Foodie Travels: Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, Memphis, Tenn.

North Carolina has always been my home, but my heart for barbecue has always been in Memphis, Tenn. Unfortunately, until recently that penchant for Memphis-style barbecue only lived through the enabling of national brands that emulate the tradition.

No longer.

img_1183We recently spent a couple days in Memphis, “the pork barbecue mecca of the world,” as the history reads on the website for Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, the location of my first authentic Memphis BBQ experience. And what a baptism in barbecue paradise our dinner at “The Rendezvous” was.

Just a few blocks from iconic Beale Street, The Rendezvous is tucked away, the entrance off an alley in the city’s downtown. You know you’re close to the place when you catch the whiff of the pork aroma in the breeze between the tall buildings surrounding you.

Seeing the crowd, we expected a solid wait to savor the taste that accompanies the fragrance, but that was not the case. Almost as soon as our names went on the wait list, we were called to our table for two and our rendezvous with a barbecue masterpiece.

For me, the type of barbecued meat I order stems from the location where it’s prepared. In Texas, I had to sample the brisket. In North Carolina, it’s the chopped pork. In Memphis, and at Charlie Vergos’ establishment, I had to try the ribs, known for their dry-seasoning rub and signature vinegar wash to seal in the moisture.

Our waiter (more on the wait staff in a moment) smartly urged me to purchase a full order instead of the half size. And it turns out he wasn’t just trying to make a sale. For $3 more, he wanted to make sure I fully immersed myself in the foodie experience that is The Rendezvous’ ribs.

img_1196Pull-apart tender. Cooked to perfect doneness all the way to the bone. A seasoning that delights ALL of the senses. Ten meaty pieces, each more pleasurable than the last, until the final rib that makes you wish you lived in Memphis to visit for dinner at least once a week. That’s how I would describe the ribs at this “mecca” of barbecue.

In addition to sampling one of my ribs, Molly enjoyed an incredibly flavorful barbecue chicken sandwich, with a delicious smoky taste enveloped by a hearty, soft bun. And both of our main courses were accompanied by a side of wonderful baked beans and slaw, which offered a unique mustard base in lieu of the mayonnaise base that we’re accustomed to in our home state of North Carolina.

As heavenly as the food at The Rendezvous is, the price you pay also provides a front-row seat to a unique dining experience. The place has been a Memphis mainstay, just a short distance from the Mississippi River, since the 1940s, and you get the feel of an old-time eatery in the décor of the building and the presentation of the wait staff. Many of the waiters have served at the restaurant for decades, and you can tell from the smiles on their faces that they enjoy their jobs every night.

There are so many places in Memphis, Tenn., to experience “Memphis-style” barbecue, and specifically ribs. From our experience, I don’t see how any of them could top Charlie Vergos Rendezvous.

 

Charlie Vergos Rendezvous

52 S. Second St., Memphis, Tenn.

hogsfly.com

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Foodie Travels: Lexington BBQ, Lexington, N.C.

