A Chattanooga favorite makes a quiet return after a two-year absence.
I couldn’t believe my eyes – or rather, the corner of my left eye – when I saw the now iconic silver Airstream trailer parked next to the Granfalloon on East Main Street as I was driving to another lunchtime destination. My neck snapped involuntarily to the left to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. I wasn’t! There, in all of its shiny retro glory, was the trailer, complete with “Silver Jalapeno” scribbled in green across the side and a drawing of a green jalapeño nestled in a deep pink petunia blossom framing the take-out window.
Elated, I did a U-turn and headed back. Petunia’s is a minor Chattanooga legend that has traveled across its share of mountains and valleys. Samara Litvack, a former custodian of this column, first discovered it in Red Bank, and wrote a very enthusiastic piece about the food. Owned and operated by chef Virginia Cofer, it served traditional lunch fare, most of which was cooked fresh in the trailer. The smoked butt, of course, was prepared outside, and was a destination item.
All of the food was outstanding. And affordable. In addition to serving mouthwatering smoked butt barbecue sandwiches, Petunia’s was famous for its fish tacos, chicken quesadilla, and pork and bean bowl, among other items. I became addicted to the pork tacos – an item not on the menu but one Cofer’s crew would gladly make to order. The Southwest Burger and a side of vegetarian beans was another midday favorite.
Then one day, Petunia’s was gone, despite doing well. “Logistics,” Cofer said to me at the time. She opened other restaurants, including Virginia’s Southside Cafe on Cowart Street, Gin Gin’s in Signal Mountain, and even an indoor version of Petunia’s beneath Warehouse Row, and while all of them had terrific food (I loved the jalapeño bacon on the club sandwich at Southside Café), I missed the scrappy character of the original.
Well, I don’t anymore. Nearly two years after shuttering her Warehouse Row spot, Cofer reopened Petunia’s in the trailer, where it belongs. Even better, its menu is intact, meaning all of her original favorites have returned. Having already scarfed down a variety of items, I can tell you the recipes seem to have not changed. I have yet to try the fish tacos, but the quesadilla is still dripping with melted cheese and chunks of grilled chicken, the Southwest Burger still offers a tangy smorgasbord of flavors (the guacamole makes the burger!), and the pork sandwich, with its huge pile of tender pulled pork, crunchy coleslaw, and savory sauce, is still a knockout item. Cofer doesn’t brag about having some of the best barbecue in town, she simply has it.
Cofer has also added one new item to her menu, and it’s good enough to be considered a Chattanooga classic. Available for less than $7, the barbecue stuffed jalapeños are worth the drive, no matter where you live or work. Although Cofer wouldn’t reveal her recipe, she did tell me it consists of grilled jalapeños stuffed with a blend of real cheeses and smoked butt and topped with nacho cheese, barbecue sauce, and salty corn chips. I’ve had these myself, and they’re terrific.
While the food is the most important thing, eating at Petunia’s is easier than ever thanks to Cofer’s partnership with the Granfalloon. Not only can you eat outside during the pleasant autumn days that lie ahead, you can also go inside the Granfalloon and enjoy your meal in the comfort of an enclosed space. After ordering Petunia’s on Saturday, Oct. 7, I found a seat indoors near the piano and enjoyed live music as I ate. On another trip, I mixed and matched my purchases, getting food at Petunia’s and dessert at Adelle’s Ice Cream Creperie, which is located inside the Granfalloon.
There’s a big gravel parking lot outside the Granfalloon, too, which is a nice bonus for hungry lunchers who don’t want to vie for a street-side spot in the heart of downtown.
If the return of Petunia’s Silver Jalapeno could be topped, perhaps it’s that a brief inspection of the trailer revealed that it’s not going on anywhere. It resting on blocks, not wheels, Cofer says, and the trailer has permanent water and electrical connections. In other words, it’s not going anywhere.
So now that you know where to find it, the only questions is, what’s for lunch?
Petunia’s Silver Jalapeno is open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. You can find the trailer at 400 E. Main St. Call ahead at (423) 785-7578. Cofer also operates her catering company, Virginia’s Gourmet by Design, out of the Granfalloon. Call her there at (423) 260-3068.