First off, let me offer you directions, so you can get a visual of what and where we're talking about, because if you haven't been to Peg Leg Porker, you're going to want to go. Driving north on 12th Avenue South into the Gulch, turn right at Music City Flats, pass Rumours, and turn left before you get to Yazoo, onto Overton Street. Wave at the Colt's Bolts factory, then turn right onto Gleaves. You'll notice on-street parking is bumper to bumper. Then you'll see why: a barbecue pit built into the patio of Peg Leg Porker and a chimney looming over patrons who've discovered that this industrial district is now an epicenter of food and drink.
Not to drop names, but on one lunch visit to Peg Leg Porker, I ran into Scott Atkinson, co-owner of Flyte World Dining & Wine. Remember 2006, when we all said he and business partner Scott Sears were nuts to explore molecular gastronomy nearby, at the corner of Eighth and Division? "No one will ever come to this address for dinner," we all said. (And we wonder why we are neither successful restaurateurs nor commercial real estate magnates.)
While we're remembering when, remember when Jimmy Carl's brought barbecue to the Gulch a few years back, at The Station Inn? Those guys were ahead of their time, bringing low-and-slow-cooked pork into the hustle and bustle of the gleaming new urban district. We who worked in the Gulch hated to see them go. For months after Jimmy Carl's closed, we daydreamed about hickory smoke wafting across the Scene parking lot.
But as they say, time heals all wounds. Or perhaps more precisely, barbecue abhors a vacuum. Because now we have Carey Bringle's Peg Leg Porker, which offers not only a concise roster of well-executed Southern pork and chicken, but also an oasis of lovable low culture in a rapidly evolving district of high rises.
Bringle is a Nashville boy with roots in West Tennessee — Graceland and thereabouts, where the term "ribs" means Rendezvous-style dry rub. Peg Leg Porker's signature is a 16-ingredient medley of warm red spices — low salt, no sugar — that gets applied after the pork ribs emerge from the smoker. Based on chili and paprika, the finishing rub is intended to mirror the flavors of barbecue sauce. It is a strategy that showcases the smoky meat, without losing it under a sticky lacquer of caramelized mopping sauce. When the rib meat is as tender and juicy as Peg Leg Porker's, clinging to the bone with just the right tenacity, there's no need to overshadow it.
For that matter, when it comes to sauce, Peg Leg Porker keeps it simple. There's just one red version, made with a traditional tomato base and blended with the rub, which adds a unique texture. Bringle recommends dipping the ribs in the sauce. (There's also a traditional Alabama white sauce for the chicken plates.)
Bringle's not sure, but he likes to consider himself the man who invented dry wings, a recipe he improvised by smoking and frying whole chicken wings, then dipping them in his proprietary rub. Significantly larger than the ubiquitous trimmed joints that populate menus from Kansas City to KFC, PLP's wings emerge sunburned from the fryer. They may have the gangly cartoonish proportions of rubber chickens, but they have delicate crisp skin that pops open to tender smoky meat.
The succinct menu includes sides of baked beans, crinkle fries, slaw, smoky green beans and mac-and-cheese. The velvety blend of cheese and pasta shells is so decadently creamy it had to be dreamed up by parents. (The Bringles have three kids.) Meanwhile, the $6 kids plate with slider and drink makes it clear that Peg Leg Porker is a family-friendly enterprise.
Unlike so much of Barbecue Nation, which is grounded in a country music aesthetic of barnwood and tin roofs, Bringle hearkens to the cinderblock buildings and blues soundtracks of his memories from West Tennessee. The kitsch-free decor is an honest collage of Bringle's own life, or, as he says, his "journey" to opening the restaurant. There are family photographs and portraits of grandparents. There's even a display case with one of Bringle's eponymous prostheses. (He lost his leg to bone cancer as a teenager.)
"It's part of our story," he says of the artificial leg. "We want you to walk in and feel like you're a part of our family."
It makes you wonder if the Bringles holler at each other a lot, because once you're in the building, you're fair game for the bellowing voices on the PA system. They'll call you by name when your order is ready, but they'll also call you out if you're not eating right — for example, if you have the audacity to ask for your pulled pork sandwich without slaw.
"Sandwiches come with sauce and slaw, unless you request otherwise," Bringle explains. "Of course, we will goad you over the microphone if you do." He's quite right to do so, as the creamy mayonnaise-based slaw is a cool complement to the bark-strewn strands of smoky pulled pork butt. Our one complaint about the pork sandwich was that the bun was slightly dry.
The microphone also announces fresh fried pies coming out of the hopper, like Radar O'Reilly announcing an incoming chopper. On our visit, we answered the call, flocking to the counter for a sweet encore of golden pastries stuffed with apples, peaches and molten chocolate.
Old-school barbecue tradition may guide the recipes at Peg Leg Porker, but new-fangled media plays a part too. In the decade leading up to the restaurant's launch, Bringle — aka Peg Leg Porker — actively participated in online dialogue about local food and barbecue, and he amassed a robust social media audience. This week, his thousands of followers will see photos of shelves lined with Peg Leg Porker Tennessee Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which debuted this month. At other times, they will receive the early word when Bringle cooks a whole hog. So if you want to be first in line when the next pig-picking rolls around, follow Peg Leg Porker on Twitter. Bringle will send you the time. We already gave you the directions.
Peg Leg Porker serves 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.