Earlier this month I was eating my way around Tennessee and southwestern Kentucky with some pals; the intrepid Peter Engler, occasional Reader contributor Kristina Meyer, and the captain of the ship, Rob Lopata. A large part of our itinerary was inspired by John T. Edge’s great and passionate book Southern Belly, though we made a few discoveries on our own. I’ll be reporting on some of what we did in this week’s Omnivorous column, and they’ll be posting even more extensive field reports in the coming weeks over on LTHForum. But there was one meal on that trip that I just can’t stop thinking about: meat and three at Arnold’s Country Kitchen in Nashville.

The standard Southern meat-and-three joint offers a main meat dish accompanied by three (mostly) vegetable sides, plus cornbread or a biscuit. It’s typically budget priced, home-style southern comfort food; meat loaf, chicken and dumplings, smothered pork chops, greens, sweet potatoes, mac ‘n’ cheese, white beans, etc. But in a city that embraces the tradition and supports dozens of meat and threes, Arnold’s is frequently invoked as the champeen.

When we pulled up next to the bright red cinder-block building and exited the car we were blasted with a sugary baked aroma wafting over the sunlit parking lot. This could have been cornbread baking in the kitchen or some other nearby operation–it had the same intoxicating power as the Blommer Chocolate factory downwind–but wherever it came from it was an appropriate sensual prelude to the meal to come.

Inside, founder Jack Arnold’s son Khalil was working the roast beef station carving piles of juicy, garlicky meat onto plates. It was the top of the lunch rush, and the place was packed but he had the presence of mind to scold the server who plated my fried green tomatoes on top of my green beans and mac and cheese, instead of on a side plate. “They’ll get soggy,” he snapped, displaying the same irritable but exacting attention to detail his old man is famous for. 

It was a Thursday, which meant chicken livers and rice were on the menu as well as country-fried steak and fried shrimp. But we’d all heard so much about that roast–studded with garlic, carved to order, and drizzled with horseradish jus–that, flaunting the usual conventions of comprehensive road research, we all ordered it.

Those tomatoes were stacked in the middle of a huge pile of juicy meat, the creamiest, silky mac ‘n’ cheese, and surprisingly good green beans, which had been saturated with porky cooking liquid. Those tomatoes weren’t soggy–the crispy herbed breading armored the tender tangy fruit inside against the depredations of pot likker, cheese, and jus. We barely finished up with chess pie and banana pudding.

Ours wasn’t a group prone to hyperbole, but afterward at least three of us agreed it was one of the most memorable meals we’d ever been privileged to partake of–at $6.78 apiece, no less. Even if everything we ate over that five-day trip had been crap (not even close), meat and three at Arnold’s would have made the long drive worth it.

We have our own approximations of the meat and three–Macarthur’s, Edna’s, Daley’s, etc–but they aren’t Arnold’s.