I’ve driven past Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q plenty of times over the years, but I’ve never stopped there despite their great reputation. But after being impressed with the ribs at Jim’s son’s place, Ken Neely's Hickory Bar-B-Que, I knew it was time to try the restaurant that originally caused the Neely name to be associated with barbecue.
The cavernous restaurant is, unsurprisingly, just north of Interstate 55 on S. Third Street in South Memphis near Downtown. Third Street is what Highway 61 is called as it travels through Memphis. Highway 61 follows the Mississippi River from Minnesota all the way to New Orleans, LA. It is also known as the “Blues Highway” since its path along the river takes it directly through the Mississippi Delta as it travels from Memphis to New Orleans. The intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, MS, is the legendary crossroad where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his skill as a blues guitarist. The highway also intersects with Beale Street in Downtown Memphis and connects the city to the casinos located just to the south in Tunica County, MS.
Jim Neely opened his restaurant in the late ‘70s, well before the rebirth of Beale Street to the north as a cleaned-up tourist district. The success of the restaurant and the nearby revitalized Downtown area prompted the multiple expansions that brought Interstate to its current size. I saw a lot of out-of-state license plates in the parking lot, since a lot of the customers are tourists. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, like his son, Jim Neely gives his customers a very generous helping of barbecue for their money. The regular half-slab rib dinner was less than $10, and the pulled pork and rib combination dinner I ordered was only $14.50.
While that price is only $0.45 less than the meal I recently called overpriced at Blues City Cafe on Beale, it is important to compare the actual quantity of food. If you look at the pictures I included with the review of Blues City, you’ll see one plate with a little half-slab of ribs surrounded by fries, bread, beans and slaw. At Interstate, the same size plate is completely covered with meat while the sides are served separately. The outstanding barbecue sauce at Interstate gets most of its seasoning from herbs so it just seems naturally flavorful instead of the taste being dominated by sweetness, vinegar or heat like a lot of sauces. The same thing can be said about the thick, hearty baked beans that came with the dinner. The beans are an afterthought at a lot of barbecue restaurants, so it’s always nice to find somewhere that makes them stand out. The slaw was also well-balanced.
The pulled pork was extremely tender and juicy and the ribs were also fairly good, but both lacked flavor outside of what they were getting from the barbecue sauce. They were still good, since the sauce was so good, but after the complex, delicious taste of the dry ribs at Ken Neely’s little hole-in-the-wall carryout place, I’d come to his father’s restaurant with big expectations. Overall the pulled pork had a better taste and consistency than the ribs, and I’m sure it makes a great sandwich when paired with the crunchy slaw.
Another menu item that Interstate is famous for is their barbecue spaghetti. It’s found its way onto a lot of area menus these days, but Interstate is supposedly the place that made it a regional staple. It is also one of the cheaper items on the menu, along with barbecue nachos, which are also a common site at Memphis-area restaurants. I could actually save a lot of money on this quest if I stuck to cheaper carb and barbecue combinations instead of ordering such meat-heavy dishes, but my health and waistline would pay the price. There is a reason that there is such a strong correlation between poverty and obesity in our country. Real food is expensive, compared to junk like corn chips and pasta noodles that are subsidized by our government, but it’s usually well worth it in the long run. However, if you’re not from around Memphis and have never had barbecue spaghetti, the tasty regional curiosity is worth trying.