There were times when Alphonso Anderson didn’t think his small restaurant was going to make it. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, his business cratered. Up until that point, Big Al’s Deli had relied heavily on catering sports games, celebrations, and other events within the local community—all of which ceased overnight. “I said, we’re going to have to shut down,” Anderson remembers. “We don’t even make enough money to pay bills.”
Then, in a true deus ex machina moment, Anderson received a call from chef José Andrés of the non-profit World Central Kitchen. “They sent me over a calendar for a year’s worth of catering,” he says. “And they asked, ‘How much of this do you want?’ I said, ‘I’ll take it all.’”
Fast-forward to the present and Big Al’s Deli continues to thrive, both as a destination for out-of-towners and a local community hub. Customers pour in every morning for heaping plates of pancakes and extra-thick French toast, then sidle in again at lunch for the classic meat-and-three.
The handwritten menu of specials rotates, but leans heavily on Southern classics such as fried catfish, smoked pork chops, and BBQ sauce-slathered chicken. The process is standard: pick your protein, then pile on side like coleslaw, braised collards, or molasses-tinged skillet beans. Starchy add-ons, like the fluffy, honey-hued biscuits or the savory johnnycakes, are not included but are highly recommended.
Big Al’s Deli has always been a family operation, both in practice and in spirit. Anderson’s son, A.J., helps oversee operations and the restaurant is named for his father. “Big Al, that’s my dad. He’s in heaven,” he says. “I’m Little Al. My dad always wanted all his kids to be self-employed, so I named that after him.”
While the format might resemble other meat-and-threes in Nashville, Anderson is quick to point out, “I’m not soul food, I’m Southern food.” In case the New England Patriots paraphernalia and his undying love for the Red Sox didn’t give it away, Anderson hails from Boston originally. Most of the dishes here are based on his family’s recipes. A standout is the shrimp and grits, which comes swimming in a warmly spiced, roux-darkened gravy.
“The chicken is my mother’s recipe,” he says proudly of the fried thigh and drumstick gracing a thick pair of waffles. “It’s Lowcountry South Carolinian, but I spice it up because my mother can’t even handle pepper.” That extra kick of cayenne makes the craggy, greaseless crust sing, especially when drizzled with syrup. Anderson eschews brining his fried chicken and relies instead on a dredge in flour with a heady blend of spices. When asked for his secret seasoning blend, Anderson just laughs and says, “No way.”
Know Before You Go
Big Al’s Deli is closed on Sundays.