Years ago, seemingly like everyone who comes to Memphis, I ducked in the alley and ate ribs at Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous restaurant and pronounced them great. I had never had dry ribs before–ones with the seasoning applied as ground spices instead of a sauce–and I thought they were wonderful. When I wrote my guidebook, I had Fredric Koeppel of the Memphis Commercial Appeal review the restaurants, and in the last edition, he wrote the following:
The Rendezvous inspires such loyalty that criticism of the place seems to merit fluffin’ up the feathers and heatin’ up the tar. Sure, Elvis had Rendezvous ribs flown to Vegas when he performed there, but he also loved banana and peanut butter sandwiches. Even the Vergos family, owners of the Rendezvous, admit that the dry ribs they produce, rubbed with a unique spice mixture, partake more of Greece than the mid-South, but that fact doesn’t keep Yankee writers from proclaiming the Rendezvous ground zero of Memphis barbecue. To our minds, these ribs are interesting but not the Real Thing, but who’s going to argue with 100,000 tourists?
That sounded close to rib heresy to me, but I thought, hey, Fredric’s the man when it comes to Memphis restaurants, so I ran his review the way he wrote it.
Then I started smoking ribs and, seeking to duplicate the Rendezvous ribs, I began experimenting with dry rubs. I found one I like–I have blogged about it before–and have served it many times. I once catered a wedding with them. Six nights ago I ate at the Rendezvous again and, to quote B. B. King, who probably knows a thing or two about ribs, the thrill is gone.
The Rendezvous ribs weren’t remotely spicy; for that you had to add sauce. The meat was done, but it wasn’t falling off the bone. The outer edge of the meat was crispy. I went up to the pit and inspected it. The heat, as you can see in the photo above, comes from a lot of charcoal right under the ribs. I asked one of the pit men how hot it was in there and how long he cooked the ribs, and he said 400 to 500 degrees and between one and two hours.
He may have been pulling my leg. He’s probably been asked those questions a thousand times, and here was one more grinning goober with a digital camera. If he was telling the truth, however, that explains the problem. No wonder those ribs were crispy–look how close they are to that fire. No wonder you had to do a bit of gnawing to get the meat off. When I cook ribs, I try to keep my smoker between 225 and 250 degrees F.
Unless someone else is buying, I will never go to the Rendezvous again. It has a great reputation, the place has a wonderful atmosphere, and it satisfies one heck of a lot of people. But not me. Not anymore.
Eating at the Rendezvous when so many other wonderful rub joints are in Memphis is like listening to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band when Albert Collins is just down the street.
So where is a great Memphis place to eat ribs? I’ll reveal it in the next few days.
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