On the way back from Greenwood, Mississippi, we stayed in Memphis. We arrived in downtown Memphis at 10 p.m. to find ourselves in a sea of Elvis impersonators. They were having a huge Elvis impersonator concert and contest. I'm not kidding. There were two Elvis impersonators checking in ahead of us at the Peabody Hotel. We were not there to see faux kings, we were there to eat barbecue.
In the name of research, because Bon Appétit had named Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous one of its three finalists in its search for the best baby back ribs in the country, and also because it was a two-minute walk from our hotel and it was too late to eat at someplace like Cozy Corner (the best all-around barbecue joint in Memphis), we had a couple of racks of Rendezvous Room ribs. Now I have eaten these ribs many times, and maybe at one point they were really good.
But last Saturday night the Rendezvous Room ribs were not even worthy of a top three designation in downtown Memphis, much less the nation.
The charcoal-grilled (not slow-smoked) ribs were dried out, had no porky flavor, and all you tasted was the tame dry rub that's made the Rendezvous Room famous.
If you are limiting your rib search to baby back ribs (which is kind of silly, because most of the great rib joints cook the bigger, fattier, old-fashioned spare ribs), there is no doubt that Mike Mills and 17th Street belong on the list. His baby backs are slightly crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, and are just smoky enough. The idea of including a fancy-pants restaurant like Jasper's in the ribs category seems kind of beside the point. Unless Bon Appétit wants to include the sliders served as a special at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York City in the hamburger category, shouldn't white tablecloth restaurants be ineligible for these awards? I mean, should a restaurant like Jasper's, which serves pan-seared mahi mahi with haricots verts tomato salad and white truffle whippers alongside its baby backs be able to win a rib joint award?
But besides 17th Street, who belongs in the baby back ribs finals? I have searched my rather extensive barbecue library, and I cannot come up with another contender in the obviously flawed baby back rib category. Mike Mills is the only truly great pit master I know who has made baby back ribs his specialty. Now, when it comes to regular pork ribs, I could come up with many, many candidates, and maybe that's why Bon Appétit decided to limit its search to baby back rib joints. It certainly makes it a lot easier.
So we need your help, and so does Bon Appétit, I think (at least for next year). Who should be considered for the baby back rib joint award?
17th Street Bar & Grill
Address: 32 North 17th Street, Murphysboro IL 62966 [map]
Also at: 2700 17th Street, Marion IL 62959; 618-998-1114
Notes: Mike Mills also operates three Las Vegas barbecue joints named Memphis Championship Barbecue. The man has a more complicated corporate structure than General Electric.