Rock 'n' Roll and Ribs

Our mission--which we chose to accept--was to find the best ribs in Memphis and explore the birthplace of rock 'n' roll.
Wanda McKinney and Annette Thompson

We couldn't believe our luck. Our editor was sitting across the desk asking us to find the best barbecue and the best music in Memphis. We scooted out of his office and surreptitiously began planning. It wasn't long before we had our dream team together: Wanda, an intrepid reporter, known for fine writing; Annette, an intrepid barbecue eater, known for saucy comebacks; Richard, a native Memphian, known all over town; and Dana, our incognito restaurant critic, known for being unknown.

Ribs Run Through It
We set out across miles of twisted two-lane blacktop for the big river city. Within a few hours, we wound through downtown streets to find our hideout--the centrally located Peabody hotel. We caught up with Richard at 6 p.m., while Dana sneaked off to her white-tablecloth dinner assignments.

Trench coats in place, we jaywalked across Union Avenue to a small alley, staying close to the walls as we approached Rendezvous, Memphis' most celebrated rib restaurant. We entered the charcoal-scented vestibule, and Richard, not in disguise, was quickly recognized. Our cover was blown.

Charlie Vergos, a man as rugged and friendly as a plate of ribs, escorted us to the best table in the house and plied us with towering sampler platters of his best 'cue. We nibbled lamb riblets, we noshed chicken, we gnawed dry pork ribs. "Bring us more napkins," we demanded, and the waitstaff scurried to do our bidding. The beer flowed, the tea poured, our waistbands expanded. We picked at peppers, we savored slaw and beans, we mopped sauce with bread. Charlie kept checking on us, shoving more food toward our groaning plates. "Enough," we finally cried, struggling to stand. "We'll be back again someday." We waddled out the door and made our way back down the alley, past The Peabody, and stumbled onto legendary Beale Street.

 

Eat to the Beat
We heard the music wafting from Elvis Presley's Memphis--a restaurant/music hall that looks more like a theme park eatery than a serious venue. Richard insisted we check it out. "Table by the bandstand, please," we demanded. This waitstaff didn't recognize Richard and sat us by the kitchen door, but we weren't disappointed. The floor show was big enough for the entire room. One of the house bands, The Dempseys, proceeded to blow the roof off the place. The trio--an upright bass, a guitar, and drums--cranked out rock 'n' roll favorites by Jim Morrison, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and, of course, Elvis Presley.

We ordered a fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwich just for the fun of it (you can bypass this option on your visit) and a slice of Gladys' Apple Pie (be sure to try this). We munched and tapped our toes while Joe Fick manhandled the upright bass with the flexibility of a yoga-inspired contortionist. He played it behind his back and behind his neck, rode it like a horse, and stood on it. He rocked it, he hugged it, and he plucked sweet music from it. During the more-than-an-hour set, we realized we were exhausted from just watching The Dempseys. Time to call it a day.

Love Me Tender
The next morning we tried to pass up breakfast at The Peabody, but as Elvis said, "That's all right, Mama." We ate anyway, and then turned our sights to Graceland.

Shod in blue suede shoes, we shuffled through a tour of rock 'n' roll's most famous home. With headsets keeping a steady rhythm and historical commentary, we explored Elvis' seventies kitchen, his fuzzy jungle room, and the colorful pool room. We spent a quiet moment at the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, Gladys, and Vernon came to their final rest. Afterward, we scoured the gift shops for memorabilia.

By this time we were hungry again. Dana turned aside for another fancy lunch, while the rest of us made our way to Corky's. Wanda ate wet ribs, and Annette ate dry. We were in hog heaven. Richard went for the tamales with chili and cheese (how could he?). Squeezing our way out through the crowded tables, Wanda and Annette began arguing the merits of wet versus dry ribs. Richard offered a solution to the controversy. "Let's go try them somewhere else and decide."

 

Intrigued by the idea, we headed to The Bar-B-Q Shop, a lesser-known emporium of all things porcine. How could we eat ribs again, you ask? Not a problem. We ordered a slab of wet and a slab of dry. The three of us pretended we were food sleuths. A bite of dry, hmmmm. A bite of wet, hmmmm. Both wonderful. The verdict? Wait an hour or two, and try again.

Rock 'n' Roll Heaven
Needing a break to make room for more ribs, we set off to find the sun--Sun Studio, that is. It was there that Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, and Ike Turner began careers that shaped the sound of rock 'n' roll. After hearing outtakes from early recording sessions, we drove a few blocks to the sparkling Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum in the Gibson Guitar Factory.

We danced through exhibits with CD audio guides playing songs from Otis Redding, Al Green, and B.B. King. We learned that rock 'n' roll emerged from the culture of the blues, gospel, and country music. We felt its driving beat and wild tunes return us to the possibilities and thrills of youth.

As we were leaving, Wanda slipped into the gift shop to purchase CDs by Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding--music for the ride home. Standing in the setting sun, we looked at each other. More ribs? Of course.

This time we headed south to Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Que, an unassuming diner-like place near I-55. "Wet and dry ribs, please. No sides this time," we pleaded. "Just the fat, ma'am." Our server nodded her head knowingly. Before another half hour passed, a plate piled high with clean rib bones sat in the middle of the table. Smiling, we paid our bill, returned to our hotel rooms, and slept like happy little piglets.

And the Winner Is…
The next morning we left Richard behind in Memphis, where he was welcomed by all who know him. Somehow Dana managed to secure a boxed slab of Rendezvous' ribs and sauce, which nestled in our trunk as we barreled down the road. Unsurprisingly, the conversation turned to ribs.

"Which were best?" Dana asked.

"Corky's wet," Wanda said without hesitation. "They were tender, meaty, with the perfect tangy sauce."

"Aah, you're partially right," replied Annette. "Corky's, yes. But the dry ribs. I'd never had them before. I think I've found rib nirvana."

Second best? We agreed that Interstate's wet ribs came in close, and The Bar-B-Q Shop should be on everyone's don't-miss list. Rendezvous? The best good-time barbecue joint in town. We agreed they had the best chicken.

Wanda popped her new Otis Redding CD in the player. We joined in a verse of "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," thinking that if we keep eating ribs like these, we might turn into songwriters ourselves.

Memphis will do that to you.

Tunes To Go

  • Elvis Presley's Memphis: 126 Beale Street; (901) 527-6900. Graceland: 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd.; (901) 332-3322, 1-800-238-2000, or www.elvis.com. Admission: Mansion tours are $16 adults, $14.40 seniors and students, $6 ages 7-12.
  • Sun Studio: 706 Union Avenue; (901) 521-0664, 1-800-441-6249, or www.sunstudio.com. Admission: $9.50 ages 12 and older.
  • Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum: 145 Lt. George W. Lee Avenue; (901) 543-0800 or www.memphisrocknsoul.org. Admission: $8.50 adults, $7.50 seniors, and $5 ages 5-17.

Rib Attack

  • Rendezvous: 52 South Second Street; (901) 523-2746. Shipments are available at 1-888-464-7359 or www.hogsfly.com.
  • Corky's Ribs & BBQ: 5259 Poplar Avenue; (901) 685-9744. Shipments are available at 1-800-926-7597 or www.corkysbbq.com.
  • The Bar-B-Q Shop: 1782 Madison Avenue; (901) 272-1277 or www.dancingpigs.com.
  • Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Que: 2265 South Third Street; (901) 775-2304.

This article is from the January 2003 issue of Southern Living.Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.