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When you’re in sight of a restaurant on a Friday night and see a full parking lot, that’s a good sign. When you’re walking toward the building and you spot a smokehouse with multiple chimneys and a rack inside with countless levels of fresh meat, that’s a good sign.
I’ve traveled across the state of North Carolina for years, often passing Lexington without stopping for a taste of their barbecue. On a recent trip, I decided I’d passed up the opportunity too many times, and Molly indulged me with a stop at Lexington BBQ, right off the old Business 85 in town.
We lucked out that we arrived just a few minutes before the Friday night dinner line started forming (and that was even after having to sit in terrible traffic on I-85 north of Charlotte). So we got to stroll right in and find us a seat.
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I started the meal with a Cheerwine on crushed ice. Then I followed with my favorite way to start sampling any kind of North Carolina barbecue: chopped sandwich on a bun with the slaw on the side.
Let me tell you, I’ve experienced North Carolina barbecue from the mountains to the coast. I’ve tasted all sorts of flavors and textures of barbecued pork meat. The thing that strikes me about my barbecue at Lexington BBQ is that it delivered a combination right in the middle of a western North Carolina style I’ve had many times (smoky meat without a mixed-in sauce) and the eastern North Carolina style I dined on when I lived in New Bern (soft pork with a vinegary sauce).
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I liked the combination, and I liked this eating spot. We could sense we were among the few non-locals in the place, and I liked that feeling. The place had an old-school feel to it: non-fancy, local art with barbecue themes hanging on the walls, and food served on disposable plates.
If you’re not a barbecue eater or have one in your group, maybe someone would enjoy the fish sandwich. Molly’s not quite the barbecue fan I am, so she likes when BBQ restaurants offer other options. Her fish sandwich was very good: flaky, fresh (and not greasy) fish on a soft and flavorful bun.
Lexington BBQ offered good food, good and efficient service, and a great local atmosphere. It’s the kind of place where strangers hold the door open for you. And we’d recommend it to you if you’re interested in sampling central North Carolina barbecue during your travels through the area.
Lexington BBQ
100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington, N.C.
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Foodie Travels: The Flying Pig, Shelby, N.C.

In any part of American barbecue country, announcing a favorite produces instant disagreement among supporters of other choices. Here in Cleveland County, N.C., the frontrunning favorites are a pair of legendary Bridges-named establishments that have successfully served customers for decades. And as much as both of those restaurants deliver unique meat, side and atmosphere experiences, I believe I have a different favorite than most of my neighbors.

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The Flying Pig on N.C. 150 between Shelby and Boiling Springs sits in a small, unassuming building across from the local airport. It’s part of the landscape enough that some people pass it not realizing it serves up delicious barbecued pork, chicken, brisket, red slaw and some of the meatiest ribs I’ve ever eaten.

When you drive past Flying Pig during the morning hours, you see smoke rising from the back of the joint. If you come back at lunchtime, there’s often a big enough crowd in the parking lot and in the dining room that your choices for spaces are limited. Don’t be fearful or fooled though: the service here is always fast, even at the busiest times. And if you do have a bit of a wait, it’s absolutely worth it, and here’s why.

A few things that set The Flying Pig apart from the local and regional competition. One, it’s all about the delicious flavor of the meat. You won’t get a meat drenched and swimming in sauce when it comes to your plate. You get a pure, flavorful meat, no matter which you choose.

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Two, you get plenty of sauce in the form of three individual and unique choices that come in cups to your table. You can enjoy sweet, sour or spicy. My favorite is the sweet, which reminds me of a reddish, transparent sauce you’d find alongside chicken in a Japanese restaurant.

And three, this eatery maintains a bit of “best kept secret” off the beaten path.

The first time I visited The Flying Pig, I entered at an “off time,” later than the early dinner crowd and on a weeknight. The owner gave me the royal dining treatment, explaining how everything is freshly made, sharing the specifics of the different sauce choices and even offering a chance to look through a barbecue book that chronicles some of the most unique and celebrated BBQ restaurants in the region.

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I’ve recommended The Flying Pig to colleagues at multiple employers, to old friends coming through Cleveland County and wanting to know where to get the best barbecue, and to people who find out just how much I love food and want to know where I like to eat. I highly recommend The Flying Pig to you, too.

While the “big boys” on the local “Q” scene are certainly purveyors of delicious meats, sides, sweet tea, desserts and a hometown restaurant scene, there’s nothing that beats walking into this place, biting into plentiful, flavorful meat, getting a greeting from the owner and always being encouraged to come back again. And you get all of these treats for about the cost you would expect for barbecue (less than what you would expect to pay for expertly crafted brisket and ribs).

There are a lot of places in our part of the world that serve outstanding barbecue, but there’s not one that does it any better than The Flying Pig.

The Flying Pig

901 College Ave., Shelby, N.C.

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Foodie Travels: Eating Through a Weekend in Atlanta, Ga.

