When I found out that I was going to Nashville for the 2011 Summer NAMM show, my colleague Ian told me, "The first meal we have to go to is Neely's for barbecue." Well, that was certainly fine with me. Ian picked me up at the airport and we immediately went to Neely's, just north of the downtown Nashville area just off of Rosa Parks Blvd. (see map).
Neely's is a Memphis-based family-owned barbecue restaurant. After their father died, the five Neely brothers and their sister learned the art of slow-cooking barbecue from their uncle, Jim Neely, who ran his own barbecue joint in Memphis - Interstate Barbecue. After getting a $20,000 loan from their grandmother, four of the Neely brothers - Gaelin, Tony, Mark and Pat (below left) - opened their first restaurant in downtown Memphis in 1988. It was a small place with folding chairs and tables and only one barbecue pit. Through hard work and mostly word of mouth advertising, their business grew by leaps and bounds. In 1992, they opened a second location on the east side of Memphis that helped grow their business even more. In 2001, the Neely's expanded to the Nashville location and immediately became a favorite with the locals in Music City.
In the early 90's, Pat's fiancee, Gina, joined the brothers in the business. Pat and Gina (above right) were sweethearts in high school, but both married other people after they got out of school. However, both divorced their original spouses and hooked up again after running into each other at their 10 year high school reunion. Pat and Gina were married in the 1994 and are now the stars of the highly popular Food Network program, "Down Home with the Neely's." Earlier this year, Pat and Gina Neely partnered with New York City restaurateur Abraham Merchant - whose company, Merchant's Hospitality, oversees nine New York area restaurants - to open Neely's Barbecue Parlor on the upper east side of Manhattan. Compared to the other Neely restaurants, the New York City location is much more upscale and teeters on the edge of fine dining.
I was expecting to find something of a rib joint shack when Ian drove us to Neely's in Nashville. But I was sort of surprised to find a somewhat modern looking building in the midst of an office park called Waterfront Plaza. It's sort of tucked in a bit and you have to turn off of Rosa Parks Blvd. into a spacious parking lot and it's located right on the water of North Rhodes lake. There's a deck off the back of the restaurant that has a great view of the little lake. Part of the deck is covered for outdoor dining, but it was pretty hot and humid that evening so no one was seated outside.
Inside, it looks like any typical barbecue place - heavy on the wood floors and paneling, many lighted beer signs, checkered plastic tablecloths. There were pictures of Pat and Gina Neely with nearly every other Food Network show host who has visited their restaurants.
The menu at Neely's in Nashville is on the wall behind the cash register. You order first, get a number, then sit down at one of the tables. The waitresses will bring your food out to you. Being that it was my first visit to Neely's, I really didn't know what I wanted. They had barbecue sandwiches, Memphis-style ribs, rib tips, smoked turkey, Texas-chunk style brisket and pulled pork. They even have Barbecued Spaghetti - a combination of a marinara and barbecue sauce on top of spaghetti pasta and pulled pork. Ian immediately signed up for his favorite - beef ribs. He got a side of cole slaw and fries with his dinner.
I was sort of stuck between the pulled pork and the brisket, then I saw the sampler platter - brisket, smoked turkey, pulled pork, or pork ribs with two sides and bread. I ordered the sampler, along with a side of baked beans and macaroni and cheese. The lady behind the cash register said, "I hope you're hungry. That's a lot of food. Usually, two people will get that and split it." I figured that I could probably put a good sized dent into it, but wouldn't be able to eat it all.
The cooking line at Neely's is right out in the open. One of the cooks hollered at me, "This your first time at Neely's?" I told him it was for me, but my colleague had been there a few times before. "Get ready to get a taste delight," he hollered back.
We sat at a table in the middle of the dining area, but near the front counter. Being that we're both in the audio/video industry, Ian and I immediately noticed that the televisions Neely's were using were old tube style TV's with one rather large rear projection television up on a high shelf. The picture quality on all the televisions was pretty bad. Ian said, "I don't think people come here to watch television."
It was at that point in time that my wife called from back home to inform me that our air conditioner had gone out. We knew we were riding on borrowed time with both our furnace (over 25 years old) and A/C (over 20 years old) and the blower motor died on the furnace. It was 82 degrees in the house and rising. The A/C at our house had been working almost non-stop for quite sometime trying to keep up with a stretch of hot weather, including three days in a row where the overnight temperature didn't get any cooler than 78 degrees with humidity percentages in the upper 80's to lower 90's at night. I told her to shut the A/C off as it was beginning to frost up outside the house and see if she could get hold of any repair people to come over to take a look at the blower. She was stressing and I was feeling overly guilty that I was getting ready to have barbecue in Nashville while she was simmering in 100 degree heat back home.
It seemed to take an inordinate amount of time before our food finally made it to the table. Maybe I was focused on worrying about what was happening back in Iowa, but it was about 20 minutes from the time we ordered until the food showed up. And the girl behind the counter was right - my combination dinner WAS a lot of food (below left.) It was a generous helping of beef brisket, pulled pork, pork ribs and the pulled smoked turkey. All but the ribs had a sauce on the top, the ribs were cooked with Neely's own Memphis-style rub on them. They didn't bring any extra sauce so I went up and got a couple small 2 oz. tubs - one mild and the other hot. Quite honestly, they didn't add much to the taste of the meat and were a little weak.
The ribs, to me, were a little dry. Oh, they pulled off the bone fine and dandy, but I found them to be a little chewy. I concentrated on the pulled pork and brisket more, though. The pulled pork was juicy and tender, and had a very good flavor to it. The brisket wasn't the best I'd ever had, and I wasn't sure I liked it served in chunks rather than cut into slices like I normally have. The outside of the brisket chunks were tough to chew, but inside the meat was more tender. It tasted good, but not great. And the smoked turkey, I think I had one bite of that and it was OK. I'm not big on turkey or chicken that is smoked, then pulled apart.
The two sides were also plentiful (above right). The mac and cheese had a little bit of paprika mixed in with it and it helped zip up the taste a bit. But the baked beans were worth the price of admission. Many times, I have to add barbecue sauce to baked beans I have at other barbecue places, but Neely's baked beans were just great as they were. They featured large chunks of beef in with the beans and it had a thick and deep smoky taste to each bite I had. The beans at Neely's were simply outstanding.
Ian's beef ribs were meaty, juicy and plentiful (pictured left). He, too, knew that there would be no way he would be able to finish his whole meal, but he made a gallant effort in doing so. His cole slaw, he said, we pretty good. But the French fries were just basic fries and nothing that was extraordinary.
I think I left a little bit of everything on my plate before I finally decided that I'd had enough. Dents were made in each of the meats, save the turkey. I'm not a big fan of dry ribs and even with the mediocre sauce that Neely's provide, it didn't help the dryness of the meat. But the brisket was above average and the pulled pork was the best of all the meats I tried. The mac and cheese was good, but the beans were, well, like I said, outstanding. They were some of the best baked beans I've ever had in a barbecue restaurant.
Overall, I'd have to say that Neely's was good, but not worth the hype I've heard about the place. It was a little expensive - $45 bucks for our two dinners and three beers. My sampler platter alone was $22.95 and I was able to eat a little more than half of the food I was served. I was completely stuffed as we went out on the deck to watch the school of catfish swim around the turtles treading water just under the deck railing. Ian said that he'd had better meals at Neely's in the past, so it may have been an off night. One of these days, I want to go back to Memphis for a long weekend and check out the Neely's there. Maybe I'll get a better impression of the place.
(UPDATE - I've been informed that the Neely's have shut down this location as well as their Memphis locations.)