The original Neil's in Midtown was where I was introduced to the world of Madison Avenue dive bars as a college student in the late '90s. After I graduated I spent years during my mid-20s when I was there almost every Wednesday night for the drunken debauchery of karaoke led by Donna, an aging Arkansas lady endearingly known for her complete and total lack of any hint of tact or sophistication. I still have occasional nightmares about her singing the Pussy Cat Song. I also remember being there one night and seeing her riding around on some young guy's shoulders before they careened off the stage onto a table. I had moment of thinking, "Oh my God, I just saw Donna die during karaoke," before she got up off the floor.
It was a dirty, old smoke-filled bar where insulation from the grimy ceiling would occasionally fall into the $4 pitchers of Beast (Milwaukee's Best) Light that we bought because we were young and broke despite the mind-ending hangovers we knew they produced. A little over a year ago the place caught on fire and ended up being demolished after it was declared a total loss. Despite the amount of time I still spend in other Madison Avenue bars I hadn't been inside Neil's in nearly a decade, but I still hated to see Midtown lose a place I had so many memories of.
At the time of the fire I'd heard that Neil planned to rebuild. Instead he ended up reopening the bar in East Memphis in the former location of the Whole Hog Cafe. Since moving his bar to ritzier part of town he seems to be catering to an older crowd. When I stopped in Friday afternoon I asked if they still did karaoke and the bartender told me, "No, we don't want to be a college bar out here." The was a pretty decent crowd for the time of day. Based on the amount of University of Memphis gear I saw on customers I'd say most of the crowd consisted of people having a drink before heading Downtown to the FedExForum for the Memphis Madness kickoff to college basketball season. At the age of 34 I was definitely the youngest customer in the building. Even the draft beer selection had grown up; with Newcastle, Yuengling and two varieties of Ghost River replacing the Beast. There was still Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap for budget-minded drinkers.
But I wasn't at the new Neil's location looking for a bar experience. I was there because I had heard that since there were barbecue pits in the new building Neil had gone ahead and added barbecue to the menu.
When I arrived I sat at the bar. The only barbecue listed on the menu was a pulled pork sandwich. I'd heard the place had ribs so I asked about them but a bartender said they are only available occasionally as a special. Although there wasn't a barbecue plate on the menu but since the kitchen offers meat and three plate lunches the bartender said it was fine to just request pulled pork as a meat with three vegetable sides. They were out of baked beans so I got slaw, broccoli and cheese and hashbrown casserole.
Here in the South cheesy hashbrown casserole is a vegetable.
While I was waiting for my food I also ordered a pint of Newcastle, largely based on the novelty of being at Neil's in the daytime drinking a quality draft beer.
The pulled pork was okay but nothing special. I wouldn't make a special trip to eat it in the future, but if you are already there and craving barbecue go ahead and give it a try. There was a pretty big piece of unrendered fat in my order but it was a generous enough serving that there was still plenty of meat. The sauce tasted like a standard commercial offering from a grocery store.
The slaw was like someone couldn't decide between mayonnaise, mustard or vinegar-based so they just took shredded cabbage and doused it with copious amounts of all three. The cheese and broccoli was composed of steamed broccoli with nacho cheese sauce on it. It would have seemed better if it wasn't sharing a plate with the hashbrown casserole, which combined several types of shredded cheese onto perfectly cooked and seasoned crispy-on-the-outside potato pieces.
If I find myself back there in the future I wouldn't mind having a serving of that hashbrown casserole with one of the gigantic Neil's cheeseburgers. I remember them being impressive back at the old location and based on some of the reviews I've seen of the new place if doesn't look like that has changed. Neil's may be in a newer, cleaner location but it is still a pub not a barbecue joint So even if the barbecue didn't blow me away I can't really fault a pub for serving simple, honest pub food.
Anyone who used to hang out in the original Neil's location will recognize the old shuffleboard table that escaped the fire with relatively minimal damage.