Part of the allure of any bbq joint is it’s ambiance. Smoking pits, the sights and sounds of succulent meats being chopped or pulled on wooden countertops. And even the down and dirty bbq chop shops all have a way of pulling in customers looking for the next bite of smoky perfection. But in the world of barbecue, the mystique setting of the famous Rendezvous is unparalleled. Following the hunger-inducing smoke, you’ll duck into a downtown Memphis alley to find the entrance. You’ll still have to descend stairs down into this subterranean barbecue restaurant to discover your bbq treasure buried underground in the Bluff City. Dining under the streets of downtown Memphis in this historic barbecue restaurant makes for an exciting dining experience for any lover of smoked pig, or just for the culinary adventurer. Eclectic nostalgia, statues and stained glass create unique combinations of visual interest. But perhaps one of the first and most permeating things
you’ll notice about the atmosphere is the pungently fragrant aroma resulting from pork dripping over hot coals. That aroma was what drew me back despite an initial disappointing visit. Somehow, the meat itself did not pick up that same wonderful bbq aroma on my first visit. Since the Rendezvous receives so much pressure to produce so many ribs it should be no great surprise that consistency will be challenging. I figured that since a place like Rendezvous mass-produces so many slabs of ribs, they can’t all be pristine. So I ventured back with the hope of scoring a rack of ribs that had been sitting on the pit a little longer-meat that had time to absorb that wonderful smoky aroma that filled the air going in. And it was on those subsequent visits that I was able to get what Rendezvous is all about.
“Dry ribs” are a specialty at Rendezvous, but the concept is often misunderstood. It’s not so much about the seasoning, which, like bbq sauce, is secondary. Rather, it’s about not covering up that great smoky taste that meat picks up from long periods of time in the pit. The whole point of dry ribs is to allow the smoky meat to be the star of the show. When sauce is served as a condiment on the side, one can more distinctly discern the smokiness of the ribs, which is really the true essence of barbecue. Think of smoked meat as the pilot and any condiment as the copilot. Anyone going to Rendezvous looking for the typical sticky-sweet ribs may be disappointed if that is the expectation. But if one understands what these ribs are all about, then the ribs can be enjoyed as they were meant to be. I like dry ribs (ribs without sauce) and many locals really do prefer ribs this way, while just as many others like them wet (with bbq sauce). I enjoy ribs both ways because both types have something tasty to offer. The wet ribs, if basted during the last few minutes of cooking, get that caramelized coat of sauce that cooks into the smoky meat, creating another delicious bbq treat. I find myself craving ribs both wet and dry ribs and most always do both at home when I barbecue. But if I had to choose one way to eat them, it would be dry. That’s because when I smell that wonderful bbq smoke rolling off the pit, that is the predominate flavor that I want to taste in my food. Thankfully, I don’t have to choose and can enjoy both.
My ribs at Rendezvous have had a rich meaty flavor and were quite smoky on most visits; but not just any smoky-charcoal smoky. No, hickory smoked flavor is not the emphasis here. This is a different type of barbecue smokiness than what you’d most likely find at a bbq competition, albeit no less tasty. The meat picks up that distinct and delicious coal-smoked taste achieved when the drippings from the meat fall to the coals bellow and create smoke, which in turn flavors the meat. It’s similar to that classic old-school barbecue flavor of which I have become so fond, where in olden days, wood coals were shoveled into a pit and hogs were cooked over those embers. But today those wood coals have been substituted with charcoal for heat consistency and efficiency. The bbq restaurants who do smoke with wood, usually smoke from indirect heat to minimize chances of the meat drying out. I’d like to see more bbq restaurants utilize some of the older methods of cooking meats at least partially over wood coals, then perhaps finishing from indirect smoke and heat to get the best of both flavors. Rendezvous may not use wood, but I still crave the flavor of their ribs cooking over charcoal. And they’re quite proud of using charcoal. In fact, the Rendezvous sign boasts their particular type of flavor. It reads,
Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous Charcoal Ribs
in Downtown Alley Since 1948
The Rendezvous’ bbq dry-rub is one of my favorite seasonings. When I don’t make my own dry rub, I get Rendezvous bbq seasoning from local grocery store shelves and put it on pork, chicken, fish, vegetables and just about everything else except ice cream. I have read many recipes that attempt to recreate the flavor, but I’m quite sure that it has at least these ingredients: paprika, oregano, mustard seeds, cumin, coriander seeds, celery seeds, garlic powder, onion powder, msg, salt, pepper. My only problem with the seasoning is how it’s so heavily poured onto the meat. The way it’s used in
the restaurant is too salty and overpowering, even with the vinegar baste that’s applied first. The sauce, always served on the side here, has an interesting balance of sweetness, spiciness and tanginess. Honestly, my kids like it because it tastes kind of like ketchup. The sausage and cheese plate, dusted with the Rendezvous bbq seasoning is famous here and a favorite of many locals, though when my wife ordered it, we though the quality of cheese could have been better and we would have enjoyed a variety of cheeses. Also, the sausages weren’t as smoky as we would have liked.
I’ve had the bbq pork sandwich at the original location, as well as the FedEx Forum concession. At both locations the pork shoulder was only slightly smoky. Otherwise, the combination of meat, sauce and slaw worked well together making a good, but overpriced bbq sandwich (around $9). At the Rendezvous, you will pay for the ambiance and the reputation if you go for a sandwich, as many other Memphis bar-b-q shops serve an authentic and noticeably smokier bbq sandwich for $4-$6. No, at Rendezvous I usually stick to ribs (which in turn sticks to my ribs).
The history of the Rendezvous has resounded throughout television shows, books, magazines and documentaries. The condensed version is that Charles Vergo one day discovered a coal chute in his store and followed it down into the basement, where the famous Rendezvous barbecue pit was born. The rest is history-and legend.
Here are a few notes about the ‘que:
- The ribs have been hit or miss. I’ve had tender and easy to pull away from the bone and I’ve had slightly tough.
- The shoulder has always been tender and not dry.
- The ribs have had good charcoal-smoked flavor on most of my visits.
- The shoulder, despite being consistently tender, has only had slight smokiness
- The ribs have always had a seasoned and crusty bark, which provides a nice contrast in texture with the smoky, tender meat.
- The shoulder has lacked the crusty bits of bark I so much love in a good bbq sandwich.
BBQ Nachos-I had the bbq nachos at the Autozone Park concession before it closed. The pork shoulder, as usual, lacked smoke flavor and bark.
Sauce-has an interesting balance of sweetness, spiciness and tanginess. Honestly, my kids like it because it tastes kind of like ketchup.
Seasoning-Rendezvous bbq seasoning is one of my favorite seasonings. It has a complex and savory flavor that really compliments pork and chicken. I think it’s exceptional on smoked, planked or grilled salmon. Unfortunately, at Rendezvous, the seasoning is applied quite heavily.
Slaw-The slaw is a tangy, finely chopped mustard slaw that compliments the pork.
Thanks for visiting my Memphis bbq blog! Tim Shirley