May 23, 2014

A pit stop at Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q, Memphis

I have plenty of blogging to get to related to my most recent road trip to New Orleans to check out the scene in between Jazz Fest weekends, and I might as well start with our first stop of note – lunch Saturday afternoon at Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q.

The Interstate Bar-B-Q is perhaps appropriately named because of its location less than a quarter of a mile north of Exit 7 on I-55 where U.S. Highway 61 crosses it.  That does NOT necessarily mean it’s easy to get to, because if you’re travelling south, you do not have the option of turning left onto North 61 as it follows 3rd Street through the south side of Memphis toward downtown.   It’s almost as if the highway engineers intentionally tried to steer you away from the ghetto and toward Mississippi where the casinos await an hour away in the Mississippi Delta.   

In spite of this engineering faux pas, the Interstate has attracted barbecue fans near and far since 1979 to this unpretentious location in the wrong part of town that once housed a grocery store.  By 1989, the grocery store part had folded to make room for the growing barbecue business. 

I think the reasons for the Interstate’s success are simple: Award-worthy (and award-winning) Memphis-style barbecue from a family-owned business, a specially built barbecue pit by Jim Neely himself for a one-of-a-kind flavor, an amazing proprietary tangy/slightly sweet sauce complementing the meats (usually served wet), and menu specialties like their barbecued spaghetti.    From word of mouth to features on the Travel Channel and Food Network, the Interstate has definitely cemented its own solid reputation among Memphis-style barbecue joints.  

I've been coming to the Interstate for almost 15 years, and it has always held a high spot on my all-time favorite places for barbecue.  In fact, I mentioned it in one of my earliest blog posts on the subject.  So, when my friends Ken and Don said they had never been there and were eager to try someplace new, I jumped at the chance to take them here. 

Trust me, once you get off I-55, you can’t miss it on the left side of the highway.  There are probably some very nice sports cars parked out front, and if the sight of the building screaming "great barbecue found here!" doesn't draw you in, the wafting flavors of smoky meat in the air will. 

As you sit in the main dining area, the Neely Family Wall reminds you of the family tradition behind the operation.  Another wall reminds you of all of the famous people who have eaten here or have had Interstate Bar-B-Q catered to them – from local heroes like Bobby “Blue” Bland to the POTUS himself, Barack Obama. 

The place also seems to do a decent carry-out business, as is evident by the counter near the kitchen area and the amount of traffic that goes through the drive-thru lane. 

But enough about the décor; the food is what you want to know about.

Look closely, and you can see the table slowly begin to tilt to the side.
On this visit, I chose the beef rib platter with an extra side of the spaghetti – because whenever you’re at the Interstate you must have a little barbecued spaghetti, if only to make sure your friends try it once.  By the way, see the above picture?  That’s considered a small platter.  The size of these ribs would make Fred Flintstone proud. 

The beef ribs were chewy, yet still moist enough for the meat to pull right off the bone.  The sauce over the ribs is an excellent complement to the hickory smoked flavor of the meat.  I gnawed voraciously on each juicy bone until I picked them clean.  Again, these are beef ribs, so I didn't expect the same tenderness as you’d have with pork.  Overall, it was a great carnivorous experience.     

This platter, by the way, was a mere $9.  The side of spaghetti was an extra $1.75.  The prices at the Interstate are affordable and, compared to other equally famous Memphis barbecue joints, downright cheap.  No matter what you order, you will get a lot for your money.

You may also notice in the distance of the picture the pulled pork sandwich combo Don chose for lunch.  To call the portions of meat on an Interstate sandwich generous is a gross understatement.  Reportedly, the slaw on top was the perfect final touch.  And considering how good I think the Interstate’s slaw is, I’d have to agree.  You’d be surprised how many barbecue places don’t devote the same amount of love into their side dishes as they do their meat.   Fortunately, at Interstate, I've always found their baked beans and cole slaw to be spot-on excellent. 

A final word about the spaghetti – it is probably not for everyone.  The sauce is spicier than I remembered or expected, but it’s good.  It almost tastes like a combination of traditional pasta sauce and the Interstate’s barbecue sauce.  The spaghetti also comes with shreds and shreds of pulled pork throughout the dish.  I like it, but your mileage may vary.   

The service is another area where Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q can be sketchy.  Maybe it's one of the pitfalls of being a family business, but some of the staff is not as attentive as they could be.  Other online reviews have commented on their downright rudeness; however I've never felt unwelcome there.  It’s something to be aware of, however, if you plan to give the place a try. 

But altogether, I still enjoy taking friends to the Interstate whenever the opportunity arises.  And I've yet to be disappointed.  It’s great barbecue, a good bargain, and a place worthy of its reputation among both legendary and relatively unknown Memphis barbecue treasures.       

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