Brisket diner $7.50
Roasted half-chicken $8
Full rack of ribs $18
BBQ tofu $10
So often, the disappointment in a dining excursion lies in the gap between expectation and experience. When an opulent room is the setting for a poor meal, or a lyrical menu oversells a trite dish ... that's when the customer experience goes south. But that's not the case at Drifters, the barbecue roadhouse-style link in Matt Charette's growing entrepreneurial chain of East Nashville eateries. Housed in the former digs of the bygone Alleycat Lounge, with two alluring patios, Drifters wears a modest decor of concrete floors, vinyl booths, ceiling fans and beer and motorcycle memorabilia that hardly implies a menu that is anything above average. It's the kind of dark room where day bleeds into night with little warning from any natural light outside. It's the kind of space where you can imagine unearthing some truly bad food.
Again, that's not the case at Drifters, which serves a sturdy — if cautious — roster of barbecue, nachos, catfish and corn dogs. While it's not an ambitious or adventurous menu, some of the fare emerges from the kitchen with more thought behind it than you might expect — at least on a good night.
Our good night came on a Saturday evening around 6 p.m. We were the only people in the joint, and the live music wouldn't gear up for another four hours. We opened with a barbecue platter for two, with choice of three meats. Piled with half a roasted chicken, half a rack of baby back ribs and a log pile of plump, juicy smoked sausage hunks, the carnivore's delight could have fed a small family. Most impressive on the spread was the deeply bronzed chicken, whose crisp skin sizzled with a faint sheen of oil and melted across the tongue with a whisper of salt and spices. Succulent baby back ribs, with a subtle dry rub, pulled off the bone with just the right tug of resistance, though the slow-roasted meat lacked the outdoorsy scent of smoke and any caramelized bark. Smoked sausage was modestly salty and surprisingly delicious, with a rich reddish hue and a springy, coarse texture like that of a juicy hamburger.
The accompanying french fries were laudably crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside, though the ubiquitous beans and slaw were standard-issue and remained all but untouched.
Don't let the roadhouse vibe fool you — Drifters is very kid-friendly. Chicken fingers made with plump strips of white meat and a corn dog cloaked in sweet fluffy cornmeal batter met with unanimous kid and mom approval. What's more, in the dim light of a biker bar, no one can hear your kids scream or see them spill.
Unfortunately, for that consistently positive Saturday night experience, we had an equally unsatisfactory Friday afternoon visit. Again we were the only people in the joint, and maybe the kitchen had already thrown in the towel. But from the opening salvo of stingy nachos to the final wave of the over-breaded and rubbery fish finger, we struggled to find anything positive in our meal.
For starters, a tall mound of nachos arrived with so little of the advertised chicken, cheese, barbecue sauce and pico de gallo that the vast majority of tortilla chips were completely naked, and those that did have any accoutrements were overwhelmed by salt.
The ribs that were succulent on Saturday night were fatty and flavorless on this visit, sloughing off the bone in flabby gray sheets.
While pulled pork was slightly more flavorful than brisket, neither sandwich delivered much barbecue flavor in terms of smoke or spice, and after a few minutes on the table, the brisket sandwich was wallowing in grease and the bun was soaked through. That said, slathered with a tangy spread of garlic butter and toasted to a slightly crisp golden brown, the wheat bun (from local Bobby John Henry bakery) helped cover all manner of sins — including the sin of omitted flavor in the bland barbecued meats.
Another saving grace was the condiment caddy loaded with five variations of barbecue sauce, including Tennessee (vinegar-based), Texas (smoky tomato-and-molasses-based) and New Mexico (chipotle-jalapeño-based). Delivered to the table in a colorful cardboard six-pack, the sauce sampler added much necessary flavor and moisture when the meats needed it, and when the meats could stand on their own, the sampler was just plain fun, adding an element of audience-participation to the experience.
We finished our meal with a slice of cheesecake whose sticky-brittle crust of caramel and nuts made worthwhile the physical risk to our dental work.
Drifters will not be unseating our favorite pitmasters from the top of the barbecue rolls any time soon. Then again, we never expected it to, so there's no disappointment there — unless, of course, you consider low expectations disappointing in themselves.
Drifters serves lunch and dinner daily.
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