The Quest for Great Nashville Barbecue
Opinions vary. Is it barbecue, bar-b-que or BBQ? And who sells Nashville’s best? Them’s fightin’ words. Unlike St. Louis or Memphis, Nashville doesn’t have a style to call its own but hickory-smoked pulled pork is probably most prevalent.
I won’t declare a winner but allow me to introduce you to some of the most popular pitmasters, starting with the three that seem most prominent. How’d they get that honor? My theory is that they have multiple locations, are closer to more patrons, and/or have received more publicity…but don’t discount the others.
SoBro, Midtown, Belmont and surrounding communities. Probably the publicity winner (lots of press including a “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives” feature) for its West Tennessee whole hog philosophy. But they also serve brisket, bologna, and turkey as well as fried chicken, catfish and really tasty burgers. Wings are shown much love among reviewers. Novel items include their redneck taco (that’s pulled meat of your choice and cole slaw on a cornbread hoecake), brunswick stew, and crunchy broccoli salad. Fudge and pecan pie slices will tantalize your sweet tooth. TIP: If you visit the downtown location, go upstairs to the beer garden for faster service and maybe even live music.
East Nashville, Sylvan Park, 12South and Donelson. Probably a better reputation for pulled pork than its ribs or brisket but they also serve up hot chicken and surprisingly delightful catfish. Solid choices all around for side items (except for their just-okay cornbread). I opt for their savory baked beans and get fancy with their cheese grits topped with Gouda. My bride goes for their barbecue nachos on fries instead of tortilla chips. I prefer mine on their thin housemade potato chips–but eat fast ‘cause they get soggy. TIP: Banana pudding can be ordered as a side item.
The Gulch. Memphis-style dry rub ribs are the big news but they also smoke pork shoulder and chicken. Southern palates are indulged with pork rinds, pimento cheese, and fried pies. Of note: pitmaster Carey Bringle has done his thing at James Beard House twice and Southern Living readers crowned Peg Leg as “2023 Best Barbecue in Tennessee.”
Pig Star—Located at the Nashville International Airport, it’s kind of a subset of Peg Leg Porker with a shorter menu.
Downtown, Charlotte Avenue, Trinity Lane. Since 1976, Gentleman Jack Cawthon has been making southern food sing. His kitchen is all over the map (in a good way) with Tennessee pork shoulder, Texas brisket and sausage, St. Louis style ribs, smoked Boston turkey and no-specific-location chicken. His baked apples are almost pie filling, his green beans are kissed with smoked meat and onion, and his mac’n’cheese tastes like Big Mama’s. Save room for pie, cobbler or banana pudding. His joint at 416 Broadway is ultra-convenient for downtown visitors. Typically the line moves pretty fast.
Downtown. Rippy’s doesn’t get much local love because Nashvillians shy away from Lower Broad. Ribs are their claim to fame but you’ll also find all the other usual suspects as well as burgers, wraps, and chili. The fact they rebranded themselves as a honky tonk displaces their sturdy abilities with a smoker but you do get live music with your meal.
Downtown, downtown Franklin, Nashville Airport. The menu’s so expansive I wouldn’t call it a barbecue joint although they get props for their cherry-wood smoked meats cooked low and slow with a Memphis-style dry rub. Options include ribs, pulled pork, meatloaf, and chicken. Their barbecue burrito is a messy delight.
Capitol View and Hillsboro Village. Based in Memphis, ribs are their calling card but there’s also pulled pork, brisket, chicken and turkey. All the usual sides plus greens, housemade potato chips, onion rings and pork rinds. They offer salads too, but why?
Now shifting from the most central locations…
East Nashville. Don’t come for the atmosphere–it’s a food truck adjoining a butcher shop with a tent for a dining room. But modest surroundings here produce brag-worthy cherry-wood smoked meats with a taste of Texas. Short list of side items–remember they’re working from a food truck.
Inglewood. A little farther north of The Gambling Stick, it’s more Texas flair. Many locals declare Shotgun Willie’s THE joint for Nashville’s best brisket but they can also hook you up with sausage, pork shoulder, or chicken. They’re only open 11am-3pm Wednesday through Sunday so increase your chances of scoring some barbecue by getting there on the early side.
Inglewood. Rhonda the bartender declared this her favorite barbecue and she’s been working among musicians and barflies for 15+ years. You could practically throw a rib from Shotgun Willie’s to this spot.
East of Downtown. Another Texas adherent, it offers a broad array of meats a few miles east of downtown off Murfreesboro Road. Go down the cafeteria line to see your options. A working man’s paradise for good food at a fair price but note: they’re only open M-F, 11am-2pm.
East Nashville. Located up an alley (no lie), choose from pulled pork or chicken, bratwurst, brisket, wings, sausage, or fried catfish. The smoke so permeated the meat I barely needed sauce. Sides include their I-could-make-a-meal-out-of-them baked beans. Outliers: veggie burgers and black bean nachos. A distinguishing point: there’s live music on the patio most evenings. Bring the kids and the dog.
West Nashville. Rib lovers swear by their St. Louis style spare ribs but you can also get sausage, brisket, pulled pork or chicken, wings, fried catfish, or chicken tenders. Sandwiches include their versions of a cubano, chicanos, burgers, and BLTs.
The Nations. Call it the slightly upscale cousin of Peg Leg Porker, the menu expands to include beef ribs, prime rib, pork chops, burnt ends, glazed bacon, and jalapeno cheese sausage. Typical sides plus street corn, tomatoes, and jalapeno cheese grits.
Hermitage. Located at Nashville Shores Marina, its full name is Papa Turney’s Old Fashion BBQ and Miss Zeke’s Juke Joint. It’s for those who like a side order of blues with their barbecue. My friend Carol swears by their brisket. It was sold out the night I went but I can vouch for their moist pulled pork plate (only $11.95). Check the link for the live music schedule.
Bellevue. Barbecue boss Ben Claybaker adds a little flair to his hickory fire with sides such as bourbon baked beans, white queso mac’n’cheese, and parmesan green beans. Inventive appetizers too. Candied bacon, anyone? If you don’t like sweetness, hold off on their barbecue sauce. But if you do have a sweet tooth, I hear their peanut butter banana pudding is divine.
Opry Mills. Confession: I’m not big on chains and this is a big chain–but if you’re in the area, this might scratch your itch for pulled chicken or pork, ribs, brisket, turkey, sausage, or salmon. Won’t give you that downhome feeling but gets decent reviews from barbecue lovers. Choose from 10 flavors of sauce.
Hendersonville. I grew on their pulled pork sandwiches but the family’s been in the smokehouse since the mid ‘50s. You don’t last that long without knowing your P’s and Q’s about BBQ. Only place I know where minced pork is an option. Unique offerings: corn on the cob, fried pork loin, fried okra, and pickled eggs. Their smoked ham got a shout-out on “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives.” Their service gets mixed reviews.