Cotton State Classics: Most-Amazing Eats in Alabama

Head to these top spots to tuck into tomato pie, orange rolls, crab cakes, fried chicken and other dishes that define Alabama.

Photo By: cameron carnes ©2015

©Copyright: Andrew Davis

Photo By: cameron carnes ©2015

Photo By: cameron carnes ©2015

Photo By: cameron carnes ©2015

Photo By: cameron carnes ©2015

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Photo By: cameron carnes ©2015

Photo By: Donna Quinn

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Photo By: cameron carnes ©2015

Photo By: cameron carnes ©2015

Photo By: cameron carnes ©2015

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Best Bites in 'Bama

College football and barbecue are probably the first things that come to mind when Alabama is mentioned. But there’s so much more to the local food scene. In a state that is home to rich farmland and game hunting and is also bordered by the Gulf of Mexico, food and mealtime are a semi-sacred part of life. Here are a few of the best dishes to try there.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

 

Orange Pineapple Ice Cream

On a hot summer night, there’s nothing like a scoop of sweet, citrusy ice cream to cool you down. In Florence, Trowbridge’s orange-pineapple is something like a creamy orange pop with small chunks of pineapple added for texture. The recipe for this unique ice cream has been attracting new customers for almost a century, and has become so popular that Trowbridge’s can’t churn enough in the store to keep up with demand.

Photography courtesy of Cameron Carnes

Go to: Trowbridge’s

Fried Pork Skins

Pork skins may be eaten around the world, but the South lays claim to some of the best. At Florence’s Odette, the skins are fried until they’re light, crispy and almost fluffy. These satisfyingly crunchy snacks can be ordered as a side with the house burger or washed down with a dram of rare whiskey from behind the bar. While you’re there, keep your eyes open: Odette is a frequent stop for fashion designer Billy Reid and other national notables when they’re in town.

Photography courtesy of Andrew Davis

Go to: Odette

Orange Rolls

For more than 80 years, All Steak’s orange rolls have lured locals and visitors back to the Cullman restaurant for more. Made from a semi-secret recipe, these sticky, slightly buttery, sweet rolls are topped with tangy orange glaze instead of the classic sugar coating. In addition to being served with lunch and dinner, the rolls are available by the half dozen or dozen to take home.

Photography courtesy of Cameron Carnes

Go to: All Steak

Sweet Potato Fluff

Before sweet potatoes were considered healthy enough to be cool, they were a staple of soul food. They accompany romantic dinners, replace traditional fries and are served at family gatherings, especially around the holidays. Pruett’s Bar-B-Que’s signature sweet potato fluff brings together the best parts of the tuber and the holiday sweet potato casserole. Though it’s lighter than the traditional casserole, it’s still rich and delicious. It’s served at the Gadsden restaurant as a side with the Thursday special and is available on its own every day.

Photography courtesy of Cameron Carnes

Go to: Pruett’s Bar-B-Que

Meat and Three

At lunchtime in a meat-and-three restaurant, the line for soul food brings together people from all walks of life and parts of society. At Tuscaloosa’s City Cafe, the menu changes daily, so you can eat a different combination at every lunch. For about $6, you can fill up on fried chicken or meatloaf and three sides — thus the dish’s name— and wash it all down with a drink. We’re willing to bet you can’t spend more than $10.

Photography courtesy of Cameron Carnes

Go to: City Cafe

Fried Chicken

Soul food from this legendary Montgomery restaurant has been fueling Alabama politicos since the 1930s. It’s no surprise that Martin’s Restaurant's most-famous dish is its fried chicken. From crisp breading with a hint of seasoning to the juicy meat inside, these breasts and thighs are perfectly prepared. The dish has been frequently named the best in the city by the local paper, and is often paired with their well-known corn muffins.

Photography courtesy of Cameron Carnes

Go to: Martin's Restaurant

Goat Cheese

Few Alabama products have won quite as many awards as Belle Chevre’s goat cheese. The soft, creamy chevre is higher in protein and slightly tangier than cheese made from cow’s milk, which has made it popular with local chefs. In addition to plain cheese, the creamery produces spreadable cheese, cheesecakes and body products. Headed by author and culinary expert Tasia Malakasis, the Elkmont company has expanded its reach exponentially over the last few years. For those who want the cheese-making experience at home, Belle Chevre also offers a DIY cheese-making kit.

