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Little Black Book: The Food Writer in Birmingham, Alabama

by Jane Lerner

Roadside Stand near Birmington. Photo: Walker Evans 1903-1975 / Library of Congress

On her culinary tour of Alabama, Jane Lerner met Jason Horn, a food writer with a big appetite for local haunts, and got his favorite places. 

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Before relocating to Birmingham in 2007 to work at Cooking Light magazine, food writer Jason Horn had priorities: He logged onto Chowhound and asked the locals to direct him to the best ethnic markets and restaurants in the area. Several years later, he's settled in nicely. As the founder and organizer of the food bloggers conference Food Blog South, he's amassed a long roster of native and transplanted Southerners to consult.

"With a few blaring exceptions, we have at least one of every kind of ethnic food you can think of," Jason says. "There's a ton of Middle Eastern food here that's very good and a surprising amount of Asian food. If there's anything you want, you can pretty much find it somewhere in the Birmingham area." 

And now he's the one giving the advice on where to eat in town.

Best Barbecue

Miss Myra's Bar-B-Q
3278 Cahaba Heights Rd.; +1-205-967-6004
Every barbecue region has its specialty, and in north-central Alabama, ours is white sauce: mayo, vinegar, and black pepper, which is designed to go with chicken. Birmingham's number one is Miss Myra's Bar-B-Q, the best barbecue chicken I have ever tasted in my life! It's unbelievable, ridiculously smoky, just tender, and perfect. Beautiful stuff. Their white sauce is delicious on the chicken, but don't put white sauce on the ribs or pork! 

Saw's BBQ

Saw's BBQ
1008 Omoor Rd.; +1-20-879-1937  
My other favorite barbecue. I have a personal connection to Saw's. When I moved here to work at Cooking Light, there was a guy in the test kitchen named Mike Wilson, and he eventually quit to open Saw's. "Saw" was his nickname; it stands for "sorry-ass wuss." Mike is from North Carolina, and he was making ribs for his co-workers in the test kitchen a few times a year. So he broke out to open his own place. The ribs are amazing. They also have baked potatoes topped with barbecued meat, and the potatoes are, like, a foot long. Just enormous. I think he's got a nuclear reactor down in the basement. 

Saw's Soul Kitchen
215 41st St. South; +1-205-591-1409
Saw's just opened another place, Saw's Soul Kitchen, and it's one of my favorite new spots. Lots of sandwiches with fillings like fried oysters and fried shrimp. And a dish of pork and greens over grits that's super tasty. Really down-home Southern, terrible-for-you food done by two guys with really solid culinary backgrounds. It's two doors down from Avondale Brewing Company, so the best part is, you can put your order in at the restaurant and go sit on the patio of the Brewery. They'll bring your food to you.


Scott's Koneys

Greek and Mediterranean, Then and Now

Scott's Koneys
2021 Third Ave. South; +1-205-323-1783 
Here's the thing: All the old-school restaurants in Birmingham were owned by Greeks. They don't serve Greek food necessarily, but there are a ton of Greek-owned hot dog joints. The Southern Foodways Alliance has a whole section on their website about the Birmingham hot dog trail, and those places are sadly disappearing. A spot called Scott's Koneys is one of the last old-school joints. There was a great one called Pete's Famous: The whole restaurant was eight feet wide, and six of those feet were taken up by the counter and the stove. Gus, the man who ran it, kept the buns in a shelf over his head and had to had to bend over all day long. He had a permanent stoop.

The Fish Market
612 22nd St. South 
For real Greek food there's The Fish Market, a famous local place that's also an actual fish shop. A lot of the preparations are real simple, with lemon and olive oil. The owner, George Sarris, has his own brand of olive oil. He owns another restaurant, Dodiyós, which is pan-Mediterranean with Turkish, Italian, and other influences. 

Makarios
940 20th St. South; +1-205-731-7414
One of my other favorites is Makarios in Five Points South. It's super cheap, open late, and serves gyros, falafel and really good hummus. George's is a Lebanese restaurant on Green Springs Highway (our ethnic food highway), which does kibbeh, a ground beef and cracked wheat dish. The original recipe calls for raw beef, and George's will make that for you if you call and order in advance.


Mr Chen's Chinese Cooking

Asian Options

Korean BBQ Restuarant
22 Green Springs Hwy.; +1-205-941-1009
This was a market run by a Korean family who had a little cafe in the back. They expanded into the storefront next door and have excellent bibimbop. You can do the cook-at-the-table Korean BBQ thing, but I like the prepared dishes best.

Silver Coin
3321 Lorna Rd.; +1-205-823-9070 
It's all the way out in the suburbs, but it's my favorite Indian restaurant. The best Indian food without the drive is at Sitar, which is a mini-chain in the South. Their lunch buffet is just meh, but if you go for dinner, they have a massive menu. Of note: malai kofta, a vegetarian meatball in a creamy sauce, and the thali platters. Their vegetarian stuff is excellent.

Mr. Chen's
1917 Hoover Court; +1-205-824-8283
Far and away the best and most authentic Chinese in Birmingham. I'd order any of the whole fish dishes, though my favorite is basil chicken. I don't know what it is about it, but it's amazing, delicious, and wonderful; it's got whole pieces of fried, crisp ginger and tons and tons of basil.


Birmingham

My Number One Pick

Ollie Irene
2713 Culver Rd.; +1-205-769-6034
My favorite restaurant in Birmingham right now. It's high-end Southern food but the setting is casual. The chef is very creative, and he brings in different ideas. He works with bits and pieces of Asian flavors — he makes his own kimchee — and he does a fermented black bean dish. It's a great date place and a good celebration spot, though there's a wait most nights because it's really small. But it's cheap enough so you can go with regularity. They're doing everything right. 


Good Drinking

The J Clyde
1312 Cobb Lane; +1-205-939-1312 
The best beer selection in town, with something like 200 or 300 beers, 50-some taps, and knowledgeable servers. Good People Brewing Company and Avondale both have tap rooms, and a little ways out of the city is Back Forty. Two breweries just made their debut at the beer festival this spring: Beer Engineers and Cahaba Brewing Company.

There is a long story behind brewpubs in Birmingham: An organization called Free the Hops fought to change the laws regarding the six percent APV limit. That law was changed, but there were still restrictions on brewpubs. Previously, if you sold beer directly to the public at your brewery, you couldn't sell it anywhere else. Welcome to backwards, Prohibition-era laws. When the law changed a few years ago, it started a renaissance of breweries. People went nuts with beer. It artificially inflated the beer geek population in the area.


MORE ALABAMA EATING

Read Jane's Finger-Lickin' Food Tour of Huntsville, Birmingham, and Decatur.

TAKE A TOUR OF THE SOUTH

Check out our road trip guide.

Photos: Saw's BBQ, bhamsandwich / Flickr; Mr. Chen's / Urban Spoon; courtesy of Ollie Irene.

Jane Lerner

Jane is a Brooklyn-based food writer and editor. She travels for the new and unusual.

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