A perfect weekend getaway for me has lots of sightseeing, live music, and of course a well planned out survey of local foods. Nashville has always been on my list because I am a big country music fan, and in the back of my mind I knew there would be plenty of interesting regional cuisine. So I took advantage of a recent lull in my busy season at work to jet off for a long weekend and do some rest and relaxation. Plus lots of eating.
Top items on my food agenda were Nashville hot chicken and barbecue. If you haven’t already heard of it (or seen the atrocious looking KFC copycat), Nashville hot chicken has a unique cayenne-based spicy sauce, and is typically served over a piece of bread with pickles attached. It is supposed to be very hot, and I have been priding myself on eating (and enjoying) spicier and spicier food these days.
It turns out that a location of Hattie B’s Hot Chicken was right around the corner from our hotel, so we headed over for an early lunch one day. There was already a long line by the time we got there, but plenty of seating inside and it moved quickly. Out of caution I ordered the medium spice, and another person I was with ordered the hot.
I’ve got to be honest – the chicken was not that spicy. I was a little bit disappointed in the spice level of both the medium and the hot (although there is a “very hot” version that might be worth trying). I still thought it was tasty, and an example of well executed fried chicken. My side of mac and cheese was delicious and creamy with a little pop of flavor from the pimentos, and I enjoyed everything else we tried here. But I can’t say that I got the burning hot experience I was hoping for.
I also really wanted to try some barbecue in the City, because I saw a lot of places offering wonderful options, especially Memphis style ribs (with a dry rub of seasoning). Two places looked particularly good – Peg Leg Porker and Martin’s BBQ. Because I am so indecisive, we ended up going to both places to see which was better.
I thought Peg Leg had the better meat overall, with a great smokiness cooked into everything and a nice tender bite. The ribs were excellent. I was equally blown away by the sides (a common theme in most of our Nashville trip actually), including some smoked green beans with little chunks of meat mixed in that were out of this world good.
However, Martin’s had a much more interesting menu. In addition to things like ribs and pulled pork and chicken, they also had brisket and sausage and hush puppies. I tried a “redneck taco” just because I thought the name was interesting – turns out it is a cornbread pancake topped with pulled pork, coleslaw, and hot sauce. It was terrific.
The final verdict is a slight edge to Peg Leg Porker in terms of classic BBQ considerations, but an honorable mention for Martin’s BBQ just because I enjoyed their menu so much. I was glad that we ended up trying both. And although it’s not pictured for these bbq places, I can’t recommend enough that you should get mac and cheese everywhere you go in this City – I don’t think we had a bad version once. Sides can often be a throwaway component at Albany restaurants, but they were surprisingly complex and high quality everywhere we went in Nashville.
We only had so many meals to plan out on this trip, and I gave one slot somewhat reluctantly to Arnold’s Country Kitchen. I saw this place on a lot of “must try” lists, and it appears to have some mild Food Network fame. When I skimmed through pictures online, it looked like a lot of basic options to me (things like roast beef, meatloaf, etc.). But I still felt compelled to try it out because we might only be in the City once, and it kept popping up in recommendations. Plus it is only open on weekdays for lunch, and we had just one day where we could make it work. So I felt like we should give it a shot.
Turns out this was my favorite thing we ate the whole weekend. It was the epitome of home style southern cooking that just tasted great without a lot of pretense. The ambiance is a bit odd – sort of cafeteria style where you go down the assembly line and pick out things you want. The classic order is “meat & 3,” where you choose from four or five meat options that rotate each day, plus three sides.
I opted for the roast beef with sides of corn pudding, cauliflower casserole, and mashed potatoes and gravy. The roast beef is carved for you on the ordering line, and it was incredibly juicy and tender with aggressive seasoning (almost to the brink of being over-salted, but not quite). The corn pudding was sweet and chunky, and the cauliflower casserole ended up being a cheesy rice mix with big chunks of vegetables. This plate of food (for just over $10!) disappeared in no time.
The other great thing about Arnold’s is that the cafeteria line starts out with desserts (as all meals should). It’s impossible to walk by the selection of pies without picking up a few pieces. We tried pecan (classic and lovely) as well as a chipotle chocolate pie that was excellent. The filling was a light chocolate custard with just a hint of spice in the background.
My main food takeaways from this brief Nashville trip are the following: don’t shy away from ordering hot or very hot if you want to try Nashville hot chicken, and definitely pencil in time for Arnold’s Country Kitchen if you are there midday on a weekday. Plus you should order lots of sides everywhere you go – they are often the unexpected star of the show.