At Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q, “you can either eat good or smell good,” depending on your definition of a pleasant scent. The fatty fumes from the barbecue joint’s indoor, custom brick pit latch onto anything and everything that passes through the front door. The inescapable odor drove one smoke-averse Yelper to lodge the sole online complaint against the beloved mom-and-pop restaurant. Unfazed, the staff offered a refund. In Miss Myra Grissom Harper’s eyes, a smokehouse could have worse problems. When it comes to the quality of the barbecue, no one’s had a bone to pick in three decades.
Since opening its doors in Cahaba Heights in 1985, Miss Myra’s hasn’t changed a thing about its slow-cooked, hickory-smoked barbecue. “Our food is always going to taste the same. At McDonald’s, you’d expect it to taste like cardboard, every time. Our standards are no lower,” Myra jests.
Landing on Andrew Zimmern’s (of the Food Network) bucket list of must-try restaurants, gracing Raymond Sokolov’s “Eating Out” column in the Wall Street Journal, becoming a swine sculpture sanctuary—these are things Myra’s just had to learn how to deal with over the years. The humble cook never aspired to appeal to food critics or famous chefs, yet she’s made an indelible impression on quite a few of them. “God puts things in your lap, and you have to decide what to do with them,” she says with a pensive expression. “I had no intentions of ever being in the food business.”
Raised on a farm in Mississippi, Myra was a burly girl—the youngest of 10—who didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. Instead she was milking cows and plowing fields. Despite raising hogs, barbecue was never on the menu. “Farmers don’t barbecue unless they have some money they can buy stuff with. Our pork was cooked on the stove, along with everything else,” Myra recalls.
It wasn’t until decades later, after Myra had married her second husband, Clark, that she started poking around in the pit. The couple, who’d been living in Thibodaux, Louisiana, moved to Birmingham in 1985 after Clark purchased a convenience store in Cahaba Heights boasting self-serve gas, cigarettes and a thousand kinds of candy. Myra, a barber, swapped her styling scissors for some kitchen shears and started “playing around” in the shop’s 5-foot barbecue pit. The hairdresser-turned-pitmaster whipped up three dishes that eventually attracted the attention of a Birmingham food critic, who’d stopped by on the way to his favorite fishing hole. The next time Myra saw him, he was in a suit, and he brought friends.
“He said, ‘Look, I never do this, but you obviously have not been in the food business for long. I want you to know I’m a food critic with The Birmingham News, and we’re gonna have an article on you tomorrow evening,’” Myra recounts.
Hours after the newspaper hit the streets, and over the next several days, high demand overwhelmed the small convenience store kitchen. Myra and Clark soon decided they were in the wrong business, so they invested in a bigger barbecue pit.
Over the past 34 years, Miss Myra’s has been tantalizing taste buds with a marketing budget of zero. Community gossip, free aromatic advertisement and hard work have been enough to sustain the long lines at the counter.
There’s a new Myra behind the register now too. In the 10 years since Miss Myra’s retirement, her daughter Rennae Wheat, son-in-law Buck Wheat and their daughter Myra have been cultivating their own loyal habitués. “There’s never been anybody to have a better daughter,” Myra says of Rennae, who’s been her right-hand woman since she was a little girl.
“Always followed her around. Still do,” Rennae says, smiling at Myra.
The Wheats get by with the help of their long-serving staff, who couldn’t be closer if they were blood relatives. Pearl, who’s worked with the family for two decades, is a stand-in for Miss Myra herself. “Pearl loves the customers, and they love her. She tells me about when people come through, wanting to know if she’s Miss Myra. So I asked her, ‘What do you tell them?’ And she said, ‘Sometimes I tell them yes if I’m real busy,” Myra says, chuckling.
Miss Myra knows her namesakes—the restaurant and the granddaughter—are in good hands. A pit stop for celebrities and creatures of habit alike, the family-run, Cahaba Heights staple is the kind of place where everything is made with a pinch of love. Where new grandmas show off baby photo albums. Where deceptive hosts bring in their own glassware. Where lovebirds first meet. And where barbecue aficionados can enjoy the best smoked chicken of their lives—don’t forget the white sauce.
Miss Myra’s is located at 3278 Cahaba Heights Road and can be reached at 205-967-6004.
Editor’s Note: Vestavia Hills Magazine was saddened to hear that Rennae Wheat passed away after a battle with lung cancer between when this story was written and published.