Barbecue is more than food. It’s an involved process and a serious business in Memphis, Tenn. I was raised in St. Louis–where we know a little something about good barbecue–and visit Kansas City frequently, another great American grilling city. My dad’s Fourth of July ribs were a labor of love and it came through in the flavor. I’d choose a good pork steak over a ribeye any day of the week. It wasn’t a stretch, then, to make the trip in May to Memphis for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. While in town, we also wanted to try a couple of barbecue restaurants.
|In headline: The Hernando DeSoto Bridge spans the Mississippi River in Memphis. Vasha Hunt photo
Above: The original location on Jefferson in Memphis for Neely’s Barbecue is a great stop for a filling meal. Deborah Reinhardt photo
We chose the original Neeley’s Barbecue (670 Jefferson) for lunch upon arriving in Memphis. As a fan of Pat and Gina Neely’s Food Network show, Down Home with the Neelys, I wanted to try the barbecue that launched an empire. Although it was my first visit, I had a sense of coming home. Maybe it was the combination of comfort food, friendly service and an unassuming atmosphere that says everybody’s welcome.
Close to the Bone
Meat close to the bone will be the most tender and succulent. Likewise, a family owned business will often have the best stories. In 1988, four Neely brothers–Gaelin, Tony, Mark and Patrick–launched their barbecue business in Memphis. Good barbecue and hard work led to a second Memphis location (5700 Mount Moriah) in 1992, and the business expanded with a third location in Nashville in 2001. Pat and his wife Gina Neely debuted their Food Network show in 2008 and released the first cookbook in 2009. Quite an empire that came from a simple barbecue joint in downtown Memphis.
We stopped in Neely’s Jefferson location near the tail end of the lunch hour. I was a little surprised at the sparse crowd there–it was, afterall, Memphis in May–but it was a good mix of tourists and locals, including two of Memphis’ finest. I always think policemen have the inside scoop on a town’s good eateries. They were right in this case.
The menu is all about the meat: ribs, pork, beef, sausage, turkey and chicken. There’s a small selection of appetizers, including barbecue salad (a mixed salad topped with a choice of turkey, beef or pork), but let’s just skip to the main event: grilled meat and sauce.
I chose the pulled pork platter that came with two sides and fresh rolls. The pork shoulder was smoked just right and the shredded meat was dressed in a sweet and tangy sauce that complimented–without drowning–the pork. Paired with mac ‘n’ cheese and fresh green beans (the way mom made them with bacon), this lunch satisfied me until I made it to Beale Street for the evening’s entertainment.
My husband–a rib guy–tried the rib tip platter. It’s on the menu for “big eaters only” and while the menu notes the dinner includes three pounds of meat, the amount–while certainly substantial–seemed shy of three pounds. Like the pulled pork, the rib tips were smoked to rosy perfection but were heavily sauced, falling into the too-much-of-a-good thing category. The rib tips were paired with cole slaw and a side of cheesy broccoli, plus buttery rolls. We took leftovers back to the hotel for the post-Beale binge.
For dessert, which also went back to the hotel, you can’t miss with the Sock it to Me Cake, a yellow, moist cake with a brown sugar, pecan and cinnamon filling, topped with a sweet but light glaze. Get the recipe at http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/neelys/mama-neelys-sock-it-to-me-cake-recipe/index.html.
Our server was polite and efficient, happy to keep our sweet teas refilled. In all, lunch at Neely’s was a perfect beginning to our weekend of barbecue, baseball and the blues. Make the pilgrimage to this barbecue mecca on your next trip to Memphis.
Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of “AAA Southern Traveler.”