OK, you’ve been patient enough along this journey during “The Year of Alabama Food” while we traveled–knife and fork in hand–from Huntsville to Decatur and, finally, to Birmingham. Here now are a few places to tempt your taste buds while in “The Ham”!
From farm to table
I love visiting a city’s farmer’s market, the benchmark of a city with a vibrant culinary landscape. This is definitely true at Pepper Place Market on Second Avenue South. Held from mid-April to mid-December, the market exudes a wonderful vibe, no doubt created by the plethora of succulent, multihued fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs for sale at the close to 100 booths presented by local farmers and vendors from 100 miles within the city.
Many of the crop items have also been parlayed into delicious jellies and jams; sauces, rubs and toppings; breads, pies, cookies and cakes; wines and vinegars; sausages and all other sorts of other yummy culinary treats.
A bevy of arts and crafts are sold here as well, from homemade furniture to creative kitchenware, beautiful clothing and shoes, artwork, gifts and more. The ambiance here is also enhanced by live music from local talent.
Smack it up, flip it, rub it down…
Yep, I’m talkin’ ’bout some good ole Southern ‘que. As in many states across the country, Alabamans are fiercely proud of their barbecue. So we of course had to sample some, doing so at an outstanding, Black-owned family joint called Rib-It-Up, whose moniker is “The Finest Barbecue Around.”
Let’s just say that the flavors are amazing, the portions are sizeable, the options are numerous and the prices are very reasonable, especially considering the quality. Let’s start with the ribs, which are some of the best I have tasted–tender, juicy, fall-off-the-bone and not to be missed.
The dinners, all of which include a choice of two veggies plus a roll or bread, encompass beef, pork, rib tips, pork chops, ribs and chicken. Chicken dinners range from quarters to halves, tenders, wings and chopped chicken, with the fish dinners offering a choice of whiting or catfish. There are similar sandwich es and sandwich combos, plus their awesome baked potatoes with your choice of barbecue pork, chicken or beef or a combo spud with a side salad.
The sides were tantalizing as well: mac ‘n’ cheese, green beans, turnip greens, collard greens, slaw, potato salad, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, barbecue beans, yams, fries and onion rings. Another nice twist was the cracklin’ muffins, offering an extra crunch to this ubiquitous barbecue side. For desserts, you may choose from lemon meringue or lemon and pecan (yes, this is one pie) pie, peach cobbler or homemade cake.
Some of the many other popular barbecue joints in the area include Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Que, Saw’s BBQ, Dreamland Bar-B-Que and Moe’s Original Bar B Que, just to name a few.
Birmingham is home to numerous great places to wine and dine, from mom-and- pop joints to family fare, Southern specialties, upscale fine dining and everything in between.
For upscale eats, Birmingham boasts several shining stars. The Mediterranean building and setting at Bottega gets you in the mood for their excellent rustic Mediterranean and contemporary Italian dishes. There is also a Bottega Cafe for casual fare in the same building. In addition to coming for dinner, I highly recommend Bottega for a drink and appetizers on their al fresco patio out front or in the inviting, open, indoor bar area.
For dinner one night we dined at Highlands Bar and Grill, an enchanting French-themed restaurant offering excellent dishes, which the chef-owner says is “informed by classic French technique, incorporating the foods of our Southern region.” The majority of the menu is seasonally inspired, incorporating a plethora of fresh-from-the-farm ingredients that allow nature’s true flavors to infuse every bite. The ambiance is wonderfully upscale, eclectic, lively and charming, coupled with outstanding service and a definitely European pace, our group spending a leisurely three-plus hours here to enjoy each course.
Another Birmingham dining hot spot is Hot and Hot Fish Club, noted as among the “Great Neighborhood Restaurants in the South” by Bon Appetit magazine. The ambiance here is casual and eclectic, with seating options as diverse as an intimate table or nook for a romantic dinner for two, to a rustic, rough-hewn handmade table for a loud, large group, to the open, California-style limestone chef’s counter where it almost feels comfortable enough to eat with your fingers while talking to your new friends who have plopped down next to you. The cuisine is amazing–a combination of upscale California with touches of classic French. Hot and Hot Fish Club is also known for their multifarious, seasonally inspired signature cocktails.
A few other popular notables include Saigon Noodle House for traditional Vietnamese fare; Cocina Superior, serving “Modern Tex-Mex”; the Fish Market, popular for their seafood and Greek specialties; GianMarco’s, featuring great Italian, Southern/soul and Mediterranean dishes; Trattoria Centrale for casual Italian; and Irondale Cafe: Original Whistle Stop, reportedly the inspiration for the novel “Fried Green Tomatoes, at the Whistle Stop Cafe.”
By the way, several of the aforementioned are included in the brochure “100 Places to Eat in Alabama Before You Die,” which was one of the guiding forces for this Year of Alabama Food tour: Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Que for their cheese biscuits, Highlands Bar and Grill for their baked grits, Bottega for their parmesan souffle and Hot and Hot Fish Club for their tomato salad and picked okra.
I am full and exhausted from all of this eating! However, it was completely worth it and the experience has etched in my mind the fact that Alabama is a gastronomic force to be reckoned with in every corner of the state.
- Bottega: (205) 939-1000, www.bottegarestaurant.com
- Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitor’s Bureau: (800) 458-8085, (205) 458-8000, www.birminghamal.org
- Highlands Bar and Grill: (205) 939-1400, www.highlandsbarandgrill.com
- Hot and Fish Club: (205) 933-5474, www.hotandhotfishclub.com
- Jones Valley Urban Farm: (205) 439-7213, www.jvuf.org
- Pepper Place Market: (205) 802-2100, www.pepperplacemarket.com
- Rib-It-Up: (205) 328-7427
- The Year of Alabama Food: www.yearofalabamafood.com