Go to: Belle Chevre

Ribs

Those who head to a football game at the University of Alabama should plan a quick detour down country roads toward the original Dreamland Bar-B-Que location in Tuscaloosa. The legendary barbecue joint is part dive bar, part patio, and until several years ago, it served nothing other than ribs and white bread. Cooked over a hickory fire, the ribs are seasoned with a dry rub that peeks through their signature red sauce. When you start eating, take the server’s suggestion to wear the bib, and use the white bread and napkins to sop up any remaining sauce that’s slipped off the ribs. As Dreamland’s tagline goes, “Ain’t nothing like ’em nowhere!”

Photography courtesy of Dreamland Bar-B-Que

Go to: Dreamland Bar-B-Que

Tomato Pie

The tomato pie is as simple as the rest of the menu at Carlile’s Restaurant is varied. Fresh tomatoes, bacon and basil make up the heart of the dish, but the sauce on top makes it special. The combination of salt, pepper, green onions, mayonnaise and cheese is added just before the pie goes into the oven at the Scottsboro spot. It’s not hard to see why it was the winner of the Alabama Food “Official Dish of the Year” title just over a decade ago, and the appeal remains the same.

Photography courtesy of Cameron Carnes

Go to: Carlile’s Restaurant

Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp and grits first came about as a breakfast for Low Country fishermen. Now it’s practically Alabama’s official dish. Around the state, you’ll find it made in a range of preparations, including spicy, peppery, cheesy, creamy and even tangy. At Anniston’s Classic on Noble, the comforting dish is rich and creamy. The grits are cooked slowly with lots of whole milk and heavy cream, and andouille sausage and bacon join the shrimp along with fresh collard greens and chopped tomatoes. If you plan to visit for brunch on Sunday, you’re doubly lucky: The shrimp and grits is part of the buffet.

Photography courtesy of Donna Quinn Photography

Go to: Classic on Noble

Peach Pie and Peach Ice Cream

During the summer, Peach Park in Clanton offers more than just peaches. But the ice cream stand and snack shop remains the true attraction. When the park was founded, the extra peaches were driven to New Orleans to sell, but many of the delicate fruits were damaged in transit. To prevent losses, the family behind the business decided to start making ice cream and pies with their bruised and excess goods. The result was so successful that Peach Park now sells hundreds of gallons of ice cream each week, and more than 50,000 pies in a season.

Go to: Peach Park

Banana Pudding

There are as many variations on banana pudding as there are styles of barbecue within the state of Alabama. Though the simple pudding is made up of layers of vanilla custard, banana slices and Nilla wafers, it can be topped with whipped cream or meringue and served either hot or cold. In Alabama, homemade is best, but many sources hold that Sisters’ Restaurant’s sweet and creamy 1997 recipe is the best you can get at a restaurant.

Photography courtesy of Cameron Carnes

Go to: Sisters’ Restaurant

Pork and Greens on Grits

Since Saw’s Soul Kitchen opened in Birmingham in 2012, the pork and greens on grits has held a place of honor on the menu. The dish’s layers of cheese grits, vinegary greens, smoky pork shoulder and rich onion rings combine a lot of different comfort foods on one plate, but the tastes meld so well that the dish is delicious even when reheated the next day. The pork and greens was originally supposed to be a special for just a couple of days, but it remained so popular that it’s still on that menu — and on the menu at Saw’s Juke Joint. The portion is enough to share, but most people order one just for themselves.

Photography courtesy of Brandon Huntley

Go to: Saw’s Soul Kitchen

Green Beans

Sometimes the simplest dishes can be the best. At Albany Bistro in Decatur, a dish called Mom’s Meatloaf is served with green beans, reinforcing the meal’s homey feel while bringing it thoroughly into the realm of fine dining. The key? Fresh, local beans, combined with bacon, onions and secret seasoning for the perfect twist on this classic comfort food.

Photography courtesy of Cameron Carnes

Go to: Albany Bistro

Cheese Biscuits

Though Jim ‘N Nick’s may be best known for its barbecue, the cheese biscuits could be the most-exciting part of the meal. Served with every order, these sweet and slightly salty muffins are studded with tiny bits of cheese that crisp up near the outside of the muffins. They’re the perfect appetizer for a loaded baked potato or pulled pork sandwich. If you’d rather make them at home, the mix is available for purchase, both in stores and online.

