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Loveless Indeed

Florence, Alabama, to Nashville, Tennessee, to Bardstown, Kentucky

This was a big traveling day. In God-knows-where Alabama, I passed and fell in love with this place:

As with most of my trip, I was (obviously) taking a minor road. I discovered to my delight that you can go 60 miles per hour on lots of secondary and even tertiary roads down here. There’s just no reason to take freeways. Well, that’s not true. I walked around Florence for a day and a half before realizing my watch was an hour ahead, because they don’t announce the time zone switch on the smaller roads!

Finally I got on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a hip, lesser known scenic southern highway (compared with the more famous—yet strangely deserted—Blue Ridge Parkway).

The Natchez Trace connects Alabama and Mississippi with Nashville, and the cool thing is that while many highways were built on trails blazed by Native Americans or pioneers, this one was established by migrating animals. Tens of thousands of years ago, it seems, buffalo plied this route. Back then, presumably, the food at Loveless Cafe (8400 Highway 100, Nashville, Tennessee; 615-646-9700) had some life to it.

Not anymore. Positioned at the northern terminus of the parkway, choked with tourists, and metastasized into a spate of grotesque spin-off businesses, the Loveless Cafe is just grinding out plate after spiritually inert plate.

Ought not a dish called “home fry casserole” be innately delicious, simply on principle? Alas, it was just a mute cheesy lump.

The food looked more or less right, but there’s just no “there” there. You can tell that, 17 chefs and 400 corner cuttings ago, this was a worthy joint. But now the only remaining deliciousness is in the simplest of simplicities: The biscuits may not be very good anymore, but dip them in sorghum molasses (which comes with), and possibilities start to arise.

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At long last, Bardstown: ground zero for the bourbon industry, and site of the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival. This little-reported event has occupied my imagination for years. My friends and I have fantasized about attending en masse to pay our respect to the friendliest drink ever. Finally, I’ve made it! And my lazy-ass friends couldn’t get it together to join in … except my longtime bourbon-drinking buddy J.B., who’s taking the red-eye tomorrow (you’ll meet him at breakfast).

I got into Bardstown late and rushed to the very first event of the festival: a “balloon glow” at the Bluegrass Motor Speedway. What, you ask, is a balloon glow? Well, you’ve just got to see it to believe it. I can only pray that I’ve done justice to this exciting spectacle in the following video: Movie file

Still Holed Up in Alabama

I spent a couple more days in Florence, Alabama, writing and trying not to eat anything noteworthy. On a wild compulsion, I had dinner at Grille 360, the revolving concrete monstrosity lurking far above my hotel.

It’s quite expensive and as spiritually vacant as intergalactic space. Join me for some high anxiety in this video: Movie file

Hear a quick note about my Grille 360 experience in this podcast, mumbled into my recorder while eating: MP3

Breakfast in the concierge lounge at the Marriott was surprisingly good:

There may not be much great eating in Florence, but all of Alabama lies enticingly to the south. My cousin Michael, who lives in Birmingham, met me halfway, in Decatur, which happens to have some famous ‘cue.

I am forever indebted to Michael for bringing up some ribs from Birmingham I’d hoped to try, and, moreover, taking the impressive step of strapping those puppies into a child safety seat for maximal protection:

Below are the ribs Michael brought from Demetri’s Barbecue (1901 28th Avenue South, Homewood, Alabama; 205-871-1581). They’re quite good, though a bit flat tasting. Maybe the two-hour ride knocked out the je ne sais quoi.

We scarfed them in the parking lot of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q (1715 Sixth Avenue S.E. (a.k.a. Highway 31), Decatur, Alabama; 256-350-6969), which we subsequently hit for dinner.

This is a real Alabama landmark—for pie, white sauce, barbecue baked potatoes, and overall good barbecue in general. The big news was that they quietly make a superb spuddy Brunswick stew, rife with potato chunks, which I adored.

White barbecue sauce is a unique local innovation (just served in this part of Alabama, to my knowledge, and known here as “white sauce”) that’s good on chicken and for dunking french fries. Here’s Gibson’s recipe, courtesy of the Food Network … and here’s a totally different recipe, also claiming to be authentic, from the WhiteTrashBBQ blog.

The chicken was wonderful, especially with that white sauce:

You can get a feel for the chicken’s tenderness from this shot, and also gawk more closely at that weirdo cole slaw:

I don’t totally understand the barbecue baked potato (one of Gibson’s famed innovations), and it looked like hell. But after my first tentative, probing forkful, I couldn’t stop eating it.

I’ve gone to the unusual length of offering two shots of the ribs (below). You’ll notice that they have a slick, hard, greasy sheen. They taste slick, hard, and greasy, too. They were served hot, and while I don’t suspect the kitchen actually fried them to rewarm, mucho oil went in late in the game, and to my palate it really deteriorated what had clearly started out being fine ribs. Depressing!

Killer wonderful pies!

I nearly knocked Michael unconscious with a third barbecue stop (he called the next day to say that he’d awakened with a food hangover), but it had to be done. On the way, we passed this amazing car:

b.b. perrins (608 Holly Street N.E., off Highway 31, Decatur, Alabama; 256-355-1045) is as soulless a sports bar as you’d guess from its corny lack of capitalization. Everything in this place screamed, “Get out before it’s too late!” But the ribs were excellent, as was the chicken.

Hear my shock at finding great barbecue in a horrid sports bar: MP3

This barbecue, too, was rewarmed, though with a lighter hand, making it more enjoyable (I’m quite sure Big Bob Gibson’s ‘cue would beat them right out of the smoker, though). I guess these places are trying to zing up their ‘cue to appeal to the widest possible market.

But just as I was complaining about the greasy sizzly cynical rewarm, my mind flashed back to Demetri’s ribs, which had seemed flat to me at room temperature. So I guess these places are damned if they do reheat and damned if they don’t! Come to think of it, the ribs I tried outside Chattanooga (see report #25) were at room temperature, too. But somehow they managed to taste quite lively. I’m confused. But no time for further research, as it’s time to roar north for (I’m actually trembling with anticipation!) the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

Attempted Culinary Seclusion

Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Florence, Alabama

As I said in my last report, it was clearly time to quit while I was ahead and get out of Chattanooga (hear my Chattanooga wrap-up in this podcast: MP3).

But on my way out, I couldn’t pass up a tip about Riverside Catfish House (18039 Highway 41 North, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-821-9214), 12 miles outside Chattanooga. I had high-class catfish last night at Canyon Grill, but I still craved some plain old catfish-house catfish.

You immediately sense that Riverside is a great place. It’s full of that high-energy vibe that augurs deliciousness. Its big, informal dining room is perched on the unbelievably scenic banks of the Tennessee River.

