Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Charles Vergos' Rendezvous vs. Latham's Meat Company

I've posted in the past about the excellent ribs at Latham's Meat Company in Jackson, TN, but after a recent visit I decided to do a follow-up post about just how consistently impressive they are. Before I got a chance to write that post I got a text from one of my friend's over at the Go Carnivore blog asking if I'd ever written about the food at the famous Charles Vergos' Rendezvous restaurant in Downtown Memphis. When I told him I hadn't he declared it was time for us to get together for the "official final word" on the Downtown institution.

You can get the Go Carnivore take on our visit here. It's a great, highly-detailed account of our visit.

The main point of my barbecue quest has been to find jewels like Latham's. Since it is the complete opposite of the Rendezvous on so many levels I decided a direct comparison of the two could be interesting. Up to that point I hadn't bothered with a visit to the Rendezvous since I do most of my barbecue exploration at lunchtime while I'm working and the combination of high, for barbecue, prices and long waits never made it seem like a good time to drop in. And as one of the most famous barbecue joints on the planet that mostly caters to tourists the Rendezvous wasn't the kind of hidden gem I was trying to uncover on my quest.

Enough distance separates the two restaurants that obviously no one is reading this and trying to decide between a visit to one or the other. The point was simply to contrast our area's most famous eatery to a place even most Memphians have never heard of. The majority of the people eating at and writing about the Rendezvous are new to this region's barbecue. Most of the articles you read about the restaurant are so formulaic that they stick to the tired, old "rib speakeasy hidden away in an alley" narrative to describe it.

Yes the Rendezvous is located in an alley; an alley off Union Avenue directly across the street from the Peabody Hotel. I took this picture standing in front of the Peabody. The alley is in between the Holiday Inn and Benchmark Hotel pictured here.

The restaurant does keep the alley smelling great.

After our meal I took this picture of the Peabody as seen from the entrance to the Rendezvous. In some informal polling of other diners we didn't encounter anyone else from Memphis.

Most of the people eating at the Rendezvous are out-of-towners. And most of them enjoy the food they get there. But it's safe to assume that most of them have never experienced ribs like the ones at Latham's. A lot of people visit Memphis and their only experience with our barbecue comes from the Rendezvous and Beale Street tourist traps like the Blues City Cafe. The sad part is that some of those visitors are people from places like Kansas City and Austin who know their barbecue. They try barbecue from a touristy Downtown place here and go home shaking their heads saying, "I don't know what all the fuss about Memphis barbecue is about."

The customer base at Latham's is almost all local Jackson residents. The breakfast and lunch spot isn't remotely famous. It didn't even show up on the Memphis Flyer's recent list of babrecue restaurants worthy of a brief roadtrip from Memphis. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't have plenty of loyal customers. Show up for lunch and expect to see the spacious parking lot overflowing.

People frequently ask me where they need to go for ribs. There is no one answer to that question. If you are a serious rib connoisseur then Leonard's Barbecue, the Bar-B-Q Shop, Central BBQ, Memphis Barbecue Company, the Cozy Corner, Jack's Rib Shack and the Double J Smokehouse are all well-worth your time and attention. And that just represents a handful of my favorite places. But with all the ribs I eat, there is something truly special about a trip to Latham's. If you are visiting Memphis, try some of the places I just listed. If you are a Memphian who has already been to all those places think about taking a trip to Jackson (and to Helen's in Brownville) to round out your West Tennessee barbecue knowledge.

The Rendezvous doesn't actually represent traditional Memphis barbecue, or even pretend to. The ribs there are grilled for a relatively short time over high heat and seasoned with Greek spices. Meanwhile the cooking style at Latham's is so old-school that I can't visit without spending some time behind the store staring mesmerized at the at the old cinder block smokehouse where the real craftsmanship occurs.

The piles of wood are burned in the barrels to create charcoal for slow, off-heat cooking inside the smokehouse. It's a  time-consuming process that creates a perfect flavor and texture profile in the meat that can't be recreated any other way.

The atmosphere inside the two restaurants is as fundamentally different as the cooking styles. The basement dining area for the Rendezvous is such a neat space, patrolled by sharply-dressed waiters, that it made me want the food to be be special too. On the other hand, I was skeptical the first time I stopped in at Latham's and saw barbecue sitting in steam trays under heat lamps as customers where being served cafeteria style.

To get to the cafeteria-style serving area at Latham's you have walk past the butcher counter. The dining area is also school cafeteria-level spartan. If you need a restaurant for a first date or entertaining business clients then Latham's probably isn't your ideal spot. Especially considering it doesn't serve alcohol and isn't open for dinner.

For atmosphere I can see the Rendezvous's appeal. For someone who craves the taste of smoke-infused meat with perfectly rendered fat it leaves a lot to be desired. During our visit we tried three different meats; ordering brisket and pulled pork along with our ribs. Meanwhile, at Latham's I've never ordered anything but the ribs.

 Latham's is known for its country plate lunches. All the food I've seen there looks good. And I've been meaning to try the pulled pork for a while now. I mean, look at all that pink in the meat sitting next to the also impressive-looking smoked chicken. That is the telltale sign of good smoked meat. They've even given me a free sample of the pulled pork when I told them I need to try it some time. It is excellent pulled pork, but excellent ribs are better.

Excellent ribs are a quasi-religious experience that makes it difficult to restrain yourself from grunting like a caveman character from Quest For Fire while you eat.

The ribs at Latham's are always pink all the way down to the bone. This is the magic of the smokehouse.

The ribs from the Rendezvous look great when they come to the table too.

