I’m comparing barbecue ribs from Leeds, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee. It’s not fair. It’s not scientific. I am not an expert. I just like barbecue, and I had good experiences in each city. I am not going to pick a clear overall winner because, for me, eating ribs is not a competitive race to some elusive culinary finish line. Eating ribs is a slow, contemplative mess – like writing philosophy papers but with a sense of fulfillment in the end.
Let’s start with Rusty’s Bar-B-Q in Leeds, Alabama. Leeds is just outside Birmingham. It’s a town I’d never heard before until I arrived. Surprisingly, Leeds is home to the largest vintage motorcycle collection in the world at Barber’s Motorsports Park. I was helping a friend and fellow photographer, Joseph Gamble, move from Tampa, Florida to Glenwood Springs, Colorado where he will be a professor of photography at Colorado Mountain College. He planned for us to visit Barber’s on our way.
After three and half hours of vintage motorcycle gluttony we needed real food, and the clerk at the local CVS recommended Rusty’s Bar-B-Q. It was the real deal he told us.
I wanted ribs, but we had plans to eat ribs that night after driving to Memphis, so I got the pulled pork sandwich instead. Rusty’s mom took our order. I told her about our plan to drive to Memphis for ribs later that evening. Momma Rusty, as I called her, said her son’s ribs could not be beat by any ribs in Tennessee, so in addition to my sandwich she gave me two free ribs to try. Thank you, Momma Rusty!
Momma Rusty described the four available sauces that I could put on the ribs. Though I am not a religious man, there are some sins that I prefer not to commit. I ate the ribs without sauce just the way Rusty smoked them. Tender would be an understatement. The meat fell from the bone as easily as David summoned Bathsheba. And this is what separated Rusty’s ribs from ribs at Charles Vergo's Rendezvous restaurant near Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. (Unfortunately I don't have a picture of Rusty's ribs.)
The Rendezvous restaurant has been near Beale Street for more than 60 years and has grown in size – multiple expansive levels – and reputation. Vergo’s ribs were the dry rub variety, which tend to be my favorite. They were advertised as the best in Memphis. The flavor was fantastic, packing a rich zest that punched through the smoke.
However, Vergo’s ribs were not as tender as Rusty’s ribs. And Rusty’s had a hint more of smoky goodness. Rusty's win at tenderness and smoke. Rendezvous's win at taste.
The potato salads were different, too. Rusty’s potato salad seemed plain at first, and I was initially disappointed. It was just light on flavor. But then I put a small amount of Rusty’s sweet barbecue sauce on top, and that potato salad turned into one of the best I ever had eaten. Rendezvous’s potato salad, on the other hand, was perfectly tasty from the start with no additions. My favorite of the two simply because all I had to do was eat it.
The biggest difference between Rusty’s Bar-B-Q and Rendezvous was the dinning experience. Rusty’s was small, quiet and felt like home. Rendezvous was crowded and loud; it felt like the place to be for a night of good barbecue and drinks. Both are perfect for different occasions.