Monday, July 11, 2011

On the Road Again: Memphis Dry Rub Ribs

Since I am on the subject of road trips I think this is a good time to share the happenings of our latest trip to Memphis. My husband has a relative who lives there that the rest of us have never met, so we thought this was the year to make a pilgrimage to meet her. We don’t often drive east so after we passed through Oklahoma we were discovering new territory.

We discovered that Arkansas is a beautiful forest covered state filled with drivers who all obey the speed limit (creepy huh?). Being Texas/Colorado lead foot speeders we found this to be unsettling knowing that there must be lots of highway patrol. Thank goodness we brought my husband’s super-duper radar detector with us so we were able to get a bit of advance warning when there were any troopers hiding in wait. This is a great device but it did let me down a couple of years ago on the Kansas border when I was snagged and given a $130 speeding ticket, so I still was a bit anxious.

Throwing caution to the wind, we were still able to average 68 mph (with stops) making our trip from Denver to Memphis in 16 hours. 16 hours of panting old dog breath, 16 hours of my son’s comedic Spanglish, and 16 hours of asking Dad to please put his shoes back on.

We didn’t manage to make any big roadside culinary discoveries on this trip and that was ok by me because I had my eye on the big prize . . . Memphis barbeque.

You can’t grow up in Texas and not love barbeque, and especially barbequed pork ribs. I mean really if you can’t tell, we Texans are pretty snobbish about it, and to make things even worse I grew up in south central Texas where you find the best barbeque in the state.

Lockhart, Texas

In this part of Texas you don’t have to drive far to find delicious establishments like Kreuz Market, Smitty’s, Black’s and Luling City Market which are all famous in their own right for the meat they take off of their pits, and don’t think you need a bunch of side dishes either. Around these parts you are most often given your barbeque wrapped up in a piece of butcher paper with a Shiner beer or a Dr. Pepper to wash it down. The closest thing you’ll find to side dishes at these places are pickles, onions, a slice of soft white bread and maybe a hunk of Longhorn cheddar if you’re lucky. You just don’t need anything else. Now that’s great barbeque.

I digress. Being the food lover that I am I was open and ready to try the best that Memphis had to offer so when I asked my husband’s relative where she thought we should go, we took her at her word and headed over to the Rendezvous. She told us that it was located downtown right across the street from the front doors of the Peabody Hotel, and since we were headed over there to see their famous lobby ducks anyway, it was a perfect suggestion.

The next day Mr. H and son made plans to take a tour of the Gibson Custom Factory so my daughter and I went on an advance scouting expedition downtown with a minor detour for a Bloody Mary at the TGI Fridays down the street from the Peabody. I must tell you this is the only time we were ripped off during our trip when the bartender automatically up sold our innocent order into a top shelf $9 tomato juice extravaganza on her own accord. I hate this and a high spirited discussion ensued resulting in a call out to an uncaring manager, a new drink and a bill adjustment. I don't need any help spending my money thank you very much. I do enough damage on my own.

Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous Restaurant

After our drinks we meandered around the block looking for the address we were given by Google. We twisted around downtown Memphis until a nice man hosing down the sidewalk motioned for us to turn into the alley either obviously knowing what we were looking for or directing us down the alley for a mugging. We very tentatively made our way until we started smelling ribs and dumpsters and knew we were at the right place.

Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous as it is also known has been in its alley basement location since 1948. The walls are covered in years of bric-a-brac and no doubt lots of dust. We were pointed to our table by a hostess with a deadpan expression who almost warned us that during lunch all they sell are the ribs. Since this was what we came for we were undaunted and took a seat and waited for quite a while before being served our neighbor’s order in error. Thinking this was just how they served you at lunch the kids dug in before they had a chance to discover their mistake.

The basement location of this restaurant is dark yet cozy giving you the feeling that you are in on a real secret.

Without any further ado I must admit that I was disappointed in my $14 basket of ribs. If I hadn’t been so trusting in our relative’s recommendation I might have read some on-line reviews and discovered that these aren’t barbequed ribs at all. Rendezvous ribs are grilled over direct charcoal heat which makes them taste more like a grilled pork chop than the succulent tender smoky ribs I was longing for. Bummer! Don’t get me wrong, they are ok for what they are, they are just not worthy of all the accolades. In my opinion they are just mediocre.

Rendezvous ribs

After lunch we headed toward our car by way of Beale Street which even during the day has a party atmosphere with live music venues, walk up to-go cocktail windows and more restaurants than you can shake a rib at. I really would have loved to have returned at night but it was not meant to be on this trip.


