Two Fridays ago, when driving to meet friends for lunch, I noticed a barbecue rig on the side of McDowell Road that had never been there before. Or I thought it was a barbecue rig. It just kind of flashed by — a black grill of two half barrels, with a little chimney puffing smoke. I would have turned around, but I had friends to meet. But the following Friday, the grill was there again.
This time, I ditched my plans and whipped a turn into the parking lot.
The grill was as real as the words you’re reading! And it was manned by a 61-year-old pastor named Edgar Hobbs.
The grill stood at the cusp of the lot, a few feet from McDowell Road between 13th and 14th streets, at the corner of a beige stucco building. That building is the pastor’s church. Hobbs founded this church, Holy Haven Youth Ministry Victim of Circumstance Sinner (VOCC). His church is “a Bible-believing teaching church” that goes strictly by the word of the Bible. Though it isn’t linked with any Christian denomination, the pastor doesn’t call his church nondenominational. But that's inside. Outside, his church has a handwritten paper menu taped by the grill.
Pork ribs. Fried chicken. Hot dogs. Cake. Nothing more than $5.
Last Friday, Hobbs was out grilling in 105-degree heat. It was just the second Friday he has manned the grill edged up to the sidewalk. He and his wife, Denise, will be cooking lunch for the public on Fridays and Saturdays, and using the proceeds to benefit the homeless. His special is rib tips. Hers is fried chicken wings.
"I'm a Chicago boy,” Edgar Hobbs says. “Moved from Rockford, Illinois four years ago to here — brought my ministry here. Well, if I take the ministry, I take the barbecue."
Hobbs is self-taught. He “burnt up so much food” learning how to prepare his rib tips, but long ago settled on a recipe. He has been cooking rib tips for his ministries for a long time. "Selling out to the public, I got about 19 years of experience, 'cause I started the church in 2000,” he says. “I been doing it ever since."
He prefers rib tips to rib bones. Rib tips are the knobby, cartilage-flecked ends that get sawed off of the more expensive, more appealing curved ribcage. After marinating rib tips, he coats them in his seasoning (salt and garlic are major ingredients), then par-grills them. Come lunch time, he finishes the lengths of rib tips on his double-barrel grill. He slices them in the shade, lays foil in small Styrofoam containers, carefully adds dripping rib tips, then smothers them in homemade barbecue sauce.
Hobbs is very particular with his process. For one, he will only use Kingsford charcoal. "Kingsford and the seasoning is the key to me,” he says. “I won't use any other coals; the food just won't taste right."
His rib-tip method calcified long ago. "It's just my style,” he says with a full-bellied laugh. “I came up with it maybe about 20-something years ago; 22 or 23 years ago. And everyone started saying man, this is man, man! So I just started. I just like to make people happy."
Under a portable canopy in the parking lot across from a funeral home, there are few chairs. The grill is in direct sunlight. The lot ripples with the summer heat of the hottest city, by average temperature, in the northern hemisphere. A cooler filled with waters offers little relief. The smoking grill throws the husky smell of charcoal — and doesn’t make the parking lot any cooler. Onions and hot dogs also splutter on the grates. When homeless people walk by, Hobbs likes to offer them, free of charge, bottled water and a hot dog.
If business is good, the pastor and his wife plan to expand their menu. Chicago-style dogs. Lasagna. Homemade ice cream.
Inside the church, Denise Hobbs, who has restaurant experience, fries her chicken wings. She deep-fries. She doesn’t use buttermilk. When the pastor fries chicken, he does. But he freely admits that her chicken beats his. "She won't even tell me what seasoning she puts on it,” he says. “I don't care, I just eat it."
For $5, you get five chicken wings.
“I tell you what we do, my wife and I,” the pastor says. “We don't just fix your food, we don't just cook for you, we don't just make this, but we fix it with love."
Their food is homestyle, unadorned, straight from the family recipes. Chicken wings have a light breading with an ideal current of salt, elevating and rounding the flavor of the hot, juicy meat. Fries are hearty and crisp, piping hot, and slathered, if you follow Hobbs’ advice, with barbecue sauce. Pound cake paved with lemon icing washes clean all the prior sweet, hot, fatty glory.
And the rib tips?
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At the VOCC street-side grill out, you have to wait a bit for your food. You should probably call ahead to order. But if you don’t call, the heat, wait, and soul-fluttering odor of charcoal will build your hunger. By the time you get your rib tips, you might be starving. Just be careful if you eat them in the car. One turns to two turns to all of them, and you only get one napkin.
"When I do my ribs, I marinate them overnight and season them,” Hobbs says. “And as I'm seasoning them and rubbing them down, I talk to them: You gonna be good."
Holy Haven Youth Ministry Victim of Circumstance Sinner. 1337 East McDowell Road.
Fridays and Saturdays from (very roughly) 10 a.m. until the late lunch hour.