Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Music City food scene through my eyes

The Kansas City Barbeque Society held the annual banquet outside of Kansas City for the first time ever. In addition to the banquet, there were several meetings scheduled around the event including the annual Rules meeting moderated by yours truly. Spending four days in Nashville gave me a little time to try out the culinary scene. Here are some of my stops.
My extensive research concluded that Fat Mo's was one of the best burgers in the Music City. So, after a quick stop at our hotel, it was on to the Merry Oaks location. I'm sure there are great burgers to be had, but unfortunately Fat Mo's wasn't one of them. Their burgers are big, but that doesn't make them great. The burger itself was dry and even though it started out as half a pound of meat according to the menu, the bun was bigger. The toppings and condiments were just the standard fare. They offered a couple burgers on the menu that weighed in at 16 & 27 ounces respectfully, but I couldn't see how those would represent honest burgers. Skip Fat Mo's and head for the Five Guys chain or any other of the many great restaurants in Nashville.

Friday evening was our schedule board meeting. This is typically the prime time for everyone to make dinner plans and socialize. We had to improvise, making our dinner plans on Thursday evening. It's been a banquet weekend tradition to dine at the Plaza III in Kansas City. There are several great choices for steakhouses in Nashville but after researching our choices, we landed on Sperry's in West Meade. It was confirmed to be a good choice by many of the locals. Sperry's is a classic steak house adorned with lots of wood, giving it a classic feel. When you enter the restaurant, you're greeted by a great old copper espresso machine. We made reservations, so were seated immediately. The dining room was about half full. Our table was located close to the two sided stone fireplace. It's the first four person table on the right in the photo above. They had several steaks on the menu and many other great choices without the choices being overwhelming. One typo, they had mistakenly called their Kansas City strip steak a New York strip. I was a little embarrassed for them. One of the house specialties was a bleu cheese stuffed bacon wrapped filet. That was my choice and it was cooked perfectly and very flavorful, despite my concern that the bleu cheese might over power the neutral beef flavor of the most tender steak available. It didn't. They offer a traditional steak house salad bar included really great choices of dressing including Green Goddess, Ranch Bleu, classic Bleu Cheese and a great roasted garlic option. The twice baked potato was classically prepared and a perfect accompaniment to my steak. The Mushrooms Sperry appetizer was an awesome start to the meal. My only regret was not saving room for the house favorite bananas foster prepared table side, which is obviously popular as we witnessed it's preparation several times during our meal.
Friday, after Steph and Steve arrived, we made plans to meet Rob and Ben from Ulika BBQ at Prince's Hot Chicken Shack. Knowing how long it takes to get your order there, and having to get back to the hotel to moderate my meeting, we agreed to meet at 11:00 am. Little did we know that Prince's didn't open until noon. So, plan B called for us to head for Arnold's Country Kitchen, a classic meat and three. We arrived at Arnold's about 11:30 am and was greeted by a line that stretched to the door and not a single available table in site. Luckily the line moves quickly here and the patrons do as well. On Friday they offered a handful of meat choices and about a dozen sides available each day. The steamship round of beef looked awesome, but we tried the fried catfish and chicken and dumplings instead. With real mashed potatoes and brown gravy, mac & cheese, greens, white beans and green beans as some of the sides that day, I can say that everything was awesome. The chess pie with meringue was sweet and satisfying with a little texture from the cornmeal. There are surely many great meat & three options in the Nashville area, but for me I will definitely go back to Arnold's when back in the area. Note: Photo credit to Mr. Steve F of I Smell Smoke fame.
Saturday was THE day in our Music City dining experience. At the recommendation of Ben, aka BP, during or meal on Friday, we headed for Monell's. I can tell you this, when Ben speaks about food in Nashville, or anywhere for that matter, I will listen. Monell's was the freakin' mother load! Our party of five arrived for brunch on Saturday at about 10:30 am. The concept is somewhat unique. The meals are serviced family style at several large community tables. Our party of five was seated with a party of four already seated. The table completely set with pots of coffee, pitchers of ice tea and orange juice, and all of condiments. Shortly after being seated the meal is served in large bowls and platters.

