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.
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.
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).
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.
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