Sunday, September 20, 2009


Nashville Restaurants and Food
1008B Woodland St.

4/11: We returned and found some positive changes. Please see the review below.

How many beers does it take for a vegetarian to accompany her husband to a barbecue joint for dinner? The answer is three, but only if the menu promises barbecue tofu. We know - this sort of thing never works out. However, the misadventure shouldn’t apply to the meaty offerings as well. Drifters is the latest creation of Matt Charette, whom we first met when he opened the bar Beyond the Edge about six years ago. The affable Massachusetts native has since expanded his Five Points operations with Battered and Fried and extended his reach to Inglewood with the sushi joint Watanabe. Drifters is in the perfect location: a back alley in center of Five Points in East Nashville. It’s the same spot as the former Alley Cat restaurant. There has been some nice updating. Charette moved the bar and created what seems like much more open space inside. Outside there are two options: the original front patio and a cozy beer garden in the back. It’s a great place to drink a Dos Peros and listen to rock and roll on a Friday night.

Barbecue is dangerous territory. It seems that no matter what you do people either love it or hate it. That’s particularly true with regional tastes. North Carolina, Memphis and Texas all have regular rumbles over who has the best ‘cue. Drifters appears to just be having fun, and that’s okay. They bridge a few styles that the house sauces try to reflect: Georgia hot mustard, New Mexico chipotle and jalapeno, Texas molasses based sauce and Tennessee vinegar based sauce. There can be plenty of arguments over whether those names fit the sauce. The real question is: do they taste good? We found the Georgia too much like Dijon, the New Mexico spicy but thin, the Tennessee nice with a bite and the Texas sauce suffering from a personality crisis.

Enough of the sauces. Barbecue is all about the meat .The pulled pork at Drifters is mild, moist and without any trace of smoke. It’s pretty tame stuff. The Danish baby back ribs looked good at the outset. The first bite revealed a crisp skin that raised a few questions. Are these ribs fried? They sure tasted that way. I kind of liked the effect, but I wondered why you would have to do that to ribs. Unfortunately the meat itself was completely without any smoke or real flavor. The rub was pretty tame and the ribs themselves juicy and a bit fatty. Overall so-so at best. The brisket was the true odd ball. It arrives pulled into long stringy pieces, kind of like pulled pork. It was lukewarm, bordering on chilly on the plate and suffered from a complete lack of flavor. I’m not a barbecue expert but it seems to me the key to good brisket is a tasty char on the outside and tender meat on the inside. Sliced properly you can get that char and juicy meat all in the same bite. I can’t figure out why they decided to serve their brisket this way. It’s an alternative take that just doesn’t work. I think this would qualify as a Texas travesty.

Okay, so all of this left me with an inquiring mind. I called up Mr. Charette to clarify things and we had a nice chat. He says the meat is slow roasted in a cook and hold oven made by a company called Alto-Shaam. The website says it’s designed to hold in the natural moisture of the meat. Charette says they cook meat anywhere from 12-16 hours. The ribs are in fact deep fried briefly before serving (vegetable oil he points out). This certainly explains the lack of smoke because there is no wood involved in the process at all. While I’ll admit everything was quite moist and tender, I really miss the smoke for flavor. I asked if he was considering a smoker in the future and he said perhaps for specials. Apparently the Alto-Shaam is an expensive piece of kitchenware so it seems the roasting method will prevail.

The meal did start well. The atmosphere in that beer garden is great. Families pulled up strollers and sipped brew under the beer light. The wait staff is alert and friendly. We started with the BBQ Nachos and they were excellent. You have a choice of meat to include and we opted for the pulled pork on the side. The sides are okay at best. Slaw was uninspired and baked beans had a decent little barbecue sauce zing to them. There are plenty of other non-barbecue items to choose from on the menu: corn dogs (they already have a bit of a following it seems), catfish, chicken tenders, hush puppies and even a veggie burger. And then of course there is that barbecue tofu.

Veggie Eater: I’m sure you’ve noticed than many of the barbecue reviews are solo Meat Eater adventures. Although I consider myself a very understanding veggie eater, I get tired of having my meal reduced to oftentimes mediocre side items. But Meat Eater pulled out the stops on this one; after beers at FooBar and promises of barbecue tofu, I relented. OK, OK…you deserve what you get when you order barbecue tofu. I understand that, but I really appreciate Charette’s nod to veggie eaters. The BBQ Tofu was not so wonderful. It was over fried to the point of toughness and although dusted with some sort of seasoning rub, lacked any flavor. The black beans did not have much flavor, either. However, the corn niblet served with it was quite good; very fresh and sweet. The BBQ Nachos were actually some of the best nachos I’ve had recently. The barbecue sauce lent a depth to nachos that can be hard to find. Fresh tortilla chips, loaded with pico de gallo, black beans, cheddar cheese and sour cream: I’m a sucker for good nachos and these plus a Yazoo beer in the beer garden will bring me back again

Meat Eater: They just started serving lunch and the kitchen remains open until late into the night. This place will probably do well amongst those less picky about barbecue. Certainly the atmosphere, location and expertly trained staff work in their favor. As the Veggie Eater pointed out, an East Nashville joint for beer, nachos and corn dogs is not such a bad thing. We paid $55 with tax and tip for two beers, nachos and two entrees.

