1008-B Woodland St. (across 11th from Bongo Java)
Hours: 5 p.m.-3 a.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 4 p.m.-3 a.m. Fri.-Sat.; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.
Opportunity didn’t exactly come knocking on Shelly and Steve Muller’s door. If only it were that easy. But once the couple identified their goal, what they were looking for turned out to be pretty much in their own backyard, if not right under their noses.
The owners of Alley Cat in East Nashville’s Five Points had their life-altering epiphany while cleaning up the dross of a rowdy night at The Sutler. Shelly was bar manager of the Melrose-area club, and Steve frequently ran sound. “I closed almost every night, and if Steve was working, he would help me clean up,” Shelly remembers. “One night we just looked at each other and said, 'Why are we working so hard for somebody else?’ ”
It wasn’t as if they didn’t have years of experience behind a bar and in a kitchen; between them, they had made the professional and personal rounds of some of Music City’s most popular restaurants, bars and clubs. When they lived in the Belmont area, their favorite hang was Jody Faison’s Tex-Mex dive Iguana in Hillsboro Village. They could also be found with their elbows on the bar at South Street, another funky watering hole and casual eatery known for rollicking good times.
Three years ago, the house-hungry but cash-starved couple found affordable real estate in East Nashville and joined the migration of urban homesteaders across the river. Though there was little in the way of entertainment options there at the time, within a year or so, the renaissance of bars, restaurants and clubs began, and the Mullers became regulars at the just opened Slow Bar. “We really liked walking over there for a beer; it was our new Iguana,” Shelly says. “But when they became more of a music place, we felt like we lost our bar. That’s about the time we started thinking we wanted to open our own place; we wanted to create a place where people like us would want to hang out.”
The Mullers looked around the ’hood, but none of the available space appealed to them. Then an ad in the paper caught their eye: “Warehouse space for rent.” What landlord David Knoble saw as warehouse space in an alley, the Mullers saw as the perfect spot for their experience-tested vision of a bar and restaurant. “We loved the windows all around the building,” Shelly remembers. “We liked that it was sort of hidden, but you could see the building from the traffic light at 10th and Woodland. There was just something about it that felt right, so we said to David, 'Where do we sign?’ ”
What they didn’t know is that part of the package included a close, ongoing relationship with Metro Codes, beginning with the lease-signing last July and lasting until the opening of Alley Cat this March. “It was just a storage building, and we had so much work to do before we could turn it into a restaurant, including running new water and sewage lines from the building to the street,” Shelly remembers. “Steve is a handy guy, but it was a huge job.”
And one that took quite a bit longer than anticipated. Design plans changed several times, though the vision stayed the same: to create a small, casual hang primarily for their neighbors, who early on developed a habit of dropping by to see how things were progressing. The original opening was set for Jan. 10; fliers had been distributed in the neighborhood, and the Mullers sent invites to friends and colleagues. A week out, the building wasn’t ready, so instead they threw a private party in the unfinished space. Their next target was Feb. 11, Steve’s 40th birthday. Again, invites were sent and fliers posted; again, the necessary approvals were delayed; and again, they threw a private party. “The parties were getting sort of expensive,” Shelly laughs.
A month later, everythingincluding a down-to-the-wire liquor licensefinally fell into place. When Alley Cat formally opened on March 11, crowds were scratching at the doors, and the place has been purring ever since.
Part of the Mullers’ big plan was to think small: a small room, a small bar, a small staff and, most importantly, a small menu, best suited for the small kitchen in the rear of the one-room building. The food was Steve’s bailiwick, and he got some advice from a peer who knew a little something about creating neighborhood restaurants, Fred Grgich. “His kitchen at Family Wash is almost nonexistent, it is so small,” Muller explains. “But they still manage to turn out good food. Fred said the key was to keep the menu small, to do a few things really well.”
Muller’s first thought was Italian, having spent time at Valentino’s and Mario’s. But when Grgich opened Chapel Bistro at the end of 2002, with an Italian-focused menu, Muller switched gears to Tex-Mex.
“It made sense, considering that I was raised in Dallas, so I know that food,” he says. The menu began taking shape during a family holiday visit. “My sister-in-law always made these incredible enchiladas, stacking the tortillas instead of rolling them, so the flatlander enchiladas were the first thing. I knew I wanted to do something with chorizo, so I fooled around with some ideas in the kitchen and came up with the empanada. I was using Shelly’s group of girlfriends who came over every Sunday night to watch Sex and the City as taste-testers. They were enthusiastic eaters, but good critics too.”
Sex obviously stimulates the appetite, and there is not a loser on the Alley Cat menu, which offers five starters, a soup, chili, two salads, four entrées and one daily special. The menu may be small, but it packs huge flavor, thanks to a generous but measured hand with spices and an unwavering insistence on fresh ingredients. Nothing is frozenthere is no freezer on the premisesand nothing comes out of a box.
Alley Catters can opt for a light snack with their cold draft, like the chopped tomato-onion-pepper-cilantro pico made fresh daily, served with a big basket of tricolored tortilla chips for just $2.75. The tangy white cheese dip is thick and gooey, served warm and also cheap, at $5.75. Black-and-white-bean dipevocative of a Middle Eastern hummus, though with more textureforms a pleasing ying-yang bowl, protein-packed at just $3.75.
If it’s fat you’re after, order the fried avocado. “I figured I’ll take nature’s highest-fat-content product and make it even fatter,” Steve laughs, as he describes his intoxicating creation: a ripe, peeled avocado rolled in cornmeal, deep-fried, sliced in half, pitted, then filled with pico de gallo. There are only three words that can do this dish justice: Oh. My. Gawd. Jalapeño corn cakes are another slice of heaven; a dough of masa and chopped jalapeño is baked, cut into wedges, deep-fried to a golden crisp, and served with white cheese sauce. Someone stop me before I hurt myself.
Tragically, two entrées went unsampled on our visit: the bourbon-ancho glazed pork on a bed of spinach with jalapeño masa, and the stacked cheese, chicken or pork enchiladas smothered with red sauce. But the undisputed success of the two other entrées and the day’s special offer ample evidence of overall goodness. The hearty empanada is a large mound of spicy sautéed chorizo sausage and onions wrapped in a mashed sweet potato dough, then deep-frieda winning balance of flavor and texture. The drunken chicken gets its reputation from its lemon-lime-tequila marinade; the soused boneless breast is then stuffed with cream cheese mousse, pan-seared and served on rice with a side of gazpacho beans and chopped tomatoes.
The southwest paella special was so very special that I am shamelessly urging readers to call the Mullers right now and lobby them to add it to the menu. Chicken, shrimp and big pieces of perfectly cooked sea bass took up much of the room in a deep bowl of cheesy rice stirred up with sautéed onions, peppers and chopped tomatoes. Comfort food with a kick.
Much of the serious dining at Alley Cat takes place early in the evening, though the kitchen remains open until 1 a.m. After 9 or so, the place morphs into the cozy neighborhood hang the Mullers envisioned: cool tunes on the system, with vinyl spun after 9 p.m. on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; bartenders who know your name and your drink, and get it on the bar before your rear hits the stool; a friendly, efficient staff and familiar faces table-hopping about the dimly lit room.
As the Mullers and their devoted and growing core of regulars will attest, there are treasures to be discovered in the most unexpected places, sometimes right under your very nose. There are times I struggle unsuccessfully to find a single positive thing to say about a restaurant. In the case of Alley Cat, I can’t find a single negativeother than the fact that it’s not in my own backyard.