Feb 10, 2021

Neon Pig shines bright in Tupelo, Miss.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, my travels have, with good reason, been much more limited.  The only exceptions I made in 2020 were to places near and familiar, and even then trips were made with an acute awareness of local health protocols.  In a roundabout way, this provides a reason for why Punky and I found ourselves in Tupelo, Miss., one night last November.  We were returning home from New Orleans, and I had insisted on driving back the “old way” my grandmother used to take (she was never fond of the four-lane highway).  Tupelo seems like a logical place to stay for a night to break up the trip.  

While in Tupelo, I had every intention of finding a fun local barbecue or soul food restaurant for dinner.  But the one I had in mind was surprisingly closed by the time we got there.  Fortunately, Punky has become an expert at advance scouting travel destinations in her own right and suggested the Neon Pig Cafe.  It turned out to be a great call in every way.

The Neon Pig may itself sound like a barbecue joint, but it’s really an odd amalgam of things.  Located in an otherwise unassuming strip mall on the northern edge of Tupelo, it’s one part diner, one part butcher shop, one part specialty foods store, and (allegedly) home of the “Best Burger in America.”  Who voted it the best remains unclear to me, but it was enough of a sell to pique Punky’s interest. 

Upon stepping inside, the first thing you might notice, especially if your nose is working like it should, is the grill.  It certainly looks the part for making the best burger in America. 

Directly in the back of the store, you’ll see where everything that sizzles so well on the aforementioned grill comes from.  The meat market here is legit, with its product coming from local farms.  The display case is immaculate.    

The tables at the Neon Pig are somewhat scattered between two rooms.  Some high-tops share a space with the store’s impressive craft beer selection. 

Punky and I decided to sit in the same room as the grill and the meat counter, at a table near the front that afforded us a view not only to the outside but to a majority of the restaurant.  

With the grill sizzling on standby, the hard part became deciding what to order, at least for me anyway.  Punky had already sold herself on a burger.  Now she just had to pick which one.  I was more tempted by the other sandwiches and wraps on the menu.  It was a good variety.   

A handful of plated entrees and leaner options seemed to further showcase the Neon Pig’s emphasis on showcasing the variety of quality products nearby, as well as the restaurant’s natural Southern flair. 

Since all sides had to be ordered separately (no combo meals here), it was easy for Punky to talk me into sharing a basket of loaded fries.  And loaded is exactly how they came, overflowing with bacon, green onions and parmesan cheese.  The house-made jerk sauce for dipping seemed an odd match at first, but it turned out to be so good, we didn’t leave before purchasing some to take home with us.  It was the perfect combo of sweet, hot and savory. 

As for Punky’s burger, instead of the signature smash burger, she opted to try Neon Pig’s America burger instead.  I think she figured it would be easier for comparison purposes.  As the bun toppling over indicates, it was quite the mouthful.  Juices were still dripping off the beef brisket ground patty upon arrival, and the cheese had completely melted onto the meat. 

Punky’s verdict was swift.  If it wasn’t the best burger she had ever eaten, she said it was awfully close.  She’s the type of person who will even order a cheeseburger for breakfast given the opportunity, so I trust her opinion.  When I finally got my one bite to taste, I had to agree.  The combination of all the fresh cold ingredients (including pickled onions!) with the superior beef brisket patty covered with cheese was exceptional.     

I must have still had New Orleans on my mind when I chose the shrimp BLT, but I have to admit that I enjoy a good BLT almost as much as Punky loves her cheeseburgers.  And Neon Pig’s didn’t skimp on the shrimp or the bacon, both of which were sizzled to perfection.    

The thing that really brought the sandwich together, though, was the Neon Pig’s house-made remoulade sauce (or comeback cause, as they prefer) – just the right amount to taste it in every bite, but not too much to overpower the rest of the ingredients. 

Looking back, our stop at the Neon Pig Cafe confirms that sometimes the best places you find on road trips are happy accidents, or at the minimum charming coincidences.  In a town that’s perhaps most famous for being the birthplace of Elvis Presley, Neon Pig gives you another reason to come to Tupelo, Miss., that doesn’t involve “the King.”  

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