What To Eat in Tennessee
Between the Mountains of the east and the cotton fields of the west, in its cities and small towns, Tennessee’s incredible diversity is reflected in a state menu that has something for everyone. Barbecue? Memphis just might have the nation’s finest, both wet and dry. Fried chicken? It’s glorious in Nashville, hot chicken especially! Country ham is served throughout the state, as are superb southern vegetables as part of a meat-and-three lunch in which meat is frequently abjured in favor of a fourth vegetable.
Created in Nashville, and still best there, hot chicken is crisp-fried and imbued skin to bone with peppers' fire. It originated at the still-thriving Prince's Chicken Shack a couple of generations ago when proprietor Thornton Prince's girlfriend, wanting to get even with him for his carousing one night, sopped his fried chicken in a painful amount of pepper. Instead of screaming for mercy, he yelled for joy; and hot fried chicken soon became Prince's trademark. Hot chicken always is served with white bread, which sops up the spicy juices and becomes a delicious hot companion.
Many southern states make a big deal of country ham as well as of biscuits. Nowhere are the two put together with more panache than in Tennessee, where the full presentation also includes red-eye gravy (ham drippins and black coffee), sorghum syrup. fruit preserves and, of course, a couple of eggs.
A term used through much of the South but especially in Nashville, "meat and three" quite simply refers to a menu template that lists two to five entrees and one or two dozen side dishes. From these lists, a diner picks one entree and three sides. Among the sides will be vegetables, but also congealed salads, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, and rice. Cornbread, hoe cakes, biscuits and/or dinner rolls are always provided on the side. Variations include meat and two or meat and three without the meat, meaning an all‑vegetable plate of three or four selections. While it is possible for a meat and three meal to be simplicity itself -- meat loaf with mashed potatoes, glazed carrots and butter beans -- the list of side dishes likely includes a number of souped-up vegetable casseroles in which squash, broccoli or spinach is transformed into a luxurious indulgence by use of butter or margarine and bread crumbs; also, greens and cabbage tend to be enriched by massive infusions of pig in the form of fatback, country ham or neck bones.
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Supple spaghetti noodles topped with thick, salty red sauce headline at Louis Original, Knoxville's old-school Italian-American restaurant favorite.
Tiny diner just off Pigeon Forge's busy Parkway in the Smoky Mountains, Lil Black Bear is an oasis of personal charm and country cooking with crazy twists.
The Cupboard of Memphis is all about fresh vegetables, well over a dozen of which are on the menu daily. For dessert: some of the best cream pies anywhere.
Ed's is a Nashville hot fish restaurant specializing in immense fried whiting sandwiches dressed with hot sauce, mustard, pickles and raw onion.
400 Degrees offers a unique take on Nashville hot chicken, each piece thickly painted with hot sauce that forms a tremendously savory crust.
Zarzour's of Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a family-run lunch-only restaurant serving homey meat-and-3 meals, superb hamburgers, and millionaire pie for dessert.
Alex's is a smoky dive where the chef-bartender lumbers back to the kitchen to cook Greek Burgers, some of the best bar burgers anywhere.
Real Tennessee pit barbecue still can be found at Helen's, an out-of-the-way, smoke-worn shack serving sandwiches worth any detour.
Legendary home for true Southern soul food since 1946, Four Way has been through many changes, but it remains a worthy Memphis destination.