My gargantuan cross-country road trip ended with an epic Cambodian meal in a faraway city on a faraway coast. But it began with barbecue and beer. I can’t think of a better introduction to American road food than smoked meat smashed between two pieces of white bread and slathered with a complex sticky red sauce. Can you think of anything that makes you prouder to be an American? I’m not sure I can.
Before I get into that legendary stack of meat you see in the photo above, let’s first make a stop in Nashville.
And let’s take a walk down Broadway and soak in the sights, sounds, and smells of our country’s music capital and one of the greatest cities in the American South. Linds and I found ourselves in Nashville on the second day of our two week road trip from Jacksonville to Vancouver. We had merely an afternoon here, and there were a few things we knew we needed to cover. Ryman Theatre… banjo store… we checked those off our list within the first hour. Then our bellies started rumbling and we went stumbling down Broadway, open bar doors greeting us with live music, street musicians just as talented as the paid ones within, hot sun, tired feet, rumbling bellies…
“Where can a couple of hungry gals get some good eats in Nashville?” we asked a police officer leaning on his car on the side of the street. “Why, my family and I like Jack’s.” Lucky us. Jack’s Bar-B-Que was right across the street from where we stood.
There was a line out the door. Good sign. Surely we can trust the advice of our law enforcement buddy. Most diners seemed to be tourists, but what can you expect from a ‘cue joint on Broadway, the main tourist drag of Nashville? We had the blessing of a local so I felt confident in our decision. Plus, just because a place is touristy doesn’t mean it’s not tasty. Sometimes places are touristy precisely because they are tasty. Right?
Jack’s Bar-B-Que is a lively, casual eatery with high ceilings and dining areas both upstairs and down. There’s a real sense of intimacy here; you’re elbow-to-elbow with hungry folks and there’s a communal salivation over the smell of smoked meat and the sight of mac ‘n’ cheese behind the counter. Thankfully, the line is quick-moving; order and pay at the counter, take it to a table. Food is served on Styrofoam plates, just like it would be at a friend’s backyard barbecue.
We ordered a combo plate: any three meats with two vegetables, $13. What sounded good to us? “St. Louis” ribs, Tennessee pork shoulder, and smoked turkey. All of the meats were smoky and benefited from a dollop of one of the many sauces available just past the cash register. The vinegary Tennessee sauce was the chosen moistener for my meats. Sides: green beans, mac ‘n’ cheese, baked beans, potato salad. Mac ‘n’ cheese counts as a vegetable?! I love the South.
We had sweet tea at Jack’s. The beer came later, but not much later. To be precise, about two-and-a-half minutes later, at a bar down the street called Roberts Western World. It drew us in with live music and a glimpse of a dark room filled with bikers and cowboys and tourists. Seemed like the perfect Nashville experience to me.
Up on stage was a cute cowboy in tight jeans crooning the perfect country – hillbilly – rockabilly – honky tonk blend. Pair that with a cold Dos Perros to make me forget the heat and the long drive ahead...
That night we had a picnic dinner by the banks of the Mississippi under the St. Louis Arch. And the next afternoon, we had barbecue and beer. Again.
This time at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, Missouri. Arthur Bryant’s is right off the interstate and it’s no frills, but it’s legendary amongst ‘cue fanatics. It’s also legendary amongst famous folks who may or may not be ‘cue fanatics. Witness the photos hanging on the walls of illustrious guests, plates piled high with meat: Steven Spielberg, Harry Truman, John McCain, a smiling Sarah Palin. A photo of Woodrow Bacon, pit chef for over 60 years, keeps you company as you wait your turn to choose between smoky brisket, pork, turkey, sausage, or chicken. I trust any joint that has a pit chef with the surname “Bacon.”
We went triple B-style: big brisket, baked beans, and Boulevard beer. And French fries, which are double-fried in lard and were so good they can easily be considered in an “F” category all their own. This was a ridiculous amount of food. It was supposed to be a meal for one person but Linds and I had brisket coming out of our ears when we slowly staggered out of there. And it was less than 15 bucks, total.
I’d heard that Arthur Bryant hailed from Texas (he’s dead now, RIP) and that naturally the brisket was the best thing on the menu. I didn’t eat anything other than the brisket, but I bet it was the best thing on the menu. How could anything be better? It is tender. It is perfectly and thinly sliced against the grain. It is smoky and flavorful and rich. And it is a perfect foil for Arthur Bryant’s stunning original sauce. This sauce isn’t shy. It’s dark and gritty and complex and packs a powerful paprika and vinegar punch. This sauce makes you sit up straight and notice. The beans and beer would garner adulation and endless accolades if I would have eaten them somewhere other than Arthur Bryant’s, but I’ve already wasted too much space gushing about the fries and the brisket. So there you go.
These first two barbecue-soaked days of our road trip were the catalyst for my befuddlement at how my driving and eating partner-in-crime Linds manages to stuff her face with, oh, a few pounds of smoked meat, a pile of fries, and a beer… and still maintain her beautiful figure. But my bafflement did not end in Kansas City. Oh no. This was only the beginning.
416 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203