I loved the sunny décor, with lots of down-home touches:

This place is anything but undiscovered, though the crowd seemed more local than tourist. But while they serve on a large scale, the hospitality’s still there. I enthused to the hostess about how much I’d been looking forward to my meal, having suffered for so long in my catfishless galaxy far, far away. She adopted me, taking time to explain that their catfish is especially good because it’s grain fed and comes from a special source in Mississippi.

I sat down at a long table and chose the homelier, harder-to-eat on-the-bone catfish rather than fillets.

The hostess noticed this, and was pleased by my courage. To ensure that I experienced the full spectrum, she brought me a few pieces of fillet to sample. (Obviously, I was anonymous here, per my strict policy. These people are just real nice!)

The difference was significant. Only the fillets had that familiar snowy, slightly soapy catfish flavor. The on-the-bone catfish was like a different animal, with a stronger, fishier taste. I loved both.

It was here that I had my first glass of truly tooth-scrapingly-sweet sweet tea of the trip. I wish I could plot on a graph the switchbacks and flavor digressions this incredible, challenging fluid took me through in the course of a sip.

For dessert, I worked through this slice of crazy-rich buttermilk pie, whose appreciation was entirely hijacked by the animal brain, which is, alas, unable to analyze, much less type.

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I passed the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and couldn’t resist stopping in for some freeze-dried ice cream.

They had a whole wall of it!

I also ambled through the museum, which was pretty lame. A lot of the exhibits were mere recreations. Space suits used “during training,” etc. But buried in a sleepy corner, sans fanfare and completely ignored was … a moon rock. A rock from the moon … you know, the celestial object that inspired the sonata. That’s it, quietly resting in the blah case at the center of the photo below. The kids are ignoring it, just like all the museumgoers I saw (the papier-mâché space shuttle drew a lot more attention).

This says something about human beings, and about food.

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I’d reserved a room in Florence, Alabama. Why Florence, Alabama? Four reasons:

1. It’s right near the legendary Natchez Trace Parkway, which I want to take up to Nashville.

2. I needed to stop eating remarkably for a few days. Behind in my reporting, I had to squirrel away somewhere and get up-to-date without accumulating yet more finds I’d feel compelled to report on. And a quick Web search indicated that Florence might be a dismal chow desert. Perfect!

3. The Marriott resort in Florence sounded pretty luxe, and I found a $130/night room on the concierge level (worth at least $300–$400).

4. The Marriott’s pool has a really cool water slide.

The plan: work down by the pool, work in my sumptuous room, work in the elite concierge lounge, and eat in the bland hotel restaurant, getting lots done and not backing myself up further with any new finds. I would not leave the hotel until I had made a dent in my workload. I would, above all, avoid deliciousness like the plague.

I’d found nothing but sprawl on my way into town, which fueled my jovial confidence re: the utter lack of nearby chow. As I turned into the Marriott, my eyes were assualted with the almost inconceivably grotesque Grille 360, a high-up revolving restaurant perched on a base of hideous concrete. My God.

I spent more time on the water slide—and sipping bourbon in the concierge lounge—than I should have. But some work did get done, and at dinnertime I peered into the hotel restaurant (the regular one at ground level, not the revolving monstrosity), which seemed dark, overpriced, and empty. Expecting the worst, I stoically marched in, grabbed a menu, and went immediately into SOM (Survival Ordering Mode), rejecting dish after prissy, overblown dish while scanning for edibility. Finally I came upon shrimp and (cheese) grits. The chef, I speculated, was probably some local kid, and this, unlike, say, salade niçoise, was probably an item he could personally get behind. So I ordered it, along with a glass of Riesling.

It was one of the very best things I’ve had on this trip thus far. Perhaps the best. And the Riesling tasted like it was born to accompany shrimp and grits. I was having the Perfect Meal.

It’s like being caught in the Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, only instead of being besieged by screaming teenagers, I’m plagued by throngs of sublime milkshakes and sprightly California rolls. Demoralized, I shlepped upstairs for my camera so that I could dutifully capture the moment. Look, below, at the angle of the fork, which eloquently expresses my dismay. That is by no means a perky fork angle. As feared, I spent the rest of the night writing this account rather than catching up.

Once again, as a food critic newly armed with digital camera, I shirk my obligation to describe flavor and simply ask you to stare at the photo until it’s spoken to you. And I ask my editors to provide an unprecedentedly large expanded view that will fill your browser window with the full brunt of this food’s unfortunate magnificence.

I do need to describe one aspect. Really fresh shrimp have a slightly grassy/floral, almost saffron aroma. So does really good pepper sauce when combined with a certain kind of cheese. This dish was redolent with saffron—though I’m quite certain none was added.

I Heart Chattanooga

O, from what power hast thou this powerful might
With insufficiency my heart to sway?
To make me give the lie to my true sight,
And swear that brightness doth not grace the day?
    —William Shakespeare


Energized from yesterday’s change of heart, I kicked into high gear. Today was quite a ride. I can’t believe I did all the following in one day … but I did. It’s a testament to the chowconnaissance strategy of taking only tiny bites, painful though it is when food’s this good.

After yesterday’s hesitant forays, I decided to blast completely out of downtown and just drive and drive, pursuing serendipitous treasure—exactly what I’m always urging everyone else to do! I headed in the opposite direction of yesterday’s trajectory, but only now realize that I actually wound up quite near where I had last night’s dinner. The nabe has a magnetic allure. Sometimes it’s like that.

To get to the magical part of Chattanooga, one must pass through what I’ve dubbed “The Tunnel of Love”—a cleansing, purifying tunnel that strips away all downtown karma and empowers you to find gem after gem. I’m not sure I could find this magical tunnel again, but here is a photo:

I passed Wally’s Restaurant (6521 Ringgold Road, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-899-6151), an ancient spot that seemed preserved in amber, and it was love. Wally’s is love.

See photos of my lunch, below. Or perhaps it was supper. Or dinner. Who knows what they call lunch around here—I can’t keep track. Wally’s kitchen is much less weary than Bea’s, though it’s apples and oranges, as this is a restaurant, rather than a lazy-Susan joint.

I asked if the chicken with dressing was roasted or baked, and was told, “Boiled.” That’s apparently a regional style, and it works surprisingly well. There were tons of sage in the dressing, like in TV-dinner stuffing … only it was good. Turnip greens were soft and lovely; peach cobbler had some soul. A Great Chowhounding Moment: The waitress informed me that I could have three vegetables, and PEACH COBBLER COUNTS AS A VEGETABLE!

This muffin had a greater concentration of lard than any single food item I’ve ever come across. Bravo, Wally’s. Bravo!

