For a food that should be cooked as slowly and gently as possible at a low temperature, barbecue riles up a lot of fast talk and heated debate. Since Middle Tennessee is at the geographical crossroads of many different regional barbecue styles, the concept of a unique "Nashville Barbecue" tradition is difficult to wrap your hams around. In fact, The City Paper gathered some of the area's best barbecue minds to discuss just that and other porcine topics for this week's issue.
But those of us here at the Scene side of the SouthComm sty aren't necessarily as academic or sociological when it comes to Nashville's smoked meat culture. We just want to know where to find the best pits and joints — and what to order when we get there.
We're ecumenical in our love for the genre as fans of ribs (wet or dry, St. Louis, spare or baby back), smoked shoulder (pulled or chopped), sauce (sweet or spicy, tomato or vinegar, or even white), slaw (on top or on the side) and sides (with mac and cheese definitely counting as a vegetable). And "T for Texas — T for Tennessee" be praised, we're not above digging into a plate of brisket — as long as it's trimmed correctly, smoked until it develops a perfect purplish smoke ring and properly glazed with an appropriate sauce. That is to say, we don't eat that much brisket.
But when you're talking Tennessee barbecue, pork is king. As we begin our quest for Middle Tennessee's best, it's probably wise to lay out some criteria — within reason. We leave it to smokier-than-thou barbecue snobs to split hairs over whether the hickory wood of Cheatham versus Hickman County adds a certain "terroir." Those are the folks we'd like to whomp upside the head with rosewood-handled tongs, wrapped ever so neatly in last month's Garden & Gun.
No, we carnivores have only a few basic requirements. First, it's gotta have smoke. Smoke is to barbecue as steel guitar is to honky-tonk: Without it, you don't got it. Second, we like bark — the blackened, caramelized crust that only comes from slow, low roasting. Third, it should be moist and tender, not chewy from undercooking or stringy from overcooking.
Fourth, there's that X the unknown that adds color to flavor — a well-worn smoker that bespeaks dedication, a friendly staff or family-run operation, a robust roadhouse vibe, and of course, years in the game. Finally, as always in Middle Tennessee, Peg Leg Porker pitmaster Carey Bringle's maxim holds true: Sauce is boss. We loves our sauces.
But the swine still rules. Our favorite examples of Nashville barbecue revolve around pork the way pigs on a spit used to rotate over the open pits of Charlie Nickens' Jefferson Street hot spot in the 1970s. Along with Nick Varallo's and Jim Coursey's, these three apostrophed barbecue joints dominated local pit culture before synthesizers and electric smokers sucked the creativity out of Music City for many years. Multiple-location outlets with drive-thru windows and no discernible source of smoke became the norm by which Nashvillians judged their `cue — and frankly, we got what we deserved.
Fortunately, there has been a barbecue renaissance of late. New-breed pitmasters have returned to the concept of smoke and fire as the best way to turn common barnyard animals into succulent and savory repast. The proprietors of these restaurants recognize that every shoulder they cook and every sandwich they serve is the culmination of hundreds of years of low and slow artistry. From the barbacoa of Mexico to the roasted Kalua pork of Hawaii to the peppery Pee Dee pigs of South Carolina, masters of the craft know that pork cooked with wood over low heat is one of the most delicious gifts ever given to mankind.
Even though their styles and methods may vary — and there's still that brisket/no brisket controversy — this list of establishments represents some of the best of Middle Tennessee barbecue. Mad because we left off your favorite? Let us know what we missed. We want this to start your barbecue journey, not end it.
So gas up the car and refill that Lipitor prescription. It's time to hit the road for a tour of Middle Tennessee barbecue!
Just don't let anybody hear you using the word as a verb.