An A-Z guide of what to eat in Chattanooga

Illustration by Matt McClane

This is the food writer's version of swimming the English Channel or climbing to the summit of Mount Everest. Actually, in its own way, it might be even more clandestine, more daunting and arduous than both of those feats. As of January 2023, 6,338 different climbers have reached the summit of Mount Everest. There are 2,480 people who have successfully swum the 21 miles from Shakespeare's Cliff, England, to Cap Gris-Nez, France, including Chattanooga native Karah Nazor, who became the first Tennessean to do so back in 2008, and recently, Chattanooga local Jennifer Whitlock as well.

However, I can't name a single food writer who has been hungry enough to compile an alphabetical list of dishes in a particular city (with the first letter of the name as it's written on the restaurant's menu). I'm currently thinking about investing in a Peloton, cutting back on the margaritas and pistachio gelato, getting into competitive hiking (if that's a thing), anything to get rid of this extra 15 pounds I've acquired while working on this list. Fifteen pounds aside, just the fact that this list could be completed is insane. The fact that "A" could have been antelope carpaccio from St. John's Restaurant or "Z" was almost Zaya steak, a Denver cut from the posh Korean steakhouse, is a testament to how fruitful and finger-licking Chattanooga's food scene is.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Avocado toast at Niedlov’s Bakery and Cafe. The house-made avocado spread rests on slices of seeded country loaf bread and is topped with poached eggs seasoned with chili oil, radishes and cilantro.

A — Avocado Toast / Niedlov's Cafe & Bakery

The thick schmear of avocado spread is the only time I ever described something as "mushy" in a positive way. The rustic loaf of sesame-seeded country bread is so gorgeous that you'd have to be almost heartless to cut into it. The poached eggs' yolks are always more jammy than runny, and everything after that — chili oil, cilantro, chives and radishes — is like edible confetti.

B — Benton's Bacon-Wrapped Dates / Alleia

This dish legitimizes the notion that "bacon makes everything better." Especially when it's the "champagne of bacon," cured and smoked the old-fashioned way up the road in Madisonville by the legendary (and possibly, the nicest man in the world) Allan Benton. Indeed, Medjool dates are fine all by themselves, but so is peanut butter before the jelly.

C — Chopped Weiners / Memo's

It'll be easier finding Spam musubi outside of Honolulu, Chicken Bog outside of Myrtle Beach and Yakamein outside of New Orleans than finding chopped weiners outside of Chattanooga's city limits. At its essence, it's a deconstucted hot dog complete with a side of coleslaw, mustard and mysterious chili sauce. Shooey Russell, AKA Mr. Chattanooga, stamped this as the most iconic dish in the city, and we'd be fools to disagree.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / The Rosecomb’s deviled eggs

D — Deviled Eggs / The Rosecomb

If you ever see me at a baby shower, it means that somebody promised me there would be deviled eggs there. It's also the only reason I've ever invested in a jar of smoked Hungarian paprika. These remind me of the ones my aunt used to make for the 4th of July cookout, but even she didn't have hot honey in her repertoire.

E — Elephants Gerald / Aretha Frankenstein

Usually, if I'm eating waffles, the involvement of fried chicken is mandatory. (Thank you, Dickie Wells.) However, on the first Saturday of February, I'll come here and let them plop a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream on my waffles, because that day is when Florence Rappaport created Ice Cream For Breakfast Day. True story.

F — French Onion Soup / Bridgeman's Chophouse

Pourquoi tout semble mieux quand les français le font ? Think about how they turned snails cooked in garlic butter into haute cuisine that rappers like the Notorious B.I.G and Nas gloated about eating. Trust me, the agony of melted Gruyère scorching the roof of your mouth has never been more worth it than now.

G — Gumbo Ya-Ya / Blue Orleans

Gumbo YaYa is a soul food spot in the 10th arrondissement of Paris (eating their waffle burger is on my bucket list). But it's also a dish ordained by the godfather of Cajun cookery: Paul Prudhomme. Some say it's a cultural travesty to mix seafood with your chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, but if the legendary Leah Chase did it, I think we'll be fine.