“Green early peas” (tasted pretty much like peas).

Peach cobbler having counted as a vegetable, I felt justified in ordering dessert. The pecan pie doesn’t look so great—chintzy with the pecans and desperately crying out for some lard in the crust, à la the corn muffins. But the sweet, gooey body was deep and engrossing.

Click along with me, won’t you, every day for the rest of your life, to see what meats and vegetables Wally’s is serving today.

In conclusion, Wally’s isn’t a great place—I could imagine returning to Chattanooga without dining here. But it’s great, in its way, just for being goooood. This is straight-down-the-middle unaffected Southern diner food backed by long tradition. And I needed that.

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Note: If the following bores you, do not by any means fail to scroll down for life-changing barbecue discoveries (complete with leering photos) and an account of dinner at what may be the country’s upscale restaurant most deserving of wider recognition.

The smooth, very sagey dressing at Wally’s reminded me of TV-dinner stuffing. And the slightly bland fried chicken at Bea’s (see installment #24) reminded me of Banquet chicken dinners. And Bea’s coleslaw resembled the slaw at KFC. And this got me thinking.

As I plunge into lesser-known foodways, I often spot signs of the earlier passage of American food executives decades earlier, sort of like Stanley following in the footsteps of Livingston. They’ve trod this trail with very different intent: to shake down cultures for recipes to bland out, adapt, and reformulate into the highly processed junk that’s filled American supermarket shelves for the past few generations.

Yes, iconic mass-market foods have roots. Who knew? Those insipid orange wafer cookies are based on a traditional Bosnian recipe that’s actually full of character. Cheez Doodles have roots in Brazil. Ring Dings are dumbed-down Peruvian alfajores. I never understood the barbecue connection of barbecue-flavored potato chips until I tried Memphis dry-rub barbecue.

Similarly, Banquet fried chicken is a reductio ad blandum of the chicken served at places like Bea’s, and Swanson sagey stuffing rips off places like Wally’s. The food execs covered the world, but they also drew from the American heartland. As a result, things like modest, sincere fried chicken and sagey dressing became caricatured to the point where outsiders tasting the original source materials mentally associate them with the mass-market junk foods they superficially resemble. Come eat down here, and you might assume the local cuisine has gone to hell.

But eat carefully, and you’ll see how the original is classier. The fried chicken at Bea’s may have tasted like Banquet fried chicken, but it wasn’t lifeless. And the coleslaw didn’t flatline like KFC’s. Same for Wally’s stuffing. The difference is soul.

Charlie Parker is considered one of the great geniuses of jazz, a saxophonist who developed an entirely new approach to music out of thin air. When I was young, I heard a profusion of lousy Charlie Parker imitators, and never cared for them. When I finally heard Parker’s recordings, I disliked him, because he sounded so much like the hacks who came after.

I’m not saying this style of cooking is as brilliant as Charlie Parker. But it chronologically predates and spiritually surpasses the dreck that came later. So it’s necessary to dump bad associations to appreciate it properly.

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This was such an intense day that lack of space compels me to give short shrift to some stunning barbecue in places right near each other on a strip I think of as Barbecue Alley.

Forgive me, Bob Garner, but the chopped pork BBQ at Old Plantation Barbecue (1515 Dodson Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-624-8105) is light years beyond anything served in North Carolina. And the ribs are heavenly. And the guys working there are kindhearted. And you kind of don’t ever need to seek further, because this is the barbecue you’ve always dreamed of, in a small roadside take-out shack. Let’s go directly to the snapshots, which say it all.

But seek further I did, ‘cuz it’s my job. Thus I found Sunset Inn (964 Dodson Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-629-9240), a cocktail lounge/restaurant that’s got to be wildly fun at night. I arrived in midday, and while the owner was nowhere near as friendly as the guys at Plantation, his barbecuing prowess earns him all the aloof gravitas in the world.

The Sunset Inn guy is a true master, who achieves a textbook rosy glow in the meat via immaculate smoking. Meat is tender but nowhere near overcooked (“falling off the bone” is not the goal of true ‘cue), and the sauce fits like a glove.

Note: I’m raving about Sunset Inn’s ribs. Their chopped barbecue is sort of a mushy mess. But with ribs such as these, nothing else really matters.

Another titan can be found in a parking lot next to the car wash at 2218 McCallie Avenue, operating the massive Ms. Tina’s Hot Meals on Wheels truck and its adjoining blue tent. I found no trace of Ms. Tina, just a shaved-headed guy making superb ribs.

These were great ribs, with all the fatty juicy crunchy meatiness one could ask for. They’re the sort of ribs that make you nod your head in admiration. My only quibble is strictly a matter of personal taste: I found the meat just slightly oversmoked. But the smoke level nonetheless falls easily within the boundaries of great and proper barbecue.

This guy, whom I think of as Mr. Tina, will soon open a late-night full-service barbecue joint and music café just up the block. In the following photo, notice the workmen congregated in front of the brown house on the left. That’s the spot.

Plantation’s barbecue was at the other side of the spectrum, slightly mild in the smoking (though smoke’s definitely in there). In both cases, I’m quite sure the result is exactly what’s being aimed for, but Sunset Inn seems to strike an ideal middle ground. All three are killer, though, and unforgettable ‘cue tourism could be enjoyed by spending a weekend in the neighborhood shuttling between all three venues—and discovering still more outlets, ripe for the picking thereabouts.

In that same nabe, I had charming barbecue from some itinerant ladies cooking in a parking lot at the corner of Dodson Avenue at McCallie Avenue. Their sauce is strictly commercial, and, horrors, they grill hot (with Kingsford charcoal briquets), rather than smoke—a sacrilege that would make some declare this not real barbecue. But the proof’s in the eating, and to sample their work leaves no doubt of its genuineness. These ladies have barbecue so deeply in their bones that they could probably produce something tasty over a couple of cans of Sterno. Score one for transcendence of the material plane.

I took this shot—

—as a self-reminder to follow up on the tip, but I never did make it out there. If you ever try Tony’s Lounge and Blues Spot (I like the sound of it), please report back on the South message board!

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I was hoping for dessert, and the gods of chowhounding yielded forth a sign for Cake Lady (1414 McCallie Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-624-0505), a name impossible to resist.

The Cake Lady sells as a concession within a deli, and it’s not a real fancy place. And the cake looks like nothing special, either.

But her baking is first rate. The luscious strawberry cake, with good cream cheese frosting, especially impressed me with its unprepossessing plainness. The frosting wasn’t dyed red to make it look more strawberryish, and the result is as plain and greyish in appearance as it is resplendent in flavor.

