Eating down South
I recently returned from vacation, which entailed driving south, with stops in Leesburg, Va., Durham, N.C., and Birmingham, Ala., where I spent the bulk of my trip.
I used to live in Birmingham, and shortly before the trip I began making a mental list of restaurants and bars I wanted to visit. The list wasn’t actually all that long: I ate at a lot of good restaurants when I lived in Birmingham, but many of them served the sort of quality ethnic food I can get up here without too much trouble: Indian, Mediterranean, Mexican. The shortness of my list, however, didn’t diminish my eagerness to eat at the few restaurants on it. In fact, as I approached the city, I could feel my appetite growing stronger and stronger, which might have had less to do with desire than with the fact that I subsisted on peanuts, french fries, coffee, ginger ale and water on the nine-hour drive from Durham to Birmingham. Although the ginger ale was pretty fantastic — a hot and spicy Atlanta-based brand called Red Rock Golden Ginger Ale. I regret not buying a case of it, because it’s not available up here.
Anyway, I arrived at my friend Leigh Anne’s house in Birmingham around 6 p.m. feeling somewhat malnourished, and demanded to eat at The Fish Market in downtown Birmingham. The Fish Market was one of my first discoveries when I moved to Birmingham, and I could not believe my luck: Here was a reasonably priced, high quality restaurant featuring a mix of seafood and Greek food. And it wasn’t a fancy restaurant. You ordered at a window, took a number and retrieved your food when your number was called. Service was quick, and I often took my dinner breaks there while working the night shift. Anyway, I ordered the barbecue shrimp and grits, and six oysters on the half shell, which I devoured. The Fish Market’s menu has actually expanded since the late 1990s, and has gotten a little fancier, but the basic set-up remains the same, and meals typically still come with hushpuppies — deep fried balls of cornmeal batter.
The Fish Market was so good I was tempted to make a second visit. However, there simply wasn’t time, as I spent the rest of the trip eating barbecue. The Capital Region has a very good barbecue place — Dinosaur Barbecue, in Troy — so it’s not like I’ve been deprived of good barbecue. But it was still fun to take advantage of some of the best barbecue restaurants Birmingham has to offer.
When I stopped by my Great-uncle Frank’s for lunch, he and his friend Peggy had picked up pork sandwiches and sides, such as beans and coleslaw, ad Full Moon Bar-B-Que. One of Full Moon’s specialties is a spicy relish called chow-chow, which can be eaten as a sandwich topping or a side. I tend to be suspicious of relishes, so I tried the chow-chow as a side; once I’d determined that I liked it, I used it as a topping, which gave my sandwich a real kick.
A day later, I found myself at a new barbecue place in Birmingham’s up-and-coming Avondale neighborhood called Saw’s Soul Kitchen. This place was terrific — if I still lived in Birmingham, I’d probably eat here all of the time, especially since it’s next door to a brewery. (More on that in a bit.) Saw’s is a bit of a dive, which I always like — a relatively small eatery, with a down-to-earth, quirky aesthetic. Because I’d eaten pork the day before, I ordered fried green tomatoes and chicken wings, both of which were excellent. (I’ve gotten this combo at Dinosaur Barbecue, and it’s very good there, too.) I could see Saw’s getting a bit too crowded for my taste, but I was there on a day when a tornado watch was in effect, and there was a strong chance of severe thunderstorms, so it was pretty quiet.
On my second-to-last night in Birmingham, I had dinner at Dreamland Barb-B-Que, a fairly well-known restaurant that I’m ashamed to admit I never ate at while I resident of the city. I wanted to rectify my terrible mistake, so I ordered a half-rack of ribs, because ribs are supposed to be Dreamland’s best offering. And they were very good — the meat was tender and tasty, and slathered in a mouthwatering barbecue sauce. I ordered a cup of homemade banana pudding for dessert, and was blown away — it was so good I regretted not ordering a larger size. Which would have been a huge mistake, as I was already feeling overstuffed.
One of the great developments that has taken place in Alabama over the past few years has been the loosening of the state’s liquor laws, which allows craft brewers to create beers and sell them throughout the state, at stores and bars. This is a huge deal — when I lived in Birmingham, there was no such thing as local beer, and you were hard pressed to find bars that served quality American-brewed beer. In fact, you were hard pressed to find beer with an alcohol content over 6 percent; such beers were still banned due to Prohibition-era laws.
Today, Birmingham has five breweries, according to www.brewtrail.com, and I managed to drag my friend Leigh Anne to the Avondale Brewing Co.’s taproom, which sits on a once-desolate street in a brick building that has housed a fire station, pharmacy, bank and brothel, according to Southern Living magazine. Anyway, this rich history, and the variety of beers on tap, make the taproom a great place to visit. Some of the beers are pretty strong, but there are some less powerful brews; I really enjoyed the Vanillaphant Porter, which has an ABV of about 6.2 percent. I didn’t visit any other breweries, but I did try the coffee oatmeal stout made by Good People Brewing Co. in Birmingham at a local bar, and the Lily Flag Milk Stout made by the Straight to Ale brewery up in Huntsville.
My final stop was the bar The Garage Cafe — my favorite bar in the world. Despite being named one of the 10 bars worth flying to by GQ magazine, The Garage seldom feels crowded, and has never lost its quirky, neighborhood bar vibe. You can hang out inside, but the real draw is the courtyard, which is enclosed by 1930s-era garage stalls filled with antiques, odd knickknacks, candelabras, birdbaths, plumbing fixtures and other weird stuff. The courtyard is a really cool place to hang out, and makes The Garage the sort of unique place that simply can’t be duplicated. There’s a part of me that would like to pick it up and fly it to Albany, but it would lose something in the possible. In other words, GQ is right: This is a bar worth flying to.
On Sunday night, the wisteria that hangs above the courtyard was in bloom and beautiful, and Leigh Anne and I enjoyed walking around and gawking at all the bizarre items on display. We ran into an old colleague from our old newspaper, which reminded me that one of my favorite things about The Garage was the fact that almost all of my friends and acquaintances drank there, and I often ran into people I was happy to see when I stopped by. It was good to be back, and if I have any regrets it’s that I didn’t spend more time at The Garage. Oh, well. Maybe next time.
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