H — Ham Hocks / Herman's Soul Food

In my world, ham hocks deserve the same respect and dignity as A5-grade Wagyu beef. Usually, they're hidden in a pot of black-eyed peas or collard greens, but Herman's has the gumption to put their ham hocks on a pedestal and treat them like an entree. They're usually the size of Mike Tyson's fist and tender enough to cut with a spoon.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Tremont Tavern’s Ivory Tower Sandwich

I — Ivory Tower Sandwich / Tremont Tavern

John Edward Hollister Montagu would be proud. He's the current and 11th Earl of Sandwich. Allegedly, his distant relative, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, is the reason we refer to a Monte Cristo or patty melt as a sandwich. The smoked turkey, salami, jalapeño pepper jelly, brie and sharp cheddar somehow remind me of those sandwiches people make with leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner, but better.

J- Jerk Chicken / Jamaican Jerk Shack

Kola Champagne was invented for the sole purpose of smoldering the Scotch bonnet-fueled inferno of jerk chicken. Before my daughter Frankie inherited my infatuation with curried goat, before I waxed poetic about ackee and saltfish, slurped a bowl of chicken-foot soup or put a slice of American cheese inside a beef patty, jerk chicken sparked my love affair with Jamaican vittles.

K — K-Pop Fries / The Bitter Alibi

This dish does nothing to decrease the furtherance of the kimchi craze among hipsters, but it's so darn delicious. The thin, almost shoestring fries debunked my theory that the almighty crinkle cut was the only style of french fries sturdy enough to handle the task of being "loaded" with everything from queso to cilantro. This is also my new favorite way to eat bulgogi.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Calliope’s Labneh

L — Labneh / Calliope

The watermelon fattoush is a salad on Lebanese steroids. The falafels are a wink to Chef Khaled Albanna's childhood in Jordan. The lamb neck is probably the first time you realized lamb neck could be an actual dish. However, the labneh, a yogurty cheese, or cheesey yogurt, seems to be the creamy backbone of Calliope's menu. (Cross your fingers that it's paired with the grilled octopus.)

M — Mississippi Delta Hot Tamales / Champy's

I love the juke-joint kitsch. I love the fact that they praise and perpetuate the consumption of 40-ounce bottles of beer. I love the fact that they have koozies to keep those 40-ounce bottles of beer ice cold. I love that the fried chicken is always fresh out of the grease and never languishes under a heat lamp, but those tamales are wrapped in cornhusks like gifts for a reason, because that's exactly what they are. Gifts.

N — New Orleans-Style BBQ Shrimp / Boathouse

I strongly prefer my shrimp with the heads on (I've been told all my life that the head is where all the flavor is). But that's just me being a seafood snob. These shrimp already come beheaded (probably to save you a mess and a hassle), but I can't front — they might knock the Bang Bang Shrimp from Bonefish off its throne as my favorite shrimp dish that isn't shrimp and grits.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Easy Bistro’s Navy Cove Roasted Oysters

O — Oysters / Easy Bistro

I could be in Ürümqi, China — the most landlocked city on Earth — and I'd still try to find a bushel of oysters. Raw, fried, charbroiled, bespackled with hot sauce or covered in mignonette — it doesn't matter. As a North Carolinian, I'm flattered when I see they have Dukes of Topsail among their vast variety, but the Murder Point oysters made me realize that Benjamin Buford "Bubba" Blue's hometown of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, is a real place.

P — Pierogi / The Pickle Barrel

"P" was almost for the "pastrami hash" from Frazier Five & Dime because I'm always tempted by pastrami. Then my constant hankering for dumplings took over, including these of Polish origin, plumped up with a potato and sharp cheddar-cheese filling. Plus, how many times will you have a chance to eat pierogies in a flatiron building with spiral staircases? Maybe never.

