Where to Eat, Drink in Birmingham, Alabama
Heading to Birmingham, Alabama soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for some delicious biscuits or a mindblowing grilled cheese sandwich with Capicola and a fried egg, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town.
4133 White Oak Dr, Birmingham, AL
This review of Alabama Biscuit Company originally appeared Nov. 28, 2016.
Those who have read this space for a while know that in spite of last week’s ode to the Big Fat Yeast roll and its descendants, my favorite bread remains the biscuit. In the Bread Power Rankings, the biscuit is Bama. Everyone else is fighting for a distant second. I frequently eat biscuits for breakfast. I wish it were easier to eat them for lunch, dinner and dessert as well. Saturday morning, I found a place that allowed me to do two out of three.
If you just want to gobble something resembling the recipe on the Bisquick box, you’re not going to like Alabama Biscuit Company. Grab some fast food biscuits or head to Cracker Barrel and stuff yourself. It’ll be cheaper, and you’ll be happy. (I say this not to denigrate those places; this is how I feel some days.) But if, on occasion, you feel a little fancy and want a biscuit concoction that matches that attitude, then Alabama Biscuit Company will satisfy your craving. The place looks like the After version of a house on HGTV’s Fixer Upper. You’re going to want a new backsplash when you leave. You’re also going to wonder how they made the humble biscuit so versatile.
Want breakfast? Order The Standard, which is a biscuit with housemade jelly (Saturday’s selection was blueberry), sorghum syrup or honey. The biscuit is simultaneously light and dense thanks to flaky layers stacked tight and tall. This allows it to work as an ordinary breakfast bread or as the foundation for ABC’s more ambitious creations. Those who still only want their biscuits to be biscuits but want some protein added to the mix can order the bacon, egg and cheese or ham and cheese. These may share names with diner menu items, but the ingredients are the difference between ordering a steak at Waffle House and a steak at Ruth’s Chris. You’re going to pay for the difference — the price delta is much smaller in this case — but you’ll notice it.
After my Standard, I felt like stretching the capabilities of my next biscuit. So I ordered Saturday’s Bacon Du Jour. On this particular day, the biscuit packed in fennel-encrusted pork belly, candied pear, Manchego cheese, whole grain mustard, pickled red onions and cilantro. The pork belly had a crisp crust and a savory finish, and the mustard offered a spicy kick that isn’t what I’d normally expect to eat on a biscuit. After the first bite, I thought about this. This is precisely the type of sandwich I’d order at a high-end deli. That I could eat it on my favorite bread — a bread most delis and sandwich shops don’t make — made it that much better.
I couldn’t leave without dessert, so I also ordered the persimmon-pear bis-cake. This dish took advantage of the ABC biscuit’s sturdiness. An average biscuit either would have been overwhelmed by the persimmon sauce or too hard to enjoy, but the ABC biscuit retained its shape while still staying light and flaky. The chai pear butter and vanilla Mascarpone provide the sweet. The biscuit provides the salty. The combination provided a satisfying end to a delicious meal to start the day. And if I hadn’t had to cover a football game, I would have headed straight to Lowe’s to buy those tiles for that new backsplash.
4105 4th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35222
This review of Melt originally appeared Nov. 17, 2014.
Nearly every decent-sized town has a gourmet grilled cheese place these days, and it seems most of them have similar names. On the same block as the (former) SI home office in New York is Meltshop. Cleveland has Melt Bar and Grilled, the place that helped launch the trend. Suburban Philadelphia has Meltdown. The Bay Area has The Melt, which is more of a burger place but also serves grilled cheese. Suburban Toronto has Melt Grilled Cheese.
It’s actually quite amazing that it took so long for restaurateurs to figure out that classed-up versions of what I serve my 5-year-old three or four times a week would draw huge crowds. Love of grilled cheese is darn near universal. The only people who dislike it are either lactose intolerant or clinically insane. So the proliferation of similarly named houses of grilled cheese is understandable from a demand standpoint.