This homely looking cake sells purely on its deliciousness. I was so moved by this (and by her stocking of both Miss Vickie’s and Zapp’s potato chips) that I did something I only rarely do cold with strangers: I hit up the Cake Lady for chow tips.

She offered some half-hearted suggestions in the Chattanooga area, so I pushed her for suggestions further afield. Finally, she coughed up the pearl I’d hoped for: Canyon Grill. Up a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Expensive but worth it. All cooking done with incredible care and skill. I booked a reservation for that very night—late, to give me time to try to digest all the barbecue and cake and everything.

Canyon Grill (28 Scenic Highway, Rising Fawn, Georgia; 706-398-9510) is perched atop a mountain in rural Georgia. A generic freeway provides fast access from Chattanooga, but I opted for the scenic route, driving out of town via Broad Street to the base of Lookout Mountain (note: Right there is an interesting-looking Thai restaurant, plus a joint advertising “brownies and barbecue” that I can’t believe I didn’t try). From there, it’s a series of switchbacks and long, slow climbs—a hunger-building drive through fresh air and gorgeous scenery. There doesn’t seem to be much exciting going on on Lookout Mountain (exception: a hang-gliding academy perched on a cliff), but the ride sets you up perfectly for a remarkable dining experience.

Canyon Grill is something of a miracle, seamlessly integrating seemingly contrary factors. Food, service, and décor are the essence of sophistication, yet the result somehow feels perfectly natural atop a mountain in rural Georgia. There’s zero pretension in a place that depends on diners to travel far and pay dearly. This is no capsule of aloof elegance planted rakishly in the middle of nowhere for the gentry to coo over. Rather, it fits in with its surroundings—a tough task for a refined venue atop a mountain in Rising Fawn, Georgia.

Décor is urbane, background music is swanky, service is solicitous, and food is refined, but the result is utterly unself-conscious, as if the operation had just sprung up organically. Make no mistake: This isn’t just a local joint of unusual quality. Canyon Grill is a top-drawer destination restaurant deserving coverage in glossy food magazines.

I suppose the best way to describe the place is “honest”—talented, unprepossessing folks serving food they believe in … and leaving it at that, with none of the self-consciousness or posing that afflicts so many other ambitious eateries. The menu includes ordinary-sounding items, but while nothing’s prissy, this isn’t vernacular cooking. The touches are far too subtle, the ingredients far too carefully chosen (chef Johnny Holland is a sourcing maniac).

It’s like when folks move into some incredibly rural area and build a luxury house, but take great care to ensure that it fits harmoniously into the surroundings. That’s what the food tastes like. Respectful but staunchly personal—and kick-ass delicious.

I wanted to order something grilled (the restaurant’s founder invented the fancy wood-burning Smokey Mountain Grill, which can be bought at the restaurant for several thousand dollars), and they’re equally proud of their fish, so I ordered a seafood platter of intense and pristine hickory-grilled wild Gulf shrimp with lemon butter; rich, luscious fried Gulf oysters; and fried catfish that spoke volumes of poetic subtext without resorting to clever touches. And, at last: great mashed potatoes from what apparently is the last kitchen in the South that hasn’t gone over to the dark side (i.e., instant).

I can now say that at least once in my life I had perfect strawberry shortcake.

The meal was unforgettable; definitely worth the hour ride from Chattanooga, likely worth the two-hour trip from Atlanta, and quite possibly worth a pilgrimmage from NYC. I suppose I’d be rash, after one visit, to suggest that this is one of America’s finest undiscovered (on a national level) restaurants. But I’m tempted. Canyon Grill seems to have received no national press, yet it offers everything one could hope from high-end dining: meticulous care, unfailing deliciousness (maybe I got lucky, but not one bite, including bread, was less than sublime), deft personal touch, impeccable ingredients, beautiful yet comfortable surroundings, and even a BYO wine policy.

While the $40 price tag (before tax and tip) is stratospheric for the area, it was a superb value. I’m smitten, and encourage you to go and get smitten yourself.

After dinner, I slipped into a backwoods benefit for a local fire department, and shot a short, grainy, claustrophobic video attempting to convey my profound disorientation: Movie file

Chattanooga Redux

On my first day in Chattanooga, I noticed that the water in my hotel tasted funny. Three days later, I’ve figured it out: It tastes like catfish. And now I can’t get enough of it.

I clearly ought to quit while I’m ahead, because I’ll never surpass today’s finds. So tomorrow I head west.

Cheerfully Chowhounding Chattanooga

Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing.
Guys are swimming, guys are sailing
Playing baseball, gee that’s better
Muddah, faddah kindly disregard this letter
     — Alan Sherman

Chattanooga, Tennessee

For logistical reasons, I wound up, against all desires and impulses, staying in Chattanooga another day. I visited the famous Tennessee Aquarium, where I was charmed by show-offish otters and fluorescent jellyfish. I walked at night over the Tennessee River on one of the world’s longest pedestrian footbridges:

... with a gorgeous down-river view:

(I’m still getting the hang of night photography with this camera—you may have noticed the food shots are getting better, though—so please bear with me.)

And I hit the Bluff View Art District, a short, drop-dead-beautiful walk from downtown over a luminescent bridge made of glass:

Bluff View was the perfect antidote to yesterday’s anxiety attack. I wasn’t able to actually eat much of anything there, having emerged groaning from dinner at a place called Bea’s (more on that in a minute). But I had a long walk round the area and loved it. Relaxed, friendly, with civilized shops and cafés and several eateries that looked like they really care about food. Neither quaint nor self-conscious, the area is just deeply pleasant.

I enjoyed a sublime iced latte at Rembrandt (204 East High Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-265-5033), along with a very delicious Russian tea cookie (the other pastries didn’t look that good; I think I nailed the best item). I ate outdoors in the sweet air, with customers of all ages clustered in ardent and interesting-seeming conversations. This is, clearly, the refugee camp for those displaced by the slick nightmare of downtown.

I perched on several of the myriad ledges and benches, breathed deeply, and felt glad to be there. Hey, I like Chattanooga!

But back to the meal that left me groaning.

Bea’s Restaurant (4500 Dodds Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-867-3618) is a lazy-Susan joint—a place where food’s served family style at large tables with rotating lazy Susans so that no one needs to pass anything, and everyone can concentrate on eating. And eating. This was the original all-you-can-eat concept (empty dishes are quickly replenished), and diners come en masse to really shovel it in. The amusing thing about lazy-Susan places is that, while they’re truly all about raw primal urges, most try to cover that up with a studiedly genteel atmosphere, like a cheap hooker modestly adjusting her hem.

