When we get out of the airport, our host — the kind, generous, saint-like Nancy — is already waiting for us with a car. This car will come in handy as we explore “Music City”, a place Deadspin has called “the lamest city in the South”, “a glorified exurb”. I only know it as a place that sure does boast a lot of BBQ joints in a city more known for its music industry. It is also the home of “hot chicken”, which ends up being fried chicken with a lot of cayenne pepper on it. Sometimes this baptism of spice falls on other, equally deep-fried things like fish. But we have yet to move on to an abomination like “hot tofu”. So on the hipster scale of things, we are at Bushwick, not full-on Williamsburg. Congratulations, I guess, Nashville?
1. Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish
We head here straight from the airport, and are rewarded with a nearly empty one-room shack reminiscent of a noodle stall on the side of the highway on the way to Pattaya. It has that same abandoned holiday feel, reinforced when we read the sign to knock at the door knocker once we are ready to place our order at the window.
We go as all out as we can, ordering a hot catfish, two filets of hot whiting, and of course, hot chicken. For sides we get mac and cheese, potato salad, cole slaw, and greens. Although the chicken is dry, the fish is delicious, blessed with a crackly crust generously seasoned with pepper and topped with a scattering of onions and pickle slices. Wrapped in a slice of white bread, and maybe topped with a little of the potato salad, there is nothing better in this city. That I know of. Rating: Full-on Johnny Cash. (I know nothing about country music).
This is what happens when frat-boy types take over a BBQ place. There is the requisite snaking line, there is the requisite DIY beverage station, there are the requisite tables at which to tentatively plant your burgeoning behinds as you attempt to balance your trays of food and drinks without spilling them on anyone. We get a pulled pork platter with greens and mac and cheese. The mac manages to be bland and the greens are too salty. The pulled pork is meh. I would rate this a Blake Shelton.
3. Hattie B’s
I cannot go without hot chicken for more than 24 hours, so we find ourselves in yet another long, snaking line, the most intimidating of the lines that we have encountered yet. This is on its way to being a Disney Ride line. In the sweltering heat. Luckily, the chicken is juicy when we get it. Unluckily, it is nowhere near “hot”. Have my tastebuds become calloused from years in the tropics? At least we got to stand in line for a long time. Rating: Is there a country music version of Justin Bieber?
4. Peg Leg Porker
Owned by a man who lost his right leg to an aggressive form of bone cancer, Peg Leg Porker proudly sports the mascot of a pig with a “peg leg”, painted prominently on the side of the building as you pull into the parking lot. Inside, the ambience is that of a Las Vegas hotel lounge full of people on the tail end of a particularly vicious losing streak, but service is nice and prompt, and generously accommodating even though we order more after the kitchen has officially closed. The special here is the “dry-rubbed ribs”, so we order a rack alongside a pulled pork sandwich, baked beans and cole slaw (which is quirky becoming Karen’s own personal barometer of quality). The verdict: I am beginning to think “dry” ribs are God’s way of saying that there are aspects to American cooking that I will never fully understand, and that’s OK. Not everyone gets durian, or shrimp paste chili dip, or stink bean. Maybe we should just let things be, and not think about them too much. Rating: Keith Urban, whom I also don’t get.
5. Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint
Is BBQ really spelled that way here? I am too lazy to google. This tells you something about Martin’s. This tells you that it’s the kind of place to pile a bunch of pre-existing components together into one dish, dub it with a catchy name, and trick people into thinking they are ordering something unique and special when really they are just eating a bunch of crap piled up on each other under the guise of something different. What I’m talking about is the “redneck taco”, which takes “hoe cake” (WHAT IS THIS) and ruins it the way all bread-like items are ruined when wet things are put on top of them. In this instance, the wet items are pulled pork, cole slaw, and a generous slathering of sweet BBQ sauce. It recalls all the things I hate about Ethiopian food, without any of the good qualities. Good things: lovely service, and a very efficient ordering system. Rating: Taylor Swift, who is actually a pop music artist and not country
Pounds gained: Maybe 20 each
Exercise employed in futile attempt to stave off said pounds: Nancy’s fitness room is under renovation, so we do Jillian Michaels’ “30-minute shred level 1” (a lot of jumping jacks) and her mammoth, sadistic “6-week 6-pack abs level 1”.
Pairs of pants ruined: one
Places missed: Prince’s Hot Chicken
The “gateway to the West”, driving into St. Louis really does feel like driving back up into the north. And that is all I have to say about St. Louis.
1. Pappy’s Smokehouse
We have time for one place, so we’d better make that place count. Why not make it Pappy’s, where a line forms promptly at 11 on the dot and diners are already vying for the best tables before the door even opens. Pappy’s, known for its brisket, serves until it runs out — a very Thai concept. To keep track, there is a blackboard of doom listing items that are gone if you get there too late. Happily, the blackboard of doom does not come into play for us. We get ribs, burnt ends, brisket and sweet potato fries. It is, easily, the best barbecue we’ve had so far on our trip. Where have you been all my life, Pappy’s?
Pounds gained: 5
Exercise employed in futile attempt to stave off pounds: Absolutely none.
Places missed: C&K, Bogart’s, Sugarfire