We climbed in our car and went in search of the historic Lorraine Motel, site of the balcony where Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated which now houses the Civil Rights Museum. The motel itself has been beautifully restored and work is presently being done to improve and expand it even more. Although the site resembles a 1960s bright and cheery motor hotel there is an obvious reverence in the air. The mood of the crowd brought to mind that of other sites of tragedies we have visited like The Anne Frank House and Ground Zero. I am so glad we made this most meaningful stop with our children.



The next morning we got up and headed over to Graceland. I was actually surprised that my son and daughter were willing to make this pilgrimage to Elvis’s home. I mean he died in 1977 and they weren’t born until the 90s so I was surprised that they even cared. Graceland is really everything you have heard, homey and just a little bit 1970's tacky.

Graceland

Grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches anyone?

The Jungle Room

Elvis' hot tubless pool

There were really no surprises here, just a rich guy’s home that he obviously loved and spent a great deal of time in. By today’s standards the house isn’t huge or very fancy. My children were surprised to see that his pool didn’t even have a hot tub. Elvis, his mother, father, grandmother and baby twin brother who died at birth are all buried in a garden area at the bottom of the pool. Their graves were actually moved here from another cemetary due to security concerns (i.e. there were nuts doing weird stuff to his grave). I think he'd rather spend eternity at his beloved Graceland anyway.

Presley family graves

After our tour we figured that there must be some good food around there somewhere so we played restaurant roulette and drove into Marlow’s parking lot which is just a short drive from Graceland. From looking at the outside my daughter was convinced that it was a strip joint that served barbeque. Since this idea didn’t scare Mr. H one bit, he scouted the place for us and came back (with almost a look of disappointment) reporting that not only were there no strippers, but Guy Fieri and his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives crew had been here and had left a signed poster to prove it. Good enough, we’re going in.


Fried Pickles

Pulled Pork

Our barbeque was smoked and pretty good and there was lots of it, and the fried pickles weren't bad either. The atmosphere was eclectic and welcoming and the prices were decent. We left feeling that even though there’s probably better barbeque to be had in Memphis, we had at least experienced something akin to what we came looking for. It may not be Kreuz Market, but not everyone is lucky enough to live in south central Texas. That night I am almost ashamed to admit that we ate off the salad bar at Jason’s Deli. By this time we were so hungry for anything that wasn’t meat this really hit the spot.

We all agree that our stay wasn't quite long enough to discover all of the culinary wonders that Memphis has to offer. We hope to return to this lovely city someday soon.

The next day we packed up the crew and burned the highway up all the way home including the last two hours when my husband drove way too fast in a thunderstorm on rain slick country roads causing me to backseat drive with a vengence and seriously contemplate divorce. The good news is we made it home safely and we are still married.

For the 4th of July I decided to put my money where my mouth is and try to make some really spectacular barbequed ribs of my own. I searched the internet and combined some rub recipes (including Rendezvous') and came up with a dry rub that I am really pleased with. These aren't exactly Memphis or Texas ribs but a combination of the two that we really loved. I can see this rub being a great addition to any barbequed or grilled meat you prepare.


Dry Rub Ribs

1/3 cup water
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
1 nice size rack of pork spare ribs (*trimmed to St. Louis style if desired)
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seed
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon coriander seed
1/4 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon MSG (Accent flavor enhancer)

In a small bowl combine the water, vinegar, honey and seasoned salt. Place ribs in a shallow pan and brush both sides with the liquid; set aside.

In another small size bowl combine the remaining ingredients; set aside.
Prepare a charcoal or gas grill to medium high.

Baste the boney side of the ribs once again with the liquid before sprinkling with 1/2 of the rub. Place the ribs on the grill with the prepared side down. Cook the ribs, checking often to prevent burning (moving to the outside cooler part of the grill if necessary) for approximately 45 minutes or until golden brown and meat begins to shrink a bit. During this time, baste the topside of the ribs a couple of more times with the liquid. Just before turning, sprinkle the topside of the ribs with the remaining spice mixture, gently pushing in with the backside of a spoon. Turn and repeat the cooking process.


After about 45 minutes on the other side, move the ribs to the cooler outside edge of the fire and cook for another 60 minutes or so. If fire is too hot or too cool, place ribs in a shallow baking dish, loosely cover and place in a preheated 250 degree oven.


Remove from the oven and rest for 15 minutes before carving and serving.

*To trim ribs for St. Louis style: Place the ribs on a cutting board. Remove the flap of meat from the backside of the rack.

Identify the separation or joint at the top of the ribs. With a very sharp knife separate the two rib sections by cutting in between the joints.

If desired, before cooking remove the back papery membrane by wedging the tip of a knife underneath it and the bones loosening an edge.

Gently but firmly pull the membrane back with your fingers to remove it; discard. Trim any excess fat from the ribs.

Barbeque rack as desired being sure to grill the meaty trimmings as well.
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