Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Eating BIG in Alabama

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Roadfood in Sweet Home Alabama 

I spent a large chunk of last winter down in South Florida (report coming soon). I not only drove down at the start of the winter but I drove back when spring was near. On the way down I stopped in Chattanooga and then St. Augustine before arriving in South Florida. But on the way back I had plans to explore Alabama which is a place I was pretty much unfamiliar with save for a trip to space camp as a kid. All I knew for sure about Alabama was there was lots of Roadfood to be consumed. I wasn't sure what to expect from one of the country's most southern states but I knew it would be interesting and it was. We made stops in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham so if there was one word I could use to describe Alabama it would be historic. There's lots of history here and it's not all jolly like some U.S politicians want our students to be taught and believed. But we cannot erase our history because those that do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it. The Alabama Historical Commission's historical marker program does a really good job teaching about the historical buildings, sites, structures, objects, cemeteries, and districts in the state. Places like the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery which played a major role in the civil rights movement and American history and Rickwood Field in Birmingham which is America's oldest ballpark. The history here runs deep. 

Historic Mobile (Mardi Gras Park)

Historic Montgomery (Dexter Avenue Baptist Church)

Historic Birmingham (Rickwood Field)

Some quick notes on the three spots we stayed. Since we were driving from South Florida our first stop was Mobile. I switched our itinerary around last minute with plans to stay here for two nights instead of Montgomery and we were happy with the decision. It was cool getting to do the Gulf Coast experience. I'm a fan of both the culture and the food. I didn't know that Mobile is where Mardi Gras style parades were first practiced circa the mid 1800's. They have a big city park with a bunch of statues celebrating the city's history with a celebration typically associated with New Orleans. We stopped in Montgomery for about half of a day and hit up some very historic spots including the site where Rosa Parks was arrested. It's also the state capital so we saw that and visited a couple of the city's historic restaurants too. Cute town. Birmingham was my favorite of the three places we visited. It reminded me of other Southern cities like Nashville and Asheville and even a little bit of Atlanta. A visit to the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark was really cool. It operated as a pig iron-producing blast furnace from 1882 to 1971. After closing, it became one of the first industrial sites (and the only blast furnace) in the U.S. to be preserved and restored for public use. You can spend a couple hours roaming around the site. We also hit up America's oldest baseball park, nope it's not Wrigley Field but rather Rickwood Field which was built in 1910. The state of Alabama has produced some of the games best players over the years including Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Frank Thomas among many others. We also took in a game at the Birmingham Barons new stadium which overlooks downtown and it was a beautiful night to do so. All in all it was an awesome trip through the state. 

Sights from Mobile 

Sights from Montgomery 

Sights from Birmingham 

The Bright Star (Bessemer)

We had a Friday Fish Fry for the ages at the 115 year old Bright Star in Bessemer located just outside of Birmingham. Alabama’s oldest restaurant (est. 1907) is a James Beard American Classic award winner and one of the souths best dining experiences. The menu offers a steady flow of old school classics with an emphasis on seafood and steak with both Greek and Southern influences. 

a peek inside

The sheer size of the space is eye opening with room after room offering a slightly different setting. It’s one of those spots that you can easily see and feel the history throughout. While there were a handful of items that sounded good it was the snapper throats that I couldn’t pass up. These are a local delicacy that comes from the meat located under the head around the neck. It’s consumed in spots where snapper is caught and or served. Back in the 1930’s they were used for staff meal at The Bright Star as snapper was on the menu back then and eventually snapper throats were too. These were pristinely fried with a crisp and well seasoned batter. We tried another signature dish in the Greek Snapper which is a fresh sautéed filet sitting in a puddle of butter, garlic, Greek seasoning and olive oil. Each entree comes with your choice of side and the seafood gumbo is a good way to go. This one had a deep roux and was arguably the best of the trip. Also included is your choice of salad, Greek being the way to go. An excellent dinner in all aspects. The type of spot you should seek out if you’re anywhere near Birmingham. A very historic dining destination in a very historic state.

Dinner at The Bright Star Restaurant 

Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q (Bessemer)

Here's the first of a couple legendary bbq joints I got to visit in the area. Bob Sykes is a third generation owned smoke shack serving pit to plate specialties like the Big Bob which is the larger version of their bbq sandwich made with chopped pork. The pitmasters at Bob Sykes smoke pork shoulders over hickory wood. The namesake learned his craft growing up in Western Tennessee. I learned Alabama takes onion rings very seriously on this trip and those served at Bob Sykes were the best of the bunch. The meat was good and so was the sauce but the onion rings stole the show. 