Birmingham has just plain Melt. The brick-and-mortar store is in the trendy Avondale area, home to Saw’s Soul Kitchen, Post Office Pies and the Avondale Brewing Co. Taproom. Melt also has a food truck that spreads the cheesy goodness around town.
On Friday afternoon, I took a seat at Melt’s bar fully expecting to order one sandwich. I had scouted the menu on the website, and I was certain no combination devised by man or spirit could top what I planned to order. Melt offers a grilled macaroni and cheese sandwich. It also offers the opportunity to add bacon to any sandwich. Grilled cheese is the ultimate preschool comfort food. Mac and cheese is the king of side dishes. Bacon is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. No sandwich could ever be better than this sandwich. As sandwiches go, I would consider this combination the way Alabama fans consider one of Nick Saban’s teams. Nothing in this nation could possibly be better, and the very suggestion that something might be better is utter blasphemy. This meal would be a snap. I would order a grilled mac and cheese with bacon, the angels would sing and I would be on my merry way.
Ten minutes later, I found myself staring at two baskets. “Please tell me these are both for you,” the server said as he set them down. I had called an audible. Yes, I had ordered the grilled mac and cheese with bacon, but something had nagged at me when I read the menu. The Three Amigos featured pepper jack cheese melted over ham, Capicola and a fried egg. The addition of a fried egg to what already appears to be a fully formed sandwich is the ultimate power move. I couldn’t let an opportunity pass. So I had also ordered the Amigos.
And it crushed the grilled mac and cheese with bacon. In fact, The Three Amigos may have surpassed the pork belly sandwich at Cochon Butcher in New Orleans as my favorite sandwich.
Much like Oregon State’s win against Arizona State in Corvallis After Dark, this shouldn’t have been possible, but it happened. The spicy Capicola and the savory ham and egg melded with the tangy cheese and the soft bread to form a sandwich that surpassed a concoction that could have been designed in a lab to match every criterion I would expect in a perfect handheld comfort food.
So let that be a lesson to you, football and food sabermetricians. Sometimes you just have to play the game on the field. Or on the tastebuds. The result could be shocking.
725 29th St S, Birmingham, AL 35233
This review of Slice originally appeared July 18, 2016.
Somewhere between Selma and Tuscaloosa, we always found a stand. I never could figure out where we were going because the two-lane roads all looked the same, but my mom and her sister had traveled that route hundreds of times from home to college. They knew the way, and they knew where to find those old wooden sheds that held tables covered with baskets. When my mom and I came to visit her hometown every summer, we’d usually would visit the home of her alma mater because it had a bigger mall than Selma but less traffic than Montgomery. I got a few packs of baseball cards if I behaved while the ladies shopped, but a Mackey Sasser Rated Rookie card wasn’t the main objective. I was there to eat peaches on the way back.
I laugh every time I see a sign that proclaims Georgia as the Peach State, because no one who has eaten a Chilton County peach would ever believe such an absurd boast. Softball-sized globes of yellow and red when picked in peak season, Chilton County peaches remain the ultimate summer snack. Under that fuzz is a dessert-sweet flesh that stays firm even though the thing feels as if it packs enough juice to fill a glass. Only a fool — or someone moments away from jumping in a creek—would eat one without a roll of paper towels handy. On the way back from Tuscaloosa, we’d buy several baskets. The idea was that we’d have some to take home to Florida with us. Thanks to me, only a few ever made it across the border.
Because Chilton County peaches are the finest peach on earth, I will eat them plain. I will eat them as jam. I will eat them in a pie. I will eat it them in a cobbler. I will eat them as ice cream.* And after visiting Slice last week, I now know I can eat them on a pizza.
*Peach Park in Clanton, Ala., sells all these items. I have been known to skip the airport and drive to SEC Media Days so I could buy 20 pounds of peaches to bring home. Of course, I never could get out of the place without also eating jam, pie, cobbler and ice cream.
