Apr 19 2019
Big Ears Festival is pretty much entirely a downtown thing. By most measures, it’s a walking distance event. And while a bit of pre-trip research revealed some pretty neat places to eat, drink and hang that were located in the neighborhoods outside of the city center, if you’re going to be at the festival and try to see as many shows as you can pack into a day, it’s a pretty easy decision to stay right in downtown and never leave. Let’s talk about some places I ate, because, damn, there were some very fun places I took a seat in between all of the shows.
And that’s not easy, by the way. The Big Ears Festival performances were packed in pretty tight. With only one exception, all of the places I ate at were joints I passed by as I walked over to a show venue and made a note to stop back along the way and grab a meal. This really isn’t an ideal decision making approach, but it was all I had. And I either got very lucky or it’s difficult to find a bad place in downtown Knoxville to eat, because I had some great food in some very fun and welcoming spots.
Kaizen was the standout meal of my trip. I had the good fortune of passing by there as I scrambled over to see Ralph Towner perform at a nearby church. The lighting and the outdoor patio spoke to the way I’m wired, and a quick glance at the menu posted outside the door promised the kind of food that typically floats my boat. I made the decision right then to stop back for dinner as soon as Towner was done bringing heaven down to earth. I’m so glad I did. Kaizen has an Asian-inspired menu. Their various rice and noodle bowls and steamed buns were the highlights of that menu. I ordered two items. One was the oyster fried rice, a bowl of goodness filled with delicately fried oysters, kimchi, fried egg, tamarind-chile syrup, fried shallots and fresh herbs. It had that perfect balance of being a filling dish without it making me leave feeling heavy. Those fried oysters were delightful. The breading delivered a nice crunch, but it was as light on the palette as anything else in the dish. The house-made kimchi was amazing.
I have a complicated relationship with kimchi. I don’t really like it that much. But I associate it with these big bowls of stew I’d get at the Joong Boo Market‘s dive-y little snack shop in the back of their grocery store. They serve these huge bowls of stew with veggies and seafood, and they are delicious and will fight off all the maladies one can get from a typical Chicago winter. Those bowls were served with a couple small sides… of which kimchi was one. I’d eat the damn stuff even though it tasted weird, like the garnish equivalent of sour patch kids candy, because I knew if I ate everything that place served me, my body would feel healthy as it ever did. So, I look at kimchi as taking my medicine. That might not make any sense to you, and, honestly, I wouldn’t fault you your confusion. But that’s where we find ourselves.
The thing of it is, it seems like a lot of restaurants these days are having a field day toying with kimchi as a component of a dish, and so it’s been fun to keep encountering it in new contexts. The house-made kimchi at Kaizen shook my world. It was arguably the best kimchi I’d ever had. And it made this impression as part of a dinner that was hitting me on all cylinders.
The steamed buns were the other item I had that evening at Kaizen, and they were as fun as they were delicious. I sometimes shy away from those steamed bun dishes because too often it’s more stick than steam, which I find an unpleasant texture. Thankfully, Kaizen got it right. And much like the breading on the fried oysters, these were seriously light in the best way. I chose two of them: The “Thai Sausage,” with Chiang Mai sausage, peanut sauce, herbs, and pickled ginger, and the “Eggplant Bun,” with crispy fried eggplant, hoisin sauce, citrus mayo, cilantro and scallions. Cheers to the waitperson who recommended the eggplant. There were so many choices on the menu speaking to me, and I was able to narrow it down to a few, but I was still indecisive. Y’see, I know the things I like and I can recognize the things that interest me, but then there’s an additional consideration when on the road… there’s the likelihood I might never be back to that particular town again, and so what I really want to order is the thing that I don’t want to miss… the dish that the restaurant does special and unlike any other place. The eggplant steamed bun was it. It’s so nice to be able to ask the waitperson which item on the menu would I be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t try, and for them to know right away which choice to make. The eggplant was outstanding.
