Monday, August 10, 2009

Jimmy Carl's Lunch Box-Nashville, TN

“You got the money to start a barbecue restaurant from winning a game show?”

That’s how my conversation with the owners of Jimmy Carl’s Lunch Box started earlier this summer at Yazoo Brewery. A couple of beers later, Russell Nelson and Pat Isbey had told me how Russell won $14,600 on Trivia Pursuit- America Plays, hosted by Peter Brady (Christopher Knight). Soon after, a phone call to Pat put the wheels in motion, beginning what is arguably the best business start-up story ever.

While there is plenty more to the story than just winning some money, that teaser alone was enough to get me interested in checking out Jimmy Carl’s, which is named after the original drummer in Frank Zappa’s band.

Pat & Russell opened Jimmy Carl’s Lunch Box on May 6th inside the Station Inn, which is a legendary music venue in Nashville. Set amid the trendy Gulch area, the Station Inn is a total dive that is famous for bluegrass. A draft beer joint in what’s now a fancy-lad-drink part of town, the Station Inn is a Nashville relic. Long before condos with names like Velocity and Icon made the Gulch the place to be seen in the latest designer t-shirt, the Station Inn was hosting famous bluegrass jams seven nights a week.

This plays well for Jimmy Carl’s, as one of the hardest parts about opening a new barbecue restaurant is trying to replicate the character of the places that have been doing it for 30 years. By leasing a place with personality dripping from the walls, Jimmy Carl’s checked that hurdle off the list.

The first time I went there for lunch, I was impressed by the giant smoker that sits parked outside the Station Inn. With the smell of hickory and smoked ribs, chicken and pork wafting to the parking lot, the smoker sets the stage for what’s in store on the inside.

After several successful visits trying everything on the menu, my go-to order is the smoked thighs with beans and a rib tasting (2 bones). The chicken has a great smoke taste and is very well seasoned. The juicy dark meat explodes with flavor when you take the first bite and there is more than enough of it to fill you up.

The ribs are very good as well, and I love that they offer the sampler as a way to get the best of both worlds without feeling like a total tank ass. Pat, who mans the smoker, starts the ribs out with a rub of salt, pepper, chili powder and cumin. He places them on a grill first for a few minutes, then wraps them in foil before putting them on the smoker. After a while he unwraps the ribs and lets the smoke sink in. Before serving he puts a little bit of honey on top and finishes them on the grill.

I had never seen a preparation method like that before, but it’s hard to argue with the results. The ribs have a great flavor-the honey, cumin and chili powder seem to balance each other out and the smoke ring is very prevalent.

Pat is probably one of the few pitmasters out there that has been formally trained in a gourmet kitchen (Rumours East under Hernan Borda). His knowledge of food preparation and experience with different flavor combinations allows him to prepare some outside-the-box, yet delicious barbecue dishes. I’m not one that likes to stray too far from the traditional barbecue path, and I’m happy to say that Pat succeeds in pulling off his unique twists to the timeless classics.

The beans, for instance, are baby-making good. They are loaded with pulled pork, and packed full of flavor. They start by caramelizing onions similar to the preparation for a french-onion soup (a nod to his formal training), only he uses drippings from the smoked pork shoulder to add a great smokey flavor from the beginning. Then comes the beans, seasonings, sauce and loads of pork. I don’t like baked beans and I think they’re fantastic. In addition to the beans they offer a spicy slaw and a macaroni salad, both of which I liked. They have two sauces, hot and mild. Try them both.

Smoked bologna is a unique item on the menu, and it’s actually pretty damn good. Throw out whatever mental image you have of soggy, luke warm sandwiches from grade school and give it a shot. Probably not healthy enough to eat every time, but definitely worth trying, maybe as an appetizer if you have a group.

The food at Jimmy Carl’s stands on its own merit. It’s legitimately good barbecue in a town tragically lacking a barbecue superstar.

In addition to the food, Russell and Pat are great guys that go out of their way to make you feel at home. Russell handles the front of the house and if they’re not slammed he’s more than happy to sit down and chat with you about their food, sports or really just about anything. On your second trip, Pat will welcome you back as you pass him outside on the smoker and likely will come visit your table before you leave as well.

They’re the kind of guys you want to have a beer with, which I imagine they’d be more than happy to do with you if they’re not catering an event at night.

So if you’re in the mood for barbecue, get a group of your coworkers together and do something a little different for lunch. There is plenty of free parking and it’s easy to get in and out in an hour.

Jimmy Carl’s Lunch Box is open Tuesday through Friday for lunch (11-3) and they’re also available for catering.

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