If you find yourself walking in Memphis
one day, and are strolling downtown on Union Avenue in front of The Peabody Hotel
, your nose will most likely be met with a delicious aroma
that is so distracting that you will quickly be hunting down its source. You won't have far to wander, though; a short distance down an alley, past a couple of garbage dumpster
s on your left, is a sign marking the entrance to a basement restaurant
. The unmistakable smell of cooking pork
billows from the place, but what you will find by and large after descending the steps can not be technically defined as "barbecue
True, Memphis is deservedly renown as the barbecue capital of the world, and has no shortage of rib joints and pork shoulder sandwich shacks (Little Pigs is a favorite), but the Rendezvous is different. The ribs at the Rendezvous are heavily coated with a sort of spicy Greek-Cajun dry rub and cooked for an hour and a half over hardwood in a process developed by Charlie Vergos around 1948 when he opened the business. Vergos does not use the term barbecue, preferring to call his process charcoal broiling.
And what a process! The rub itself consists of garlic powder, paprika, oregano, salt, pepper and other spices; there's a strong flavor of celery seed, which some might feel overpowers the taste of the meat. It's used on the ribs, the chicken, the lamb riblets, and I suspect it's even put in the baked beans. Rendezvous' sauce is a wonderful creation; a little thinner and less tomato-influenced than traditional barbecue sauces, but with a magnificent tangy flavor. Meals are typically served along with a unique vinegary cole slaw (which I wish I could duplicate) and pitchers of draft beer. All the items on the Rendezvous' somewhat specialized and limited menu are a gastronomic delight.
The restaurant's very informal, cluttered atmosphere and speeding waiters add to the dining experience. The waiters are as famous as the restaurant itself, as most of them have been working there for thirty years or more. The basement walls and ceiling are covered with a bizarre variety of memorabilia, from every sort of thing you would normally imagine being hung on a wall to a few surprising items. Anybody that's been in a franchised Bennigan's-Applebee's-O'Charley's-etc. (they're all the same) has seen this sort of thing before, but places like the Rendezvous were the original inspiration.
No trip to Memphis is complete without dining at the Rendezvous. After 50 years, the place still packs 'em in. Be advised, however, that they are closed on Sundays and Mondays, so if you're in town for a long weekend, make your dining plans with this in mind. If you can't make it in person, the ribs are available worldwide via FedEx by calling 1-888-HOGS-FLY in North America, or (901) 523-2746 from elsewhere. A "two-slabber" (enough to feed four people) that comes with a jar of sauce and a jar of dry rub will run you about US$75.00 delivered to your door the next day. I have sent this as a gift before, and it is a sure-fire way to make someone love you!
Charles Vergos Rendezvous is located at 52 S. Second Street, Memphis TN 38103.