Update 4/11:

The original incarnation of the menu featured barbecue staples: brisket, ribs, pulled pork and chicken. However, the cooking method was a bit unusual- a slow roasted method done in a cook and hold oven made by a company called Alto-Shaam. They may still use the oven, but they are quick to point out the smoked meats. The difference is appreciated. The juicy ribs have a solid flavor. The pulled pork is a noticeable improvement with taste accompanying the moist meat. The Johnny cakes served with the barbecue are very good and studded with corn kernels.

Matt Charette and crew have also expanded the commitment to vegetarians with a number of new offerings: a fried tofu sandwich, veggie burger, barbecue veggie burrito and even a vegan burrito. They have even kept the barbecue tofu entrée on the menu. With all these choices you would figure the Veggie Eater would branch out, but her heart was set on the barbecue nachos.

Veggie Eater: I promise that next time I’ll branch out to another item, but I remembered the barbeque nachos to be among the best bar food nachos in Nashville and I remembered correctly. The chips are fresh fried. There is now an option to select black beans as a protein and the chips are heaped generously with beans, pico de gallo, sour cream, cheese, and the Texas barbeque sauce. I would come back for these alone, not to mention the additional veggie items on the menu. Of note, we are told the veggie burger is made on premise.

Meat Eater: The patio space has also greatly expanded, making this an excellent outdoor dining destination. We’ll add this update to the old review and remember if you think a restaurant deserves another look make sure to let us know.

Drifters on Urbanspoon


ceeelcee said...

Wow, good call on detecting and asking about the deep-fried ribs. I don't think that would ever have even occurred to me.

I guess I'll still give it a try, but I don't think I'll rush now.

Great review, as usual.

Eric and Katie said...

Thanks ceeelcee...yeah, the deep fried ribs make for an interesting skin...and perhaps if the meat was smoked it would all work. My next trip (I think I'll be going alone) will include the corn dogs...we've heard good things.

Anonymous said...

This is typical of all of Charette's establishments...he delivers sub par food at inflated prices (for what you get) and for some reason he holds an East Nashville monopoly on restaurant space. Sadly east Nashvillians keep forking over the dough because his restaurants are close and convenient not to mention that he has almost conditioned his patrons accept mediocre (at best) dining choices.

LG said...

Great review! We ate there recently as well and thought it was a great atmosphere, the inside is much better and the service was AWESOME. The BBQ lacked something to be desired tho. The Hushpuppies were amazing! Thanks to this guy for bringing so many great restaurants to our community! I am sure Drifters will catch up soon enough!

mIKES said...

So I did some sleuthing. If Mr. Charette purchased a near top of the line oven, he is into at least $12,000 plus (plus)per oven. And I bet you need more than one... The ones that he uses have got to be the smoker version, so the lack of flavor is a mystery - or not. Maybe you cant throw high tech at an age old technique.

Lannae said...

I saw Anon comment. What else does Charette own?

Eric and Katie said...

Lannae: He also owns Beyond the Edge, Battered and Fried and Watanabe...

Anonymous said...

Drifters joins a multitude of other Nashville BBQ "joints" with no real smoke. Natural gas and/or electricity do not produce real BBQ. Where is the wood in this town???? The vinegar based TN sauce, atmosphere and service were excellent. One must go to Franklin for real smoked BBQ...

Anonymous said...

I am always amazed when folks tend to comment on BBQ and they really do not know its history so here is a quick lesson from someone who has studied the tasty treat. Slow roasting is the orginal way of making BBQ. It started in the cowboy days when the meat they used to serve the cowboys was tough. There way of prep was to wrap the meat tight in treated cloth that has been soaked in a water and meal solution. The roasting lasted for 6 to 8 hours before serving. Smoking did not come along until the early 20th century and did not really take off until the late 70's early 80's. I actually am glad to see someone go back to tradition. You shpould also probably know that out west roasting is again making a huge comeback!!

Eric and Katie said...'re right: I certainly don't know much about barbecue, just that I enjoy eating it. It's really a matter of taste. I didn't think Drifters meat tasted that great. I have heard that roasting is coming back in California. I would also imagine the places doing it well have great tasting meat.

Anonymous said...

Hey anonoymous BBQ historian. I suppose cowboys used natural gas or electricity rather than a wood fire. Sorry for being so ignorant.

shawn said...

Drifters now smokes ALL meat and fries NONE of it....It's Awesome.

P. Daniel said...

Drifters has completely redone their methods for smoking/cooking their BBQ. Since the time of the original posts, a lot has changed there. Absolutely none of the meat is fried, the ribs are now smoked and completely cooked on the smoker -- and they are fall-off-the-bone delicious! Also, I've been informed that cooking time in the alto-shams has been reduced in favor of more time on the smoker, increasing the natural hickory wood flavor - no gas, lighter fluids, or electricity. I think Drifters did get off to a rough start in respect to their 'cue, but they have learned from their mistakes and much has improved over time. I love this place, not only because the food has gotten so much better, but because drink specials are amazing and the staff is so friendly and cool to just hang with for a while. Despite all the seething comments made back in '09, I highly recommend this place and can say that a lot of the issues addressed above by other commenters are no longer applicable/relevant.

Eric and Katie said...

P. Daniel: If you will notice we went back in 2011 and did an updated review. We go to Drifters on occasion and always enjoy the food and ambience. The staff is excellent. The barbecue is still just okay when compared to other places in town, but sometimes okay is okay. We really appreciate what Matt has done for Five Points and we frequent his establishments regularly.