Let me start by saying that not a meal goes by that I don't thank my lucky legislative stars for the arrival of Smokefree Tennessee. It's hard to believe we're coming up on the fifth anniversary of the law that prohibits lighting up in the workplace. In fact, I can hardly remember what it was like to dine under a haze of nicotine and tar.
And yet, there's something about The Judge's Vinegarroon that stirs an odd nostalgia for the brand of smoky old poolrooms that Willie Nelson's cowboys love. It's not pool tables — there are no such felt-covered features at Aubrey Bean's new beery, beefy barbecue joint. And it's not cigarettes. So what could it be?
Of all things, it's smoke. The good kind of smoke. The kind that billows up from the coals and tangles its way around a slab of ribs, then twists through the wire racks of a barrel-turned-cooker to loop and limbo over and under links of sausage and saddles of brisket.
The smoke at Bean's latest culinary tribute to all things Texas is mesquite, and it makes its way into the repertoire of brisket, pork ribs, chicken and sausage courtesy of two smokers parked in the back lot, alongside a miniature locomotive engine that doubles as a warming drawer for the slow-cooked meats once they've been removed from the fumes.
Before you get yourself confused and end up at some other judge's chambers, here's the deal: Texas transplant Aubrey "Judge" Bean cued up his Nashville 'cue business a decade ago, in a rustic roadhouse near the fairgrounds. At that lovably low-key locale, plastic bags of water dangled from the patio ceiling to distract flies from the food, and Bean earned a loyal following for his brisket tacos slathered with guacamole, and jalapeños stuffed with shrimp and cheese.
After a few years, he relocated to the Gulch, where he took over the former Cafe 123 location. (These days, Bean's brother operates Rooster's barbecue joint out of that address.) Next, Judge Bean's migrated to Church Street in Brentwood, but the Judge sold his interest in that enterprise, rested for a while, then opened the Vinegarroon on yet another Church Street, this one in midtown Nashville.
Bean moved in last year, after a string of short-lived restaurants moved in and out of the current midtown space, failing to establish any long-term identities. In no time, he transformed the room into a comfortable man cave, festooned with Western memorabilia and taxidermy. The endearing plastic sacks of water now hang from the panels of a drop ceiling, but the rugged Lone Star patina is still enough to make babies wanna grow up to be cowboys, especially if it means they can eat the kind of grub that Bean & Co. are churning out. Fans of the Judge's earlier eateries will recognize a lot of familiar fare; meanwhile, there's a new addition of several steaks, all priced under $20.
Vinegarroon borrows its name from the Texas town where hanging judge Roy Bean executed his infamous suspended sentences. It is also the name of a whip scorpion that defends itself with a vinegary spray. And there are scorpions aplenty on the menu. The so-called scorpion shrimp diablo loads a firm green jalapeño with smoked shrimp (or chicken, if you prefer) and an eraser-sized hunk of Jack cheese, then wraps the whole thing in bacon and smokes the packet until you don't know where the pork salt ends and the pepper fire begins — and all you can do is hope for the soothing salve of the cheese to kick in soon. The scorpion's cousin, Texas sushi, trades the shrimp for a hunk of sausage and wraps the pork-and-cheese-filled popper with a strap of brisket.
Here's some math worth calculating: You can get one of those fiery mouthfuls for $4.99 (three for $11.99), or you can spring for the $18.99 sampler platter and get a wide range of the good stuff, including a duo of diablos, a sliced link of smoked sausage dusted with the Judge's rub, four belts of brisket, and a slab of baby back ribs. Furthermore, those ribs are smoked until warm spices are candied onto the bark and the meat is purple with smoke and clinging to the bone with a tenacity you'd expect in a room steeped with so much Hook-'Em-Horns vim and vinegar.
But wait — don't answer yet. You'll also receive a pair of spicy dry-rubbed wings that are deep-fried, then smoked until the skins crack like autumn leaves and melt away in a peppery whisper over tender, juicy meat. And before you go thinking there's no vegetable, you can choose a side from a list of beans riddled with hunks of brisket, corn on the cob, smoked green beans, fresh-cut fries, potato salad, coleslaw and mushrooms. But we heartily recommend the onion rings, which are caked in so much thick sweet cornmeal batter that you could have told us they were doughnuts and we would not have questioned why there was a glassy ribbon of sweet onion running through the middle of our crullers.
Now to be honest, you might want to have a little come-to-Jesus with your GI system before you belly up to the sampler platter. The menu warns that the diablos will "make a cowboy sit lightly on the saddle for a week." And in our experience, all that fire and sizzle can indeed wreak havoc on a cowgirl's tummy. But if you get the digestive go-ahead, you may as well go all the way. When it comes to dessert, there's no better way to go than the blackberry cobbler, which layers hot sheets of pastry over plump summertime fruit, then caps the steaming bowl with vanilla ice cream that oozes into the deep-purple syrup of molten berries. It's a soothing way to finish off so much sting; as the Judge warns on the menu: "By gawd you're gonna need it." Of course, there's plenty on the menu that won't punish your tongue with pepper, so you may not necessarily need it. But you're gonna want it, for sure.
The Judge's Vinegarroon serves lunch and dinner daily. Full bar is available, and a calendar of live music events is at thejudgesvinegarroon.com.
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