The chicken wing. So commonplace, yet so diverse. So ubiquitous, yet so enticing. To think how many beers have been consumed, glances exchanged, fences mended, trysts ignited, over this most prevalent of poultry parts.
Here in Nashville, it seems like half the bars and a good portion of the restaurants offer some interpretation, most often a variation on the Buffalo wing. Some places offer a plethora of options—Mojo Grill, for instance, serves up delectable oven-roasted wings in several different flavors.
So, with all the local options, why would a Nashvillian want to drive 40 miles for a chicken wing? To a place that doesn’t even serve liquor?
The Slick Pig in Murfreesboro—that’s why.
For over a decade, Slick Pig Bar-B-Q has been providing the ’Boro with some of the best ribs and chicken in Middle Tennessee. But the restaurant’s real calling card? Smoked wings, unlike any you’ll find in Music City. No fryer. No hot sauce. No barbecue sauce. Just a little marinade and a few logs of hickory. (They’re sided with your choice of ranch or blue cheese dressing, but several members of our entourage felt the use of such pedestrian condiments was akin to putting ketchup on Kobe beef.)
How could such a prosaic food be so profoundly satisfying?
For one thing, Slick Pig wings are exceptionally moist and tender. The slow-smoke method preserves a lot of flavor and moisture, while imparting that earthy hickory taste. And the marinade—likely involving soy sauce and other spices, though the recipe is top-secret—infuses just the right amount of salty goodness.
Still, there’s that certain je ne sais quoi that the finest regional delicacies all possess. Nola’s outstanding chivito sandwich, discussed on these pages just a week ago, is a case in point. But even the chivito has enough lavish ingredients—steak, bacon, cheese, peppers, onions, chimichurri—that its seductive powers, though considerable, are not that surprising.
Yet the Slick Pig wing is so elemental, so simple, that pinpointing its allure is all the more elusive. The sum is far greater than the parts. From the four members of our party to the four or five co-workers who sampled the leftovers, every last person was unequivocal in their praise.
John Robinson, just 21 at the time, opened The Slick Pig on Murfreesboro’s East Main Street in 1995. (His parents are partners in the business, partially because it wasn’t easy for someone so young to get credit.) Robinson learned the barbecue and wing-smoking trade in Atlanta, working at Speedi-Pig Barbecue under the tutelage of an old family friend. He and his folks moved to Murfreesboro (his father’s hometown) in 1995 and opened up shop. Three years ago, he opened a second Slick Pig on Church Street, also in Murfreesboro.
The East Main Street location, a couple miles from the town square, has a homey, small-town atmosphere, the kind of place where people know each other, where a stumping politician would love to be filmed for a CNN spot, meeting and greeting the locals. It’s casual and unpretentious, with an almost VFW charm. Assorted softball and dog show trophies line the back wall. Emailed photos of various pets, fresh from the computer printer, are tacked up along one wall. Two of the ultimate guideposts to life—the Ten Commandments and, of course, Murphy’s Laws—are posted side by side.
What you won’t find on the wall are directions for making the perfect smoked wing. Surely it doesn’t require a degree from Culinary Institute of America or some rare herb from the Ivory Coast. But it does require patience and dedication. Out behind the restaurant in the smokehouse complex—just about as big as the dining room itself and containing five industrial-size smokers—things get started at 5 a.m. each Tuesday through Saturday. There’s no hurrying a good smoked wing…or rib, or brisket or whole chicken. Robinson says that between both locations, they go through approximately 60,000 wings each week. One taste and it’s easy to understand why.
But there’s plenty more than wings to recommend at Slick Pig. The ribs are delicious—falling-off-the-bone tender and, like the wings, rich with hickory flavor. Most in our party agreed that they were as good as or better than anything available in Nashville. Unless you’re really averse to spicy food, try the hot sauce, which has just enough heat to balance the sweetness without being particularly challenging to the stomach. The smoked chicken was also delightful, more or less identical to the wing (but with the rest of the bird still attached). It’s served with barbecue sauce on the side, but again, it’s pretty exceptional unadorned.
The only disappointment was the pulled BBQ pork, which was dry and, in comparison to the ribs and chicken, on the bland side. The BBQ beef fared better, with a bit more flavor. The fried catfish we sampled was very good, with a flavorful cornmeal coating. The savory Brunswick stew—pork, beef, chicken, tomatoes, creamed corn and who knows what—would be great comfort food for a cold winter day. (A co-worker compared it to the delectable remains of a pot roast once the meat has completely fallen apart.)
The sides we sampled were all good, if fairly straightforward, interpretations. Opinions were mixed on the baked beans. If, like me, you like your beans on the sweet side, you won’t be disappointed. (Same goes for the coleslaw.) Though we didn’t try any of the homemade pies, which looked quite tempting, we did indulge in the homemade banana pudding, which was outstanding, and different from the standard version, with bits of meringue and a subtle lemon undertone.
Slick Pig prices are very reasonable. A variety of plate options—with two sides and a choice of cornbread or garlic toast—are available in the $6 range. The half-rack plate is $9.95 ($7.99 ribs only) and the whole rack plate is $14.95 ($12.99 ribs only).
So, for Nashville residents, is Slick Pig worth the 40-mile haul? That depends how much you enjoy barbecue and whether you like smoked foods. There are places in Nashville that serve great pulled pork (e.g., Mothership BBQ and Hog Heaven) and beef barbecue (e.g., Judge Bean’s). But Slick Pig’s ribs equal or surpass most of the ribs you’ll find in town. And the wings? There are a few folks here at the Scene offices who’d happily make the round-trip for that reason alone.
Slick Pig Bar-B-Q is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (slickpigbar-b-q.com).