Photography courtesy of Angie Mosier

Go to: Jim ‘N Nick’s

Crab Cakes

Since Sue Lemieux introduced her crab cake to the menu in 1990, Fox Valley Restaurant has become known for the dish. The Chesapeake Bay-style crab cakes are light and flaky, made almost entirely from crabmeat instead of breadcrumbs or fillers. In fact, the dish is so popular that the restaurant goes through about 50 pounds of blue lump crabmeat from the Gulf of Mexico every week. If you can’t find its Maylene location or would rather stay closer to the city, stop by Western Supermarket to grab some of Fox Valley’s crab cakes to eat at home.

Photography courtesy of Sue Lemieux

Go to: Fox Valley Restaurant

Baked Grits

Eight-time James Beard Foundation Award finalist Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham makes refined Southern food backed with classic French technique. Its style is captured perfectly by its baked grits. This signature appetizer is a light, almost souffle-like cake of locally ground grits, cheese, egg, butter and white pepper baked in an individual portion. Served with a rich, buttery sauce, the dish is overlaid with wild mushrooms and country ham and garnished with fresh thyme. It’s simple, iconic and totally luxurious, just like Highlands.

Photography courtesy of Highlands Bar & Grill

Go to: Highlands Bar & Grill

Chicken and White Sauce

Barbecue sauce takes many forms within Alabama. But the state’s unique contribution to the art form is a creamy, mayonnaise-based white sauce served over smoked chicken. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone: A huge number of red sauces are available at most Southern grocery stores, but white sauce is rarely found outside Alabama. Bob Gibson, the founder of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, is credited with having invented white sauce back in 1925, and his original Decatur location has been making it ever since.

Photography courtesy of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q

Go to: Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q

Fried Oyster Tacos

Fried, crispy and served with slaw — to cut the grease of the fried oysters — and a slightly spicy, creamy sauce and greens, the oyster tacos at Dragonfly Foodbar, made with local oysters, are available a la carte. Order one or two along with more of the fun, fresh fusion cuisine on the Fairhope menu, or commit solely to the oyster tacos. The choice is yours.

Photography courtesy of Dragonfly Foodbar

Go to: Dragonfly Foodbar

PB&J in Phyllo

These days, many chefs pull inspiration from childhood favorites. But few places have taken on the challenge of updating and elevating the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As the story goes, Cotton Row chef and owner James Boyce forgot to make a dessert for an event he was catering. Using the ingredients he found in the kitchen, he whipped up this treat with phyllo instead of the traditional white bread. It was so popular at the event that he quickly added it to his Huntsville restaurant’s menu when he got back to the restaurant.

Photography courtesy of Tenisha LaRoda

Go to: Cotton Row

Fried Green Tomatoes

Some foods are just as good as they look in the movies. But the fried green tomatoes at the Irondale Cafe might just be better. Since the release of Fried Green Tomatoes, the movie based on Fannie Flagg’s book, the crunchy, salty, slightly tart slices of ripe tomato have been flying off plates. Typically, the cafe sells 600 to 800 slices a week, and you can order the treat as a side or a main course.

Photography courtesy of Morgan Meyers

Go to: Irondale Cafe

Pecan Pie

Pecan pie is one of the staples of holiday desserts in the South. Unless you’re deathly allergic to nuts, bless your heart, a slice and a cup of coffee should be your next dessert in Greensboro. At Pie Lab, a combination cafe, design studio and social change incubator, each bite of pecan pie is rich and buttery, with a crunch from the toasted pecan halves on top and crispness from the crust at the bottom. If your travels take you to Birmingham but not Greensboro, don’t fret: Revelator Coffee Company sells Pie Lab’s wares by the slice.

Photography courtesy of Pie Lab

Go to: Pie Lab

Steamed Aquila Royal Red Shrimp

Few trips to the Alabama coast are complete without a shrimp boil. At King Neptune’s the buttery royal red shrimp, pulled from the nearby Gulf of Mexico, are steamed head-on and served with the traditional red potatoes, corn on the cob and garlic toast. This old-school eatery is less than a mile from the beach, making it the perfect spot for lunch and a break from the sun or for a satisfying dinner to end the day.

Go to: King Neptune's Seafood Restaurant