The Slice menu looked intriguing even before I reached the bottom and saw that the chef had built a pie around my favorite fruit. Had I not answered its siren call, I would have loved to try the following:
—Soul Pie: Turnip greens, black-eyed peas, Conecuh sausage, grilled red onion, bacon, pepper jack and cheddar.
—Mexicali: Braised lamb, tomatillo sauce, pepper jack, queso fresco, arugula, jalapeno, cherry tomatoes, shaved onion and avocado crema.
But I couldn’t resist The Chilton. Slices of peaches rest alongside smoked pork shoulder, arugula, shaved red onion and aged gouda under a balsamic drizzle. This could have been a disaster without the proper crust, but Slice gets its oven hot enough to produce a bed for even the heaviest topping load. The crust is thick enough to offer some resistance to the teeth, but the outside is crispy enough to provide an exoskeleton strong enough to hold the peaches and huge hunks of pork without getting soggy. Those who typically get their salty-sweet fix from ham and pineapple might be surprised by the flavor balance. The pork shoulder is less salty than ham. The peach chunks are sweeter than pineapple. But the pork and the gouda provide a smoky foil for the peaches, and the balsamic adds just enough tang.
Slice wasn’t done with my tour of the summer produce section, though. After the pizza, I ordered a slice of blackberry cheesecake. A sweet-but-tart berry might be the perfect addition to a cheesecake. The cream cheese can mellow the most extreme flavors, and the result is a rich bite that still explodes on the taste buds. Of course, had Slice made cheesecake with Chilton County peaches, I’d have skipped right past the blackberry and ordered an entire cake to take home.
1008 Oxmoor Rd, Homewood, AL 35209
This review of Saw's BBQ originally appeared Dec. 1, 2014
One of the (very) few drawbacks of the world’s greatest job is that I almost always have to leave home immediately after Thanksgiving. This means I miss out on the ultimate day of channel-surfing through football games while devouring comfort-food leftovers on my couch. On Friday morning, I left a fridge full of turkey, pulled pork, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato casserole to catch a flight to go cover the Iron Bowl. Normally, I want to try something new each week so I have something to write about in this column. When I landed in Birmingham, I just wanted comfort food.
Despite a plethora of studies examining the biological reasons the body craves certain savory, high-fat foods (http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2003/09/4682/comfort-food-cravings-may-be-bodys-attempt-put-brake-chronic-stress), I consider comfort food to be more of a psychological distinction than a physical one. Every meal I eat is an attempt to get back to my grandmother’s table in Selma, Ala., which was always covered with homemade delights. My mom, who passed in 2006, was there with me, and my grandmother was perpetually worried a young Andy wouldn’t eat his fill. “Three plates?” Ella Mae Cook would say. “Is that all you’re going to have?”
For food to comfort me, it must take me back there. And if I haven’t tried it yet, then I don’t know if I’ll get to chase that particular dragon for a few glorious minutes. That’s why I drove to Homewood, walked into Saw’s BBQ and ordered the Saw’s sampler on Friday afternoon. I’ve eaten there close to a dozen times in the past three years because Saw’s is one of the nation’s great barbecue joints. I know the ribs will always be juicy and come off the bone with just a slight tug. I know the pulled pork will always be juicy and won’t need sauce. I know the chicken will always be smoked perfectly and kissed with the white barbecue sauce that I love in spite of my lifelong hatred of mayonnaise and mayo-based products. I know the greens will always be spicy and sweet at the same time, just like the turnip greens my grandmother would cook after I helped her collect the turnips from the garden.
Nothing about that lunch on Friday surprised me, but it did take me back to a place where I felt full, happy and safe. And that’s the best we can hope for from any meal.
2913 18th St S, Homewood, AL 35209
This review of Salem's Diner originally appeared July 20, 2015.
