We have a friend who claims that the staples of Southern cuisine are chicken fried steak, pulled pork, fried chicken, and chili. On a crisp winter evening, we arrived at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill determined to try them all.
Most of the massive restaurant is given over to an 85-foot guitar-shaped bar with high-top tables around the perimeter. Lighting is low and the noise level is high. We opted for a more food-focused section with better lighting. But it was still so noisy, we had to shout at one another.
There’s a continuous ribbon of oversize television screens around the bar and dining room, along with the requisite neon signs from breweries and distillers. Despite the focus on the bar, we saw lots of families in the dining room in the early evening, and there is a children’s menu.
Our waitress was attentive, cheerful, and — like her colleagues — dressed in a black tank top, denim short shorts, and cowboy boots. (We were all clad in long pants and sweaters.) The restaurant was busy on a Friday night, but we couldn’t help but wonder if the servers would be freezing on a slow night when they didn’t have to race around. OK, this is beginning to sound like the AARP version of a restaurant review — on to the food.
In our quest to sample as much Southern fare as possible, we started with Toby’s Platter ($15), consisting of nachos, wings, jalapeño poppers, deep-fried zucchini, mozzarella sticks, and triangles of fried macaroni and cheese. Fried may not be good for you, but let’s be honest: fried food tastes good. And this platter, perfect for sharing, was very good. The accompanying sauces were better than we expected — piquant blue cheese, slightly spicy ranch, and a really robust marinara.
The sweet and spicy barbecued wings were positively addictive, and the jalapeño poppers were surprisingly light, with just a little kick. A cup of chili ($5) was chock full of beef, beans, and onions, but we found the taste pretty tame.
Along the Southern/barbecue cuisine spectrum, we’d say the entrees leaned toward the sweet. A pulled pork sandwich ($11) was a nice combination of shredded and chunky, charred pieces of meat. It was very moist without being oversauced. This dish came with a minuscule soufflé cup of lightly dressed, fresh-tasting cole slaw, and when our Southern-fare expert told the waitress the dish should have much more cole slaw, she gamely returned with a larger portion.
Fried bone-in chicken ($15) was crispy on the outside, moist on the inside, served with buttery mashed potato and gravy. We substituted fried okra for the proffered corn; the vegetable had some bite beneath the fried coating and the predominant flavor was of okra, not batter.
Sweet bourbon salmon ($19), marinated for 24 hours in the pungent, smoky sauce, was served with nicely steamed broccoli and carrots and rice.
I’ve never really “got” chicken fried steak ($15), and this experience did not enlighten me, but the diner who ordered it, with mashed potatoes and an ear of corn, was happy. Baked beans ($3 for a side), with bits of pulled pork, were sweet and flavorful, but the texture struck us as more like refried beans than baked. Portions overall were generous, but not outlandish.
Desserts ($6, $7 a la mode) are made in house, our waitress said, except, of course, for the deep-fried Twinkies. Ever since the news that Twinkies’ maker, Hostess brands, planned to shut down, this dessert has been flying out the door, she added.
We shared a warm chocolate brownie topped with whipped cream, ice cream, and hot fudge; it was as rich and decadent as it sounds and a fitting ending to our artery-busting foray into Southern food.