Harper's Soul Food Cafeteria in Nashville, Tennessee
"The fried okra nubbins are just asking to be snacked on pre-cash register."
2610 Jefferson Street, Nashville TN 37208 (map); 615-329-1909
Hours: Open 7 days a week.
Monday through Friday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Many restaurants in Nashville are closed on Sundays and Mondays, but Harper's—the cafeteria-style soul food restaurant near Tennessee State University—isn't. And that was sure a good thing this week when bundles of people filed in here after the annual Martin Luther King Day march to the university.
Instead of the usual Southern tradition of "Meat and Three" (your choice of one meat and three sides—a beautiful thing), Harper's does Meat and Two. But don't worry, you'll still leave here plenty full.
Grab a plastic tray and begin the buffet line with dessert options (chess pie, fruit pies, banana pudding)—or if you're like me and couldn't think backwards, just come back for that later. Next, point to your meat: baked or fried chicken (always on special for $5.95), a big slab of fried catfish ($8.40), meatloaf ($7.30), or ribs ($9.95 for spare ribs, $10.75 for baby-back). The menu noted a few other "meats" but these seemed to be the big-sellers.
Then it's time to pick two "vegetables," some of which are pretty far from being vegetabley (probably more related to the butter family).
The turnip greens are so long, you have to twirl them up like pasta. Mac and cheese is crunchy on top with that milky-creamy adhesive goo between noodles. The black-eyed peas are nice and smoky, the candied yam hunks are huge, the corn is swimming in a butter bath, and the fried okra nubbins are just asking to be snacked on pre-cash register. The green beans—yes, those are the closest thing to a vegetable here.
The Meat and Two deal also includes a starch wad: take your pick between cornbread (a kind of strange fried fritter that tastes like cornbread but sure doesn't look like it) or a fluffy biscuit.
Despite the steam table set-up, the food never sits in its tray for too long—there are too many mouths to feed here for that.
I didn't mind waiting a few extra minutes for a new batch of fried catfish. Once it came out, the blanket of a thing could hardly fit on my plate. Lightly cornmeal-crusted, not heavily breaded, it had the perfect ratio of crunchy outside to thick, flaky fish center.
The dining room is pretty huge, though it didn't used to be. What started as a deli with some hot food service turned into a spacious cafeteria in 2003. Inside, the walls are covered with framed Tennessee State University sports paraphernalia, paintings of families bowing their heads before meals, and some autographed photos of the token "I'm-famous-enough-to-eat-here-and-be-framed!" celebs.
Every table is stocked with an unmarked bottle of red hot sauce. If you can handle it, use it. A few shakes of that will take you places.
For dessert, I revisited the buffet line for a triangle of Chess Pie. What exactly is Chess Pie again? Besides a gelatinous burst of sugar on a crust? Even the Tennessee native eating with us didn't really remember but guessed that butter, eggs, and plenty of sugar were involved. (She's right.)
My favorite sweet was the Nilla wafer-topped banana pudding. I've had sad experiences with banana pudding in the past—lots of yellow goop, not a lot of actual banana. But with this one, each scoop gave you a nibble of all three components: the slightly soggy (in a good way) Nilla wafer, a banana coin, and just the right amount of pudding paste in between.
Some cheerful table-clearer will swing by to yank your plate and silverware. They won't kick you out if you're in the lingering mood, but there's probably another round of folks ready to throw down their trays.
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