Editor’s Note: I recently took a day trip to Nashville for the sole purpose of eating my way across the city. This is the last in a four-part series about that day that started in The Gulch at Biscuit Love Brunch, then to Monell’s at the Manor, Fido’s in Hillsboro Village and now we’ll pick up on my last stop of the day, local Nashville bar-b-que.
It was about 2:30 p.m. when we arrived at Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint. It’s a good sign of things to come when you can smell a BBQ place about a block away. Martin’s literally has smoke rolling out in the dining room. Earlier in the day, Chef Karl at Biscuit Love Brunch told me that the baby back ribs at Martin’s were somewhat of a religious experience. But for me, the entire atmosphere was special from the moment I walked into the joint.
While I understand the playlist may change, I was treated to nothing but true, old country music during my visit: Willie, Waylon, Merle and Johnny non-stop. Score.
There was a whole hog smoking on a pit INSIDE the restaurant, and the staff tended the fire constantly. Smoking the meat isn’t relegated to some back room or outside of the restaurant at Martin’s, it happens right in the center of it all, for the customers to see. Old fashioned transparency and real authentic meat-smoking was at hand. The staff says that they recognize that the indoor smoking is part of the “charm of the place” and that sometimes they come in the morning to find there’s not enough smoke in the building, so they’ll wave a chunk of smoking wood around the room!
It’s refreshing in this day of frozen and microwaved barbecue to discover a real bonafide smoking joint. We were privy to peek in when they lifted the lid of their whole hog pit, and there’s nothing like seeing the hickory smoke lovingly wash around the skin of a fine pig. It was a shame I had a plane to catch, really.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of the food served at Martin’s, shall we? Let’s start somewhere we shouldn’t start, because I don’t ever like or eat the Baked Beans. Usually, it’s simply someone’s version of a Bush’s baked bean with a little added ketchup, mustard, hot sauce or molasses to make a variant one degree from the original and call it their own. Not so with the Martin’s beans. It could have been the small chunks of brisket that I found in each bite, but the beans stole my heart. And I don’t eat baked beans. I’m glad they insisted that I try them albeit the 12-gauge method of encouragement was a bit over the top. But I needed to try the beans, so I don’t blame them.
Now, on to the actual smoke and flesh, which is why I’m drawn to places like Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint: smoked meats. The meat is true slow and low hickory style cooking. I consider myself a master of ribs. I’ve cooked hundreds of racks of ribs, and I almost cried when I bit into the Baby Back Rib at Martin’s. Aside from the fact that “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain” was oozing out of the speakers in the room, I can’t think of another reason other than the sheer perfection of these ribs. They were better than anything I’ve ever cooked at home. There, I said it. And my flight was worth it just for that bite. I don’t think it was the music, though; I think it was the gentle five-hour cook time Martin’s uses that allows the ribs to soak up maximum smoke and achieve maximum tenderness without falling off the bone.
I moved, reluctantly to the chicken. I like chickens. I love pigs. I rarely get excited about chicken, but the wings at Martin’s again changed my tune. I tried the wings with their house “Alabama White” sauce, and it was everything I’ve always wished a wing would be. It has some heat, but there was flavor oozing out of every fiber.
I’m convinced that the amount of smoke that actually gets to the meats at Martin’s and the way in which foods are prepared here aren’t the norm in the barbecue restaurant world. I could taste pride in each bite, and I saw that pride thriving in the hearts of every member of the Martin’s team. Ultimately, Martin’s makes the list as one of my top BBQ places of all times, not a title I award casually.
The only downfall to my time at Martin’s was that I was required to continuously check my time. Although I didn’t have to go through security, I didn’t want to keep my host waiting. I took a to-go box to share with my compadres on the flight home, and it was soon wings up from Nashville. See you again soon, Music City.