6,100 miles, 21 days and 6 people in a van!
Day 2 – Three Strikes!! YOUR OUT!
Ft. Defiance - Cairo, IL
Neely's BBQ - Memphis, TN
Charles Vargas – Rendezvous - Memphis, TN
Corky's BBQ - Memphis, TN
Graceland - Memphis, TN
Arkansas State Capitol – Little Rock, AK
But before we got 20 miles south of St. Louis, it started to rain, and as we headed deeper and deeper south towards Cape Girardeau, MO the rain got downright blinding with tremendous bolts of lightning and got quite scary.
After we safely crossed the Mississippi at Cape Girardeau, having avoided any contact with the Limbaugh clan, but still with the storm still licking at our heels like a hungry wolf, we set out for Cairo, determined to see the confluence of the Ohio & Mississippi rivers at Ft. Defiance.
The rain thankfully stopped tracking us about halfway before the City of Cairo. And after seeing the town, I think the rain was afraid to go in!
The City of Cairo is mostly in ruin, the downtown is largely in shambles and what's not boarded up or burned out, looks to have survived one too many floods and economic downturns over the last few decades. I'm sure last years nightmarish floods must have really delivered a knockout blow to this town. Because now its almost a ghost town except for a few locals.
It's very sad to see what is left of what must have been a truly brilliant turn of the century river town. As I looked at the town it was easy to imagine how during the booming years of river trade, when boats from the two big rivers would have brought in thousands of travelers daily, as they passed through on their way to conquer, settle and seek their fortunes out west, in the name of manifest destiny.
To make matters worst, when we got there, Fort Defiance park was closed for cleanup, probably from recent flooding! Argh!
We drove over the bridges going from Illinois into Kentucky over the Ohio river ,and then crossed back from Kentucky into Illinois, going over the other bridge into Missouri over the Mississippi river. Next stop; Arkansas and into Tennessee!
For those keeping track, we were going to hit 5 states on this day. An hour later we were in Memphis. Home of Elvis, the blues and BBQ! This is the part of the vacation that Burt was really looking forward to beginning!
This years road trip vacation train has BBQ stops scheduled in Memphis, Texas & Kansas City and this was the official first stop on the BBQ trail.
Memphis with it's big BBQ reputation and star quality BBQ pit masters are legend, as well as the city being host to Memphis in May, the third largest BBQ event in the entire USA! Yep, I finally made it back, and I was going to hit the top three BBQ places.
First up, Neely's.
I have to admit, I got this one wrong. I had really wanted to go to Interstate BBQ and not the Neely's. But since we had stumbled upon the Neely's place and it is the same family of BBQ'ers, one would assume that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, right? After all these ARE the Neely's of Food Network fame, so how bad could be?
It was nasty, terrible and disappointing. Neely's makes my list alright, as one of my top 5 WORST tasting BBQ places in the entire US! And its easily the worst FAMOUS BBQ place that I've ever been to.
The food that came out was so bad, that I asked the wonderfully kind and sweet waitress if there was a mistake. She replied that she didn't think so, and quickly swept away the gloppy hideous plate of BBQ mush and brought out another. Sadly the second plate was exactly the same.
My wife, son and I looked all at each other in complete disbelief. Is this really Memphis style, and we just don't like it? Or is this place a just a bad representation of the style? We were soon to find that "yes" was the correct answer to both of those questions.
One on my astute foodies in training summed up the Neely's experience best by asking me "were those pictures were taken before, or after the toilet was flushed!" As they say; out of the mouths of babes…
Memphis, STRIKE ONE!
Next up: Charles Vergo's Rendezvous
This was a return visit for my wife & I, we had ate here a long time ago. So long ago, that I remember Governor Bill Clinton was running for president at the time!
I fondly remember my last visit here and even thought of it as a "highlight" of our last Memphis trip. I knew I had to re-taste Rendezvous and those ribs if I ever got back to Memphis. Well, here I am!
Keep in mind, I was in my mid 20's for that last visit, and It was long before my "BBQ awakening". Years before I learned to BBQ, when I didn't know the difference between grilling and smokin". That knowledge would come much later, after I started to work in Austin, TX. and got my first real taste of BBQ. This visit was going to be a test of my palate from then Vs. now.
I didn't love Rendezvous this time. In fact, I just didn't think it was really all that special at all. I was the victim of Adams BBQ apple, I've eaten from the forbidden fruit of Texas, I now had attained higher knowledge, and therefore I can never go back.
First off, the meat was tough and dry, lacking the internal moisture of a slow smoked rib. After all, these ribs are grilled (over high heat and straight charcoal, albeit in a steel smoker type steel cabinet (pictured).
The sauce, the rib, the texture? I think I finally found the sauce that is the most like Russell's BBQ (of Chicago) that I've ever tasted. After all, Russell's goes back to 1930, and Rendezvous only goes back to 1948, and the two are actually very similar in cooking style and except for the Hungarian paprika seasoning rub that Rendezvous sprinkles on top, the two are actually pretty close. If I was forced to make a choice between the two, I'd have to go with the original: Russell's.
Memphis, STRIKE TWO!
Memphis had on last chance for redemption with the Fleisher's, and it was Corky's Bar B-Q. In my mind, I could already hear the foodies in training start to moan in unison from the back of the van: "not another one please, D-A-D!" So this one better deliver or getting to Texas and suggesting BBQ again was going to be a tough sell.
Corky's was just OK, certainly not great or anything special. Way better than Neely's and about equal to Rendezvous. The dry rubbed was well, dry! The meat was unremarkable, dusted with that trademark bright red Hungarian sweet paprika dry rub. And the wet was the same dry ribs again, only with baked on sauce.
I can honestly say I never want go back to Memphis for BBQ –
Three Strikes!! YOUR OUT!
At this point of the game I guess I just have to accept that it is, what it is. And that I just don't like Memphis BBQ and I"m not impressed even remotely by it.
We drove by Graceland afterwards and saw the gates to Elvis's estate. And I left feeling that we had burned way too much time in Memphis. Overall, my day in Memphis was a MAJOR disappointment. A kind of "so what" for me.
My wife remarked that I've turned out better BBQ by mistake than any of the places we ate at in Memphis (thanks for the complement honey!)
We headed back out of town crossing over the Mississippi once more into Arkansas towards Little Rock for a quick drive by the Arkansas State Capitol building at night, and hopefully get a goods nights rest.
That night I think I dreamt vividly in dry rub and BBQ sauce colors. The Vergo's & Neely's were trying to sauce and dry rub me while on Food Network. The more I struggled and turned, the more I did to further work in the rub and sauce into my skin and hair. I woke up feeling sticky and tangy. I think the heat and humidly of the south was starting to affect me…