For over 70 years the Rendezvous restaurant has been a Mecca for meat-lovers, tickling taste buds with its renowned signature dish – a unique family recipe turned quintessential southern staple: Memphis-style, dry-rubbed ribs.
Words and Photos: Simon Urwin
“You’ve gotta treat the meat with tender, loving care”, says Henry Lee Morris with a smile as he slowly unpacks a box of glistening pink pork ribs, fresh from the butcher. “That’s one of the secrets to great barbecue. You gotta put your heart and soul into what you’re doing. You also need a quality product and you gotta get your technique right. Those things add up to making Memphis barbecue taste as good as it does; it’s the best you’ll eat in America.”
The 54-year-old pitmaster opens a kitchen oven, allowing a waft of heat and delicate wood smoke to escape into the ether. One by one he stacks the ribs on a charcoal grill rack, then closes the door so the amber coals can start working their magic. “We use a special cut from the pig loin which is done to our own specification and we cook it for 90 minutes”, explains Morris. “I baste them with a vinegar wash half-way through then we finish them with a shake of our dry rub. Then they’re good to go – full of flavour. It’s how the Rendezvous has been doing ribs since it first opened in 1948.”
It’s early morning and the basement restaurant, located downtown in a hidden alleyway, is already a whirlwind of activity. Linen napkins are being studiously folded into neat triangles; tables are being dressed in their bright red-check tablecloths, while the kitchen stations are frantically chopping, slicing and roasting, all under the watchful eye of Bobby Ellis.
“We get the grills going at 7am and we cook all day long”, says Ellis, the kitchen manager. “We cook all kinds of meat – chicken, lamb, sausage, beef. You’ve even got vegetarians nowadays”, he says with a rather incredulous chuckle, “so we cater for them too. But deep down, we’re all about the hog.”
Ellis pauses to check on the progress of lunchtime preparation before going on to explain the intricacies of the Memphis-style barbecue.
“Everywhere in the country has a different way of doing it”, he says. “Some states might prefer brisket but here we love our pigs and our pork. We like it pulled, yes we do. But we especially like a big ol’ rack of ribs. We go through around 6,000 pounds a week in the restaurant, some weeks up to 8,000 pounds.”
While some food joints use the ‘wet’ method (brushing the ribs with a sauce before, during and after cooking), at the Rendezvous, they have their own pioneering twist on the alternative, ‘dry’ technique.
“We never marinade the ribs – we don’t need to because the meat is already flavoursome. We cook over hard wood charcoal which puts just enough smoke taste into the ribs – enough, but not too much. A lot of places use mesquite and hickory and all that kind of thing but there’s a real purity about this place – we’re not trying to do anything super fancy. We’re grilling not smoking – there’s a big difference. When you smoke meat you let it sit for four to five hours. When you grill it, it cooks fast, you have to keep a close eye on it – but it also means you get a better taste. So we grill neat, then we baste half way through with a little pickle juice, a vinegar solution, – it keeps the flame down, creates a little steam, so it moisturises the meat, adds yet more flavour. Then we finish off with a dry seasoning of salt and spices, a rub created by the original founder Charlie Vergos, now no longer with us. It’s a family secret you know? They keep it locked in a safe.”
Ellis’s voice noticeably quietens at the mention of his former boss’s name. “I’m now in my sixties and I first started working at the Rendezvous when I was 13”, he confides. “I joined twenty years after Mr Charlie opened up, and I’ve been here ever since. It’s the first and only job I’ve ever had. I dropped out of school in 10th grade – I didn’t have a choice because I had to take care of myself. Both my parents had passed away, but that’s life. I got on with it and got in with good people by starting working here – they became my surrogate family. Mr Vergos was a good man. Tough, but fair, and above all, kind.”
Ellis excuses himself to welcome the first customers of the day with his beaming smile. The trickle of loyal clientele soon turns to a flood and by the time the clock strikes midday the dimly-lit space is crammed – humming with the sound of chatter in the tipsy, sing-song accent of the Tennessee South; the clinking of beer bottles drifting across the room to a jukebox soundtrack of Memphis soul and delta blues.
“All these years later it’s still very much a family affair”, says John Vergos, 71, one of Charlie’s children, now the restaurant’s co-owner. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re so popular. People appreciate the heritage. This is one of the oldest restaurants in Memphis, and it’s the longest-running family joint in town.” He gestures to a portrait on the wall. “That’s my grandfather – my father’s father. He came here from Greece when he was 12 or so and set up a hot dog stand on Beale Street back in the 1960s. We still use his coleslaw recipe to this day – it’s around 100 years old. It gets copied by a lot of other restaurants.”
Vergos invites me to sit so I can sample from the menu, first calling out to a waiter and requesting he brings a pot of their much-imitated side dish. It’s delicious; tart from a dash of vinegar; sweet from a touch of sugar; a gentle kick from the addition of mustard. “It’s funny. The success of this place is really something of an accident”, Vergos explains, before suggesting I next try one of his favourite dishes on the menu: the Rendezvous’ brisket.
“My father Charlie entered the restaurant business with his brother-in-law, first of all by setting up a ‘meat-and-three.’” (a traditional restaurant of the American South where customers could pick one meat and three side dishes from the daily selection.)
“It didn’t go well so they went their separate ways. My father moved into the basement and set up a sandwich-and-beer business for men who had time to kill while their wives did their shopping. He called it ‘The Rendezvous’. Now it just so happened there was an old coal chute which he converted into a smoker so he could give his ham some flavour to make good sandwiches. It wasn’t some great Thomas Edison moment of invention, just pure luck that he started barbecuing.”
Vergos pauses as the plate of brisket arrives. Smoked for almost a day, it’s been seasoned then slow-cooked for 6 hours. It’s so tender it falls apart at the tap of a fork; the flavour so full, it elicits a coo. “Just wait until you taste the ribs, they’re the real showstopper”, says Vergos, before continuing with the family history.
“Anyway, over time, Charlie tried other ingredients in the smoker – like salami, which sold well, and chicken and oysters, which didn’t. His butcher then suggested he try ribs. At that time, ribs were considered scrap meat, used for big, outdoor cooking days like the 4th of July or Labor Day in poorer Memphis neighbourhoods. Charlie was the first guy to start cooking ribs in a restaurant. And the formula he came up with we still use to this day.”
A waiter then brings a rack to the table. The famous ribs are gloriously sticky and chewy with coal-charred flavours around the edges; the Rendezvous’ trademark red spice rub providing a zingy aftertaste.
“To make it, he took classic Mediterranean flavours: garlic, lemon and oregano and played with them. That’s a typical thing to do in a town like Memphis. It’s on the Mississippi river – a place full of different cultures, open to ideas. He loved chilli peppers and the seasonings he tried in New Orleans so he mixed the Greek with the Cajun and threw in paprika to give it a burnt orange glow, a barbecue look. Nothing was scientific or thought out, it all just kind of clicked. He created a whole new barbecue category in the process. People went nuts over it, and the rest is food history.”
Now a Memphis institution, the Rendezvous regularly serves thousands of covers on a Saturday night, and counts the likes of Al Green, Isaac Hayes and the Rolling Stones as regulars. The kitchen has even catered for the Obamas who ordered take-out to eat on Air Force One.
“Barbecue is the dish that defines the city”, says Vergos, “and we’re a big part of that. We have a saying here: ‘when pizza leaves New York, that’s the day that barbecue leaves Memphis’. Until then – and I hope that day never comes – we’ll carry on burning up ribs with the best of them.”