Some of the more important business of college football got done in a back booth at Salem’s Diner. There’s nothing fancy about the little spot in Homewood, Ala. The booth seats are hard and straight and ensure proper posture. The décor, as in so many other places in the state, relies heavily on Paul Bryant’s mid-career period. But critical college football decisions were contemplated – or at least ruminated upon – over coffee and biscuits in that back booth. That’s where former SEC commissioner Mike Slive spends many of his mornings, and before his retirement, that’s where Slive occasionally convened meetings of his advisors. Slive does not come to Salem’s for the ambience, though. He comes to see Wayne.
“Commish, you want your usual?” Wayne Salem boomed from behind the counter last week. We had a server, but Wayne tends to cut out the middleperson thanks to a foghorn voice coated with Birmingham twang. The great-grandson of Lebanese immigrants chats with every customer, commissioner of a Power Five conference or not, and for him the menu is but a list of suggestions. Anything that can be created with the ingredients of the items on the page is in play.
Wayne has been serving customers his entire life. His father, Ed, was an All-America halfback and safety at Alabama who achieved statewide acclaim by throwing for three touchdowns, running for another, kicking seven extra points and playing safety in a 55-0 win against Auburn as a sophomore in 1948. The year is critical because it was the first time the teams had played since 1907. They’ve played every year since. Ed played pro football briefly, but he made his bones with restaurants, bowling alleys and a service that shuttled Alabamians to Atlantic City for gambling junkets.
A lifetime working in the family business has taught Wayne the value of customer service. That’s why he’ll occasionally serve something that isn’t on that menu. Last week, Wayne pulled out a Mason jar full of locally produced honey to drizzle on the diner’s soft, flaky biscuits. “My buddy brings me this stuff,” Wayne said. “He’s also a moonshiner.” Wayne wouldn’t violate Alabama’s liquor laws by serving the more potent concoction that fills those Mason jars, but he doesn’t need to. He keeps even more intoxicating substances behind the counter.
When I first visited Salem’s last year, I ordered the Trash Can with a lid. This monster packs in hash browns, sausage, cheese and veggies. The “lid” refers to the two eggs sitting on top. It’s the perfect breakfast for someone who doesn’t want to eat again – or walk again – for the remainder of the day. Slive does not order the trash can. He’s more of an English muffin and sliced tomatoes guy. It was perfect for me, though. But after I’d nearly cleared the Trash Can from my plate, Wayne brought a basket of biscuits and a cup of his mother’s homemade fig jam. Don’t tell the Alabama ABC Board, but four biscuits later, I was addicted.
I resolved that on this visit I would not fill up on the Trash Can. While it is delicious, I had to leave space in case Wayne had something else behind the counter. (I also had to work the rest of the day, and SI probably doesn’t have the budget to hire someone to push me around in a wheelbarrow.) So I ordered two bacon biscuits and hoped. Then Wayne brought out the honey. That would have been enough, but he had more behind that magical counter. Yes, 84-year-old Ann Salem had made more fig jam. She also made pear jam. Baskets of biscuits appeared alongside cups of the thick, dark, sweet, spreadable elixirs. I might have consumed two baskets full myself, but I had to discern whether the ultrasweet fig or the slightly tart pear worked better in concert with the buttery biscuit. This was a critical evaluation, but unfortunately I couldn’t formulate an answer. I’m simply going to have to try again on my next trip to Birmingham.
New SEC commissioner Greg Sankey probably won’t be conducting much business at Salem’s. But newly minted consultant Slive will continue to tank up with coffee and conversation before accumulating any billable hours. Meanwhile, Wayne will keep chatting up anyone who comes through the door. He’ll explain the story behind each Alabama football poster on the wall, and he’ll offer to show diners the clip of late night host Craig Ferguson calling the Philly cheesesteak at Salem’s the best he’s eaten anywhere – including Philadelphia. And if those diners are lucky, maybe – just maybe – Wayne will have a little something behind the counter that they can spread on their biscuits.