by Dave Mondy
Sometimes enough isn’t enough.
I don’t idolize pig parts and I don’t own a Kiss the Cook apron. I don’t search for secret spices. Which is to say, I’m no barbeque fanatic; I came to Memphis for the music, not messy meals.
But after giving a dollar to a homeless man, I asked, “Where’s a good place to eat?”
“You gotta check out Rendezvous,” he said. Maybe one dollar wasn’t enough—he then uttered the curse that would bring me to the brink of organ failure. “Best BBQ in town, man.”
Wait, maybe that’s just me and my unresolved religious past. What I mean is, Rendezvous seems like a hidden little spot. The entrance is in an alley, and you have to bypass dumpsters to get there. But once arrived, there are crowds of people and an hour and a half wait.
Inside, it’s three levels large. I chose the solo traveler’s option and sat at the bar.
Looking around, it was immediately apparent that this was the place with the souvenir menus (every city has one)—the restaurant with the T-shirts and the marketing department. But here, it’s o.k. It’s hard not to like a place that started as a basement sandwich shop, only turning to barbeque after the owner found an old coal chute in back.
Extensions of that original crew still run the joint, manning battle stations with ranks that take decades to acquire. Seriously. Many of the men have worked their way up since the 70’s. One of the chefs, Robert Junior, has been here seventeen years. And yes, there is a Robert Senior. Forty-five years. They all bark and laugh and serve 3000-plus on a Saturday night.
And the ribs? I don’t like ribs, but if I ever return to Memphis, I’ll be here on my first night. Maybe second, too. They’re that good.
Here’s a sub-classification I was new to: There’s wet ribs and dry ribs. Wet get their flavor from slathered-on sauce, while dry gets its flavor from braised, or sprinkled on, spices. Rendezvous is the latter. I’m not foodie enough to tell you pepper from paprika, all I know is…
“I bet,” she said, noting my Northern accent.
“Best barbeque in town, right?”
“Sure,” and she gave a tactful eye-roll.
“Well my favorite is the A&R, but it’s a smaller place…”
“Do you have directions?”
She smiled. Zealots love that curiosity in a pre-convert’s eyes.
“… you said the second with the okra without the extra sauce…”
Having just had ribs, I opted for a pork sandwich. It arrived with coleslaw… not on the side, but on the sandwich itself. It’s a co-joining which, like sex, is unimaginable until you first try it – then you want it more and more. I ordered a second sandwich.
Not a fanny-pack or FunSaver in sight, I thought. I’ve found the true best BBQ.
A thought which felt confirmed later that night. Sitting in a real juke joint, hot blues barely in the background, a local said, “You been in town one night and you found the A&R!?”
“Is that weird?” I asked, naiveté on the outside, all pride beneath. I had to add: “Best BBQ in town, right?”
“Well now,” he said. “Person can go too far…”
Finally pulling up at 1:30, I was hungry enough to eat hooves. And, desirous as I was for anything non-pork, it was delicious.
In fact: “This is the best barbeque I’ve ever had,” I told the woman behind the counter, on my way out (although I was starting to suspect my porcine-palette was so underdeveloped that whatever I’d tasted last, I’d rate the best).
“Really?” she said. She was older, and sat in front of a stovepipe/grill contraption, pipes stretching floor-to-ceiling as if drawn by Dr. Seuss.
“Yeah, I’m from, I’v never… it’s great.”
“Well thank you!” Maybe it was just Christian charity (there were many Biblical aphorisms posted about), but she made it seem as if my opinion really mattered. The opinion of a Northern whiteboy about her down-home Southern barbeque. Faking effect from a person’s compliment is the nicest compliment you can give.
“Is that where you cook the meat?” I asked.
“This is the smoker,” she smiled, opening the side door of the contraption. “Here’s the Cornish hens, ribs down here, bologna…”
Looking in my rear-view mirror at the smoke rising from the top of Cozy, I felt good. This wasn’t stuff from some fog machine, a huckster’s touch of fake-authenticity. This was real smoke that’d just cooked the real meat that, if I wanted, I could still dig from the upper corner of my top-left incisor.
Which I did. Still tasted great.
Still, walking into Quetzal on 9th Street, I felt I was entering paradise.
Quetzal is a modern clean-livers coffee shop. A recently-restored warehouse space, it’s all pristine wood floors and arching beams; big clean windows and sunlight sunlight sunlight. There’s high-speed internet access and a nicely organized bulletin board filled with community happenings. I felt restored to some sort of urban-sophisticate starting point I’d never started at to begin with. And the Southern hospitality was the same here as anywhere: When I checked my e-mail (first time in four days), the charge didn’t show up on my bill. “Hope you’re enjoying your stay,” they said.
I had a smoothie and salad, and savored each. When you overdose on too much Yang, Ying feels decadent.
And I had OD’ed. Driven by some odd desire to be more than a tourist, to dig deep, I couldn’t give up on my quixotic quest (‘quixotic’ being the nice word for ‘obsessive’). And it turns out, BBQ is merely the gateway drug of Southern food; soon it was yams, greens, catfish, cathead biscuits, fried chicken and butter-soaked grits… until anything un-greased just didn’t have enough kick.
“Enough of that stuff,“ I thought, sipping my smoothie, “could literally kill you.” But looking at the healthy staid folks around me, I added the obvious addendum: “Then again, there’s worse ways to go.”
Dave Mondy is a travel writer and writer/performer of many one-person shows. His production “This Love Train Is Unstoppable and I Am the Conductor” won the Best Solo Comedy award at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. His monologues have appeared on Minnesota Public Radio, and he has written for Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” This story won the Bronze Award for Travel and Food Story in the First Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
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