Small cart, big heart: The story behind one of Memphis’ best-kept secrets

Ricky and Evan are both from Memphis and have been eating at one of the best-kept little secrets tucked away in the downtown area.

“We have been coming and patronizing for over a year now and the food is affordable and it tastes wonderful,” says Ricky, one of the many loyal customers of Tamaya’s Hot Dogs. 
Customers line up for Tamaya's Hot Dogs.Ms. Denise Ussery is the owner and operator of Tamaya’s Hot Dogs, which is named after her granddaughter. She moved to Memphis from Chicago in 1976, which is where she got the idea of cooking hot dog stand-style, and launched her business in the downtown Memphis area in April of 2013.

“I felt called not only to cook but to serve,” says Denise. “I had just lost my mother in January of 2013 and a week later I lost my significant other, so cooking for others has helped me to heal from all the grief I was experiencing.”

She finds great joy being in the kitchen and has been known to bake two or three of her homemade pound cakes in one day, and just because she’s feeling happy. What excites her are new ideas and new recipes.

“If you visit my home, you may get a taco bar, chicken and dressing, and fried catfish, and all at one time,” she says. “Cooking is my therapy.”

There's 'love shown in everything she does'

Tamaya’s Hot Dogs is located at the corner of Lauderdale and Exchange, adjacent to the senior living apartment complex Barry Towers. Denise is known for her affordable prices, and her location plays a big role in her decision to keep it that way.

“This young lady and her son are really good people and her food is delicious,” says Mustafo, pictured here in black and a resident of Barry Towers. “Most of my loyal customers live in those towers and it is important that my food remains at a price that they can afford,” she says. An example of this would be her famous brisket sandwich combo, which includes a bag of chips and soda for only $6.

When I asked her about hiring extra help, her 23-year-old son, Destin Davenport, immediately spoke up.

“I have been here working with my mother since day one when she started at the corner of Poplar and Lauderdale,” he says, going on to say that people love his mom’s delicious food and affordable prices. Destin is faithful to the business and even came to assist afterschool on weekdays before graduating and starting college. 

Denise Ussery isn’t only notable for her hot dog stand. For ten years, you could find Denise across the street from Memphis Union Mission on Poplar Avenue, feeding Memphians that were experiencing homelessness. She would provide meals with meat, two veggies, and bottled water every Saturday. When the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, many local churches and nonprofit organizations took over that task, allowing her to now rest on Saturdays.
And that’s not all. Since she is near the 201 Poplar correctional facility, Denise takes it upon herself to feed the inmates who are being released from jail – and at no cost. The men and women are so grateful that one former inmate returned with his entire family to patronize her hot dog stand, something he’s been doing for the last 8 years. Denise has figured out a way to not only make money, but to build lasting friendships and relationships while she heals from her own trauma.

“This young lady and her son are really good people and her food is delicious,” says Mustafo, a resident of Barry Towers. “I continue to come back because of the love shown in everything she does.”

It’s a calling
Denise is known for her affordable prices, and her location plays a big role in her decision to keep it that way.
Denise Ussery has truly become a staple in this community. She feels like God called her to this area. It has been exemplified through her passion for cooking and her service to others. 

She’s about to get even busier. Denise and Destin recently purchased a food trailer that they are preparing to launch sometime this summer. She plans to expand her menu but within her capacity.

Whenever you are in the downtown area, I urge you to stop and try Tamaya’s Hot Dogs. Denise and her customers are certain that it’s not just great tasting food at an affordable price, but an experience that will have you coming back for more.

Tamaya’s Hot Dogs is currently open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Monday through Friday, and is located at the intersection of Lauderdale and Exchange in downtown Memphis.
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Read more articles by Tafui Owusu.

Tafui Owusu (formerly Shelia Williams) is a resident of the Bickford-Bearwater area of North Memphis and a graduate of the second High Ground News Community Correspondents program. She is also a board commissioner for MATA.