There’s nothing like a plate of BBQ on a nice spring day.
Josh’s birthday was Tuesday. As he had other plans, we made plans for Yesterday evening. Dinner, a stroll through Evergreen Walk, us time. A few things changed between theory and reality of course and we ended up at Nat Hayden’s this fine, spring evening.
Before I talk about dinner, Nat Hayden’s and I go back to my 17th birthday. Every year, my Grandfather and I go out for my birthday, do some shopping, grab lunch/dinner and otherwise have a great day. Well, my grandfather has a habit of finding some of the best food places (“Oh there’s this place in Canton… it’s a pizza place, but it has the best burgers…” “You have to try these, they’re from that Chinese place near where you work…” etc) and sharing. We had just finished shopping and were looking for some place to eat. We were going to go grab a white clam pizza again, or go to Moe’s for a burrito, and then he suggested the BBQ place. “It’s a bit of a drive, but we’ll make it before it closes and they have the best pulled pork.” I’d never had pulled pork before that point, so why not? So, we packed up all of my buys and got on the road. Later, I would find out this place is literally 20 minutes down the street from where I work, right near Giovanny’s (the place with the best Mediterranean Pizza). We pulled up and it wasn’t as expected. It was this little hole-in-the-wall place, parking next door, right in the centre of a town. There wasn’t much of a dining space inside, all of 5 tables, and a few more outside on uneven pavement. Appearances don’t matter because it’s places like this, I’ve discovered, that have the best food. I was right to stick with my gut. My grandfather ordered for me, a plate of pulled pork, mashed potatoes, and three cheese mac & cheese. The plate was one of those durable ones, that should stand up to even the heaviest of meals. It wasn’t fairing so well and I was surprised (and am embarrassed to admit) that I finished it. Then again, I had spent the whole afternoon shopping around and was simply ravenous, as well as it was really good food.
Flash to the present. I’d been bugging Josh for ages about this place. “Nearly two years, it seems” Or so he said when we were sitting waiting for our orders to be dished. I’d ordered the brisket, side of mash and three cheese mac & cheese. He, trusting me, ordered the same thing. When our orders were up, we went and got our plates, he nearly dropping his. After his initial reaction and we were sitting, about to tuck in, he looks up at me with a wide grin, “This isn’t so much, I could finish this.” I snorted and pulled my camera from my bag, “No you couldn’t.” While Josh tucked into his first bites I snapped a few pictures, none of which were to my liking. It was when I stopped snapping pictures of my plate that I looked up and noticed Josh had given me a thumbs up in one of the pictures.
I took a pic and then took a bite.
The first bite of brisket left me… speechless. The way the fat dissolved in my mouth, tender, juicy, smoky, tangy. It wasn’t salty and had a subtle sweet flavour that danced among my taste buds antagonizing them. The second bite was this utterly charred bit (you can see it in the picture above, actually. Bottom right hand corner). It was crispy, crunchy, and melted in my mouth despite it’s blackened appearance. It, like the first bite, left me craving the next bite beyond, yet I took it slow and savoured every taste that struck the chords of my tongue.
The potatoes… as you guys know, I totally dig making mashed potatoes. These, and I have no problem admitting it, blow mine out of the water. They’re imperfectly perfect. They’re not Mummy’s golden, fluffy mashed potatoes. No. The skin was still on them when they were mashed and they’re slightly lumpy, gluey, with garlic tones. They’re the type of mashed potatoes that if you chucked them at the wall, they won’t slide down, they’d stick and hold their shape. But goodness help me, if you ever considered lobbing these potatoes at your family for a food fight or your wall, I’d call you an idiot for wasting something so delicious.
I have a soft spot for the macaroni and cheese. Partially because I’ve nigh bothered to make my own, also because it stuck with me in the last two years. When you have macaroni and cheese that good, you don’t exactly forget the rich flavour and the texture the noodles take on from having been baked. I could have gotten red beans and rice, or potato salad, but I had to get it. It was whimsical and reminiscent. I took a bite and immediately was brought back to the hot, sunny afternoon where my feet were sore from shopping, sunglasses sat perched on my forehead, and a slight breeze caught my hair when I’d first tried it. Unfortunately, it’s also the one portion they give you the least of so it goes by quickly, leaving you craving more when you’ve finished it.
The cornbread sat perched atop the macaroni and cheese when we’d first gotten our plates. There it sat, like an extra waiting to be moved about while I tried brisket. When I’d had enough of the brisket and was going to try the mac & cheese, it was shuffled on top of the potatoes, still waiting to be eaten. When I did eat it, it was divine. Mind you, I’ve had my fair share of cornbreads due in part to the many that were baked for chili fest. This wasn’t cooked by my family, but it sure tasted like it. It was definitely done from scratch and not a mix, full of tender loving care, capable of leaving one happier than when they’d arrived. At Nat Hayden’s, they give you a cute little butter package atop the cornbread, which you certainly don’t need. Or, I didn’t at least. Needless to say, I can see why it’s served with the meal as default and offered as a side that one can have.
While Josh and I noshed, the music left me bopping my head in rhythm (to his amusement). Each song that played over the stereo was familiar, yet unknown, I want to say blues-y. The girl who was taking orders never once lost her patience even when the room grew packed with people coming in to order. Josh and I had a moment to speak with her and she was nice, funny even. She never once looked harried, never once rolled her eyes. She gelled with the flow of work, seemed happy even while taking orders. When Josh and I were leaving? The guy who was doing the plates, he wasn’t a pompous jerk who would make you never want to return to the place. Not one bit, it was like I was back home in our kitchen during a get together, he was thanking us for coming and saying he’d love to see us again. Yes, you hear that all the time from people in places like Ruby Tuesday’s, Red Robin, 99– but you don’t hear it from the guy making your food. You hear it from the greeters who are paid to smile, nod, and send you on your way without a second thought.
If you asked me, “would you go back again?” I’d say yes. Hole in the wall places like Nat Hayden’s are the best kind place. Sure they’re not the grandest or fanciest, but they’re homely and in my eyes, that’s what counts. To go and eat some place, be made to feel as if you’re eating with family, it’s the best feeling in the world.