Speaking of waitstaff and personnel, that same person also recommended the Dogfish SeaQuench Ale to go with that meal, and damn that was an excellent recommendation. I told him what I was looking for, and he delivered it. I’m also really grateful for Kaizen getting me a seat out on that patio. It’s not a large place. The interior has a small bar people can eat at, ideal for solo diners like myself, plus seats packed in tight. It’s intimate, and doesn’t feel crowded. Well, it was a very busy night, and they had a running wait list, and even though I was riding solo, instead of making me sit at the bar (which would’ve been understandable), they sat me a table outside on that patio… the spot that, visually, drew me in as I passed by it on the way to see the Towner show. I’m very aware they could’ve sat me at that bar and flipped the patio table that much quicker by seating a couple there instead. That they accommodated me like that was appreciated and also representative of my entire Kaizen experience.
It’s normal to romanticize what it might be like to live in a city or town you’re visiting for a short while. It’s the kind of daydreaming that’s a fun exercise on its own merits, but it’s so easy a practice to slip into when your life has taken you outside its normal routines and surroundings. I do that kind of thing all the time. If I were to move to Knoxville, Tennessee, one reason for that change would be so I could eat at Kaizen whenever I desired (aka all the time). It’s that good, and if you’re ever in downtown Knoxville and need a place to eat, that’s where you should go. It’s definitely a reason for me to plan a return trip to Knoxville.
Speaking of kimchi, Kaizen wasn’t my only run-in with that oddly compelling vegetable. For lunch on Saturday, I stopped at Curious Dog Hot Dogs & Sandwiches… not far from Mill & Mine (where I would see Spiritualized, Sons of Kemet and Makaya McCraven before the weekend was over) and down by the railroad tracks. It has a classic lunch spot look to it… brick everywhere, wood tables and chairs, wall coolers filled with soft drinks and beer, and chalkboards colorfully listing out the menu in detail.
A hotdog and fries and beer just sounded good to me right then, and something about a place that looks like a deli has such a comforting effect on me… well, I grabbed a seat. I went with the Curious dog. I had to go with their classic. Plus, the potato salad, bacon and house sauce just sounded good. I don’t regret it. That being said, they did have a hotdog that had kimchi on it, and I’m gonna have to try that one next time I’m in Knoxville. There will always be a part of me that regrets not getting it otherwise. The dog and fries and beer were exactly what I needed before heading up the street to see Thumbscrew at The Standard.
Saturday morning breakfast was at a solid breakfast joint in the Old Town neighborhood.
Old Town actually borders downtown, and you really don’t notice leaving one and entering the other. Brick lined streets and a mix of modern and old architecture frame winding streets. OliBea was along one of those streets.
OliBea is a sunny place, and plenty welcoming. I had the Carnita Tostada, with confit cheshire pork shoulder, frijoles, queso fresco, eggs and salsa verde. It made my Friday night journey of late night music and drinking inconsequential on my body’s well-being. I chatted with a friendly guy about the town, the festival and some of the music we’d seen and just music in general. I answered his request for some jazz recommendations, and one of the names I gave was Mary Halvorson. Not long after, I finished my meal and made my exit, just to realize that the guitarist was seated at the table directly behind me. Several people have since commented that this was an almost cliché type of Big Ears occurrence. I am glad to have made a contribution to keeping that an enduring festival experience.
Sunday morning breakfast was at Tupelo Honey Cafe. I have no complaints about the food. I had the Old Skool Breakfast Bowl of two sunny-side up eggs, potato cracklins, salsa verde, black-eyed peas, cheddar cheese, bacon & sausage crumbles, and goat cheese grits. It sounded like what I’d need after a couple late nights of music and drinking. I was feeling a bit wore out by this time. The breakfast was very good. Naturally, I was happy that I liked everything, but what I came here for was a bloody mary and a seat at a patio table. The restaurant is located in Market Square, just off the main drag of downtown. Market Square is pedestrian only, a wide thoroughfare of brick and trees and archways and birds fluttering happily about eating the offerings from any one of the restaurants and diners and bars that lined this street. I walked up and down the stretch several times in between shows, and I’d marked out a couple spots I might like to plant myself on Sunday at the end of the long weekend.
Even with the crowds, there’s something quite serene about this section of downtown… as if the geography recognizes the need to be calm after the nighttime electricity of the area has faded away with the appearance of sunlight. In any event, some decent food was the bonus for a bloody mary on that patio on that morning.
As I made my way over to the Tennessee Theatre to see Nik Bartch’s Ronin, I was right as rain.