I hope that although you’re reading this, you can somehow sense the excitement in my voice. I’m like a little kid on Christmas morning–just itching to tear open the packages and see what’s inside! And that’s just how I feel about sharing more about the amazing gastronomic adventures to be had in Huntsville.

Well, day two was a doozie, starting out at a long-standing city favorite, the Blue Plate Cafe. A quintessential diner that takes “pride in preparing classic southern dishes with our mother’s and grandmother’s recipes,” the Blue Plate invites diners to “come on home.” Breakfast here is a must. From retirees to businessmen and women, families with children and first-timers like us, the folks at the Blue Plate treat them all like family.

Big eaters will do well here, as each dish is enough to satisfy most any appetite until close to dinner. Everything from the chocolate Chiquita pancakes (pancakes with chocolate chips and bananas topped with whipped cream) to the omelets with your choice of one, two, three or more ingredients (i.e., cheese, bacon, sausage, ham, bologna, onions, green peppers, jalapenos, mushrooms, or tomatoes), homemade French toast and their special Blue Plate Breakfast with two eggs, hash or cheesy browns, grits or cheese grits, oatmeal and biscuit and gravy or toast, bacon, sausage, bologna or country fried steak or country ham is outrageously delicious.

Before we even sat down, one of the reps from the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau taking us around kept repeating emphatically, “Cheesy browns! Cheesy browns!” And I have to say they are amazing, although not for the “cardiac challenged”–your classic hash browns layered throughout with savory cheese and seasonings with a light crunch. And if you desire a little dessert with your morning meal, don’t miss the Cocoa Biscuits–a hot biscuit topped with a scoop of butter and covered with made-from-scratch chocolate sauce. It was well worth the calories and not having any “points” left for the rest of the day!

Open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Blue Plate Cafe is also known for its daily comfort food specials encompassing home-style meat loaf, pot roast, chicken fried steak, catfish, chicken and dumplings or dressing, pork chops and certified Angus chopped steak, plus sides like butter beans, mashed potatoes, mac ‘n’ cheese, turnip greens, hash brown casserole, slaw and others.

LOCALLY GROWN, OWNED AND ADORED

I hate to play favorites, but overall I think my favorite knife and fork experience during this “Year of Alabama Food” tour was 1892 East Restaurant and Tavern. The food was exceptional, but as I came to find out, the historic setting, ambiance and focus on community is what sets it apart.

Located in Huntsville’s historic Five Points neighborhood–a quaint, century-plus-old enclave representing the city’s first true suburb, chock full of English-style cottages, vernacular Victorian and bungalow homes still set in the original 19th century grid, with broad, parallel streets, deep, narrow lots and rear service alleys–the focus here is on locally grown and owned farm fresh, primarily organic ingredients from the surrounding Tennessee Valley.

In fact, all of the restaurant’s purveyors–meat, produce, dairy, grains and so forth–grow or raise their products within two hours of the city. This local, community-focused, farm-to-table concept is evident in the quality, flavors and creativity of the recipes and presentation of their bimonthly menu.

Seeing as we have been tripping the high calories fantastic of late, I will start with a bevy of wonderful vegetarian dishes, including a roasted butternut tart, tempeh sandwich and mixed mushroom and vegetable potpie–I also sampled the roasted chicken version, which was out of this world. “Lighter Side” entrees encompass flatbread sandwiches, e.g., grilled vegetable, mixed mushroom, BLT, red wine-glazed chicken, curry and apple, Maytag blue cheese and shrimp and tarragon salads. Moreover, their artfully designed bread baskets arrive brimming with hearty grain breads with a choice of savory butter or a fluffy white bean hummus with orange zest butter–just bathe me in it!

Main comfort food dishes for lunch and dinner include a cranberry chicken sandwich; Alabama fried catfish; the best, most succulent roasted chicken breast (humanely raised and hormone free) you have ever experienced in your life; roasted chicken tamales; grilled regional beef tenderloin; and New Orleans-style Gulf Coast shrimp and mussels, just to name a few. The one absolute must-have on the menu is their crispy shrimp and grits–very unique (and very labor intensive), with fried Gulf Coast shrimp stuffed with cheddar grits and served with a smoked tomato dipping sauce. No explanation could do it justice.

An interesting aspect to the restaurant is that although they opted to be a “beer-centric” joint–they also offer beer flights–they possess an extensive 50-plus wines by the glass menu–most of which are under $10.

Speaking of value, I think what probably pushed 1892 into first place in my book are two things: their motto, “We put the restaurant in the neighborhood and the neighborhood in the restaurant,” which is evident in the service, decor and ambiance, and their pricing-very modest given the extraordinarily high quality and sumptuous portions that allow people, including families with children, who would not normally be able or willing to spend, all told, anywhere from $35-plus per person for an exceptional lunch or dinner out to experience their upscale fare more frequently.

A TANTALIZING TRIFECTA

Well, my intent was to end this day’s culinary adventure with a progressive dinner romp with one of the country’s most celebrated chefs–one with former stints at Le Cirque in New York, the Phoenician and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and Loews Coronado Bay Resort in Southern California. Alas, that will have to wait until next time.

But there’s no hurry. Like travel, a great meal with friends and family or an aged wine or spirit, it’s the journey–not the rush to get there, eat it or open it–that makes it all worthwhile. The Year of Alabama Food has much more in store!

Resource list

  • 1892 East Restaurant and Tavern: (256) 489-1242, 1892east.com
  • Blue Plate Cafe: (256) 533-8808, blueplatecafe.com
  • Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau: (800) 843-0468, (256) 551-2230, huntsville.org
  • The Year of Alabama Food: yearofalabamafood.com