I used to really buy into the notion that variety is the spice of life. I wanted it all, everything, in every possible manifestation. That attitude, as you can imagine, got me into trouble in lots of different ways. (College was fun!) But in terms of restaurants, it simply meant I wanted my menus big, and flavors bigger.
But I've aged, mellowed—well, aged anyway. I've had a kid—one who, like me, yearns to sample every dish available on life's grand and glorious all-you-can-eat buffet. In trying my best to keep up with him, I've come to realize the truth in another well-worn cliché: Less is more.
That's certainly the case at my new favorite restaurant hangout: Sweet P's Barbeque and Soul House. The place does only one thing, and does it extremely well: It makes delicious, finger-licking, wake-the-neighbors North Carolina-style barbecue.
North Carolina barbecue, in case you aren't familiar with it, is an alchemical combination of chopped (not pulled) smoked meat and a crazy-delicious thin, vinegar-based barbecue sauce. North Carolina claims to be the cradle of 'cue, and while there are those would dispute that—in particular, you can get your ass kicked across Memphis for speaking such heresy—there's no doubt that our neighbors to the east have it going on, pork-wise.
So does Sweet P's owner, Chris Ford, a man no doubt known to Metro Pulse readers as the former lead singer of the defunct funk-rock band Gran Torino. He's a transplanted Kentuckian, turns out, but you'd swear he was weaned on a pig in eastern North Carolina. He's been running Sweet P's as a catering business for a good four years; for the last three months, he's been anchored at the Willow Point Marina on Maryville Pike.
Ford descends from a long line of good cooks, and has plenty of restaurant experience in his past (mandatory for musicians, apparently). He'll tell you he's always loved barbecue, and that he picked up his BBQ chops while out on the road with the band, checking out every little hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint on the Eastern seaboard.
His own contribution to the barbecue world is a good one—his meat is tender and smoky, his sauce unimpeachable. Sweet P's offers pork, of course, but also chicken, ribs, and—if you can catch it—beef brisket. It is all fantastic, especially when doused liberally with the house sauce, which comes in two textures—the traditional "thin" vinegar, and a thicker tomato-based sauce that's a nod to the local take on barbecue. The latter is good; the former is sublime.
At $6.75 a plate for your choice of meat and two sides, it's also a fantastic bargain. Ford's sides are what puts the "soul" in this Soul House: tater salad, beans, slaw, greens, and mac and cheese. The best of the lot is the mac and cheese, a rich, mild homemade version that soothes hyperactive children (I can attest) and carries mommies and daddies back to their own childhoods—comfort food at its very finest, calories be damned.
The greens, too, are good—sautéed to tenderness (but not mushiness) with carrot coins and black-eyed peas. They are simple and compelling, and completely nutritious. The baked beans are nothing like the usual cloyingly sweet, sticky variety—rather they are a combination of white beans and pintos in a ham-spiked broth with lots of thyme and a few other herbs that make them savory and unique. The slaw is tangy, not creamy; the tater salad is smashed, rather than chunked. Ford seems to manage to create these classics without relying on the usual assortment of condiment crutches: ketchup, mayonnaise, and prepared mustard. Kudos.
It bears noting that Sweet P's also offers a giant BBQ Burrito ($6.75)—a tortilla-encased concoction featuring barbecued meat, slaw, and beans. It is delicious, and huge—the size of a large man's bicep.
Two other dishes merit mention. One, a house specialty, is the Tomato 'n Blue salad ($3.25), a combination of cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow bell peppers, and blue cheese tossed in a mild vinaigrette that lets the flavors of the fresh veggies really shine through. It had achieved something of a cult reputation around town, for good reason. The other standout is the banana pudding ($2), the only dessert on offer. It's a perfect rendering of a Southern classic, one that would do your grandma proud.
The atmosphere at Sweet P's is—to understate the case—low-key. With its picnic tables and lakeside view on the patio, it looks like a vacation spot. It feels like one, too, especially if you choose to wash down your barbecue with a bottle of Corona or a PBR tall-boy while taking in the scent of burning hardwood from the smoker. Kids are welcome, and there's plenty to keep them amused: ducks to feed, boats to rock, a slammin' soul-studded jukebox. Since everything is available by the pound, as well as on plates, it's easy enough to pick up your dinner and go. But why would you not want to sit a spell in such a… well, sweet spot? It's the perfect place to enjoy the simple pleasures of summer in East Tennessee.