I’ve never been to Neely’s Bar-B-Que in Memphis, but I’ve visited Interstate Barbecue, an older place in the same city owned by Pat Neely’s uncle. It was there that the handsome and affable co-star of Down Home With the Neelys learned to smoke meats after he moved to Memphis from Detroit, according to Food Network lore. Guess what? The ‘cue at Interstate—two kinds of ribs, chopped brisket, sage sausage, and pulled pork, all of it gobbed with a thick, sweet sauce—was terrible.
Fast-forward nine years, and I’m squirming at the Showboat Casino in Atlantic City. In progress is a Neely-hosted event called Brews, Blues & BBQ, sponsored by the Food Network. ‘Cue is loaded into steel tubs with spirit flames underneath. Little cards next to the containers say Neely’s Barbecued Ribs, Neely’s Barbecued Spaghetti, and so forth. Resting in brackish water, the pork ribs have achieved a shade of medium gray that only a Navy ship-painting crew could love, and the so-called barbecued spaghetti is worse—overcooked pasta inundated with a cloying red sauce. Pat and wife Gina sit not 10 feet away, smooching for the cameras, as their adoring fans line up for autographs. How can they not care that the nearby food attributed to them so obviously sucks?
I had no faith that the products of the pit would be any better when I ascended into Neely’s Barbecue Parlor, a new spot at the corner of First Avenue and 62nd Street, boasting a line of outdoor tables that allow one to keep track of cars exiting the Queensboro Bridge. Inside, a stairway sweeps dramatically upward from the greeter’s podium, leading to a giant barroom, and beyond that, a quintet of dining rooms tricked out to resemble a Victorian dollhouse. The smaller ones have glass walls, permitting you to stare at families eating, like wax dummies in a diorama.
Here’s the shocker: Much of the food is good, despite hatred of the restaurant spewed by Yelpers and others. Perhaps that’s because the place is under the direction of Merchants NY, a chain that once specialized in cigar bars; the Neely name constitutes superficial branding. The app of shrimp and grits ($14.75) is irresistible, though not the spitting image of the Low Country Gullah classic (it modifies the recipe in a French manner with a thin, dark sauce, rather than the usual bacon fat–and-flour gravy). The same plaudits apply to the fried green tomatoes ($8.95), lightly crusted and mild tasting. There’s a nice iceberg wedge for a salad, plus some cornmeal-crusted catfish with a dab of Creole rémoulade; it might be the best thing on the menu.
Memphis barbecue is a curious tradition because it borrows techniques from Kansas City (“wet ribs” covered with sauce) and Texas (dry-rubbed with no sauce). The core of Neely’s menu is ribs, ribs, and more ribs, and you can pick either of the two approaches. For my money, the Kansas City examples were not sufficiently damp or tart, but the dry-rubbed spare ribs (half rack, $15.50 with one side) verged on great, enough to garner a B+ in Barbecue High School. Wandering a little off the Tennessee track, sliced brisket ($16.95) would have been excellent, if the pit master hadn’t begun the 12-hour smoking with a cut too unfatty.
One evening, a serving of rather runty beef ribs tasted reheated, so maybe consistency could be a problem here. But, in general, the quality of the ‘cue places Neely’s in the top 10 barbecue joints in town—below Hill Country, but above Dinosaur. Among other entrées—served with two sides instead of one—the beer-can chicken is pretty good, with a semi-crisp, herb-coated skin. The best non-BBQ entrée is the chicken-fried steak ($22.95), a massive, oblong skirt with a substantial fried coating just the right shade of yellow, with a tidal wave of thick white gravy coursing over it. The sides are better than you’d expect in a barbecue establishment, especially the mac and cheese and the coleslaw; skip “Gina’s collard greens,” which are too sour and bitter by a country mile.
With real Southern flare, the desserts tend to be fantastic, especially a Mississippi mud pie ($7) that looks like the aftermath of a flood on the big river, oozing pale custardy goo and rivulets of rich chocolate sauce.
In spite of the usual practice of chefs hanging around their start-ups during the opening months to supervise, on three visits to the Barbecue Parlor, the Neelys were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they realized that, to make their first New York restaurant a success, the best thing they could do, for once, was to stay out of the picture.