Here are a few uncommon side dishes that are on the menu at some restaurants around town.
• Bald Headed Bistro (Cleveland): herb-roasted potatoes, sweet potato hash, risotto of the day, four-cheese baked macaroni and cheese.
• BiBa's Italian Restaurant: Italian sausage links topped with homemade tomato sauce
• Big River Grille & Brewing Works: white cheddar mashed potatoes, cheese grits, Spanish rice.
• Cafe on the Corner (Lookout Mountain): sweet potato purée, plantation rice, blue cheese slaw.
• Country Place: fried potatoes with onions, fried green tomatoes, cornbread dressing.
• Hennen's: grilled asparagus, wilted spinach, roasted mushrooms.
• Marsha's Backstreet Cafe: fried pickles.
• Porter's Steakhouse: smoked bacon braised Brussels sprouts, potato au gratin, creamed spinach, Tabasco-fried onion rings.
• Public House: sautéed kale and golden raisins; turnip gratin; roasted butternut squash; oyster mushrooms; cauliflower, olives and tomatoes.
• Sticky Fingers: fried corn on the cob, broccoli and cheese casserole, sweet potato casserole.
• Sugar's Ribs: wood-grilled onions, wood-grilled okra (served as whole pods), fire-roasted jalapeños.
• T-Bone's Sports Cafe: sautéed mushrooms, tomato and cucumber salad.
No matter how enticing that steak, chicken breast or pork chop, your entree would be pretty lonely sitting solo on the plate.
Time to introduce the sides.
While the name may indicate secondary status, sides fill a primary place on the plate. Indeed, some selections are such standards they've become part of the lexicon: Soup or salad? Rice or beans? Would you like fries with that?
It's all about compatibility, says Jamie Aman, co-owner of Nitty Gritty Cafe in Soddy-Daisy, where the extensive list of prepared vegetables, fruits and starches puts the sides front and center.
Originally, her Southern-style restaurant offered certain sides on certain days, but sometimes customers wanted more than the dozen designated options. Now the Nitty Gritty menu lists a full 21 sides daily, 22 on weekends, periodically throws in a specialty casserole or veggie mix and serves up a complimentary bowl of pinto beans with every lunch and dinner plate.
"Everybody loves them," Aman says of the free beans. "They like that they come with the meal, so you get that extra side item."
Because a meat-and-three plate hinges on finding a trio of suitable sides, what makes the cut for Nitty Gritty's customers often depends on the special of the day.
Favorites include fried okra and loaded mashed potatoes, flecked with bacon and cheese. Coleslaw sells well on catfish days, and a spoonful of applesauce keeps a lot of kids happy.
"When we give them this many options," Aman says, "they can always find something they want."
For restaurants that don't offer a lot of sides, it helps to do one really, really well. The menu at Ankar's Hoagies lists six sides, but many customers would be content with one.
"We are known for our onion rings," says George Ankar, who opened the original Brainerd Road restaurant in August 1979 (other locations are on Hixson Pike and Highway 58).
"We've been here 32 years," he said, "and we've used the same (family) recipe from day one ... the same flour, the same cracker meal. We've never changed the ingredients."
Ankar says the restaurant goes through 35 to 50 50-pound bags of Texas or Idaho sweet onions each week.
"It's a super-colossal onion," he says, "the biggest you can buy."
That's an industry standard for an onion at least 4.5 inches in diameter, about the size of a softball.
Preparation takes the same sort of super-colossal effort.
The breading is prepared from scratch, and each onion is skinned and cut by hand. The assembly-line process continues with a double dip in the batter and breading. Slices chill in the cooler until they're ready for the deep-fryer.
Batter. Chill. Repeat.
Ankar says the restaurant averages 250 orders of onion rings a day, so the prep work takes its own set of dedicated employees.
"We have three people who do nothing but onion rings every day," he says.
Vegetables from asparagus to zucchini are served as side dishes, but the undisputed workhorse is the potato. How do we Southerners love our spuds? Let us count five ways.
French-fried: The average American consumes 29 pounds of french fries each year, according to one estimate. They're served with skins on and pristinely peeled, with smooth edges and crinkle cuts, as thick steak fries and skinny shoestrings. The larger the cut, the healthier the fry. Larger fries absorb less fat when cooking.
Mashed: Skins can be on or off. Consistency can be whipped smooth or left lumpy. Seasonings include butter, salt, milk or cream, added in precise or instinctive measurements. Bacon, cheese, garlic and scallions may be spooned in for added flavor. Mashed potatoes made from scratch are a point of pride for restaurants that don't cut corners with this diet staple. Two to try: Zarzour's and Epicurean.
Baked: This is often the go-to go-with for finer dining establishments. Some restaurants serve them only at dinner, but they are popular enough to appear on fast-food menus. At many barbecue restaurants, baked spuds become edible bowls, containing heaping helpings of barbecued pork or beef and dolloped with butter, sour cream and cheese.
Hash browns: Waffle House, it could be argued, has become a cultural icon on the strength of its hash browns. Can you name the six ways they're served?
• Scattered & Smothered (onions).
• Scattered, Smothered & Covered (onions and melted cheese).
• Scattered, Smothered, Covered & Chunked (onions, cheese and ham).
• Scattered, Smothered, Covered, Chunked & Topped (onions, cheese, ham and chili).
• Scattered, Smothered, Covered, Chunked, Topped & Diced (onions, cheese, ham, chili and diced tomatoes).
We'll give Cracker Barrel an honorable mention for its hash-brown casserole, which is basically Scattered, Smothered & Covered assembled and baked.
Tater tots: These golden nuggets are a little harder to find around town, but they're worth the effort. Sonic takes the fast-food prize for putting tots in its tasty trio of sides, along with french fries and onion rings. Among traditional eateries, Innside Restaurant on Chestnut Street is the place to go. With these beauties piled on the plate, you barely notice the sandwich you've ordered.