BBQ Sandwich and Onion Rings at Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q

Alabama Peanut Co. (Birmingham)

I wasn't expecting my favorite stop in Birmingham to be a peanut company but it just might've been the most memorable. Part of that was due to the fact I had never been to a spot like this before. The other reason would be because these were quite possibly the best thing I ate in the state and that is in no way a shot at all the other food. Both the boiled peanuts and the fresh roasted were outstanding but it's the latter that really knocked my socks off. They came served warm and were by the far the best peanuts I've ever had to the point where the store-bought bagged stuff doesn't cut it anymore. 

Peanuts from Alabama Peanut Co. 

Ted's Restaurant (Birmingham)

Pictured below is a ‘Greek & Three’ which is a play on words of the Southern specialty the Meat and Three. Greeks have a rich history in Birmingham that goes back to the early 1900’s. At first they took up jobs in the steel yards then eventually started to open their own businesses many of which were restaurants. Ted’s has served the Magic City since 1973 offering up the southern loved meat & three with a bit of a Greek twist. I got souvlaki with Greek potatoes, broccoli rice casserole, mac + cheese.

Meat and Three at Ted's Restaurant 

Irondale Cafe (Irondale)

Here's another Meat and Three but without the meat (a veggie plate). That’s bc we ordered double of the fried green tomatoes that this place is famous for. Irondale Cafe is the inspiration for the Whistle Stop Cafe in Fannie Flagg’s novel “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" which is what inspired the film ‘Fried Green Tomatoes.’ Her aunt used to own the place but that’s about as far as my knowledge on the subject goes. I was here for the food, the fried green tomatoes. It’s rare that a spot like this can live up to the hype that previous visitors have created but I will say the fried green tomatoes are incredibly good. My whole plate was perfect but those tomatoes are epic. Best I’ve had by far. Not that I’ve had a ton but these are the ones all others will be judged by. So fucking good.

Fried Green Tomatoes at Irondale Cafe 

Sammy's Sandwich Shop (Birmingham)

Here's a spot I found through some online digging (nothing stays hidden from me). Sammy's Sandwich Shop (est. 1962) is a real locals type of place, an all in the family spot that the whole neighborhood knows about but few do beyond there. Those that frequent Sammy's will tell you it's the top burger in town and I'm always down to try what the locals deem to be the best. But sometimes you need to call an audible. That's what happened when we walked in around opening and saw the old man pre-cooking a bunch of burgers. I didn't want to risk it so I decided we would try their Beef Rider sandwich which is an interesting menu item in these parts. Beef Rider is what they call a Camel Rider sandwich made with beef instead of the traditional cold cuts. WTF?!?! Haha. I'll let my guy John Edge describe this hyper regional specialty out of Jacksonville that somehow made it's way to Sammy's Sandwich Shop in Birmingham. The gist of it is a sub sandwich with pita used as the bread. Sammy's offers one with chopped ground beef mixed with peppers and onion and topped with a special sauce similar to Russian dressing. It was awesome. But I have none other to compare this one too. I asked the son how this sandwich landed on their menu and got a surly response about it having always been on the menu. 

Beef Rider at Sammy's Sandwich Shop

Lloyd's Restaurant (Birmingham)

An article from circa 2012 has this to say about the Birmingham institution that is Lloyd's -"Now in its 75th year, Lloyd's dates back to 1937, making it, along with Bessemer's 105-year-old Bright Star, one of the oldest continuing full-service restaurants in the Birmingham area. Lloyd Chesser opened the original restaurant in Chelsea on the old U.S. 280 highway, better known as the Florida Short Route. Current owner Eli Stevens, who sold bread and buns to Chesser, bought Lloyd's when Chesser retired in 1971. After the first phase of the new U.S. 280 corridor was completed, Stevens moved the restaurant to its current location 10 miles from downtown Birmingham in 1978. So in three-quarters of a century, Lloyd's has had only two owners. "Me and Mr. Chesser," Stevens says. "I've been here longer than him now. I tell you what, time flies." Lloyd's is known for their hamburger steak, a one pound patty of seared ground beef with brown gravy and onions served with your choice of sides. I'm going to want this badly on the first real day of winter in Chicago. I should also make note of their fantastic banana pudding which Alabama seems to do so much better than everywhere else. 