Bea’s is a bit faded and not so genteel. And the food’s not vibrant anymore, either. If you eat quickly (as you surely will, given the trenchermanish atmosphere), you’ll miss the subtext. This sort of cooking is not for oohing and aahing—it’s nowhere near that ambitious. But simple food can convey a message, and while the message carried by this specific kitchen may be “We’re tired and our feet ache,” there are also echoes of bygone times. Most boring food these days is ploddingly uniform—trucked in by big white Sysco trucks. Bea’s is completely off that circuit. It’s not 2005 blandness, it’s 1955 blandness. And that, for me, is exciting and transportive. As an American, I feel like I’ve come home—in exactly the way I was hoping to come home weeks ago at the Delaware County Fair. I ate joyfully.

Have a look at LazySusanCam (now, only slightly out of focus!): Movie file

The revolving items are, in order:

Pulled pork BBQ (not smoked, but good sauce)

Fried chicken (reminiscent of Banquet TV dinners, yet there is subtlety there)

Cole slaw (really good low-affectation class slaw)

Cobbler (sweet)

Pinto beans (OK)

Potatoes (very ingratiating)

Rolls (dull) and corn muffins (great)

Mac and cheese (unique, fine, slightly eerie in an indescribable way)

Fried catfish (correct, authentic, unexceptional)

... and that’s sweet (a.k.a. “iced”) tea sloshing around in the background.

Listen to the story of my white-knuckle ride to the restaurant, and the extreme deceleration required immediately thereafter. MP3

Downtown Chattanooga: Chowhound Hell

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Downtown Chattanooga is a gleaming, neon-hued strip of slick eateries that look like chains but have names I don’t recognize. At first I thought they were regional chains unfamiliar to me, but then I started to notice they all look as if they were designed by the same person. I guess these are chain wannabes. And a chain wannabe is about as appealing as a saxophonist who imitates Kenny G. I wandered around, slack-jawed, seeking, Diogenes-like, an honest bite. For hours.

Hair of the Dog Pub (334 Market Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-265-4615) was, I’d heard, the hip choice. It’s not a chain or trying to look like one, and I was hoping a glow of humanity might be found there. I should have been more careful what I wished for. It smelled like the morning after a frat party, and, sitting at the end of the bar, I was able to peer into a kitchen stocked with thoroughly bored-looking 17-year-old kids, all projecting a “Take This Job and Shove It” vibe. I scanned the menu but couldn’t find even an iota of promise. Having heard this was a primo beer destination, I checked the tap selection. Nothing. I looked over the bottles, hoping they might stock Hair of the Dog beer from Oregon (my favorite American brand), if only for the eponymy. They didn’t. I left.

Figuring I’d stop beating and start joining, I climbed to the rooftop bar of a glowing yuppie Mexican restaurant. Downstairs was deserted, but the loud music signaled that upstairs was hopping. Hey, even if the food was no good, I’d surely have a rollicking good time drinking and making friends!

Up the dark, spongy steps I climbed, into some designer’s cynical rendering of can’t-fail magnetic fun. The rooftop bar was populated by two dozen utterly blasé customers at comic odds with the stylized cantina décor. Eager to make this work, I sidled up to the bar and asked if they had any Mezcal. “No, we sure don’t,” replied the bartender. So I asked for a shot of dark tequila, chilled. He came back clutching two repugnant, fake bottles, one costing $11/shot, the other $12. I recall one brand as being YGS (“Yuppie Gringo Scum”), but I may have just imagined that.

I told the bartender I’d think about it and escaped down the back stairs, which took me through several levels of manipulatively fun—albeit deserted—dining rooms, and out into the street, where, in my hunger and anxiety, I started babbling aloud:

“I just need a nice salad. A nice little salad would be nice. I’ve just GOT to be able to find a decent salad somewhere, no? That’s not asking too much. It doesn’t even need to be good. I’ll find a salad. Where can I get just a NICE SALAD?”

The answer: nowhere. I wandered around for another hour (I had, at this point, been walking literally all night), peering at menus, trying to find a place serving a simple salad. You may doubt my word on this, but I assure you it’s true: There is no salad in downtown Chattanooga that does not feature cheese as a main ingredient.

As a bail-out move, I decided to duck into Big River Grille and Brewing Works (222 Broad Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-267-2739), the massive, overbearing, unbelievably contrived brewpub I’d earlier attempted to Photoshop off my chowscape. They had some hand-pumped beers—a good sign—and I ordered an IPA, which was the single worst, most insipid hand-pumped grog I’d ever quaffed (the beer-delivery lines have surely never been cleaned). I asked for a food menu, which you can see below. It seems at first a fairly normal, straight-ahead list of pubby items, but I defy you to find something decent-sounding that does not have cheese 1. melted over it or 2. cubed into it. Print it out and give it to your kids for hours of fun playing “spot the cheese.”

Mind you, I’m not anti-cheese. But I do expect at least a few cheeseless items on a given menu. Is that unreasonable?

I ordered the only two minimally edible-sounding uncheesed items I could find: vegetable of the day and french fries. The bartender nearly choked, but dutifully brought me 1. a dish of overcooked, puckering sugar snap peas, and 2. some cold, wooden (but once pretty good, I think) french fries. I braced myself for him to ask if I’d like some cheese sprinkled on that (he did not). And, strange though it sounds, I’m positive this was the best I could have done in downtown Chattanooga. I scored. A real chowhounding triumph. High five, y’all.

I continued to do best-under-the-circumstances by catching the late show of the only good movie playing at the crowded multiplex (The Illusionist), in a completely empty theater. I munched the only good candy in the concession stand (Mighty Malts, better than Whoppers and nearly as good as British Maltesers), though the counter girl hadn’t heard of it, and had to be guided to its location.

Quality seems unprized in Chattanooga. As if to highlight my unsuitability for this town, two young fellows in a pickup truck tried to run me down as I crossed (with right of way) an intersection after coming out of the theater. I glanced back as their front fender brushed the back of my pant leg, and they were laughing.

Back-to-Back Scores in the Middle of Nowhere

Asheville, North Carolina

Ravenous from skipping supper last night, I did a double breakfast in Asheville, trying two places touted on First I hit the hippy-dippy Sunny Point Cafe (625 Haywood Road, Asheville, North Carolina; 828-252-0055).

The food was very good and hit all the right notes, though nothing was really sensational. The intensely spiced organic sausage patties you can see in the photo at 3 o’clock were the best part:

Podcast #1: Listen to a Podcastus Interruptus. MP3 file

Then on to West End Bakery (757 Haywood Road, Asheville, North Carolina; 828-252-9378), whose strawberry crumb coffeecake is absolutely killer. So light and subtle, super-moist and tender.

