In 1988, I was on the plane with the family traveling to Tennessee for the first time. We had just left everything I knew behind and were on our way to this odd place which was going to be my home. It turns out our Nashville relationship would last more than twenty years, but at the time, a California kid didn’t know what to expect. Feeling a bit of my unease, I’m sure, a fellow passenger – and Southerner – leaned over and let me in on a little secret. He said, “Son, all you need to know is this, just walk into a country restaurant and say I’m hUNnnn gry, and they’ll take care of ya.”
Such a simple description for Southern hospitality; such a core concept. Perhaps that was the moment that I really began to love food. For me, it meant a new way to understand this new home, a welcoming place where people take care of you even when they don’t know you. I’ve been looking for those eateries ever since then, where they fill you to the brim and don’t leave any vacancy down below, no matter who you are. They enjoy doing it and getting to know you too.
I think that mysterious Southerner would have enjoyed eating at Bro’s. Bro tells me he arrived here right around the time I did, so I doubt the passenger would have had the pleasure at the time. For those of you who are familiar with Bro’s, you know how hard it is to walk out a stranger. They certainly don’t know me from Adam (ha ha pun…if it was your name you’d think the phrase was weird too), yet it is not hard to catch a conversation or a smile from either the proprietor or the fellow customers. It just makes you feel right at home.
In my case it’s not far away from my literal home in Sylvan Park. Just a few seconds down Charlotte lies the humble Bro’s Cajun Cuisine tucked on the underside of the 440 overpass near Sylvan Heights. It’s off to the right coming from town, has a small and tight turn off Charlotte to navigate before you reach the main parking, and can be somewhat off-putting from the looks of it. I had done my homework, however, and knew that the place was open for lunch most weekdays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. …. so I pressed on, passing by the Bro’s hitched boat in the front car spot, the Bro’s huge smoker which looks like it doesn’t understand the meaning of “I’ve had enough”, and rambled my way around to the far side of the restaurant where the Louisiana spirit really begins to sink in. Practical tip: park right below the main entryway. You’ll be grateful for the downhill approach upon your exit – easier for the stomach.
Walk inside and swing the door wide – this is the type of place that doesn’t mind if you announce your presence and the fact that you’re hUNnn gry. You’ll be greeted by the aroma of Creole goodness and by Bro (Chef Breaux) if he’s around. We don’t use real names here. That would be far too formal. Just walk in and sit down in one of the curved wooden slate benches. Eye the whiteboard near the register for the day’s specials. Apart from the main kitchen, there are also two other rooms that seat customers. They’re just not as likely to spark conversation as the main area, so pick your bench and sit your butt down. Notice the entire roll of paper towels on your table, as well as the Tabasco, Tennessee Smokehouse Sauce, file, and other options strewn within your colorfully draped table basket.
The environment is not to be missed. Look around and see the signed shots of stars on the wall, the chef clock, and the lightly playing radio. Then catch the sign above the kitchen – BRO – Never Trust a Skinny Cook! Bro and his fellows take this reprobation to heart, as their appearance is enough to make most people agree that they’ve found the epicenter of foodie goodness. The friendly proprietor and his buddies remind me of Swamp Santas, with all the accompanying good vibes and openness, just without the red suits.
The menu is small but the dishes aren’t. The starters are Gumbo ($5ish), Red Beans and Rice ($5ish), and Boudin ($3ish). The Boudin description is worth repeating: A link of handmade sausage stuffed with rice and spicy ground pork. For drinks, I would suggest the sweet tea and/or water with lemon. Main dishes range from the Veggie Plate ($6ish) to the Crawfish Etouffee and Shrimp Creole (both around $14), with bigger versions of the Gumbo and Red Beans and Rice available for $9 and $7 respectively. French Bread Po Boy sandwiches ($10ish) and pork, brisket, and ribs are always available.
I had the Beef Roast Special for $9 and chose the Red Beans and Rice and mashed potatoes as sides. Bro wanted to know if I wanted onions on the Red Beans and gravy on my potatoes. I told him not to skimp, I look skinny enough as it is. By the time he was finished, I had a plate full of over-sized servings such that he commented, appropriately, “I almost put too much on there.” I told him this was just fine with me, because he was right.
My waiter had not been nearly as friendly. I couldn’t get a smile out of him. He just kind of went about his business, and never chose to refill my sweet tea. I almost choked when a regular rambled in and said, “Hey, Smiley!” Ahhh-haaa. It was no secret, and I wasn’t the only one to notice the different tonality. That cracked me up.
The beef roast was exceptionally good, easy to cut with the fork, but not overly done with any particular seasoning so the beefiness is the main sensation, with the soft carrots also coming through. The mashed potatoes were also the real deal, with the gravy carrying most of the flavor to compliment the smoothness of the starch staple. The Red Beans and Rice came with onions to provide some texture and compliment the deeply-seasoned red beans and andouille slices. With this type of cooking, I’m usually looking for a melded experience, with the only separateness coming from the last minute options that don’t cook for the lengthy time with the other ingredients. That was what I got, and the flavoring was just spicy enough to be noticeable, such that it didn’t require any of the additions offered on the table, but also didn’t have me wishing for more water. The cornbread finished off the plate, and I was slowing down towards the end. Someone noticed with a smile as he caught my eye.
“You need some help over there?” Bro was on top of it. Oh no, I said, I’m too thin. He laughed and sat down with the lady in front of me. She had just told him that she was ready for her red beans, and he was making sure she felt welcome. In my brief time there, Bro must have talked with half of us. One man had Bro concerned so he got the direct question: “Did you get enough to eat? How were those wings?”
I finished off and grabbed the paper check, but I felt bad because I took Bro away from his chat with the lady about Louisiana parties. So I took my opportunity to tell a few stories at the register and find out more about Bro. He was trying to explain to the woman that parties in Louisiana just have a certain feel to them that’s impossible to describe. I’ll bet he’s right, and I feel like this post suffers from the same limitation. When you go, you might learn about Bro’s time in the Navy, and that he never wanted to be the cook, but they found out about him and didn’t let him out of the kitchen. You might learn that he swore never to cook again. And he’s been doing it everyday since. My inquisitive side is wondering what brought him to Nashville. Maybe you’ll find out on your next trip. To me, it didn’t really matter. I just told him, “We’re glad you’re here in Nashville.” He said, “So am I.”
And that’s the secret, isn’t it. You just don’t know it until you live here. Maybe someone will read this, and remember that waitress who called them honey for the first time, or that meat’n’three that sent along an extra smile. Maybe you’ll find out in your own way that Nashville has its welcoming places. Maybe you’ll pass your own stories on to those who are coming into town and don’t know what to expect, just as I did all those years ago. Maybe you’ll show someone a second side to their new home before they ever arrive. I promise you, it can mean the world to them. It’s what home can mean for us Nashvillians who enjoy our food.
Bro’s Cajun Cuisine
3214 Charlotte Avenue
Nashville, TN 37209