This column is about the experience of food in Chattanooga. I will take people out for dinner and lunch dates at various restaurants in the Chattanooga region. It is not meant to be a review per se, but an account of a one-time experience at a restaurant. Your mileage may vary depending upon your expectations.
This week, I met up with J.C. Thompson at one of Chattanooga's favorite taprooms, Heaven and Ale at 304 Cherokee Blvd. And although we were there to enjoy a few beers, the real reason we visited was the meaty heaven of Chatter Box Café, a meat lover's food truck from the mastermind behind the wonderful Chattanooga Wing Factory.
Chatter Box owner Brandon Ellis can be found parked beside Heaven and Ale on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He brings the official food truck some nights, but often it's just the grill and Ellis. J.C. and I visited on Taco Night for the fresh brisket and pork tacos. Of course, you could also visit on Wing Wednesday for an equally delicious feast or, as J.C. is quick to suggest, the ribs on Fridays.
J.C., a former Chattanooga Sports Leagues kickball foe of mine, said he immediately thought of the Date Night Dining column when he discovered Chatter Box. As much as we disliked each other on the field, J.C. is actually a relatively nice guy when you get to know him. Who knew?
And it turns out, the Taco Night theme is new for Ellis and Chatter Box.
There's something about the combination of tacos and beer on a weeknight that feels right. Especially Ellis' tacos, which are constructed with the same care as everything else he touches. The Chattanooga Wing Factory—at 2109 McCallie Ave.—still offers some of my favorite wings in town. And if you haven't tried the smoked half-chicken, you haven't had the best chicken in Chattanooga.
Heaven and Ale is a gem of a place for beer lovers. With over 20 rotating taps, the place's focus is on craft beer without the pretension. J.C., a self-proclaimed "beer guy," said Heaven and Ale is his go-to place to get craft beer.
"My kickball team and I go there every Thursday before the game," he said. "Joe Winland and his staff do a great job to make everyone feel welcome and find a beer to fit their tastes."
So it makes sense to have some of the best food truck operations working alongside one of the best craft beer places in Chattanooga. It's that whole "rising tide lifts all boats" thing that business owners talk about. And it certainly benefits the customers.
J.C. and I ordered a beer before dinner. I was glad to see Asheville's Green Man ESB on tap, which has become a favorite of mine since a road trip last month. Winland has transformed the entire Heaven and Ale space since it opened, constructing a full back porch and side porch to add plenty of seating. It's also a dog-friendly place, which I applaud. A dog named Tucker let us scratch his ears all night and kept us company. Beer, dogs, tacos. The simplest things are often the best.
We enjoyed our beers at the bar and eventually made our way outside to the grill.
J.C. and I stood around the grill with a couple of other customers and enjoyed watching Ellis prepare the food. We asked him questions about the meat—he slow smokes his brisket and pork before finishing it on the grill. One customer purchased $15 worth of brisket for the road. There are no rules. Ellis aims to please.
J.C. and I each ordered a pork and brisket taco. Ellis has a taco war chest cooler with cheese, jalapeños, hot sauce and anything else you'd want to throw on a taco. Customers also have their choice of corn or flour tortillas, which is good for those of you who want more decisions in your life.
Operating a roving food service is a tough job, yet Ellis does it with a smile on his face and an obvious passion for quality and customer service.
"I've never seen him without a smile," J.C. said. "The guy loves food and loves giving his gift to the people."
We took our taco baskets out to the porch, stopping on the way to grab another beer. I don't remember what I had because I just told the bartender to give me "something similar to Green Man ESB." Turtle Anarchy, perhaps? Regardless, it was tasty.
On the porch, J.C. and I discussed his obsessive nature and how that makes him a better long-distance runner. The guy recently ran up Lookout Mountain for fun. It makes no sense to me, but it doesn't have to. We bonded over books and, of course, the delicious tacos. As much of an unlikable jerk as he is on the kickball field, I couldn't help but like him over tacos and beer.
The meat is the star of the show at Chatter Box, as it should be. Both the brisket and pork were tender, and had an incredible smoked flavor and slight crunch from the griddle. Pork tacos are usually my preference, but the brisket was wonderful. I also appreciated the slight heat of the jalapeños (not too much) that Ellis added to the tacos. Baby bear heat, in other words: just right. I could have eaten 10 of these tacos.
Would we go back?
J.C. is the definition of a regular at Heaven and Ale. The only thing that would keep him away would be his girlfriend or a mountain that needed to conquered. I hadn't been to Heaven and Ale for months, but I was reminded by this experience how much I missed the atmosphere. The addition of Chatter Box Café on select nights only makes it more appealing to me for a post-work beer/bite. I'll definitely be back. And if you're a fan of beer and smoked meats, a visit should be at the top of your list.
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.