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 visited my mountain ogre friend, Christian Bruce, at his home on Signal Mountain before embarking on a gut bomb of a dinner at Off the Grill at 1904 Taft Highway.
Christian and I are old friends from our days at the Times Free Press. We share a common love of good music and both have a sick sense of humor that bubbles to the surface whenever we’re together. Our visit began with a wide-mouth Coors Light at Christian’s Japanese flower garden, where he spends a majority of his time tinkering. Afterward, we unbuckled our pants and drove the short distance to Off the Grill for what I hoped would be a party of meat.
This location is the second one of Off the Grill-the first being on Bonny Oaks Drive-which explains why it’s technically called Off the Grill II. However, the first location closed in 2014, so the Taft Highway version is the only Off the Grill, currently. The sign out front says “Off the Grill II,” but the building sign says “Off the Grill.” It’s a head-scratcher.
As you pull up to the building, a large smoker out front greets you with promises of ribs, brisket and pork. The building appears to be an old homestead left over from the turn of the century, and, walking inside, the creaks of the floorboards and the way the room slopes in one direction suggest that many a boot have trod through. It’s a strange layout, with four separate dining rooms to choose from, each completely blocked off from the other. The interior immediately reminded me of Mary Bobo’s Boarding House in Lynchburg. I also noticed the art on the walls-several jazzy, art deco pieces and even a framed shadowbox with a kimono (?) in it-which added to the strange feel of the space. The main desk is located in the back of the room, as are the bathrooms, which had doors that were kept open by large cinderblocks. Nobody can accuse this restaurant of not having character.
The service was polite and quick. I’ve found that most barbecue places are in the business of turning out food quickly. The service can be either too charming or too curt. Our server at Off the Grill was the perfect middle of the road. She was attentive and always came back just as my half-and-half tea was close to empty. Our food was also delivered quickly.
Off the Grill is, not surprisingly, a place to find plenty of meat. The menu offers sandwiches, ribs, pulled pork, smoked chicken, beef sausage and grilled beef hot dogs. There are also larger dinner plate offerings featuring ribs, smoked chicken, and even grilled salmon and NY strip steak. There’s something for everybody.
Christian was a tad famished and ordered the half-pound beef burger at a medium-rare temperature. He got it with Swiss cheese and a side of fries, which are an extra charge. As a Signal Mountain native, Christian has visited Off the Grill several times since it opened. He encouraged me to order the ribs, and, like a good friend, I submitted.
A lot of people are particular about which types of barbecue they enjoy the most. I tend to prefer Memphis-style ribs with a dry rub, but I’ve never been the type of person to shy away from a plate of ribs prepared any way. The ribs at Off the Grill are big, fall-off-the-bone, country-time, “gnaw me, daddy” kind of ribs. I managed to finish only two of them before I had to tap out. What I had was excellent, with plenty of meat and gooey bits of fat to keep it interesting. The smoky flavor was upfront, but not overwhelming like some “smoked” meat can be. The beef flavor was the star of the show. Off the Grill only provided one barbecue sauce-a sweet, Carolina-style red-that worked perfectly with the meat. It was nice to not have as many choices to deal with. Ribs meet sauce. Done.
Christian said his “straight-up classic cheeseburger” was cooked perfectly. He also said the housemade fries were “noticeably better” than most other versions. The toasted bun was branded with a “Q,” which was a nice touch. Christian finished his plate with no problems, although he later regretted eating as much as he did. His complaints ranged from “I’m so full” to “Oh, my God!” to “I am stuuuffffed!”
Would we go back?
When I was paying my bill (at the front counter), I asked an employee about the history of the building. She said that it may have been a former Civil War hospital or some other outpost during the war. The building previously was another barbecue restaurant, but it’s certainly old enough to maintain some spooky elements. Regardless, the barbecue is worth the visit. I’d bet that Chef Q’s smoked meats would be an excellent addition to your next event. Those ribs could feed an army. Thanks to Christian for inviting me out.
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