When considering your daily lunch options with your co-workers, I'm willing to wager that the words "Let's go to Donelson for lunch" have rarely, if ever, passed your lips, unless you already live or work there. Even those who will readily trek across the river for a meal at one of East Nashville's lauded establishments are hesitant to go farther east, perhaps for fear of falling off the face of the earth.
Frankly, those words never passed my lips either. But then I heard rumblings about that little neighborhood by the airport, and I'm not just talking about the chatter in the Hip Donelson Facebook group. Guy Fieri recently hit Donelson mainstay Phat Bites — which opened up a satellite location, the aptly named 2 Phat, earlier this year — for his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show. Earlier this fall, beloved food truck Riffs Fine Street Food opened their first brick-and-mortar in the Highland Ridge corporate park off Elm Hill Pike.
Maybe it was the east side/west side rivalry, or maybe we're just pissed that Guy Fieri scooped us, but either way, one thing was certain: It was time to go to Donelson for lunch.
I grabbed a Donelson resident to navigate, and after making sure everybody went to the bathroom, we hopped in the car and headed east. With steady midday traffic, it took about 15 minutes to get from downtown to Phat Bites.
The graffiti-emblazoned restaurant, on Allen Road near the intersection of Donelson Pike and Elm Hill Pike, is owned by Julie Buhler, a former personal chef for Dolly Parton. Buhler got her start as a restaurateur in 1999 when she bought Ellendale's, also in Donelson. She opened Phat Bites two years later.
Phat Bites was packed when we arrived, but the line moved quickly, and most patrons elect to grab and go. We stood in line pondering the vast array of menu options, including Phat Balls, Dank Pot Pie, Chicken à la Snug and the Morphine Wrap. In case you haven't figured it out, this place has a total retro stoner vibe — thrift store furniture, kitschy art and random oddities, including a suit of knight's armor in the corner. Basically, anyone on staff could have been an extra in That '70s Show or Dazed and Confused.
The girl behind the counter recommended the Big Jerk ($6.50) — sliced jerk pork tenderloin, jack cheese and caramelized onions on a yeast roll. (Phat Bites' bread is prepared at Ellendale's.) It's served as two sandwiches, bigger than sliders, but not quite as large as a regular burger, and while it was tasty — the bread was particularly wonderful — it didn't pack much of a punch until you added the side of sweet, slightly spicy remoulade. It was also more of a medium-size jerk, paltry in comparison to our other entrée, the vegan Black Bean Burger ($6).
The burger, a patty of black beans, sweet potatoes and cashews dressed with lettuce, tomato, shredded carrots and hummus on focaccia, is a vegan burger even Ron Swanson could love. Seriously, it could convert the staunchest carnivore, and it's definitely a fork burger — I have no idea how anyone could pick up this monstrous sandwich without making a gigantic mess. The burger is spicy and flavorful and the focaccia phenomenal, perfectly toasted yet soft when you sink your teeth in.
We also tried a lighter option, a combo plate of three salads ($6.50) including a sweet potato dish, a Mediterranean couscous and a five-bean salad with kale, dried cranberries, walnuts and quinoa. All were outstanding, especially the bean and kale salad, which had a hint of citrus that tasted a bit like key lime.
The staff, though friendly, was a bit dazed and confused when we asked questions about the food. We asked three different employees what gave the bean and kale salad its citrus kick, and nobody could give us a firm answer, leading us to wonder if they're really good at keeping their culinary secrets or just completely clueless. One employee even said that if we gave him a few minutes, he'd go find out, but he never returned. Well, he might not have returned, but we definitely will.
The following day, we headed back to Donelson to check out 2 Phat. After driving aimlessly for several minutes around the Donelson Corporate Center complex off Lebanon Pike, the friendly folks in an outdoor smoking section directed us to the lower level of one of the buildings.
Like Phat Bites, 2 Phat has a slightly throwback feel, with a black-and-white checkered floor and slightly worn furnishings, akin to a no-frills lunch spot in a student union. There's no outdoor sign other than metal letters spelling out "CAFE," a likely remnant from whatever the previous tenant was.
