Rendezvous Ribs

We went to Memphis and We Didn’t Eat Burgers…

I popped up to Memphis (yes, TN) a bit ago and didn’t eat burgers. Sure, Dryer’s Burgers (famous since 1912) was just a short walk away from the hotel — right there on Beale Street — but we came to Memphis for ribs and to catch Alton Brown Live at the Orpheum theater.

It was my first experience in Memphis and my traveling companion arranged lodging so we could walk to dinner and the theater, thus avoiding the premium-priced “pay-to-park” option and the “take-your-chances” street parking. One $25-dollar charge from the hotel valet, and the car was safe for the night. Plus, we were free to imbibe down Beale should the spirits move us.

Rendezvous Ribs

I was in Memphis and ready to eat. All I knew of the Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous Ribs was a small (unused) jar of Rendezvous “Famous Seasoning” that I keep moving around my spice rack, and the raves of various friends.

However, the distinctive loin-back ribs are known around the nation and have drawn raves (and rants) from BBQ aficionados worldwide. The restaurant has won a bevy of awards ranging from best ribs in Memphis to one of the top BBQ joints in America (said Esquire). Plus, it was named one of 50 All-American Icons by Nation’s Restaurant News (2009).

Athletes, entertainers and heads of state have all eaten at the Rendezvous. (Bill Clinton, George Bush, Jr, Guy Lambardo (remember him?), The Rolling Stones, Bill Cosby, Bear Bryant … to name a few.

Hype aside, I’d been promised an awesome rib experience by real people who love BBQ. I’d been avoiding ribs for weeks and was ready to tackle the Rendezvous’ charcoal ribs (in the alley since 1948). Yep, down an alley (named after the restaurant), just a couple questionable and smelly blocks off Beale, across from the Peabody Hotel.

It was a Saturday night, and I’d heard that the Rendezvous feeds thousands of people a night, so I expected a crowd. There was a steady stream of folks travelling the alley, but they all got comfortably sucked into the building, as did we. No waiting, not even to be seated. The building was a medley of different dining rooms, with more than 700 seats. Though not all were visable from the hostess stand, the women running the show had an uncanny sense of where each new party could fit. We were directed to a table up front with a clear view of the in-and-out bustle of the building.

The tables looked tight, (the tchotchkes and memorabilia lining the walls probably made it feel more cluttered) but once seated there was plenty of room. And again, no waiting. The menus were under glass on the table, topping red-and-white checked tablecloths.

The Food

They offer appetizers: sausage, cheese and sausage (served with pickle spears and crackers), ham and cheese, salami … BBQ nachos and charcoal broiled lamb riblets … but our mission was ribs. The choice was a large order (10-12 ribs) or a small order (6 to 8 ribs).

Rendezvous ribs, sausage and cheese appetizer
Sausage and cheese with pickle spears and pepperoncinis.

Not much is slow at the Rendezvous. The ribs, a close cousin of  the Memphis dry style (no sauce), are cooked (relativity) fast. An hour and a half of direct heat replaces the traditional low and slow cooking. Another difference is that the vinegary-basted meat is sprinkled with seasoning after cooking, not rubbed before hand.

The ribs appeared in a flash, pre-cut and ready to eat. Small cups of baked beans and slaw dotted the paper plate beside the ribs. The baked beans were flavorful without being over powering. The slaw, however was a star. The crispy crunchy slaw recipe is a 100-year-old mustard-vinegar concoction from the days when Vergos’ father ran a hot dog stand. It gives your mouth a reset between bites of BBQ. We also felt the need for a little something “green” so we got Mama’s Real* Greek Salad, complete with dolmas. Plenty large for two. (*Vergos was the son of Greek immigrants).

Now the meat – still on the bone, with teeth. You chew these ribs. The seasoning comes first. It covers the meat, partly dry, but mostly melted into the hot vinegar basting juice. The secret is the seasoning. Vergos perfected the Cajun-Greek-BBQ fusion after a trip to New Orleans. A hint of sweet swims under the blend. Tang from the vinegar, hints of spices one would expect on BBQ (paprika, garlic…), but something more — celery seed, a little heat — and no overwhelming salt muscling out the flavors. (It’s much better than the bottled seasoning which I finally opened).

The meat taste comes with chewing. The spice blend accents the moist (but not sloppy wet) meat while letting the coal-cooked pork flavor shine. A vinegar and a thicker, sweeter sauce were on the table, but they were a distraction from the Rendezvous original.

The Extras

Service (by a bow-tied waiter in white) was prompt and professional. Silly tourist question were respectfully answered answered and our drinks were refreshed as needed. One small thing stands out — the white cloth napkins. They were big and handy, but also a weird contrast to the paper plates and weak plastic forks. And, how ever in a BBQ place do the napkins not have any trace of stains? Maybe, like me, people were just afraid to get them too messy. I opted for mounds of the flimsy paper ones in the table-top dispenser.

