If you’re driving through East Nashville in the dead of night, and you happen to pass by the patch of grass at Riverside and Rosebank—across from the Piggly Wiggly—and spy a figure hunkered over the smoker outside Dee’s Q, don’t get suspicious. Chances are it’s Dee’s owner Reggie Crowder minding his pork shoulders. He’ll be back in a couple hours to check on them again.
After a night spent shuttling between home and hogs, Crowder will step inside the tiny red-and-yellow building with his family, where they’ll dish up barbecue, fried chicken and fish from morning to night, when Reggie will throw some more ribs and brisket into the smoker and tend them through the wee hours.
Crowder, who sleeps very little, has a résumé padded with blue-chip names like Mary’s Old-Fashioned Pit Barbecue and Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, where he learned the business of barbecue, brisket and bird. After a year at Mary’s on Jefferson Street and nine years with the legendary Prince family, Crowder struck out on his own. Four years ago, he and his wife Tracey christened Dee’s after their teenage daughter, and began building their own family brand.
The scattering of smokers and structures across the grassy lot tells the story of Dee’s steady growth. Crowder started out with just the tiny building, which formerly housed a garage until it was repurposed into Early Bird meat-and-three. Later he added a concrete slab and some tables where the service bay of the garage once stood. Most recently, he covered the slab with a screened patio, adding comfortable outdoor seating in old booths. His next step is to pull the trailer carrying a massive smoker to an empty lot—possibly on Murfreesboro or Gallatin Road—to create a mobile outpost of Dee’s.
For now, Dee’s screened patio—under the corrugated roof and the hum of box fans—is an ideal refuge to escape the artificial blast of air-conditioning while digging into real-deal smoked ribs that fall off the bone and fried chicken wings that sizzle with flavor.
Dee’s menu winds through the barbecue staples, including ribs, chicken, pork shoulder and brisket. There’s also the deep-fried selection—chicken breast, wings, catfish and whiting—and a list of burgers and polish sausage. The decision can be a dizzying one, especially as the heat rises inside the tiny building. So when it’s your turn at the ordering window, consider this question: You have found a roadside smoker pumping out intoxicating hickory-scented clouds and operated by a man who trained at world-famous barbecue and fried chicken institutions. Is this really a time to order fish?
No, it is not. Go straight to the barbecue, brisket and bird.
You might also consider this: Dining in such proximity to Crowder’s restaurant on wheels—as he calls the massive smoker—your clothing and hair will become saturated with the sweet, woody aroma that circles the block. So if you’re playing hooky and sneaking out of the office to hang out in the shade with a half-rack and a Fanta grape soda, make sure your little white lie jibes with the fact that you smell like a hickory-smoked pig when you get back to your desk. (If you do have to get back to your desk, or anywhere else, Crowder recommends calling ahead, since the wait can get long at peak hours.)
Crowder makes all his own sauces and rubs in the style of Kansas City and Memphis barbecue, using a dry rub and a tomato-base sauce. He won’t give away all the secrets to the spices, except to say that he uses Frank’s Red Hot in the barbecue sauce and pours Louisiana brand on the fried fish, but it’s fair to assume that 18 hours in a hickory smoker has a lot to do with why the meat is so tender and flavorful.
The dark-brown tangy and sweet sauce makes various appearances—in hot and mild forms—across the ribs, brisket, shoulder, barbecue chicken and hot wings. We ordered our ribs hot, and the modest heat served to balance the sweetness without causing any sort of pain.
Soft white buns piled high with tender, smoky pork shoulder and thick sauce are an incredibly well-priced meal to go at only $2.50 per sandwich or $12.90 for a family pack with a large side and eight buns. We also enjoyed the more expensive brisket, with rich chunks of pink meat, black caramelized bark and the occasional bit of sizzling fat, for $3.95 per sandwich.
On the fowl line, the barbecue chicken slathered in sauce was kissed with smoke all the way through the moist meat. Meanwhile, the fried chicken breast—which, unlike its BBQ counterpart, was boneless and skinless—fell flat by comparison, as the seasonings did not penetrate the crispy fried coating, and the meat was dry and chewy. That said, Dee’s boneless bird does lend itself well to piling onto a sandwich.
The surprise of our meals was the array of deep-fried chicken wings with various spices and sauces. We enjoyed the sticky, tangy mild barbecue version and the drier Cajun-spiced variety. Our favorite was the garlic-Parmesan with crispy skin coated in cheesy powder that soaked up a little grease to make a lightly gooey and salty sauce.
A word of warning: If you are one of those people that Crowder describes as bringing “attitude” to a hot-sauce situation—as in “I don’t care how hot you say it is, I love hot things”—beware of the XXX wings. They are so hot they will compromise the rest of your meal. For example, people at our table seemed to enjoy the lemon-pepper wings as much as any of the other flavors, but I can’t comment on them, because by the time I got to the lemon-pepper wings, my lips were swollen, I was stumbling over my words, and I think I had started to drool a little without realizing it. All I remember from that point is slurping ranch dressing out of a plastic ramekin. But if you really want to throw down the gauntlet, ask Crowder for his Drop Dead sauce. It’s not on the menu, and he says it will blow your head off. He also says he doesn’t know why you would want to do that.
As far as sides go, we did not discover anything from the list of fries, green beans, baked beans, greens, spaghetti and mac-and-cheese that we would eat in lieu of an extra rib or wing, though the fried okra, which is not prepared from scratch, tasted surprisingly fresh, with a bright-green color and crunchy texture inside the cornbread coating. Similarly, the dessert selection is limited to a handful of confections from Mama Turney’s bakery.
But who goes to Dee’s Q for dessert or vegetables? First of all, you will be too full of ribs, wings, brisket and shoulder to need another bite. But if you do, you can stop off at the Piggly Wiggly for a treat. Come to think of it, you might as well stop by the Pig on the way to Dee’s and pick up some beer. Crowder doesn’t mind if you bring your own, as long as you behave. Dee’s is, after all, a family place.
Dee’s summer hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
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Yes!!!! Thank you!!! :)
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