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Music city? What about Foodcity? 3 restaurants in Nashville that show why Tennessee’s capital is a top dining destination

In the heart of downtown it serves everything from stuffed ban me sandwiches and fried bao to tacos and Prince’s Hot Chicken – a dish that has been a local hero for more than a century. Be warned that the XXX Hot option has a good name.

Born in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China, Duolan Li moved to Beijing and then to the United States at the age of six. She opened XiaoBao in Nashville, 2022. Photo: Libby Callaway

Once you’ve dipped your toe in the culinary waters, three restaurants run by three charismatic figures from China, the US and India offer excellent food and perfectly reflect Nashville’s cultural diversity.

Duolan Li was born in Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, China, moved to Beijing and then to the US at the age of six. In 2012, she opened her first restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, which she named Xiao Bao Biscuit, paying tribute to the food cultures of China and the American South. Her second restaurant opened in 2022 in East Nashville at 830 Meridian Street, this was called XiaoBao.

Shaanxi biang biang noodles from XiaoBao. Photo: Chris Dwyer

The funky decor exudes a 1970s vibe and contains what Li calls “relics from my Chinese childhood”: vintage thermoses, photos, tin cookie jars. It is personal to me because it speaks to a China that I remember but that no longer exists.”

The cuisine is described as ‘Asian comfort food’, but dishes from Sichuan play a leading role.

“Us then then mian put us on the map. We source our hua jiao (Sichuan pepper) from a supplier we met in Chengdu because it is an annual crop and we like to get the freshest produce. But Mala Marketplace in Nashville also sells products from Sichuan,” says Li.

Li’s husband, Josh Walker, is a chef; he opened Xiao Bao Biscuit with her and is regularly in the kitchen in Nashville, while Li often works front of house. She explains: “I’m a critic too – I can be a tough one!”

Duolan Li often works front of house at XiaoBao in Nashville. Photo: Mallory Delia
Bing flatbread under charred eggplant, whipped feta, ginger, scallion and chili-garlic sauce from XiaoBao, in Nashville. Photo: Chris Dwyer

The couple’s approach works beautifully.

Beaten cucumber and kohlrabi were doused with black vinegar, hua jiao and garlic to give the palate a rollercoaster ride. Next one binga small round flatbread, was topped with whipped feta, charred eggplant, ginger, spring onion and the restaurant’s own chilli-garlic sauce, which was dangerously good.

Shaanxi specialty biang biang noodles formed the thick base for a heady mix of chili and cumin brisket, trumpet mushrooms and choi sum. The last record was la zi cauliflower, a stir-fry dish from Sichuan with classic ma la narcotic heat.

With a restaurant full of cheerful diners – and a queue to get in – business is clearly going well. Li says other restaurants in the new Meridian Street culinary center have been “incredibly supportive, great neighbors, especially Sean Brock.”

Sean Brock, who runs Aubrey in Nashville, is a James Beard award-winning chef. Photo: Sean Brock

Brock is perhaps Nashville’s most famous culinary name, a celebrity chef with a portfolio of four restaurants in the city, including Audrey (809 Meridian St), just a short walk from XiaoBao.

He grew up in rural Virginia and has been instrumental in what he calls the “repatriation” of Southern cooking. The winner of several James Beard Awards and the author of numerous cookbooks, he has become a well-known face on TV thanks to hosting Mind of a chefproduced by the late Anthony Bourdain, and featured in the hit Netflix show Chef’s table.

Named after his maternal grandmother, Audrey is Brock’s flagship restaurant and a tour de force of relaxed, sustainable and dazzlingly delicious dining.

Cherokee white cornbread with sour corn butter and crispy pork rind nuggets from Audrey, in Nashville. Photo: Chris Dwyer

After kicking off dinner with seriously creative cocktails in the restaurant’s elegant upstairs bar, Audrey’s ‘Feast’ menu option at US$99 per person is the best way to appreciate the breadth of offering. It comes in four “waves”, 10 dishes in total, but the portions and flow are both well balanced.