Q — Quesabirria / Santi's Mexican Grill and Sports Bar

I don't know what I despise more — being part of a trend or the fact that birria gyoza exist. I promise, I did everything in my powers to hate quesabirria — tortillas filled with succulent beef and melty cheese — but it didn't work. If you're anything like me, you leave your tacos in the consommé for about 45 seconds to let them soak up all that magical meat juice.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Bone Marrow at No. 10. The roasted bone marrow is served with bacon jam and pickled mustard with a mixed-green salad with house dressing, blistered tomatoes, cornichons, caper berries and grilled sourdough bread.

R — Roasted Bone Marrow / Number Ten

In order for an American city to deem itself "decent," it needs, at the very least, one of these four types of restaurants: a soul food joint, Chinese takeout, taqueria or a steakhouse (Outback is sufficient). Chattanooga checks off all these boxes (there's also a pupuseria and izakaya here). Who would have ever thought that scooping bone marrow slathered in bacon jam would be a luxurious dining experience? But here we are.

S — Scrap Plate / Wright's Barbecue

Not even Google can help you find out what a scrap plate is. It's something you'll have to head down Dodson Avenue and experience firsthand. If you're apprehensive, just remember that before all the hoopla, burnt ends were once upon a time considered scraps as well. To his credit, Quincy Jones at Good Eat BBQ has a scrap plate on his menu too, but his rib tips are always clutch.

T— Tom Kha Gai / Sawasdee

Long live Thai Pepper Restaurant in my hometown of Southport, North Carolina. That's the first place I tasted this soup. The commingling of flavors was so exotic and foreign, especially the galangal root, that it flipped my palate inside out and changed everything I'd previously thought I knew about what a chicken soup could be.

U — Unagi Nigiri / Totto's

No! Unagi does not mean "a state of total awareness." It's freshwater eel lacquered with a sort of teriyaki-like sauce and delicately grilled, then draped across an oblong lump of rice before being wrapped in a band of nori. Eating this will boost your sushi clout a few notches and make the great Jiro Ono grin with glee.

V — Veal Parmesan / Gondolier Pizza

For some reason, I love the veal parmesan that comes from places like this. Places that have fried mushrooms and Tex-Mex chicken stromboli on the menu. Places frequented by Tony Soprano-types who swig Chianti and call capicola "gabagool." Sure, there are other veal parmesans with more puffery, but Gondolier's veal parmesan is special in its own special way.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / The whiting plate at Uncle Larry's restaurant, served with fried okra, greens and hushpuppies

W — Whiting Plate / Uncle Larry's

This fish tastes like how the bongos at the beginning of the Gap Band's 1982 classic "Outstanding" sound. It tastes like whoever fried it knows somebody named Junebug. Minus the smack 'em sauce (which is essential). It conjures wonderful memories of fish fries in my granny Annie Ruth's backyard and sweltering hot summer days at Black Bike Week in Atlantic Beach, South Carolina.

X — XXX Burger / Burger Republic

Relax! There's nothing erotic or explicit about this burger. It is, however, a long, sloppy road to gluttony that involves plenty of beef, ranch and bacon. The late, great Anthony Bourdain once said, "In a perfect world, you should be able to eat a hamburger with one hand." Well, this world is far from perfect; that's why I'll pass no judgement if you ask for a knife and fork to eat this burger.

Y — Yellowtail Jalapeños / Two Ten Jack

Nobu Matsuhisa credits this dish, alongside the black cod and miso, as the most important of his illustrious career. Any sushi bar that's worth its weight in wasabi has a bootleg version of this on their menu. The beautiful part is, Two Ten Jack's version of yellowtail sashimi decorated with thin medallions of jalapeño peppers is $24 cheaper than the original version at Nobu in Malibu.

Z — Zucchini Griddle Cake / Sluggo's

I've fantasized about doing cannonballs into Olympic-sized swimming pools full of oxtail gravy. I scoff at people who think cobs of corn have ribs, cauliflower has wings, cashews can make milk or hen-of-the-wood mushrooms can be an actual substitute for a real hen. However, when I do dabble in veganism, these griddle cakes, served with a spicy vegan mayo and creamy dill sauce, always lure me in, especially when the edges are nice and crispy.