We had barely visited Pontes’ latest venture LB’s Market House on 12 South, but walking by it today, we saw that it was short-lived. Butcher paper covers the windows, with signs saying that something called Sloco is coming soon. Sloco has a Facebook page, with some info and intentions for the new place, like bike delivery and a “virtual” butcher shop.

There’s an organized movement to get wine into Nashville’s grocery stores.* This would make grocery store visits all the more convenient and worthwhile.

There are plenty of ways to get involved:  contact legislators, spread the word, etc. For info on how to do so, go to www.redwhiteandfood.com.

This has got to happen soon.

*”The Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association is advocating this change [and the above-mentioned website]. The association represents large corporate stores and small independent grocers across the state.”

Chinese Food in Nashville

February 20, 2010

In America, there’s good Chinese food and bad Chinese food.  Let me explain:  good Chinese food is served up by restaurants that attempt to offer un-Americanized or regional Chinese food. They don’t do buffets, and they don’t put sushi dishes or rolls on their menus.  They can come across as rude to English-speaking customers.  They often have untranslated menus in Chinese characters.  They offer feet, innards, and things not available at Harris Teeter, Kroger’s, Whole Foods, Publix, or Trader Joe’s.  There are a variety of Chinese vegetables.  They may have algae-infested tanks of crustaceans, fish, and eel.  Service is dependably lousy.  They don’t apologize or explain to customers their way of business; customers deal with it.  Nashville has no such restaurant.  A sad reality.

What we do have, however, are bad  Chinese restaurants.  This means buffet lunches, “chicken McNugget on a stick” (as heard from a fellow diner recently), sauces in packets, chicken breasts only, broccoli as your only vegetable, a brown rice option, and vegetarian egg rolls.  These restaurants serve up food they think Nashvillians imagine what Chinese food should be.  We have a variety of such restaurants.  It’s all a matter of figuring out:  which are the good bad-Chinese-food restaurants?

Probably the most well-known and consistent example of a bad-Chinese-food restaurant is PF Chang’s on West End.  Desperate for any kind of Chinese food when we first moved here, we ate there a few times.  First impression:  there’s nothing more offensive than a waiter coming up to our table and asking if we’ve ever had Chinese food before–only to then explain it’s served family style.  [Ask if we’ve been to PF Chang’s before, and that’ll go over better.]  I don’t need you to explain the sauces at the table either, thanks.  Second impression, we once asked a server if they had bok choy that night.  She turned to us and asked incredulously, “What, you think this is a real Chinese restaurant?”  Confirmation that this is another bad-Chinese-food restaurant.  Golden Coast, August Moon, Chinatown, et al. fall under this category–albeit at a cheaper price.

There are days when I’m craving Chinese food, and I drive all over town.  I’m hoping for the best bad-Chinese food that will churn my stomach the least.  I return most often to:

China Spring (next to the Melrose Kroger)
2613 Franklin Pike
Nashville, TN 37204-3042
615.386.3892‎

It’s a buffet-ed lunch, though with an interesting lunch crowd.  Their buffet’s meat dishes are all variations of chicken, save the beef and broccoli.  For lunch or dinner, you can always order off the regular menu and get decent dishes.  Not a sit-down dinner place, but more of a take-out dinner option.  Strip-mall architecture and decor.  Nevertheless, they at least play Chinese music, and the food is cooked with fresh ingredients.  The gentleman who works the cash register can be charmingly snarky.  To-go portions are quite bountiful, and their low-mein is worth a try.  So goodly bad, it doesn’t have its own website.

To further enjoy the rare snow shower in Nashville, I decided to make a big pot of pho, the classic Vietnamese soup.  My thinking: the aroma of the broth’s anise, charred onion and ginger, and cinnamon would pcozy up the house.  And the hearty pot would feed us for days, in case we didn’t feel like trudging very far in the snow.  Hungry friends who found their way to Chez Vu would also find some comfort in the soup’s warmth.  However, making a beef soup from scratch in Nashville always presents a problem:  where to get the beef bones.  (But before discussing this quandary, a picture of the soup.)

It’s already difficult enough buying quality meats in town, but it’s nearly impossible to buy bones, even chicken bones, for soup.  If meats are being processed for Nashville, where are all the bones?  Why not sell them?  Is everything processed in remote locations that make it too costly to ship the bones (which means not very fresh meats)?  Or is this symptomatic of both Nashville’s cooking habits (demand) and the state of our city’s butchering (supply)?  Or is there some unknown reason why grocery stores don’t sell bones?

The problems of purchasing soup bones derive from the evolution of butchering in Nashville.  First, small butcher shops have become extinct.  Anecdotal stories we’ve heard attribute this to big-chain grocery stores arriving in the ’50s and 60s.  They aggressively low-balled their meats to price out independent butchers.  Nashville’s last attempt at old-school, neighborhood-feel butchering seems to have been Todd’s Butcher Shop on Charlotte.  It closed in 2008.  The big-box grocery stores still sell meats packaged elsewhere, with no bones to be found in the back.  The same can be said of the newcomer Trader Joe’s.  The other new grocer on the Nashville block, Whole Foods, has butchers working in the back–slicing and dicing the meat, but alas no bones are sold, even when asked.

On Nolenvsille and Charlotte Pke are halal markets that offer mutton, lamb, chicken (fresh and at great prices)–but no beef bones (chicken bones yes).  There are also the K&S outposts on both of these roads, and they do have the bones I’m looking for.  But they’re always frozen and brown, with their packaging ripped, and thus they’re coated in crystallized frost–all of which makes me question the quality.  (Some connoisseurs insist that ox tails are the secret ingredient to pho.  In this case, K&S would be the place in town to go.)

More recently, there have been meat vendors at the Farmers’ Market.  These folks raise their own cows, chickens, and pigs sustainably and free-range.   They offer beef bones upon request–often under the misnomer “dog bones.”  The prices are steep–which I don’t mind.  But too often the flavoring is not as rich as I’d like them, and even more difficult, the bones are not cut properly by the processors.  The same can be said for the underutilized “eye round” cut/roast.  (When you order the fresh/raw meat version of pho, this is the cut most often used.)  The eye round cuts that I’ve bought from different vendors have been hacked up in all different kinds of ways.  This option is too frustrating and expensive.

All this is to say that I have little choice but to buy pho bones from Whole Foods–at a compromise of $7/lb for short ribs (x 3 lbs.).  Already too expensive, these bones don’t have the marrow which would add that special flavoring to the pot.

We need more bones in this town!