Atlanta may not be the first city that comes to mind if I ask you to name Southern metropolitan areas that serve up legendary food. But on our tour of the major cities in the South in the past two years, the Georgia capital just might have produced the most memorable lineup from top to bottom.

When we visited town for a weekend last year, we arrived with three restaurant destinations in mind. And those were the three we visited. We still have a handful we’d like to try when we’re back in town, but there were no disappointments among the stops we made.

Per our usual foodie travel plan, we visited one featured restaurant each day during the three-day trip, supplementing those meals with free hotel breakfasts and a cheap third meal. Here’s our experience and what we suggest if you find yourself in Atlanta.

 

Cheesecake

Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles

How can you not be attracted to a restaurant that bears the name of the “empress of soul,” Gladys Knight? How can the words “chicken and waffles” not further propel you to seek out a place that promises a menu of delicious soul food?

Well, unfortunately one answer is all of the news about a corruption investigation among Knight’s family, which has prompted some periods of closing in the restaurant’s Atlanta-area locations. Knight has even filed a suit to have her name removed from the restaurants altogether.

But before all of that was in the news, the downtown location was our first Atlanta foodie stop on a Friday night, and we left full of Southern favorites and surprises. Molly enjoyed the shrimp and grits, which she’s now sampled among the most Southern cities on the map— Charleston, S.C., New Orleans, La., and Atlanta, Ga. I had the signature chicken and waffles plate, which offered a simplicity that felt very true to the dish’s roots. It was almost a Waffle House-style waffle, alongside several bone-in chicken wings that were juicy inside and crispy outside.

The jewel in this eatery’s crown was our dessert: quite possibly the best cheesecake of any variety that we’ve ever eaten. Our slice of sweet potato cheesecake was a heavenly combination of light yet rich, flavorful yet not over the top.

If you visit Gladys Knight, as the Travel Channel and other food TV media have done, expect a crowd at peak times; it’s a pretty popular joint. And consider parking elsewhere in town and walking here. The parking situation wasn’t ideal, and we unfortunately ended up paying to park in a lot right next door.

On my dollar sign price scale ($ is cheap, $$ is moderate and $$$ is expensive), this one gets $$.

Online: 529 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta, Ga.

 

Varsity burger

The Varsity

What’ll ya have? That’s been the catchphrase at The Varsity for nearly 90 years. Known as the world’s largest drive-in restaurant, this place offers you plenty to think about before you answer that question.

We visited on a Saturday night alongside five other family members in two cars. This place draws a major crowd at most hours on the weekend, but there was plenty of parking to be had.

Expect to stand in line at the counter for a bit if the joint’s hopping, but that’s OK because you’ll have more time to decide on your order if you’re a newbie. We ended up sampling a variety of items, including cheeseburgers, hot dogs, fries, onion rings and the Varsity Orange, the shop’s signature drink (along with the Frosted Orange shake).

The food is good and exactly what you’d expect of a drive-in style diner in the South. I’d venture to say the food’s also less greasy than some spots you’ll visit, and that significantly improves the experience.

You can’t miss The Varsity if you’re driving on Interstate 85 right through downtown Atlanta. When you spot it, remember there are plenty of reasons to stop in for a meal.

The Varsity gets $ on the price scale.

Online: 61 North Avenue, Atlanta, Ga.

 

Ribs

Daddy D’z: The Bar-B-Que Joint

We Ain’t Pretty But We’re Good.

Remember what your mama told ya. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

Those are among the statements on Daddy D’z website. And once you see this iconic Atlanta barbecue joint, you’ll understand why.

On a Sunday afternoon, we decided to make this restaurant our lunch stop. We planned to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. historical sites nearby, so we took advantage of free parking at the MLK center, about a mile away, and walked to the eatery.

That would be a fine choice if it’s not a 95-degree June day in Atlanta, Ga. I don’t suggest our route unless it’s a cooler time of year.