Podcast #2: I’m ashamed to admit I don’t remember whose muffin I’m blathering on about in this podcast (perhaps West End Bakery’s, but I tried a couple of lesser bakeries after that). I’m including it nonetheless because it documents a watershed cultural moment. MP3 file

Podcast #3: I hit an AAA office to chart a course into Tennessee. Tune in on the deliberations as I wildly unfurl maps. MP3 file

Travel tip for Auto Club members: Get local maps and info from local clubs after you arrive. They always have a selection that’s unavailable in distant offices.

Sylva, North Carolina

The Anatomy of a Find

Podcast #4: Hear the precise moment of the olfactory discovery of magnificent Robbie’s Char-Burger (1461 East Main Street, Sylva, North Carolina; 828-586-3490). MP3 file

Podcast #5: Listen to the postgame report (MP3 file). Sound quality is poor because I was too numb with happiness to work the recorder controls properly. Listening now, a few hours after, I think I failed to convey how great the burgers were. Thank heaven for photographs, which I think you’ll find pretty persuasive (Caution: not safe for work!):

As foreshadowed in the preceding podcast, I had no time to digest my blessed charburger before my attention was wrenched by Heinzelmännchen Brewery (545 Mill Street, Sylva, North Carolina; 828-631-4466) as I passed its little storefront in Sylva. Brewmaster Dieter Kuhn, born and raised in Heidelsheim, Germany, makes staunchly personal, defiantly German-style beers—soft, rounded, subtle brews in contrast to the intense bitterness and flashy flavorings of much American craft beer. I’ve quaffed most of America’s best lagers and ales, and Dieter is one of our best undiscovered brewers. What a stroke of luck to find him. He also makes fantastic root beer and birch beer.

Here’s a list of venues serving Heinzelmännchen products it’s probably most fun to drop into the brewery and have Dieter pour you a growler!

Heinzelmännchen are gnomelike creatures found in the Black Forest of Germany (hence their URL of, so there are gnomes everywhere:

This article tells more about Heinzelmännchen Brewery (as well as Asheville’s Highland Brewing Company).

I really dug Sylva. I’m dying to hang out there sometime, drink Dieter’s beer, eat Robbie’s charburgers, and go kayaking and hiking. Travelers hoping to visit Asheville ought to head here—an hour west but a world away.

Dillsboro, North Carolina

Not far west of Sylva, I gave Dillsboro Smokehouse (403 Haywood Street, Dillsboro, North Carolina; 828-586-9556) a quick try.

Their barbecue is pretty good, though not up to some of the praise in press reviews taped to their front window. Their no-nonsense style is the polar extreme of the postmodern ‘cue at 12 Bones (installment #21), so it’s good to have both to extrapolate from. Note that this is border ‘cue, featuring barbecue baby back ribs and referring to chopped pork (elsewhere in North Carolina called simply “barbecue”) as Bar-B-Que Pork.

Nantahala River Gorge, North Carolina

I’m not usually one to prefer ambiance to deliciousness, but I spotted Pizza by the River in the Nantahala River Gorge near the Tennessee border, and stopped to buy a soda (even serendipity couldn’t possibly deliver tasty slices in a place like this) and snap a couple of photos of the view from the back ledge. Could this be America’s most scenic pizzeria? It was like a dream, and I kick myself for not getting a better exterior shot (I was rushing to get out of the gorge by sundown).

Adjacent is Roper’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q, which was, alas, closed. Both are right near Paddle Inn (14611 U.S. 19 West, Bryson City, North Carolina; 800-711-RAFT), one of myriad whitewater-rafting businesses between here and Chattanooga.

Speaking of water sports, Endless River Adventures seems to offer the widest range of kayaking/canoeing/rafting activities in the area, and they say that they “offer one of the longest paddling seasons in the country on a wide variety of spectacular rivers.”


This stuff’s taking over the South like—well, kudzu. The vine transforms everything in its path (trees, poles, power lines) into topiary. It’s shocking to see avalanches of kudzu flowing down a hill, devouring everything—even a couple of vehicles, poised to soon be lost under a sea of green:

Not to end on a terrifying note, here are some happy-looking horses I saw wandering around freely near the road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

Biltmore Blueblood Blues (Plus Barbecue)

Asheville, North Carolina

Podcast #1: Hear the game plan as I drive from the Piedmont toward the mountains—and Asheville. MP3 file

Lots of people love Asheville, and it’s on the way to Tennessee, so I stopped in to check it out. I found a town with a profound identity crisis, equal parts hippie artists, rural North Carolinians, and yuppies.

I recoiled from the yuppie camp (though I am carrying a Treo smartphone), and the artsy crowd seemed pretentious. I guess I felt most comfortable with the country folks, with whom I had the least in common. I fully realized that my comfort level was a bit artificial, since they’re polite enough to make you feel welcome even if they deeply dislike the looks of you. But, hey, it works for me. As a resident of Queens, New York, I’m thrilled anytime I say “Hello,” “Good-bye,” or “Thank you” and hear someone actually answer.

Asheville’s fracturedness is perfectly exemplified by its buzzy newish barbecue place, 12 Bones (5 Riverside Drive, Asheville, North Carolina; 828-253-4499). The décor signals a down-home aesthetic, but it’s filtered through a layer of self-conscious irony (have a look at their website to get the vibe). This extends to their menu, where the inclusion of things like smoked mushrooms and feta cheese salad with spiced pecans makes one doubt the ingenuousness of items like “mashed sweet taters” and banana pudding served with dry Nilla wafers on the side.

The food at 12 Bones shows the same uneasy ambivalence. Mac and cheese, tasting straight from a box, is either a hip statement, a guileless gesture of down-homeness, or lousy. I’m not sure which, and I’m not sure the kitchen is, either.

My pulled pork sandwich showed great skill and finesse. See the photos to admire the impressive irregularity of their coarse hand-chopping, the deft inclusion of outside brown, and the flecks of herbs from the gossamer finishing sauce. But also notice that the restaurant toasts and butters the rolls. This does contribute a sensual hit, but it’s a thoroughly wise-ass move that would provoke outrage—even physical violence—from hard-core ‘cue people. That said, deliciousness is deliciousness, and I did enjoy my sandwich very much. Also fine collard greens and local microbrew (from French Broad).

I hit 12 Bones on my way into town as sustenance for the uncertainty to follow. I’d taken a chance by booking a room at the lavish Inn on the Biltmore Estate, having scored a special Internet rate of $199/night, actually a great bargain. I thought it might be interesting to zoom in on a different economic universe at this transitional moment, as I prepare to ingest every rib and catfish in the adjacent state of Tennessee.