For starters, a skillet of Cherokee white cornbread – named for the blue and white corn used – with sour corn butter and nuggets of crispy pork rinds was a delight.

Shaved country ham with peanuts, dried Appalachian berries and Steen’s cane syrup celebrated the South, while baked apples with roasted buckwheat, yuzu and sorrel showcased the integration of global ingredients.

Shaved country ham with peanuts, dried Appalachian berries and Steen’s cane sugar syrup from Aubrey. Photo: Chris Dwyer
Skewers of scallop and king trumpet mushrooms with peach and fennel dipping sauce from Aubrey. Photo: Chris Dwyer
Hickory grilled catfish with ladybugs, Carolina Gold rice and Aubrey’s tomato gravy. Photo: Chris Dwyer

A sublime grilled skewer of scallop and king trumpet mushrooms with peach and fennel dipping sauce was followed by “Audrey’s Chicken and Dumplings”, which were decadently lifted with black truffle.

Hickory-grilled catfish with ladybugs – a Southern delicacy – accompanied Carolina Gold rice and tomato gravy in a fantastic savory denouement, before seasonal fruit cobbler with cornmeal cookies and vanilla bean ice cream wrapped an epic dinner.

Brock explained what makes Nashville special. “The best thing about Nashville is the influx of creative minds. I’ve seen Nashville change a lot, all for the better. It has become a place where people from all different industries and art forms who dream big can come and be supported – and take the stage.”

At Chauhan Ale and Masala House, Chef Maneet Chauhan deftly blends Indian and local flavors and ingredients. Photo: Maneet Chauhan
Chaat, short rib nan bread and chicken tikka poutine from Chauhan Ale and Masala House. Photo: Chris Dwyer

Maneet Chauhan, Executive Chef of Morph Hospitality Group, was born and brought up in the Punjabi city of Ludhiana. She came to the US to study at the Culinary Institute of America – and hasn’t looked back since.

A jury member on the TV cooking show Minced meat She has been an author and consultant to American Airlines on premium menus for 15 years and is one of the leading Indian culinary figures in the US.

“When I came to America, I realized the dismal situation and perception of Indian food,” she says. “In England, Indian food has a highly respected place because of the history we share. I had almost a fiduciary responsibility to show America the beauty of Indian food, to make it accessible and fun – and not soften the flavors.”

Her restaurant portfolio included popular pan-Chinese spot Tansuo, which sadly closed earlier this year; thankfully her eponymous eatery Chauhan Ale and Masala House (123 12th Ave N) is still open, where she deftly combines Indian and local flavors and ingredients, for example with her take on nachos with lamb keema, served as a chaat with tamarind chutney.

Maneet Chauhan, Executive Chef of Morph Hospitality Group, was born and brought up in the Punjabi city of Ludhiana. Photo: Jessica Sloan

The same goes for the Nashville Hot Chicken Pakora, Chauhan’s “Ode to Nashville”.

“Our secret is the spice mix,” says Chauhan. “We use Kashmiri chillies, Indian curd chillies that have been soaked in yoghurt and then dried to create a sour taste. I also add some chipotle, even though it’s not Indian, because it has a smoky flavor.”

One of her most popular dishes is the seriously decadent chicken tikka masala poutine. Steaks are prepared on skewers in the tandoor, while nan rolls are topped with French onion and short rib.

Chauhan is clearly very happy in her adopted home, where she flies the flag of India, while appreciating Nashville’s supportive food culture.

“It’s amazing because a lot of really cool restaurants get the credit. The fact that Yolan was voted the best restaurant in the US by readers of Food & Wine magazine was incredible,” she says, referring to chef Tony Mantuano’s fine Italian restaurant at The Joseph Hotel.

“Nashville has a very cosmopolitan atmosphere. Food is disappearing from obvious places like New York. The idea is that in order to eat a varied diet, you have to go to one of those cities.”