10 Things I Ate About You: Birmingham, Ala.
10 Things I Ate About You finds 10 enticing bites in smaller cities from coast to coast.
Birmingham, Ala., has many nicknames — Steel City, The ’Ham, B’ham — but for a city with a lot of culinary tricks up its sleeve, the one that may be most fitting is The Magic City. In its early days, the magic referred to the city’s rapid growth, but today it is a symbol of all that new and homegrown talents are doing to pay tribute to Birmingham’s food traditions.
Brown Butter Old-Fashioned Doughnut at Satellite Coffee Bar
Local music venue Saturn’s Satellite Bar is pre-show cocktail scene by night, coffee house by day. The coffee goes quite well with cake doughnuts from local startup We Have Doughnuts. The Brown Butter Old-Fashioned is a real-deal, old-fashioned buttermilk doughnut fried to perfection and then topped with a rich brown-butter glaze, resulting in a doughnut that tastes somewhere between caramel and butterscotch. Start by breaking off the craggy petals of the outer ring, one by one, until you reach the soft inner ring within. Pop by on the first and second Sunday of each month for the bonus of Satellite’s choose-your-own-adventure cereal bar, featuring 40-plus types of cereal and classic cartoons on TV.
Stone Ground Baked Grits at Highlands Bar and Grill
Ask anyone about the evolution of Birmingham’s dining scene and Chef Frank Stitt’s name is bound to come up. At his original fine-dining restaurant, Highlands Bar & Grill, the Stone Ground Baked Grits have been a must-order for 30 years. By combining his reverence for old-fashioned Southern ingredients with French technique, Stitt transforms local coarse-ground yellow grits into a sophisticated souffle-like form, plates it atop a rich Parmesan-sherry vinegar sauce and tops the dish with mushrooms, strips of Benton’s smoky country ham and fresh thyme.
Nearly all of the dishes are cooked in a wood-burning cast-iron oven at newly opened OvenBird. Chef Chris Hastings loves to cook this way, even if he’s just roasting bones or making stock. Case in point: the Beef Fat Candle. The dish pays homage to the chef's childhood memory of Christmas dinner. After his father would carve the standing rib roast, Hastings would soak up the fat, salt and meat drippings with a hunk of bread. To channel the essence of this memory into a dish, he renders beef fat with aromatics, strains portions of it into ramekins, adds a twine wick and freezes them into candles. Servers light the candle when it’s served, setting it adrift in a pool of rich broth (made from those roasted bones) with a spoonful of soffritto and flaky Maldon salt. As the candle melts, the combination melds into a heady, beefy sauce, perfect for anyone waiting with slices of grilled, still-soft-on-the-inside bread.
Grilled Chorizo Meatloaf at El Barrio Restaurante Y Bar
Buzzy Mexican-inspired restaurant El Barrio proves that Mexican food goes way beyond burritos and has much in common with classic American dishes. Take, for instance, meatloaf: The classic American mom dish is made in parts of Mexico as a holiday dish. Here, the kitchen marries the best of both cultures by mixing spicy, citrusy chorizo with beef to create a Mexi-fied meatloaf served over Cotija cheese-laced mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach, topped off with a chunky ranchero sauce and cumin-spiced housemade crema.
Fried Chicken & Buttermilk Waffle at Galley and Garden
Come Sunday, the place for brunch in the ’Ham is Galley and Garden, a contemporary American restaurant housed in the historic Merritt House. During the jazz brunch, grab a seat on the patio overlooking the stunning vegetable and herb garden and opt for chicken and waffles. Chef James Boyce’s version features both light and dark meat that’s been lightly poached, dredged in seasoned flour made with garden herbs and ground chiles, and then fried to a crisp. The accompanying buttermilk waffle has a pedigree all its own: It’s made from a recipe that was handed down from Marion Cunningham, author of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Local cane syrup, sausage-mushroom gravy and candied pecans finish off the dish.
At this rambling, rustic Kentucky- and Tennessee-leaning whiskey bar, it’s only fitting that bourbon is the star of the show. Belly up to the bar and order the signature Blackberry Winter, a Kentucky term for the inevitable June cold snap that accompanies the start of blackberry season. The bar keeps blackberries’ sweet-tart flavor profile front and center with a housemade puree that’s mixed with robust Kentucky bourbon and house sour mix. The ruby-purple tipple goes down easy, so order up a plate of seriously spicy Nashville hot chicken (ask for extra house pickles!) to help soak up the booze.
Just in case a coffee-flavored ice pop doesn’t pack enough of a caffeine wallop, the team adds a full shot of espresso from local roaster and coffee shop Octane. If that’s too much, try seasonal flavors like autumn-ready sweet potato-pecan and pomegranate or go for perennial favorite buttermilk, which tastes just like a slice of frozen cheesecake.
Though this comfort-food restaurant is open only for dinner, Chef George McMillan loves breakfast so much that he found a way to squeeze his take onto the menu. Start your meal off right with the “Breakfast for Dinner” appetizer, starring stone-ground grits, braised-then-caramelized pork belly and a fried quail egg-in-a-hole nestled in a plank of brioche, finished with a tart sherry-vinegar-based gastrique.
In summertime, people flock from near and far to 20-year mainstay Hot and Hot Fish Club for their famous tomato salad. But veteran chef and James Beard Foundation Award winner Chris Hastings is no one-trick pony. Take the Hearts of Palm “Pasta” appetizer: Using a mandoline, Hastings transforms fresh hearts of palm into delicate strands, then tosses them with a light lemon-crab broth, wreathes the tangle of noodles with sweet, almost lobster-like Bayou La Batre shrimp and crowns the dish with a luxurious spoonful of domestic caviar. Sit at the chef’s counter along the open kitchen for a glimpse of the action and a possible bonus: Curious diners are often rewarded with a sneak forkful of a dish in progress.
Coffee Oatmeal Stout from Good People Brewing Company
Birmingham is home to a booming craft brewing scene, including this affably named homegrown operation. Open since 2008, the company operates a full-scale brewery and an on-site taproom. If you’re choosing one to sample, opt for the easy-drinking Coffee Oatmeal Stout, a light, silky stout infused with cold-brew from local coffee roaster Octane. A quaffable ambassador to the city’s culinary scene, the stout shows up at Continental Bakery, where its leftover malt is used in pizza dough and crackers, and The Hot Tag food truck uses it to give its waffle burger bun a complex pop. Taste the brew with a burger on Tuesday evenings and Sunday afternoons when Hot Tag visits the brewery to serve its beer-inspired dishes, including the Fatso Smash Burger, which incorporates Russian Imperial Stout into the beef patty mix.
Photos courtesy Layla Khoury-Hanold; Ovenbird; Dram Bar; We Have Doughnuts