Hamburger Steak Plate at Lloyd's Restaurant 

Gilchrist (Birmingham)

I found this throwback drugstore / soda fountain while browsing a list of Birmingham's oldest restaurants (est. 1928). It's the type of spot I'll typically stop in at since soda fountains like these are rare these days, and only getting rarer with time. They make classic soda fountain style sandwiches like a BLT with pimento cheese which was really good. But the main reason I stopped in was for a cherry limeade which is mixed to order and so much better than Sonic. Notice the real lime mixed in. 

Cherry Limeade at Gilchrist 

Gus's Hot Dogs (Birmingham)

Downtown Birmingham's last surviving hot dog stand is one of the smallest I’ve visited which in part makes it one of the coolest. The "special" includes mustard, onion, sauerkraut, ground beef, sauce. These are best washed down with a bottle of locally made grape soda called Grapico. Since 1947.

Hot Dog and Grapico at Gus's Hot Dogs 

Miss Myra's Pit Bar-B-Q (Birmingham)

I’ll admit I wasn’t as excited about trying Northern Alabama’s fabled white barbecue sauce as I was with some of it's other regional offerings. That said I was still looking forward to trying it I just wasn’t sure if I’d like it. But I left Miss Myra’s pretty damn impressed. The history of this sauce is said to start up north in Decatur some 100+ years ago. It’s made with mayo and other secret stuff and is said to work best with smoked chicken and I can see why. To me it was almost tzatziki like which may also explain why it’s so popular in these parts which is home to many with a Greek ancestry. Miss Myra’s dates back to 1984. It’s one of a few spots commonly mentioned when white sauce is discussed. But that’s not all they do. I tried some hearty Brunswick stew and a super satisfying barbecue pork sandwich too. Plus some kick ass banana pudding which everyone seems to make well down here. 

Lunch at Miss Myra's Pit Bar-B-Q

Martin's Restaurant (Montgomery)

On our pit stop in Montgomery I was able to check a legendary meat & three spot off the Roadfood bucketlist. Martin’s has been serving up plates of fried chicken since the 1930’s. While do they do have other items on offer it’s the fried chicken that draws them in. I chose the mashed potatoes, mac & cheese plus string beans as my sides and added a slice of their famed coconut pie to go with it. Martin's is commonly mentioned when the best fried chicken in the south (which would also be the world) is discussed but if I'm being honest it wasn't as good as some other spots. That's not to say it isn't delicious but it was the sides and the sky high slice of pie that really stood out. 

Lunch at Martin's Restaurant 

Chris' Hot Dogs (Montgomery)

Here's another historic spot in Montgomery. The states oldest hot dog stand dates back to 1915 and still sits in it's original location just a few blocks from the State Capital. It's a long and narrow space manned by a third (maybe fourth) generation owner who is quite the character. The hot dogs are smaller than most and come slathered in a dark orange sauce that I thought works better on the burger than it did the hot dogs. The buns on the dogs were a bit thick and maybe a tad too fancy. The sauce is interesting in that it's way more smoother than most. If there's meat in there it's not much. 

Hot Dog and Cheeseburger at Chris' Hot Dogs 

Lickin Good Donuts (Mobile)

There's lots of connections between New Orleans and Mobile including Mardi Gras. Both cities are a part of the Gulf Coast in their respective states. While searching through spots in Mobile I noticed that boudin kolache was a popular breakfast snack around town. We stopped into this local franchise for a few before hitting the road north but this report is going south. You can get pretty good donuts too. 

Boudin Kolache at Lickin Good Donuts

Roshell's Cafe & Diner (Mobile)

This spot popped up when searching for the best po boys in Mobile. It's a pretty typical old school diner in that it's slightly worn down and host to a gang of regulars. Fried seafood and burgers are also popular but we were there before the bread was delivered for the day. So no sandwiches. Instead I got an order of fried shrimp and grits which very much hit the spot. The shrimps were breaded and fried to order and they came out perfect. I forget the price but it wasn't much. Well worth the stop. 

Fried Shrimp and Grits at Roshell's 

Grand Mariner Marina and Restaurant (Mobile)

We came across a semi hidden restaurant within a marina and the menu looked good and the reviews were mostly positive so dinner plans were made. We wanted some seafood and where better to find some than a restaurant right on the water? The garlic butter crab claws were excellent while the stuffed flounder was also a hit but the best part might've been the sunset overlooking the marina. 

