As for myself, I spend a good bit of time hunting throughout West TN and attempt to check out “off the radar” rural, BBQ joints. Though I have eaten in Rendezvouz when I was young, it has been many years. Like many Memphians, I have thus far dismissed Rendezvous entirely as a” tourist trap”, but feel it is time to give it an honest assessment.
Rendezvous approaches their ribs in a entirely different manner than any other barbecue joint in Memphis. Instead of smoking the meat, Rendezvous charbroils ribs directly over coals at 425 degrees F for 60 minutes. My mindset going into this venture is that perhaps Rendezvous is just misunderstood by the haters. Maybe people are expecting “slow and low” ribs and just get caught off guard by the charbroiled method. I admit up front that I want to like Rendezvous. The more I think about it, the more I want the place that so many people consider “quintessential Memphis barbecue” to be serving up real deal, respectable plates of barbecue.
We arrive around 7 PM on a Tuesday night in June. One of the perceptions of Rendezvouz is that is “tucked away” in a back alley, basically implying that it is a “secret” place in a “secret” location that takes some seeking out. Well, let us be the first to state the obvious: The Rendezvous sits directly across the street from one of the principal entrances to Memphis’ most famous hotel, the street in question being Union Ave, the principal artery of downtown Memphis, in an alley bearing name of the restaurant, nonetheless.
Walking into the alley, the smell of BBQ permeates nicely. We place our name on the waiting list and visit the upstairs bar, working our way through 2 pitchers of beer with the constant (and jarring) blasts of the intercom system calling table availability. The upstairs bar easily has 100 people waiting as well as a closed off area where a private party is taking place. While waiting, we discuss the charbroil method and potential problems with that cooking technique as well as ponder at what point in history did Rendezvouz become so famous, as opposed to other Memphis BBQ establishments. We also discuss the popular myth that Rendezvouz was “Elvis’s favorite ribs.” Elvis actually seemed to greatly preference Leonard’s BBQ and/or Marlowe’s seeing how he would regularly hold private dinners at these estblishments for himself and his crew. We contemplate whether this connection between Elvis and Rendezvouz was a public relations move by the Rendezvous itself or mere association of the amount of tourists who visit Memphis to go to Graceland and eat at The Rendezvous.
On to the food. We are seated at a corner table and waste no time ordering two “large” orders of ribs, pulled pork shoulder as well as brisket. One should note that Rendezvouz serves their ribs in different portions than every other BBQ restaurant in Memphis. Usually, the distinction is between a “rack” of ribs and a “slab” of ribs. At Rendezvous, a “large” order is what you get when you order a “Rack” of ribs elsewhere. You would have to order two “large” orders at $18.95 each to get the equivalent of a “slab” of ribs at other Memphis BBQ eateries. Since we are ordering the food to share and not the least bit interested in wasting valuable stomach space with bread, we ask our waiter if we might get the pulled pork sandwich without the bread. He states that bread is the way it comes, emphasizing a strong degree of finality on the matter. We are not that concerned with discarding two useless pieces of bread, but the lack of ability to make specialty orders (“hold the bread please…. it will save your business money”), further perpetuates the rumors of ”turn and burn” operation where everything is “as presented” on the menu. No changes, no substitutions. (note that this is just a speculation, not confirmed with any other ordering tests).
Quite a few of the hundreds of Yelp reviews complained of servers only visiting the table to take orders, deliver food and drop off a prompt check with no drink refills or follow ups unless the table is drinking alcohol. Since we are ordering pitchers of beer, we do not experience this treatment whatsoever. Our waiter is very professional and courteous. Other Yelp reviews stated that the Rendezvous has “amazing” dinner rolls only available upon request. We do not request any dinner rolls and, despite making it known that we are not the least bit interested in bread, we are delivered a basket of room temperature dinner rolls of the (very) generic variety. In other reviews, a person claiming to be a representative of Rendezvouz dismisses entirely the notion of the establishment as a “tourist trap” and that they have a “firm and loyal” following by Memphis locals. While I am well aware that the Rendezvous occasionally prepares off menu burgers for lunch geared towards downtown businesses professionals, on this Tuesday night at least, all observations led us to conclude that we were the only local patrons in the restaurant.
The meat arrives on paper plates accompanied by plastic silverware, though in interesting contrast, we are presented with linen napkins.
[Shade] Pulled Pork: The pork is dry, overcooked and lacks any tones of natural seasoning of from meat that comes from rendered fat. It lacks smoked flavor and relies mainly on a mediocre sauce for taste. The texture is harsh, dry and does not pull apart well. It seems amateurish at best and tastes as if it has been under a heat lamp most of the day. 1 out of 5 stars
[Christian] Pulled Pork: The pulled pork is very odd indeed. It lacks any bark or detectable smoke ring. The table discussion about the pork shoulder is whether or not it had been cooked crock pot style. I mean, I’d like to think that I can always tell when pork as been cooked in a crock pot, but I am fairly confident that the Rendezvouz would not stoop that low. The meat has a mushy texture, high moisture content (i.e. “watery”). None of us like it…. at all. Truth be told, we might clear the table for a arm wrestling match to decide who likes it the least. 1 out of 5 stars.
