Published: May 17, 2011
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While visiting Memphis to attend the Memphis in May World Championship Bar-B-Que Cooking Contest, I knew I would be eating some great BBQ food from all of the teams. However, BBQ is part of the culture of the south, and especially Memphis, so even while I was out on the town, I wanted to eat some local favorites. This is what led me to Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous.
Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous has been a Memphis institution since 1948. They are known for their charcoal smoked ribs, but it is the family atmosphere and commitment to downtown Memphis that is truly this restaurant’s legacy. If you are visiting Memphis, Rendezvous is a must go-to place. The restaurant’s address is on 2nd street, but in looking to seek it out, we had a little trouble finding it. We continued down Union Ave (the cross street) and walked in front of the famous Peabody Hotel, just as the ducks were finishing their swim in the lobby fountain, and although we couldn’t see the restaurant we could smell the charcoal BBQ. We followed our noses across the street to the aptly named, Rendezvous Alley, and of course we then easily found this gem of Memphis.
After being warmly greeted by the restaurant manager, it was not hard to believe that the restaurant was not only still family-owned and operated, but many of the staff (cooks, servers, managers, etc) had been working at their restaurant nearly since it started. The decor of the restaurant was everything you would expect from a southern BBQ joint – it was on the dark side, but yet homey and festive. The walls were covered with memorabilia ranging from street signs, to sports posters, and of course, family pictures. Two glass cases, on either side of an original (but no longer used) smoke pit, held extra special items. Inside that smoke pit were pictures and letters from famous visitors, including former presidents. They served as a testament to the restaurants historical significance, and delicious food! We then received a “tour” of the kitchen. I use the word tour loosely, not because it wasn’t great, but because it is an open kitchen, so anyone who eats in the restaurant (and gets seated downstairs) can give themselves a tour of how the ribs are made. There is a large charcoal smoker, and the ribs go in for an hour and half, after being coated in Charlie’s special rub.
John, the restaurant co-owner and Charlies son, talked to us about what makes Rendezvous (and their ribs!) so special. First and foremost the ribs are cooked only with Charlie’s special rub – there is no sauce at all. The reason for this is that they want to make sure that the meat is still the focus of the dish; it shouldn’t be covered in sauce. There is a special way to eat them too. They are served in a basket, lined with parchment paper, and at the bottom you will find a small pool of juice. The juice is from the meat, while it is cooking, along with a vinegar-based spray they use during the 90 minute cooking process to keep the ribs moist. You take your rib, rub it in the juice, and eat up. The ribs were cooked perfectly! Tender to eat, but not falling off the bone.
We asked John, with such a short cooking time in the charcoal smoker, what he does with ribs when they are cooked, if there isn’t an order waiting. He kindly reminded us that between his family’s years in the business, and the fact that they are selling 8,000 lbs. of ribs a WEEK, that this rarely happens. But if it does, they do have a process to cover the ribs to keep them moist, and then place them on top of the smoker to keep them warm. He reassured us though, that they never sit around too long (if at all) – and after being in the restaurant I believe it.
The other thing that we spent some time talking to John about what has changed in the restaurant in the last 63 years. He shared a lot about how the menu has expanded. This has been mostly due to the growth of the restaurant itself, and that they have the opportunity to cook and serve a lot more than just ribs, from when they started. The menu also includes pulled pork, brisket, and a lot more even for non-BBQ lovers (like a Greek salad). He also spoke about how the restaurant balances staying true to its history, while staying relevant to modern diners. The best example of this is that still today all of the plates and utensils are disposable. The restaurant was started using paper plates and plastic ware, and the infrastructure of the restaurant could not, now, support a switch to re-usable plates and cutlery. However, recognizing that all of the waste that was being created was also a great problem – if not for the restaurant, but for the community and the environment – Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous is now Green Fork certified. They used recycled materials – our forks were made of potatoes – and they do extensive recycling themselves.
John admitted that they are just taking the first steps of what will be a long process, but we agreed that these first steps are the most important. Rendezvous has also started a partnership with the surrounding business, including a major hotel chain, to eliminate all of the dumpsters in their shared alley, and instead share a trash compactor. Together they are reducing their waste.
Finally, after all of our talking, we had worked up an appetite. John, and the whole Rendezvous team, treated to us like kings – but apparently this is just Southern hospitality. We started with the smoked sausage and cheese platter, which also included some delicious kosher pickles (ironic), all smoked and dusted with Rendezvous’ dry rub. It was delicious. Then came the ribs, and we ate them as instructed (see above) and they too were delish. As Rich took a bite into one, you could clearly see the smoke rings in the meat. At first the rub was a little over-powering to me, as I don’t usually eat anything with spice, but it wasn’t spicy, it was just a lot of flavor – which was all good. And after the first few bites, i was used to it, and could really appreciate the flavor of the rub, the smokiness and the taste of the meat itself shining through. That would have been enough to fill us up, but we also shared a pulled pork sandwich, with the slaw on it (another Rendezvous “rule). The meat was moist and delish, with a complementary sauce. The “slaw” was particularly good and unlike anything I have ever had. Instead of mayo it was mustard based – it was great, and I loved the crunch on the sandwich. It wouldn’t be right if i didn’t admit that the sandwich was completed with a Wonder Bread plain bun, which generally speaking you all know how I feel about plain white bread, but it seemed to work here. However, i only ate a bite of bread, and then ditched it for fork-fulls of slaw and meat together (which was really the best part of the sandwich). And finally we sampled the brisket – and it was good, very good. Even better than Grilling with Rich’s (but now he has something to strive for). Not usually being a rib-eater myself, the brisket is probably what I would order the next time I go back to Memphis, and to Rendezvous.
So all in all – a 5 star meal.
And when we finished the KING of all meals in Memphis, all we could say was “thank ‘cue, thank ‘cue very much.”