Food at the Biltmore itself is a question mark. So, only after the fortification of a good lunch, I drove the long, winding, breathtaking lane through the Biltmore grounds up to the Inn, where I instantly felt as if I’d been dropped into a Laura Ashley catalog. It didn’t go well. Hear my multiple lifeline-like calls to Pat Hammond (who’s helped run for years), wherein I whine from amid a lapful of luxury:

Podcast #2: MP3 file
Podcast #3: MP3 file
Podcast #4: MP3 file

Here are two of those rocking chairs I was waiting to occupy:

And here I am reclining in the lower-rent chair I eventually settled for:

For sure, the surroundings are beautiful. Here are some photos, all taken from the same side of the Inn (I didn’t want to stray far from The Chair):

But hound can’t live by view alone. After the indignities and annoyances described in my phone call to Pat (plus a bunch I won’t bore you with—well, OK, just one more: I chatted about wine with the friendly, sincere-seeming cocktail waitress, and she gleefully told me she knew “just the one” for me to try. I later found it cost double the price of all the other wines—and I caught her pulling the exact same routine with two other parties), I began to feel … well, ripped off. It felt as if many tendrils were aggressively groping for my cash. Hotels obviously exist to turn a profit, but the ancient tradition of hospitality draws a line that ought not be crossed.

When that line is crossed, it doesn’t bode well for good eating. Plus I felt a stubborn determination not to pay another buck—not even the additional $44 to tour the grounds. Plus, having finally sat down to consult prior discussion on Chowhound, I read that the food in the various Biltmore eateries is uniformly blah and overpriced. So I’ll go to bed without supper, and dash out first thing in the morning.

The Chow Less Eaten

Before I leave the state, here’s a rundown of some promising tips I failed to follow up on. If you try any, please report your experiences on Chowhound so that your fellow eaters can benefit!

Monsoon (10630 Highway 67 West, Butler, Tennessee; 423-768-3327) is, I’ve heard, a primitive but authentic Thai restaurant where you’d least expect it—in the agrarian, God-fearing hills of northeastern Tennessee (right across the border from North Carolina). I unfortunately chose the southern route into Tennessee. Drat.

Isabella’s (1720 Highway 88 West, West Jefferson, North Carolina; 336-846-2714), just on the other side of the North Carolina/Tennessee border, is another unlikely outpost, this one for Cuban food. They advertise “The Best Hamburgers in Town,” but I’d be all over their ropa vieja. Note: these two leads are courtesy of the folks at Maverick Farms (installment #15), who’ve not personally tried them.

Smithey’s Café (405 North Second Avenue, West Jefferson, North Carolina; 336-846-7737) does “country cooking, made fresh daily from scratch. Affordable food and a comfortable, local atmosphere. breakfast and lunch.” I heard about this good-sounding place while surfing for info on Isabella’s.

I passed scads of diminutive Biscuitville outlets, was charmed and slightly curious to try them, but declined because of their patent chain-ness. The parking guys, Daniel and Jonathan (see installment #20), say they’re great. My loss for being a snob!

Also in northwestern North Carolina, an unnamed lazy Susan place in Linville Falls was recommended by Jonathan, the parking guy. I couldn’t find more info but did serendipitously learn about Louise’s Rock House (10780 Linville Falls Highway, Linville Falls, North Carolina; 828-765-2702), which trustworthy-sounding folks like a lot for pulled pork. Might be a rare bastion of barbecue in the relatively ‘cue-deprived western part of the state.

Smith’s Grocery (Dortches, North Carolina; 252-443-4323), right off I-95 near the Virginia/North Carolina border (so a very hot tip for drivers), is a large market whose meat section includes barbecue (note that in North Carolina, “barbecue” always means pulled pork, unless otherwise specifically stated). It was recommended by the talented baker at Johnson’s Bakery, a.k.a. Kersh’s Old World Bakery (installment #16).

Bob Garner, the North Carolina barbecue expert whom I interviewed in installment #18, especially recommended two places, which he’d described with particular heartfeltness in his guidebook. I regret not being able to get to them: Grady’s (Arrington Bridge Road and Sleepy Creek Road, Dudley, North Carolina; 919-735-7243) and Branch’s (713 Red Hill Road, Mount Olive, North Carolina; 919-658-2031).

Carolina Wine Co. (6601 Hillsborough Street, Raleigh, North Carolina; 888-317-4499) is where Dave Sit (see installments #10, #11, and #12) mail-orders a lot of his wine. He says their selection and prices are real good.

I never did find North Carolina hot water cornbread (a.k.a. spoonbread) (hear the podcast in installment 20), and this was my biggest disappointment of the trip thus far. It’s a whole other grail for a whole other trip.

Some unused Winston-Salem tips from Jonathan and Daniel (the parking guys):

Alex’s Cafe (750 Summit Street, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 336-722-9080) for zucchini sticks.

Sweet Potatoes (529 North Trade Street, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 336-727-4844) for sweet potato fries.

Mayflower Seafood Restaurant (850 Peters Creek Parkway, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 336-725-3261) for all manner of seafood.

Burke Street Pizza (1140 Burke Street, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 336-721-0011) for great Philly cheese steak and cheeseburger subs.

Great Beer, So-So Antelope, and the ParkingHounds’ Big Debut

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

I’d strafed Winston-Salem while heading eastward from the mountains a few days earlier (see installment #17), just hitting the town’s southern fringe. Now, heading west toward Tennessee, I stayed downtown to plumb what I’d heard described as a chowhounding desert.

Needless to say, top priority was another visit to Family Diner (7911 NC Highway 68 N, Stokesdale, North Carolina; 336-643-8853), about a half-hour from Winston-Salem. It wasn’t quite as transcendent this time, and I’m not sure if it’s because I ordered other stuff (i.e., chicken and dumplings is their sole masterpiece), or because a different chef (they have many) was on duty. I still loved it, though. Meatloaf was full of personality, turnip greens were as soulful as ever, and they managed to cram more flavor into lowly canned green beans than one would imagine possible. Ribs were baked (not smoked) but extremely tender—as you’d expect in this bastion of texturelessness. Fried okra had sat around for a while, but cornbread was fresher this time, and it packed depths of nuance beneath its ordinary exterior. Family Diner is all about the hidden depths of nuance.

I’m still trying to figure this place out. The servers sit around swapping bawdy jokes, and the restaurant is open all night on weekends … yet there’s that hovering “No Profanity” sign, which I find incredibly intimidating (not to mention impossible to obey, given the God’s-name-in-vain-invoking quality of much of the food). Perhaps the sign is nothing more than a campy goof, and I’m just not hip enough to get the joke. But gosh darn it to heck, I’d never dare test the issue.