The menu is nearly identical to Phat Bites, and the friendly guy behind the counter recommended the Hummus Envy ($7.50), though he warned us they were already out of pita chips that day. Thus our giant pile of two different kinds of hummus, goat cheese, pesto, olives, pico and balsamic reduction was served on soft pieces of pita bread, which was actually quite good, although the chips would have held up better to the tower of toppings. We tried the sweet chili and the curry hummus varieties, and favored the former, as the curry was a bit too intense.
We ordered the spot's most popular wrap, The Ninja Bomb ($6), a healthy yet hearty mix of Chinese chicken salad, lettuce, shredded carrots, sunflower seeds, raspberry vinaigrette and granola. The granola added an unexpected sweetness and satisfying crunch to the savory chicken salad.
We also tried the Hot Affair ($6.50), a gut buster of steak, bacon, smoked cheddar, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, Dijon mustard and Italian vinaigrette on that fantastic focaccia bread. It was delicious, but a bit heavy for lunch, especially if you've already been snacking on the Hummus Envy. Overall, like Phat Bites, 2 Phat offers a fast bite — and a damn good one — at a fair price — but with zero visibility, you have to wonder if 2 Phat could stay open without the captive audience from the surrounding commercial complex.
For our final Donelson field trip, we hit the recently opened Riffs Cafe at Highland Ridge off Elm Hill Pike. The cafe has minimal seating, with a few booths and tables scattered throughout the room, and like Phat Bites and 2 Phat, the majority of the diners were picking up takeout. The line moves quickly and efficiently, even though the staff takes time to answer any questions you might have about the staples or the specials, including the ever-rotating dessert case of iniquity (more on that later).
We ordered a medium-rare Top Hat Burger ($8), which is dressed up with a bacon and onion hash, tomato, American cheese and Riffs sauce on a house white bun. We held the lettuce; apparently, my lunch companion doesn't like to complicate his burger with greenery. (How Ron Swanson of him.) He also insisted we order the Midas Fries as our side. The twice-fried Yukon Gold potatoes — perfectly crispy on the outside, pillowy on the inside — were the perfect complement to this solid burger.
We also sampled the two soup options ($3), miso and creamy tomato basil. The miso was a bit salty for my taste — and I like salt — but the tomato was rich and creamy, and I wanted to dip everything on the table in it, including the fantastic pulled pork banh mi ($8). The sandwich, a Riffs specialty, is filled with tender meat, crisp carrot slaw, cucumbers, pickled tomato and Baconnaise on a soft baguette bread.
Obviously, we needed another entrée, and since the table was already starting to resemble a United Nations meeting, we added the excellent Korean BBQ Tacos — a tangy, messy mix of pork, crisp slaw, ginger scallion and spicy mayonnaise — which we paired with the incredibly soft and tender collared greens.
You'd think we'd be bursting at the seams at this point, but we couldn't resist the spread of goodies from Riffs' magician of a pastry chef, Audra Dykes. Eschewing any self-restraint, we got the Sweet Potato Donut Muffin ($2.50), Vanilla Bean Moon Pie ($2.50), Riffs Bar ($2.50), Sweet Potato Pretzel Pie ($3) and Swiss Roll ($3).
I swear I'm not exaggerating when I say all of these desserts were phenomenal, and Dykes deserves praise for her imaginative riff (ahem) on old-school sweets. One bite of her Moon Pie will sway anyone who avoids the original because it tastes like cardboard. (Sorry, but it does.) I didn't think it was possible to improve a Little Debbie Swiss Cake Roll — I'd still trade anything in my lunchbox for one — but Dykes' interpretation, drenched in Olive & Sinclair chocolate and topped with sea salt, is hands-down one of the best desserts I've ever had.
Another best-of contender is Dykes' Riffs Bar, a salty, crumbly peanut butter bar coated in chocolate and topped with pretzel bits. All of this was washed down with an exceptional cappuccino, brewed with Intelligentsia espresso beans. (Riffs owner B.J. Lofback told us he was going to make the best cappuccino in town or die trying.)
So will people drive out to Donelson for lunch? I don't know about the rest of you, but I'll be back. (McNamara's, you're next on my list!) Let me know if you want to carpool.