Dinner at The Grand Mariner 

Mo' Bay Beignet Co. (Mobile)

With all the connections between Mobile and New Orleans it was not a surprise to find a beignet shop in downtown Mobile. Mo' Bay Beignet Co. sits on Daufin street which looks like it could've been plucked from New Orleans with it's Creole style architecture of old buildings with big balconies. The beignets came out piping hot and topped with more powder than Charlie Sheen could consume in one sitting. Honestly I don't remember liking the ones at Cafe Du Monde as much as I did these. 

Beignets at Mo Bay Beignet Co.  

Cozy Brown's Kitchen (Mobile)

When John T. Edge instructs you to make a stop for fish n grits you put it near the top of the to-do list. Cozy Browns is a locals spot in Mobile that was buzzing on our Sunday visit. They do all sorts of stuff but it’s the seafood breakfast plates served with eggs and grits that seems to draw the crowds in. This one was a combo with fried flounder and shrimp with scrambled eggs and cheesy grits. Served with your choice of toast or a biscuit. As seen on SEC Network's ‘TrueSouth’ (hosted by John T. Edge).

Fried Fish n' Grits at Cozy Brown's Kitchen 

Dew Drop Inn (Mobile)

Dew Drop Inn is one of those spots they commonly show when there's a sporting event being broadcast from Mobile. So I've always wanted to go to the point where I made sure we left South Florida at an early enough hour that we would arrive here before they closed for the weekend. This is the spot that's credited with introducing Southern Alabama to hot dogs. While they do more than just hot dogs it’s the bright red wieners topped with sauerkraut, pickle, chili sauce, mustard and ketchup that most people are here for. Best served up with a side of extra peppery onion rings. Since 1924.

Hot Dog and Onion Rings at the Dew Drop Inn

Market by the Bay Deli (Daphne)

We drove over to the eastern shoreline of Mobile Bay for some gumbo that some call the best in the area. It was very good but probably not the best batch of the trip. But when you come from the North like I do it's all above average. Some locally caught fresh fried oysters were also pretty on point.  

Lunch at Market Bay Deli 

Bluegill Restaurant (Spanish Fort)

If you drive around the Mobile Bay you'll come across some old school seafood spots like Bluegill Restaurant. It's situated right on the water overlooking the bay with a large outdoor seating area and some absolutely killer "flamin' oysters." Their specialty dish consists of freshly shucked oysters cooked on a sizzling hot grill with lots of butter, some secret spices and cheese. We were so pleased with these we ordered another round before the first was finished. The oysters were so plump and juicy and cooked to absolute perfection. Definitely one of the more memorable bites of the trip. 

Flamin' Oysters at the Bluegill Restaurant 

Bailey's Seafood Restaurant (Theodore)

So I just learned that our final stop may have closed for good this past summer which absolutely sucks. I loved Bayley's so much it was a shoe-in for my 2022 First Team all Roadfood (the five best food stops I made on the year). It might come back and lets hope they do bc it's the type of place that can't be replaced. It is/was located right outside of Mobile where you’ll find handfuls of fishing and shrimping towns such as Bayou La Batre (pronounced Balla Batree) which is mentioned in Forrest Gump. With them comes some good spots for local seafood. One of the best rests in Theodore and it’s the birthplace of West Indies Salad. The origins of which go back to the 1950s at Bayley’s Steak House, a family restaurant on the road to Dauphin Island in south Alabama. It was ran by Bill and Ethel Bayley who came up with a salad that would become a restaurant staple in the area. The recipe has its roots in Bill’s days as a U.S. Merchant Marine according to Bill Bayley Jr., who carries on the family name and business at Bayley’s Seafood where they only serve seafood from the Gulf.

West Indies Salad at Bayley's Restaurant 

We stopped in for a feast that pleased with the best of them. It included whole stuffed flounder (with shrimp and crab), fried crab claws, deeply seafood flavored gumbo, real deal onion rings and double orders of West Indies Salad which is made with blue crab from nearby Heron Bay as well as onion, vinegar, oil and what I’m sure are some other secret ingredients. It’s one of the best things you’ll eat in Mobile County and a dish you’ll only find around here. Regional U.S food at its absolute finest.

Fried Crab Claws, Fried Stuffed Flounder, Onion Rings, Cole Slaw at Bayley's Seafood 

See ya next time @chibbqking 

1 comment:

Hyde said...

amazing, thanks for the report!


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