Sunday, April 12, 2009
Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q in Memphis, TN
Even if you haven’t heard of Interstate Bar-B-Q, you probably have heard of the Neely Family or seen the Neelys on the Food Network and the Travel Channel. It all started with Jim Neely in 1972 at Interstate Barbecue. A successful insurance agency owner, Jim bought a grocery store in a bad neighborhood and transformed it into a barbecue institution. Over the years, his nephews started Neely’s Barbecue in Memphis and Nashville Tennessee, and he opened Jay Bee’s BBQ in California. Then nephew Pat and his wife Gina (Neely’s Bar-B-Que) got a TV show “Down Home with the Neelys” and the family name became nationally known.
But it all started at Interstate Bar-B-Q, and that’s the first place we headed on our tour of Memphis.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I had planned on doing Neely’s on the second day, but let’s just say JP and I had a little fun when we first arrived in Memphis. Here are two pieces of free advice:
1. Cozy Corner is located at 745 N. Parkway, not 745 S. Parkway. JP and I drove around for an hour trying to find Cozy Corner at the latter. If you have seen the scene in Vacation where Chevy Chase pulls up for directions in St. Louis, you have an idea of how we felt at the mythical 745 S. Parkway location.
2. Cozy Corner and Payne’s are closed on Mondays. It’s quite frustrating when you drive around for an hour risking your life at the wrong location, only to arrive at the right address and find it closed. It’s downright crushing to drive another twenty minutes or so to another location to find it closed as well. Live and learn.
When we pulled up to Interstate, I could have eaten the ass end of a rhino. Luckily they were serving delicious, delicious barbecue, so I was spared that experience.
Interstate is what barbecue should be about. Pickups and BMWs in the parking lot is always a good sign. Not to wax sentimental on you, but one of the great things about barbecue is that it brings people from all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds together. My nose welcomed the smell of pork barbecue, and we quickly sat down and placed our order of pork sandwiches, ribs and Interstate’s original, barbecue spaghetti.
The walls are adorned with pictures of celebrities and local civic leaders. We saw blues legends like BB King and Bobby “Blue” Bland, Mike Tyson (pre-facial tattoo) and our favorite M.C.Hammer.
The food came out and I was in heaven. The ribs are served wet, which isn’t a bad thing considering how good Jim Neely’s sauce is. While they were a little tough, they had a great flavor. The BBQ Spaghetti is an acquired taste, with probably a little too much sauce for the average person. But you have to try it, because it’s on the menu.
The star of the show is the pork sandwich, which comes with sauce and slaw on it. I can’t describe how good the combination of the smoky meat, slightly sweet sauce and crunchy slaw tastes. It’s otherworldly. It’s also pretty huge, so brace your self.
After we ate, I awkwardly poked my way around in the serving area to talk with Jim Neely, hoping to get a photo. After talking for a minute, I hesitantly asked if I could see his pits (the ones he cooks meat on). To my surprise, he graciously spent the next 20 minutes showing me and JP around the back of his restaurant. He proudly showed us the pits he had built specifically for the restaurant. He has two inside and more outside. He showed us the new additions to the restaurant and talked in generalities about the secrets to his success…how his pits keep the moisture locked in with the vapors from the dripping grease.
For a barbecue geek like me, having a personal tour of Interstate led by the Godfather of Memphis Barbecue is about as good as it gets. I know. I’m a little off.
Interstate had the best pork sandwich of the tour. My mouth waters just thinking about it.