TIP: The tea is the sweetest thing on the Rendezvous menu. If you want dessert, plan on a quick walk down the street to Kooky Canuck and have a skillet cookie or cook some s’mores at your table. (BTW, this joint is also home to the Kookamunga Burger, one of the largest burgers in Memphis).

As well as serving up more than three and a half tons of ribs a week in-house, the Rendezvous ships.

Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous Ribs
52 S Second St
Memphis, TN 38103

Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous on Urbanspoon


OKC Fried Onion Burger Revisited

[Sept 2014] — We love the fried onion burger; beef, grilled onions and a requisite amount of grease. We first introduced the iconic Oklahoma burgers when we talked with OKC author and TV personality, Katie Johnstonbaugh. Katie gave us the rundown on the fried onion burger and list of burgers to try. We thought we would update you on a couple friend onion burger items.

The Great Food Truck Race Meets the Onion Burger

The onion burger does have in-the-know foodie following, and even it’s own mini burger festival, but the onion burger took a step outside its regional closet when OKC was a stop on the tv show, The Great Food Truck Race.

Food Truck racers from Lone Star Chuck Wagon learn from friend onion burger master at Tucker's. Image via
Great Food Truck racers from Lone Star Chuck Wagon learn from fried onion burger master at Tucker’s. [Image via]
In season 5, episode 4, High Steaks in OKC, the food truck reality show’s “truck stop challenge” called for contestants had to ditch their own menus and sell only fried onion burgers. After a trip to Tucker’s Onion Burgers to learn about the burger and  to gather ingredients (including 20 pounds of meat to grind by hand), the teams raced to see who could cook and sell 50 onion burgers first.

The Beach Cruiser truck handily sold their 50 burgers, winning the challenge. The onion burgers, however, beat the team from Madres Mexican Meals, eliminating them from the competition. In a post-episode interview the team spokesperson said, The onion burgers were not our friend.” Read more in the team’s exit interview.

Meanwhile, at Claud’s, in Tulsa…

One onion burger joint, Claud’s, has been frying up onion burgers the same way since 1954. Check out this Tulsa institution on Discover Oklahoma.


Burger Battle – Mammoth Lakes

Best of the Best Burger Battle – Mammoth Lakes, CA

Chef Jason Hoeltzel, of CJ’s Grill
Jason Hoeltzel won golden ticket to compete at World Burger Championship

(July 21, 2014)  The burger battle in Mammoth Lakes, CA was dubbed the 405 versus the 395. Featuring three chefs with restaurants along California’s Hwy 405, and one from along US 395, this “Best-of-the-Best Burger Battle” was part of the Mammoth Food and Wine Experience.

Chef Jason Hoeltzel, of CJ’s Grill took home the win for the 405, and earned a golden ticket to participate in the World Burger Championship this November in Las Vegas.

Hoeltzel’s winning burger tantalized the judge’s taste buds with its combination of red wine vinegar ketchup, Riesling onions, extra sharp cheddar, local organic tomato and a port wine reduction.

CJ’s Grill is owned by Hoeltzel and his wife Carrie. They serve fine, new American cuisine with a focus on cooking from scratch — sauces, dressings, desserts. The menu features fresh salads (with choice of 10 from-scratch dressings) and entrees like Wild Mushroom Marcella, Artichoke and Caper’s Chicken, steaks, fresh and sustainable fish, pasta, and of course burgers.

Classic Burger from CJs
Classic Burger from CJs Grill

The Classic Burger at CJ’s Grill is a half pound of certified Angus beef, served with fresh-cut fries. They serve their take on a California Burger, too. The same Angus burger comes topped with avocado, bacon, ranch dressing, tomatoes and sprouts. It’s served on a bed of lettuce; no bun. They also have a Burger of the Month — currently sounding suspiciously like Hoeltzel’s burger battle winner. They also serve a hommade black bean Veggie Burger, a Crab Cake Burger and a 1/3-pound Buffalo Burger.

Other burger battle participants included Chris Lucchese, of Off Track Cooking (and winner of the LA Times Battle of the Burgers  2012, 2013), food truck proprietor, Rena McCullough of Ohana’s 395, and  Craft BBQ sauce brewer (and grill chef Rock Creek Resort) Steve Miller.

Judges included last year’s winner, Matt Toomey, of Toomey’s Catering and Takeout, in Mammoth Lakes.

CJ’s Grill
343 Old Mammoth Road
Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546
(760) 934-3077

CJ's Grill on Urbanspoon

[Images courtesy Cj’s Grill and Jason Hoeltzel]