But one look at the interior of the ribs reveals just how inferior the char-grilling approach is to slow smoking. It's not just a matter a coloration. The presence or lack of a pink smoke line is just a visual clue. The real issue is flavor and texture; areas where the Rendezvous's ribs have more in common with a grilled pork chop dusted with Greek seasoning than real Mid-south barbecue.

When I say the Rendezvous doesn't represent real Memphis barbecue I want to make clear that I am complaining about the seasoning. I don't have any problem with the Greek-influenced rub. Alex's Tavern near my house loads its ribs with Greek seasoning, but slow cooks them on an old outdoor smoker. They are some of the best ribs you'll ever eat. I'm serious, go try them. And I didn't even think to mention Alex's on my list of places for serious rib connoisseurs earlier in this post.

That is the biggest issue I have with the Rendezvous. It is frequently named as one of the best places in Memphis to eat ribs. And it is an entertaining dining experience. But when it comes to the actual quality of the ribs being served, the Rendezvous doesn't even qualify as an also-ran in the world of Memphis-area ribs.

The two best things we had at the Rendezvous were the beef brisket and the baked beans. Brisket is such a naturally tough, fatty cut that there is no edible way to quickly grill it, which must force the restaurant to take a slow and low approach to it. I loved the thick hearty beans. On the other hand, the beans at Latham's are just slop straight from a can. But how big of a deciding factor are beans when picking a barbecue restaurant?

The cole slaw at the Rendezvous was bizarre in taste, appearance and consistency. "I feel like I'm eating applesauce," was my proclamation during our dinner there. The pulled pork was a a mushy, underwhelming mess. People who don't eat a lot of pulled pork need to understand that there is a huge difference between juicy meat, which comes from being infused with perfectly rendered fat, and mushy meat, which is caused by poor cooking technique killing the texture of the meat itself.

Go Carnivore declared that "Effectively, Rendezvous is the worst BBQ that Memphis has to offer." I wouldn't go that far. In my barbecue travels through this area I've had some flat-out bad ribs (more tales of bad ribs here and here). But the Rendezvous definitely represents the biggest gap between hype and reality. The other huge name in Memphis ribs, Corky's, may not have the best ribs in Memphis either, but its restaurants still offer solid, reasonably good Memphis barbecue. My great remorse is for those barbecue connoisseurs from places like Austin and Kansas City that I mentioned earlier who eat at the Rendezvous and on Beale Street during a visit here and go home telling people "I tried some of the 'best ribs in Memphis' and those folks obviously don't know what they're doing."

Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous on Urbanspoon

Latham's Meat Co. on Urbanspoon


  1. "My great remorse is for those barbecue connoisseurs from places like Austin and Kansas City that I mentioned earlier who eat at the Rendezvous and on Beale Street during a visit here and go home telling people "I tried some of the 'best ribs in Memphis' and those folks obviously don't know what they're doing."

    -sums things up pretty well. Great review.

  2. "Excellent ribs are a quasi-religious experience that makes it difficult to restrain yourself from grunting like a caveman..." --One of the best comments about ribs I've ever read...I really did LOL!

    I think you're spot on about Rendezvous. Thanks for always pointing us to truly Good Q!

  3. I have eaten at Latham's once (assuming that it is the one on Business 45 north of the interstate) and it was ok, not great ,but better than average. As far as the Rendezvous or Corky's either, both to me at least are over rated. I have a prejudice, I am a pull meat shoulder fan, plain-no slaw and only the sauce that has cooked-in, so ribs are ok if not slathered in sauce or heavily caked with dry-rub.

    My favorite, when they are open and it has been a while since I was there, is Ray's BBQ aka Chism's in Toone, TN at the intersection of Hwy 138 & 100. They have even let me go down into the pit area and pick out the shoulder I wanted, which make even more enjoyable. There BBQ is done the real old-fashioned way, a pit dug into the side of a hill and the meat separated from the coals with an old burnt out box springs mattress.

    If you catch them open, don't expect the fine amenities of The Ritz, but be prepared for flavor seldom found any more. The flavoring of the meat by itself is ambrosia and can be addictive,
    the homemade sauce is excellent. and I cannot say about the slaw
    since I never eat it (I am a died in the wool carnivore).

    1. I've never heard of the place and it doesn't show up on Google Maps, which makes me curious to visit it.

  4. In the 90's I managed a meat company .WE sold both places along with most other Q houses in a Tri state area.I had many a lunch with Mr. Charlie. and one or two with Mr Latham.What was good at the Rendezvous to me was the Lamb Riblets and red beans and rice.The ribs were different than other places but I always felt they were fine just different. Latham's pulled pork to me was the best. What was my favorite Q was the rib tips at A and R ,but Andrew best thing was his double cheese burgers to me the best in town.

  5. I haven't been to Latham's, but you hit the nail right on the head with what you said about tourists and the Rendezvous. They are a terrible example of "Memphis BBQ" and aren't truly even barbecue at all.

    BTW, if you haven't already reviewed Tom's BBQ (I haven't read all the articles yet) I wish you would. They are a great example of how Greek seasonings can work well with barbecue.

  6. Nice review. Where would you suggest we eat before a 7:30 showing at the Orpheum?

    1. For ribs the Double J's upstairs has great food and isn't as kitschy as the downstairs. The Downtown Central is really good too. Rendezvous does have a great atmosphere that makes it worth experiencing, the ribs just don't live up to the hype. You can never go wrong eating Gus's Fried Chicken. Stepping away from standard Southern fare, Main Street has a tremendous variety of great restaurants.