As we neared the restaurant, sweating profusely and tired from the heat-bathed trek, it looked almost like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Seemingly abandoned buildings were all we saw. It appeared plants were growing out of the structure that seemed on the map like it should be the location of this “famed” barbecue restaurant.

As we rounded the corner from the back, we saw the “Daddy D’z” sign and a full parking lot of cars. The inside was full of people, too, and that meant we had to sit on the outside porch, with fans and no central air-conditioning to cool us.

But we persevered through the heat and my insistence that I needed more drink and my lunch as soon as possible. And we’re glad we did. I had a plate of the best ribs I’ve had in my travels through the South.

I’m not the only proponent of the ribs either. They’ve been praised via the Food Network, among some of the best ribs celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez has ever eaten.

All of the Deep South barbecue favorites are here, and they come with sides of macaroni and cheese and some of the best soul food Atlanta or anywhere can dish up.

If you judge by appearances, you may not want to stop your car and walk inside. That would be a major mistake in foodie judgement on your part. If Daddy D’z fits into your travel plans, you should give it a try and let me know your verdict.

Daddy D’z gets $$ on the price scale.

Online: 264 Memorial Drive SE, Atlanta, Ga.

Foodie Travels: Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack, Belmont, NC

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Barbecue is among the most diverse foods in the American South and Midwest. While you will find it from Kansas City to Texas to Memphis to the Carolinas, its form always varies in some way. And so does its serving establishment.

Molly and I live in a county (Cleveland County, N.C.) that prides itself on delicious pork barbecue. We have three barbecue-specific restaurants that all claim ties to the last name Bridges. All three are tasty, but in different ways. One even claims the title of Best Barbecue in America.

Directly to our east sits Gaston County, the hometown county for both Molly and me. It boasts its own set of delicious barbecue restaurants, slightly different from those in Cleveland County and from each other. But I believe my favorite Gaston spot is Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack, a fairly new BBQ establishment in the thriving town of Belmont, N.C. The place combines the perfect feel of both a modern no-fuss eatery and a longtime establishment that knows its regular customers by name.

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At Peace-N-Hominy (what a great name for a Southern restaurant, right?), it starts with the atmosphere. Rolls of paper towel napkins on each table and a sauce rack with four options is always a good sign at a barbecue joint. We also enjoyed the sign on the wall that notes things the restaurant believes in. At the top, above a reference to smoked meats, is: God. There is a faith element to the restaurant, which may be stepping too far for some, but we found it to be a nice indicator of where the owners stand.

Drawing from the old walk-in diner restaurants where you order at the counter, Peace-N-Hominy displays its menu in easy-to-read-from-the-line print that you can survey while you’re waiting to order. The choices are many and quite varied, even at this one Q joint. You can get your barbecue pork, your chicken, your smoked turkey, specialty bacon and other BBQ favorites. Or you can get a burger or hotdog, or a taco, or even breakfast.

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In many local restaurants, I have to make a cheeseburger my first menu sample. In any barbecue restaurant in North Carolina (because in Texas it must be brisket), I go with the chopped pork, either in a sandwich or on a plate. Going with the plate at Peace-N-Hominy was the right choice. I had the chopped pork, and Molly had the turkey. Both came with flavorful sweet hushpuppies, creamy coleslaw and an additional side. Molly had the bourbon baked beans, and I had the macaroni and cheese for a slight upgrade in price. Both were clearly homemade and did not disappoint.

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What really made this place stand apart was its culture, its deep set of menu choices and its location. You usually find those places either in a big-city spot or in a whole-in-the-wall restaurant that’s been in the same place for decades. Peace-N-Hominy is neither.

This place, however, was an incredible find, and I would recommend it to anybody who enjoys barbecue of any variety. And it was a find. The restaurant’s main wall sign doesn’t directly face the road, so you might drive past it if you’re not watching. Try a few things while you’re there (we didn’t sample dessert or specialty sodas but should on our second visit), and let us know what you think.

Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack
403 Catawba Street, Belmont, N.C.
peacenhominy.com