Finger-Lickin' Alabama Food Tour
by Jane Lerner
When we were were invited on a food tour through Huntsville, Decatur, and Birmingham, Alabama, we knew we had to send Jane Lerner. She's a passionate cook and adventurous dining companion, and the lady knows her way around a juke joint. Read her full-belly report.
ALABAMA – Here's a list of all the things I'd never eaten before my trip to Alabama: chocolate biscuits, cheesy browns, pickled fiddleheads, white sauce on barbecue chicken, boiled peanuts, grilled watermelon, honeysuckle butter. I ate some variation of shrimp and grits four days in a row; was overwhelmed by a BBQ-topped baked potato that was as big as a pug; drank tea so sweet it gives Momofuku Milk Bar's crack pie a run for its sugar-money; and I partied at a juke joint in a town called Bessemer, Alabama, where a stranger offered me a Coors Light that turned out to be the most refreshing beer I'd had in years.
Over four days on a culinary tour sponsored by Alabama's tourism board, I ate my way through the northern part of the state in Huntsville, Decatur, and Birmingham (a Gulf Coast trip from Montgomery down to Mobile would bring a whole other list of never-before-tried delicacies). This was an unrelenting, arduous task, as it involved an astronomical number of calories that demanded to be consumed all day, every day.
The food of the South is not known for being light and delicate, it's true, though many of the meals I enjoyed hinted at the region's subtle transition from ribs, fried okra, and sweet tea toward local and farm-fresh ingredients and contemporary cooking. (Not that there's anything wrong with BBQ and deep fried vegetables.)
Here's a small selection of some of the insane fun and food that Alabama has to offer.
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
1715 6th Ave. Southeast, Decatur; +1-256-350-6969
In what was the most outrageous display of food all year (all decade?), the award-winning, world-famous Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q served their version of the only-in-northern-Alabama staple: barbecued chicken with white sauce (mostly mayonnaise and vinegar). Adding delicious insult to pleasurable injury, the baked potato topped with smoked turkey and cheese terrified the table with its heft. We barely made a dent.
Blue Plate Cafe
3210 Governors Dr. Southwest, Huntsville; +1-256-533-8808
The chocolate biscuits are a perfect coupling of breakfast and dessert: pillowy biscuits drenched in homemade chocolate syrup and topped with butter, of course. Owner Jerry Sparks told us that when he was a kid, this was his mom's special treat and "now I can get it anytime I want it." The cheesy hash browns are well worth the cardiologist's fee: grated potato mixed with an ungodly amount of butter and cheese, thrown on a grill likely slicked hot with bacon grease.
720 Pratt Ave. Northeast, Huntsville; +1-256-489-1242
As with the pickled fiddleheads that chef Steven Bunner sometimes arrays on his impeccable cheese plate (they have a short season, alas), 1892 East in the historic Five Points distric is dedicated to Alabama's blooming locavore movement. Brunner highlights cheeses, beers, and vegetables produced as close to home as possible. His fried catfish is an upscale update of the Southern classic — greaseless, crunchy, and tender.
2240 Highland Ave. South, Birmingham; +1-205-939-1000
Birmingham boasts a full roster of fancy restaurants. (The huge university and medical school help keep $38 entrees on menus around town.) And all of them owe their existence to Frank Stitt, the don of the Alabama culinary scene. Bottega, Stitt's Italian spot housed in a historic building, is just around the way from his other properties in Birmingham (the fine-dining flagship Highlands Bar and Grill and the lively bistro Chez Fonfon). No lovelier evening could be spent than on the front patio at Bottega, Venetian spritz in hand.
Pepper Place Market
2829 2nd Ave. South, Birmingham; +1-205-802-2100
Birmingham's vibrant community of farmers, cheesemakers, bakers, coffee roasters, and artisanal food folks of all stripes converge on the farmers market held at the site of an old Dr. Pepper bottling plant. If you're the kind of person who feels that an afternoon at a farmers market is the best way to get the pulse of a city, here's your Saturday afternoon.
2016 Morris Ave. Birmingham; +1-205-251-3314
The myth of the peanut is strong Down South, and Peanut Depot has been roasting and salting continually since 1907. There are vintage machines that tumble and toss, and the air is thick with peanut dust. We sampled boiled peanuts, which are slippery and strange, and roasted Cajun-spiced nuts, which are wildly addictive, shells and all.
830 1st Ave. North, Birmingham; +1-205-328-7427
An unassuming facade belies super authentic BBQ action going on in this family-owned place. And who doesn't love a BBQ restaurant with a dancing pig as its logo? The pork ribs are the thing here, naturally, though fried okra and turnip greens were the best BBQ sides I tried all trip. The pork cracklin' cornbread didn't hurt the case, either.
3101 Ave C, Bessemer; +1-256-525-9440
Walking down the driveway to the hard-to-find Gip's Place, there's a shack to the right where it looks (and smells) like some serious barbecue is in full effect. I think you have to know someone to sample it, and that man is likely Mr. Gip, the grand old proprietor of this back-roads juke joint in Bessemer, 20 minutes outside Birmingham. After the band got deeper into their bluesy rockout ("We drove down here from Muscle Shoals to play for you tonight!"), everyone danced a little harder and got a little drunker and made a few more friends. Never got to try that barbecue though.
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