[Shade] Brisket: This is the only meat that has any smoke flavor. The bark is decent and the meat has a small amount of tenderness in the center cuts. It still seems to lack the natural flavor that comes from rendered fat and leans on the sauce for taste. Of the meats here, this is the only one I think is decent enough to enjoy. However the high price does not match the mediocre quality of the meat and cooking style. 3 out of 5 stars
[Christian] Brisket: The Brisket is actually ok, and I’m not one to bother wasting time, money and effort ordering brisket outside the state of Texas, but this brisket does have a good smoke ring. It is a bit dry, especially in the middle with a slightly grey coloring. I’d speculate this particular brisket was over cooked by about 20 minutes. Who knows? On a different night, you might get the brisket done just right. That being said, Memphis is not a brisket town and no person should come to Memphis with the intentions of eating “Memphis BBQ” and order brisket instead of pork.
[Shade] Ribs: There is no smoke flavor and no natural flavor. If not for the dry rub it would have zero flavor. They are dry, tough and lack any good texture. I’ve had better ribs in backyard cookouts by amateur cooks. The ribs are not worth the price whatsoever. I would not eat them again unless they were free… 1 out of 5 stars
[Christian] Ribs: Visually, the ribs have good looking bark. Inspecting the underbelly, it is apparent that Rendezvous does not remove the membrane. Now, whether or not to remove the membrane is a matter of debate amongst BBQ enthusiasts. Some claim that leaving the membrane on during the smoking process helps to retain moisture. From the perspective a person who has butchered many animals, I can tell you that if you consider the function of the rib membrane is to keep the entrails from leaking out between the ribs, then such membranes (as well as silverskin) are not desirable for consumption. I am a firm believer in removing the membrane before cooking. If you are smoking for hours, it will break down, often to the point of falling part (though it reduces full smoke penetration in the early stages of smoking). That being said, 60 minutes of direct heat did little to break down the membranes on the Rendezvouz ribs. It is as if there were a coating of polymer on the underbelly of the ribs and, since Rendezvouz serves “Baby Back” ribs, you should be able to work the entire bone with your teeth due to the size, particularly when you end up with a little bit of loin attached to the upper ribs. No matter your opinion on removing the membrane before or after cooking, you must admit that you do not wish to eat or carefully pick around a sheet of plastic on your ribs. Fair enough?
It is also apparent that Rendevous runs a knife between each rib before serving so that the ribs easily separate. My guess is that in the “turn and burn” environment the most efficient way for them to crank out the ribs is to skip the membrane removal and cut a slit between each rib. If the motivation is otherwise, I am unable to imagine a purpose. To add to this theory of expediency with regards to the ribs, a common justification by Rendezvouz apologists is that they “move entirely too much volume” to waste time with such mundane tasks as smoking ribs, much less removing membranes.
The rib meat lacks any hint of depth. In other words, there is zero (and I mean ZERO) flavor to the meat itself. The dry rub coating on the top, of course, has flavor, but it is difficult for a coating of dry rub to compensate for a full of inch of flavorless meat. In a smoking process, this meat contains depth since it has been penetrated and flavored by the smoke, which is directly related to the pitmaster’s choice of wood and low temperature. If you take away that aspect and place the ribs over high heat for only 60 minutes, there’s just no real chance for flavor without first marinading (which is another time consuming process, not to mention a very questionable practice for the preparation of Ribs, particularly in a “Memphis” style.) Still, the texture of the rib meat, judged on its own merit, is not bad.
In the end, I have a difficult time wrapping my head around these ribs as being defined as “Memphis Style” ribs. They just really lack depth and flavor. It is bland meat and I fail to see how anyone can come up with a tenable defense for the ribs packing flavor, much less define a city’s style of BBQ when every other reputable restaurant in town is smoking ribs and producing meat that has intrinsic flavor.
.[Shade] Slaw: At first glance I thought this was a condiment with it’s orange yellowish color. I’m no stranger to unique foods but this slaw seems to have been created by a 12 year old mixing up whatever condiments were left in the refrigerate. It was oddly tangy with some kind of sweetness with an odd smell. 2 out of 5 stars.
[Christian] Slaw: The slaw was weird with a honey mustard taste and a hodgepodge of flavors that make no sense to me. I can kind of get into oddball slaw, but this recipe confuses me. 2 out of 5 stars
[Shade] Beans: The best thing I ate tonight. If only Rendezvous were famous for their beans I would understand the crowd here tonight. They have a nice slow cooked flavor with some spice added to it. Good texture, not overcooked with a decent aftertaste. 4 out of 5 stars
[Christian] Beans: We all agree that the Beans are excellent. Deep, rich flavor. “Rendevouz: Viva Le Beans!” No, better yet, “Elvis’ favorite beans!” 5 out of 5 stars.
We take care of our waiter because, as “Neighbor James” says, “Its not his fault the meat sucks.” The atmosphere and decor are great. They even are playing a great mix of Hank Williams, Stax, and Motown songs in the dining area (bonus points for not playing crappy music). We also take a close look at the gun collection case on the way out.
Craig, Shade and myself resurface the street level to find “Neighbor James” striking up conversations with random people leaving the restaurant. His quick survey revealed that all parties were deeply satisfied with their meal at Rendezvous. Our conclusions, however, couldn’t be more different. If you were to rank the primary, well known and famous BBQ establishments in Memphis, TN (which, excluding a few Beale street restaurants who cook their ribs in the oven, would be pretty much any Memphis BBQ restaurant including a couple of chains, Rendezvouz would certainly come in last place. Effectively, Rendevous is the worst BBQ that Memphis has to offer. And, I hate to say that, I really do. I wanted to feel good about the BBQ that is so legendary that people travel from all over the world to eat it. I wanted to feel good about the BBQ establishment that is the only representation of Memphis BBQ that many people experience, but I can not. We don’t want to come across as BBQ snobs, we just want to eat good BBQ and, we’re sorry to say, every other building in town with smoke pouring out of the chimney is doing it better.
You can read The Memphis Que review here.