The meal started off a bit rocky. We were served biscuits and gravy. The biscuits were hot and fresh but obviously not made on site. The gravy was thin, pasty and flavorless, void of any sausage or other meat, and with only a hint of black pepper . I can say those first two items were the low point of the meal, because everything else that graced our table was fabulous. Large bowls of fried potatoes, grits, corn pudding, cinnamon rolls and fried apples plus a huge platter of pancakes were swiftly delivered to our table. All of it was awesome. Our whole table let out a unison "oh, ah" when a platter as big as a trash can lid filled with fried country ham, thick cut crispy bacon and breakfast sausage patties arrived. That's it in my right hand while making a pitiful attempt at a "power to the people" gesture with my free hand. How embarrassing. The bountiful display of fried meat was followed by a heaping bowl of fresh fried chicken. We all looked at each other in disbelief, communicating that we had hit the mother load! It's all a blur now, but I think I even saw a pair of rock hands thrust into the air in my periphial vision at that moment.
The food at Monell's was fabulous, sans the biscuits and gravy. We all ate more than we should, but it was worth it. This place is the epitome of southern style food for this Yankee. I will be sure to return every time I get to Nashville.
Not to be denied, Steve, Stephanie and I headed back to Prince's Hot Chicken Shack on Saturday mid afternoon. Honestly, none of us were hungry, but this place was considered our primary objective when we discussed eating our way through Nashville. The chicken at Prince's has obviously developed a cult following. When we arrived shortly after their Saturday 2:00 pm opening, there were already 22 orders ahead of us and all of the five booths were taken. An unassuming place, it was poorly decorated and poorly kept. We ordered plain, mild, medium and hot mixed quarters to go so we could sample the different levels of heat. Hearing stories about the extra hot, we decided we'd just let our imaginations run wild. Based on my previous experience at Prince's, we expected a 30 to 40 minute wait, but actually waited over an hour. As tourists, the wait wasn't horrible, but I can't imagine that wait if I didn't have time to kill. However, based on my two experiences, I might think twice about waiting that long every time I stopped in. Not that the staff would care. Customer service is not the strong suit here.
The chicken as awesome, just as it was when I was in a few months back. The plain fried chicken is some of the best I've eaten. The addicting heat of the other choices is the draw of this place for me. In the pictures above, the first one is of a medium leg quarter and the second is a hot leg quarter. Notice the deeper, richer color of the hot chicken. It obviously either been dipped longer in their spice blend or at least has more spice applied. The medium is my favorite with just the right blend of savory fried chicken flavor and spice. We didn't order any sides, but the fries looked great. Next time we're in Nashville with an hour to kill, we'll definitely stop in for some Prince's hot chicken.
Folks told me that Nashville was not a food town. They had me convinced there were little to find on the culinary front. I think they were wrong. Best known for it's music, Nashville has some really great hidden treasures. We found some fabulous eats in a short amount of time. I can't wait to get back there to discover even more great places. I know we only scratched the surface.


ULIKA BBQ said...

Glad you got to Prince's. I ended up heading over there after the rules meeting and was in and out in 20 mins. Fat Mo's is not for everyone. My mother-in-law refuses to eat there but I like it. I forgot to tell you that Sperry's serves Creekstone beef.

BP said...

Rod, it was a treat getting to share lunch with you. I really hope we can do it again sometime.

I'm glad you were able to hit some high notes while you were here. As for Fat Mo's, as Rob alluded to, their burger is defintiely a point of dispute among Nashvillians. The patties are seasoned in a very distinct way and it's not for everyone. When it's done right, I still say it's a great hamburger, but consistency seems to be more and more of a problem for them. I've never been to the location that you visited, and though there are more and more locations, I only trust the one in Melrose (the original, I think?), which is the only one where I have consistently been served a good product. They still seem to cook them to order there, whereas at other locations, you pull up and order and they hand you a burger 15 seconds later. Still though, even on Fat Mo's best day, 5 Guys is better. I love that place.

Pellet Envy said...

Ben - You hit it on the head. Mine burgers, and yes, I ordered two, were dry and overcooked. Now I know they were precooked for sure. Also, they seasoned after the meat was cooked. I remember a bit of crunch to the undisolved spices/salt/whatever. If I get a chance, I'll try the Melrose location. After all, I will never doubt your word on restaurants . . .ever!