Smoke in the Skies 

Barbecue lovers, take heed of Tango & Murf's Place.

Usually, you won't find much of anything just past Raleigh where Austin Peay and Old Covington Pike intersect. If you're looking for a restaurant that recently opened and you've passed Methodist Hospital North, you'll probably turn around because surely, you think, you've passed it.

Don't turn around if the new restaurant you're looking for is Tango & Murf's Place, BBQ and Country Store. Keep going until you see an Airstream trailer and thick smoke filling the sky.

Terry "Tango" Downs ("You need to call me Tango because pretty much nobody knows me by my real name") and Scott "Murf" Murphy opened this one-of-a-kind restaurant/country-store/gathering spot at the beginning of June.

"This place used to be a convenience store, game room, and deli," says Tango. "I live just down the street.So on Memorial Day we thought it would be a great idea to set up our grill in the parking lot and cook some barbecue because we had butts left over from the Memphis In May competition."

However, the convenience store's former proprietor didn't think that a barbecue grill in his parking lot and a bunch of guys from the Natural Born Grillers, a Memphis Barbecue Association team of the year, grilling pork butts in his parking lot on Memorial Day was such a great idea. Instead, he decided to offer them his business.

"That was a huge surprise, and it was the kind of deal where you don't have days or weeks to make a decision," Tango recalls. After talking to his wife LeAnn and his partner Murf, all agreed that this was too good an opportunity to pass up. So in a matter of hours, Tango and Murf's Memorial Day cookout turned into Tango & Murf's Place.

During their first week of ownership, the guys spent countless hours cleaning up the store and creating what can best be described as a small-town grocery with all the essentials and then some. In the store, you'll find more than 20 varieties of premium beers, some of them on tap in the restaurant. The deli offers a variety of sandwiches, deli meats, and cheeses by the pound and "the best banana pudding you'll ever taste."

"I had a customer from the neighborhood walk in one day, and she said that her grandma makes the best banana pudding and peach cobbler," Tango explains. "So I told her to send her grandma down with some banana pudding and some peach cobbler too. It was by far the best banana pudding and cobbler I've ever tasted, so I put Miss Ada to work right away. Now she makes banana pudding and peach cobbler for us."

This is Tango at his best, and this is how he does business: He's straightforward. He's also a mountain of a guy with a dark Fu Manchu moustache, a deep voice, and a handshake that could easily bring you to your knees. He's also got a very down-to-earth and up-beat personality.

You know in an instant that this restaurant is his baby, something he's been wanting for a long time. If you're fortunate to get the tour, Tango won't leave out any details: Tango and Murf's competition backyard smoking wood -- apple, peach, hickory, cherry, oak, maple, sassafras, and adder -- plus a full line of cookers, smokers, and grills starting under $100 for the most basic and custom builds that could easily cost as much as a new car.

The restaurant is a barbecue connoisseur's heaven -- ribs, sandwiches, briskets. You name it, they have it. That's not to mention the fresh fried catfish and smoked Creekstone Farms USDA prime rib, which they serve on Fridays and Saturdays. If none of that's for you, the sides alone (and the banana pudding and peach cobbler) are worth a trip -- piping hot and freshly made hush puppies, Cajun rice, and twice-baked potato are just a few. Tango does a lot of the cooking and fires up the barbecue pit that's parked in front of the restaurant about every other day.

Originally from Oklahoma, Tango learned about barbecue from one of his dad's workers, who made a smoker out of a grain bin and served his barbecue with an uncooked mayonnaise-based sauce. Those early memories and the primitive way of cooking stuck with Tango and still reminds him of what barbecue is truly about.

"I thought all barbecue pits were grain bins because it worked so beautifully," he recalls. "And even with all the modern equipment today, if you bring it down to the very basic, barbecue is simply meat cooked with hard wood."

This childhood experience led to what has now added up to 20 years of cooking barbecue competitively with a couple of teams, and since 2003, with the Natural Born Grillers.

"It really is the team that is responsible for the success," Tango says. "Sometimes you might have six or seven guys who are all excellent, but what it takes is for them to work great as a team, and we're a truly great team, if nothing else."

If you think of the barbecue festivals as a gathering of a bunch of guys who like to get drunk and grill a few hundred slabs of ribs and a couple of hundred pork butts, think again. Barbecue contests, if taken seriously, don't leave much room for drinking and partying. It's a serious business with contests throughout the year across the country, with the teams on tour and preparing for a "cook" almost every week.

"To become the Memphis Barbecue Association's team of the year is like being a NASCAR driver. You compete pretty much year-round and collect points. Whoever has the most points wins," Tango explains.

Last year, the Natural Born Grillers won the Barbecue Association's team of the year. Currently, they're 25 point ahead in this year's competition.

If that claim to fame won't convince you that Tango means business, a visit to Tango & Murf's Place will.

Tango & Murf's Place is holding a grand opening September 7th, 8th, and 9th. For more information and to purchase Tango & Murf's barbecue products, visit www.groundcrewbbq.com.

Tango & Murf's Place, 4701 Austin Peay (388-0498)

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