Foothills Brewing (638 West Fourth Street, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 336-777-3348) is a standard brewpub, with a variable lineup of beers, a number of them poorly crafted. Best are the lighter lager styles. Salem Gold—what beer geeks refer to as a “girlfriend beer”—has a nice snap and assertive bitterness. Torch Pils is drinkable, as well, with an admirably long finish. But the IPA, ESP, and Stout were flatline beers, made with little skill or care.

Double IPA is their featured special brew, with no free samples allowed. Dismayed by the rest of the lineup, I nearly skipped it. Thank goodness I didn’t. This is a great beer, with an aroma of stone fruit and mango, full body, and a complex, beautiful flavor. The sweetness perfectly counterbalances the searing bitterness and stratospheric alcohol level.

Here’s what blew my mind: This double IPA is actually one of Foothills’ most popular beers. Given that other brewpubs despair of selling the masses on anything but the lightest and most insipid styles, it’s dumbfounding that a beer this heavy, this flavorful, this weird, this … unbeery could be a hit in a football town with no craft-beer culture at all.

The food menu is equally surprising. Among all the usual pub-fare suspects were a number of game meats.

I found myself enjoying a plate of boar chops (12 o’clock in the photo), sliced antelope (3 o’clock), and venison (6 o’clock). None were prepared with great skill (potatoes and vegetables were downright icky), but it was certainly a more interesting dinner than I’d expected. The boar chops were more lamby than porcine, and not nearly as intense as the wild boar I had once in Spain. Antelope was my favorite, rich but not terribly gamey. Venison is more familiar, but this wasn’t a very good example. Not bad either, though.

Foothills had been recommended by the parking guys at my hotel, whom I invited for a late-night beer and who turned out to be so bright, articulate, and insightful that someone just has to give them their own radio show. Take it away, Daniel and Jonathan:

MP3 file:
1. Tales of eating antelope, aardvark, monkey brains, elephant, and rhinoceros.

MP3 file:
2. Exotic eating in the South (possum, squirrel, asiago bagels, etc.).

MP3 file:
3. Chitlins and dumplings (and the mysterious “sea loaf”).

MP3 file:
4. Daniel’s chow faves in St. Louis (tips to file away!).

MP3 file:
5. Jonathan’s trip to Alaska.

MP3 file:
6. What’s “hot-water cornbread”? And why do you never see spoonbread on menus in NC? Mystery solved!

MP3 file:
7. Daniel’s intriguing and unusual recipe for garlic soup.

MP3 file:
8. Your quest, son, is to find catfish in Tennessee.

There’s not much great barbecue right here, as Lexington, North Carolina, is such a mecca so nearby (in fact, the best places in Winston-Salem all advertise themselves as “Lexington Barbecue,” much like pizzerias anywhere near New Haven tend to market their product as “New Haven-Style”).

The purist choice for those put off by the kooky sauces at Hill’s and at Short Sugar’s (see installment #17) is Little Richard’s Lexington BBQ (best location: 4885 Country Club Road, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 336-760-3457). Daniel and Jonathan urged me there.

It’s unexceptional, but only in the sense that it didn’t awe me after I had visited the towering giants of North Carolina barbecuedom. If Little Richard’s were to be magically transported to my block in Queens, New York, I’d swoon with joy.

The picture tells the story: nice coarse by-hand chop, and that’s outside brown you’re seeing mixed in there, son. Which leads to the next photo:

Check out the notation “some osb.” God, I love that. I told the waitress I wanted “some outside brown,” a subtle statement rife with meaning. And she faithfully transmitted my wishes. Sure enough, my plate was mostly regular barbecue, but studded with some brown crunchy highlights. Nice.

The hush puppies were real good. But the hush puppies are always real good. It’s like beer in Belgium: Grandeur is assumed.

That bottom sign’s a hoot.

Daniel and Jonathan also like Jimmy the Greek’s (2806 University Parkway, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 336-722-0184) for Southern breakfast. My order was decent. Those guys insisted you can find hot-water cornbread (a.k.a. spoonbread) there, but I’m dubious.

A friend said, in an earlier podcast, that there were no good late-night music clubs in Winston-Salem. Nope, there’s a real good one, with a pretty good beer list, too. RubberSoul Bar (1148 Burke Street, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 336-721-0570) is a fun joint for listening to live groups. I caught a great local party band called Solos, with a NYC-caliber bassist and frontmen who sing and rap with equal aplomb.

Fried Chicken, Frozen Custard, and Barbecue

Eastern-ish North Carolina

As discussed in the podcast I recorded en route (MP3 file), I had lunch at the Farmer’s Market Restaurant (Raleigh Farmer’s Market, 1240 Farmer’s Market Drive, Raleigh, North Carolina; 919-833-7973), a very well-known spot that had piqued my interest since I read about it in the book Southern Belly. I’ll let the photos do the talking:

The South is a place where a grown-up can order chocolate milk without compunction.

Experience the thrill of arriving dishes via PlateCam (be sure you’re seated; the profusion of amazing-looking dishes could make strong men dizzy!): Movie file

Main conclusion … MAN that fried chicken’s great. I don’t need to describe it to you because it tastes exactly like it looks (click the photos for the full-sized food-porn view).

The Raleigh Farmer’s Market itself is very laid-back, and quality is high.

Cornhounds vie for position to spy the best ears.

The ice cream tastes as simple, homespun, and irresistible as the sign.

Could you imagine a more transportive array? I hope Atkinson’s stays in business another 250 years.

Blenheim, a super-potent ginger ale.

The cute blonde woman who sat next to me at the counter of the Farmer’s Market Restaurant urged me to try Goodberry’s Frozen Custard (1146 Kildaire Farm Road, Cary, North Carolina; 919-467-2386). I checked it out, and it was honest-to-goodness real frozen custard, not just glorified soft-serve. Wow!

Experience the extruding suspense of CustardCam: Movie file

Hear the exultant slurping in Podcast 2: MP3 file

The great New Jersey frozen custard mentioned in the podcast is at CustardThing (100 North Washington Avenue, Bergenfield, New Jersey; 201-439-1818).

Wilber’s (4172 U.S. 70, East Goldsboro, North Carolina; 919-778-5218) makes great barbecue. It has vastly more depth of flavor and complexity than what I’d previously derided as “sloppy Joe” barbecue, in which the pork is mushy and one-dimensional. The meat seems hand-sliced but isn’t quite the textural marvel of Allen & Son’s. It’s also not as moist as Allen & Son’s —though it’s by no means dry. Saucing is very light.

BBQ chicken is moist and richly flavorful but tastes of no smoke at all. The rich yellow sauce is redolent of chicken fat and manages to taste sharp without any chili pepper.

Nice surprise —the cherry pie was made with sour cherries. Unfortunately, they microwaved it. Why does everyone down here nuke pie? And, for that matter, does anyone in the South still make real mashed potatoes?