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MEMPHIS BBQ

Charlie Vargas' Rendezvous is a Memphis barbecue institution. The ribs and brisket shown here are just two of the dishes that have made the restaurant internationally famous.

One statement can be made about Memphis cuisine with a sense of definitive certainty: There's no shortage of restaurants serving the best barbecue in town.

Driving around the city, one will encounter a seemingly endless array of diners, dives and drive-ins, each touting their own savory sauced goods as the best around.

They've brought home awards and recognition from different contests, magazines and television programs; but, ultimately, the votes that matter come from their loyal patrons.

Ask the most avid of barbecue experts, and even they will be challenged to narrow down the options.

"I have a tough time putting a ‘This is my favorite place' on any restaurant because there are so many good ones," said Mike Mills, owner of 17th Street Bar and Grill and inductee of the National Barbecue Hall of Fame.

Some Memphis restaurants, including Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, have been long-standing institutions in the city, building a reputation through the last several decades.

But, Mills said people need to not discredit the smaller mom-and-pop restaurants, as well, as they're serving up dishes equally as tasteful and satisfying as their more corporate competition.

"There is more to barbecue than the big-name places," he said.

Diversity really is the glory of the Memphis barbecue scene. While the city's culinary offerings historically have been geared toward pork, a variety of unique dishes and traditional fares are also available.

Mark Dolan, an assistant professor of journalism at SIU Carbondale who operates the website BBQ Pilgrim (www.bbqpilgrim.com), said restaurant goers can find unique and special treats like lamb ribs at Rendezvous, barbecued Cornish hens at Cozy Corner Café and barbecue bologna.

The diversity isn't just limited to what's being barbecued, either. There are different philosophies on preparing meat (dry rub or wet sauce) and cooking methods (charcoal or wood). Each restaurateur's individual mentality creates a personalized experience for patrons.

"When it comes to barbecue, Memphis has really got an embarrassment of riches," Dolan said.

Once a year, the diversity expands even more. Barbecue cooking teams from across the globe descend on the city for the Memphis in May world championships.

The name Memphis in May actually represents a month-long celebration of the city, but it's become largely associated with the one-weekend cook-off, now in its 35th year.

Mills' first exposure to the competition came in 1990, when the Apple City Barbecue team from Murphysboro participated. The team would do so for the next three years, and Mills would pay tribute to the city when naming his Las Vegas restaurant, Memphis Championship Barbecue.

"Just the heritage and the feeling you get there," Mills said of being surrounded by some of the best barbecue cooks in the nation. "It's really an honor to be able to cook there."

Now, he continues to be involved on many levels, most notably enabling others to share the experience he had 20 years ago. Each September, 17th Street Bar and Grill hosts a barbecue cook-off in Murphysboro, with the winning team qualifying for Memphis in May.

But, do the local teams have a shot when going up against the best of the best? Mills seems to think so. Through the years, the Murphysboro contest has drawn out the best of the region, and the winners are all ready for the next step.

"If you can win this contest," he added, "you're capable of winning Memphis in May." 

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