor, but the sauce is one of my personal favorites and I’ve always found consistency in tenderness at both the original Poplar Ave location and the Cordova location. For good food and fun, I recommend Corky’s “blast from the past” bbq experience.
Corky’s Founder, Don Pelts
I met Corky’s founder Don Pelts some years ago while judging at the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. A lot of people are surprised to learn that Corky’s doesn’t compete in the bbq contest. They do, however, have a concession there. That’s where I met Mr. Pelts. He sat down with me at a pick-nick table and we talked for a few minutes. I asked him what they were smoking with. Simultaneously, as if rehearsed, he and his son looked at each other and yelled back to the concession kitchen, “Hey, what are you guys smoking back there?” He turned back to me and chuckled, “Hickory and charcoal.” A few years later on Wednesday May 15, 2013, just before the Memphis In May barbecue contest, two Memphis barbecue patriarchs, Don Pelts of Corky’s and John Willingham, both passed on the same day. That following Saturday the 18th I had the privilege of judging Willingham’s bbq competition team. His children carried on his tradition in his honor. Interestingly, the first two restaurants that started my Memphis bbq journey were first Corky’s and next, Willingham’s before it closed. May God bless the loved ones both men left behind. Their spirit of passion for their craft lives on through those who continue to feel their influence. Finally, to my dad: We’ll always have you in our hearts daddy. We love you and look forward to seeing you again someday. P.S. I can still taste your barbecue chicken.
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