Friday, March 30, 2012

Nashville, Tennessee

No one understood why we were going to drive thirteen hours to Nashville and once we got there no one down there understood why we came.  We didn't even really know ourselves until Annette suggested it as a cheap place to road trip to and a recent article in Bon Apetit pegged it as the new "it" food city of the South.  The promise of fried chicken, BBQ and cheap eats pretty much sealed the deal. 
I've never been to the South but have always been curious. I've always wanted to sip sweet tea on a wrap around porch, drive a pick up down a dusty road and line dance with cowboys. Don't ask me why but I find the whole concept so incredibly romantic.
I wanted to experience what you see on TV; happy Southerners in hairnets slopping spoonfuls of macaroni and cheese, creamed corn and cold slaw onto a plate of really crispy fried chicken in a family run shack that might not be the cleanest place to eat but it's where the locals eat.

I never did make it to any old school cafeterias like Arnold's Country Kitchen or Monell's Dining and Catering but where I did go, was worth the treacherous drive through Ohio.

My mother asked what was the best thing I ate?  There's no answer.  The best part of the food scene in Nashville is how different it is from Toronto or New York.  The tacos were not the best I've ever had, the pulled pork wasn't the juiciest, the BBQ wasn't the most tender but it was the experience of eating those things that was the best I have ever had.  From tacos in some shack with bars on the windows that barely even resembles a restaurant to BBQ that's cut up to order by a large sweaty black man in a dirty apron and a cheerful Southern accent; every meal had character, it had a story.  There's a culture and a history down there that is just different from what we know up here.

The BBQ sauce is thicker, sweeter and darker in colour (they add molasses), the macaroni and cheese is creamier and the chicken is crispier than anything you can get in Toronto.  Pickles are everywhere and commonly fried as are the green tomatoes, green beans and okra.  Tea is preferred unsweetened and pies are a serious business with some establishments having a "pie lady" on site selling her treasured slices separate from the rest of the menu.  Corn bread is king and if you are lucky enough to find the kind that's flecked with jalapeno or pimento, you've hit the jackpot.
Nashville's food scene is colourful, vibrant and alive.  This city far exceeded my expectations.  I didn't come home with any cowboy boots but what I did come home with was a thirst for more.  More music, more whiskey and more importantly more of this incredibly humble yet impressive hospitality.

Merchants, downtown Nashville
Located in one of Nashville's historic buildings (est. 1892) this was our "fanciest" meal.  Cool cocktails, cute little devilled eggs on sliced pickles and a fried mahi mahi fish taco with creamy cole slaw, fresh lime and cilantro.  It was a great no brainer dinner after a long drive.

Prince's Hot Chicken, East Nashville

Hot chicken is a dish native to Nashville.  You will not find it in any other city in Tennessee and there are only a few places that make it.  The two most popular are Prince's and Bolton's.  Like the Terroni vs. Libretto thing in Toronto, many argue about which one is the best.  I followed Bon Apetit to Prince's and was happy as a clam.  Located in a run down strip mall in a part of town we were advised not to venture to at night, this chicken shack is so busy it is not uncommon to wait an hour for your chicken.  We waited fifteen.  Hot chicken is fried chicken with a ton of spices; mainly cayenne.  It comes mild to extra hot but we were warned to not be a hero and go mild.  Apparently some dumb white guy tried to be tough and ordered the extra hot and didn't show up to work for three days.  This place is a dump and anything except lemonade comes from a vending machine but they sure do know how to crisp a bird.  The chicken is fire red and so greasy they serve it on two pieces of white Wonder Bread to soak up the juices.  It's finished with two slices of pickle and a plastic fork.  The spice is a creeper but it's mellow.  It's hot don't get me wrong but you could get the flavour despite the heat.  The skin was the piece de resistance.  Picture the crispiest skin you have ever times that by one hundred.  This skin was like a potato chip.  I think at one point I had to remind myself to eat the meat not just the skin.  You know you're in the right place, when you are the only white people in the joint.

Urban Flats Flatbread Co., The Gulch
The Gulch in Nashville is a trendy, upscale new area under serious development.  It's akin to our Liberty Village and proof that Nashville is not all about grits and BBQ.  Urban Flats bakes their whole wheat flat bread pizza in a stone-hearth oven.  The toppings are high quality and more unusual than your common pizza players.  Think steak, lobster, Cajun shrimp, etc.  My Italian sausage, pesto and caramelized onion with fresh sage did wonders in curing my honky tonking hangover.  The jumbo Bloody Mary and the handsome waiter calling me darlin the whole time didn't hurt either.

Puckett's Grocery and Restaurant
This family run restaurant has been serving Southern cuisine since the 1950's and is a great spot for a quaint country style lunch in the uber picturesque town of Franklin (30 mins south of Nashville).  Meat and three (you choose one meat i.e pulled pork, ribs or brisket and three sides) is just $9.99 and I had to try the fried green tomatoes - just because.  Their corn bread comes in the form of a pancake and includes the "jackpot" of peppers.

Mas Tacos Por Favor, East Nashville
Food truck turned taco shack is home to Mas Tacos where for $3 you get a gourmet taco.  I was intrigued by the sweet potato and quinoa taco but couldn't resist the fish as they only serve fish tacos on Fridays and this was a Friday.  Fillets of tilapia were lightly battered, crispy and grease free.  Fresh, shaved red cabbage, onion, cilantro, lime and a mildly spicy dill yogurt sauce.  Their cast iron chicken and salsa verde taco was shreds of extremely moist white meat and a generous slathering of green sauce.  It's as cute as a button inside with its' Mexicana decor but with a long ride home we ate ours in the car.  A great departure snack.