Birmingham, you have my heart.
From here on out, let it be known that I travel mostly by taste. My experience of a city relies not on the sights and sounds, but the flavors and scents that waft from food trucks and restaurants. Before I came to Birmingham I fretted over the food. I assumed I’d have access to great BBQ (a myopic, though not unkind, judgement) and knew of a few top-notch restaurants (hello Bottega), but wondered how I would find the local dives, the outlying ethnic spots and seasonal produce.
As I approached my hotel for the first time I drove down a long lane of uninspired boxaurants. Landry’s, O’Charley’s, IHOP, Chili’s, it was an assault on my admittedly narrow-minded way of eating. Perhaps more frightening was the enthusiasm spouted by my car-mates as we passed each food cemetery. They simply shuddered with delight at the nearby variety. Sweat flushed my face, were these to be my eating companions for the next 7 weeks?
That first night I scoured the interweb for something owned by a family rather than a corporation. With a bit of luck I came across a Vietnamese restaurant not more than 5 miles from our hotel. I called a castmate and told him of my plans, inviting him on an adventure; he gladly jumped in the car.
Upon opening the menu I learned this would be David’s first foray into Vietnamese food, perhaps his first Southeast Asian meal altogether. I attempted a slight explanation of the entrees and he ordered intrepidly. Over dinner we discussed our personal eating habits. I told David I’d be looking for local grub, ethnic or otherwise, during my stay in Birmingham. Might he want to accompany me on my quest?
After nearly two months of eating through Birmingham, David and I have a few favorites. Should you find yourself here for a few days or a few weeks, let me be your escort for a couple of meals. I promise to be gentle.
Many thanks to Jane Lerner for pointing me in the direction of numbers 1 and 2 on this list, without her advance recon I’m not sure I would have ever found these gems. Additional thanks to Erin Street and Stephanie Gibson. These two saints found my twitter handle in the program for Legally Blonde and invited David and me out for a drink that led to a most serendipitous friendship.
#1 Saw’s BBQ
Alabama is indeed, ripe with BBQ establishments. There are large chains (Dreamland, Jim ‘n Nick’s), and then there are the local joints (Saw’s and Miss Myra’s). Let me be clear on one thing: you can’t go wrong. All BBQ we ate was delicious. Do we have a preference? Yes. Saw’s is utterly local and uniquely spiced. Their eponymous sauce is bright and peppery, a perfect match to the smoke-charred ribs and the melting pulled pork. Best Q I’ve had? Yep. Get on it.
Opening the door, we are welcomed with a chime and the eerie theme music from The X-Files. The show continues on in a Korean translation as we wait at the front counter to be seated. No one is in the restaurant, not a diner, not a waiter, perhaps we should leave? No. Next door is the Asian market, owned by the same family, sharing a wall. We leave the restaurant and enter the market, hoping we might see someone there. Strike 2. No one in the market. We wander the aisles for a minute and then see an elderly woman poke her head out of the back kitchen. She darts inside again without a word. We stroll a few more aisles then go back into the restaurant side, assuming this time she’ll be there to greet us. Strike 3. Still no one at the counter. We open and close the door a few times to activate the digital chime in a machine-gun rhythm. Still no host. Should we leave?
No. More credit to David as an intrepid eater, we walk into the restaurant and all the way through the dining section to the back, where a window indicates a kitchen. The old woman pokes her head out again and then sends an even older man to help us. We ask if the place is open, could we eat?
He leads us to a table and gives us two menus. Again, I explain the food to David and we order.
I’ll keep this short: More hijinks ensue, the food arrives, AND I EAT THE BEST BI BIM BOP OF MY LIFE.
You must eat here. It will be the most awkwardly private dining experience of your life, and you will leave with a full belly and a giant smile.
My castmates all proclaim their love of Mexican food, then they eat at Chuy’s and Chili’s and I realize they might not have ever had Mexican food. Proper Mexican food, not Mex-Am food, not watery salsa over grilled chicken breasts, but striking street food. Gordo’s is the real deal. The family owns a whole strip of stores, a panaderia, carniceria, and finally, the tremendous taqueria. The meats change on a daily basis, so ask for the list when you go to order. My suggestions? The chorizo, house made, spicy and deep red. The lamb, pungently gamey, tender and outstanding. The al-pastor, roasted on a spit and sliced to order.
Perfect flavors, tons of salsas to pour on (at your own discretion), and best of all? Tacos are $1.90 each. This is fast food I can get behind.