Yes, the Neelys of Interstate Barbecue have been on television. We've not seen them, but what brought us to their house of 'que was their reputation in print and on the net. It's well-deserved, worth a detour (as Michelin would say), and the fact that it's easy to get to from I-55 should endear it even more to drivers from St. Louis and surrounding areas.
The dining room is large – actually, there are three – and there's plenty of parking on both sides of the building. A separate door and drive-through for carry-out is a fine idea, moving that stream of people out of the way of dining room patrons. Decoration is, well, homey. One wall is family photographs of elegant ladies, cute children, grade school classes, a group on a cruise. The opposite wall is just as plastered with photos, this time of guests of note, lots of musicians, athletes, the inevitable politicians. Through it all are sprinkled fading magazine and newspaper clips about the glories of their pit.
The praise is accurate, worth the self-aggrandizement. Let us first laud the sauce. Tomato-based, some of its sharpness from acidity, some from a mild-to-moderate degree of heat in the spicing. Yes, a touch of sweet as well. In various permutations, it appeared on almost everything we ate without becoming boring.
When we ordered the chopped pork sandwich, the young server said, “You want slaw on that?” Such a question, of course, is a hint to the newcomer. It means, “Welcome to Memphis," and, "Most of our regulars take it this way and you might like it, too.” And so we said yes. The sandwich, described as large, was exactly that. The chopped coleslaw with a creamy dressing sat on the bottom of the bun, the meat, tender, rich and deliciously smoky above that, the splendid sauce splashed on top. The bun, by the way, had been toasted, a graceful touch. But we cannot imagine anyone picking it up and managing more than a few bites before the contents came cascading down the front of a T-shirt or tie. (Diners displayed both.) No, this is a sandwich for a fork; the tenderness of the components make knives practically superfluous. We don't think we're converted to slaw on all our barbecue, but it worked well here.
We haven't found rib tips as a major menu item at barbecue places outside of St. Louis, but here they were. The serving was generous, six large pieces, neatly separated. Lots of crisp outside, and the meat was moist and tender. Plenty of gristle, as occurs with tips, but easily worked around. Like the pork, the hickory smoke was apparent. Our only quibble was that there was more grease floating on the plate than we've seen from the Neelys' St. Louis peers.
We also tried a hot dog, which arrived dipped in the ethereal sauce after it had been grilled until the skin was almost crisp, the smoke making things even richer. The cheapest item on the menu, at less than $2, it was juicy and flavorful, and we could have had slaw on that, too.
The other members of the holy trinity of barbecue sides also were present. Potato salad was dressed with a mustard-mayo combination, slightly sharp but mostly cool and creamy, and the spuds hadn't been cooked to falling apart-ness. The beans – ah, the beans-- were seasoned with more of that great sauce, enlivened by shreds of pork here and there, and the sauce further enriched with a slug of molasses. Divine beans. (The third member? Coleslaw, discussed above.)
We had a few onion rings, which arrived crisp, crunchy, and clearly fresh out of the oil. The breading was thick, but it was tasty, and the onions in manageable-sized rings. And there was a regional dish, barbecue spaghetti, the pasta topped with lots of sauce, of course, and laced with shreds and small bits of 'cue. This was so good we can forgive the fact that the texture of the pasta indicated it could have been prepared by Chef Boy-Ar-Dee himself. Comfort food, indeed, and delightfully spicy, too.
While there are a few signs of fame hanging heavy, like the one that says menus are for sale for $5, this is the sort of place that hosts groups of folks in their hats and best suits with their own buffet line in the rear dining room, and young servers who smile, move quickly, and are eager to please. They're also casual enough to spell barbecue three different ways. Not that we care. And, perhaps, thanks to being at the FedEx hub city, they overnight-ship their products.
One more thing, the sort of news we particularly like to share. It's really close to I-55. Take Exit 85 to U.S. 61, which is also called South Third Street. If you're coming from the north, you'll have to make a U-turn at a convenient point, because the exit will only allow you to go south. But once you accomplish the turn, it's only a couple of blocks from the interstate to the Interstate. Michelin would say it's worth a bigger detour than that.
2265 S. Third St., Memphis, TN
150 W. Stateline Rd., Southaven, MS
(which is also just off I-55)
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Very difficult
Sandwiches and Entrees: $2-$20