Best Of Birmingham. Food, That Is.
It’s the long weekend, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to co-opt the Co-Op and do what so many of us have always wanted to do: announce our own Best Of list. Since I’ll be leaving Alabama in the next couple of months, I thought I’d share some of my own opinions about the good life in Birmingham and beyond. Admittedly, relatively few of our regular readers will be touring the Magic City in the next few weeks. But some will. And a surpsingly number of our visitors arrive via a search engine, rather than their morning web surf routine. So for anyone willing to listen, here are my opinions about food and cheer in Bama.
Best Cafe – La Reunion. I’ve previously blogged about the virtues of Starbucks in a town like Birmingham. But I gotta tell you: charging a zillion dollars for wireless really steams me. La Reunion is funky, they inexplicably serve H&H bagels (prepared in NYC, cooked by Marcus Specialties in Birmingham, and offered, as far as I can tell, nowhere else in town), and the wireless is gratis. Also, it’s across the street from V. Richard’s, a gourmet market that offers the city’s best weekend breakfast.
Best Cafe Feature Big City Folk Didn’t Know Existed – The Starbucks Drive-Thru. Imagine this: a prof on spring break, a sleeping baby in the back seat, a Starbucks drive-thru, and the New York Times. Turn your uber-uncool Sienna van into a mobile cafe. Bukowski never had it so good.
Best Feature of Alabama Mealtime – Unlimited refills on all cold beverages. Virtually everywhere. And all restaurants – even chains – give in to the basic demand of all Alabama diners. Sweet tea. I mean SWEET tea. And yes, Virginia. You can order your tea half sweet, half unsweet. I do it all the time.
Best Sushi – Many people will recoil from the very notion of sushi in Alabama. And I did that too until I accepted that a) I was gonna be here awhile and b) its all flown in from far away anyway. Still, one of the more vexing restaurant phenomena in Birmingham is the standard attachment of sushi bar to Thai restaurant. And while Surin West, arguably the best Thai in Alabama (which is not saying that much), has decent sushi, I’ll give the nod to Sekisui. (You’ve got to visit the website just to hear the painful theme song.) Get this: Sekisui is a MEMPHIS (??!?) sushi chain that’s opened up shop in Birmingham. I wonder if Elvis might have been a tad more svelte if he’d dined on a bit of raw albacore once in a while. But no. Always peanut butter and banana.
Best Lox – Sam’s Club. Let’s face it. I could rename this entry “best reason to move to the northeast.” For those lox lovers who find themselves permanently in Birmingham, there’s always Noshville. Three hours away, that is.
Best Local Restaurant Chain – Jim N Nicks BBQ. The baby backs are tender and delicious. And the pulled pork can be requested “chopped with extra outside pieces.” The city location seems kinda cosmopolitan, but the surburban stores are much more family friendly: the food comes fast, they give you a balloon (and those of you with small kids appreciate how important this is), and the bbq pit smell wafts through the expansive parking lots.
Best Pizza – None. What is it with most cities? Have the chains taken the spirit out of independent pizza makers? Oh for Johns or Grimaldi’s in NYC or Gino’s East in Chicago. (Yeah, yeah you pointy headed intellectuals – I know about Sally’s and Pepe’s in New Haven.) In Birmingham, the Atlanta Mellow Mushroom chain is pretty good.
Best Dessert – It’s not gourmet, but there’s simply nothin’ better than an item called the “chocolate bar” from Edgar’s Bakery (and also available in Joe Mugg’s Cafes around town.) It basically tastes like a chocolate cheesecake bar. And it’s the reason why a cup of coffee from Joe Mugg’s always seems to land me 600 calories into the drink.
Another Best Dessert – Dean’s Cake House Seven Layer Cakes. They’re baked in Andalusia (get you some on the way to the beach!) but Western Market in Mountain Brook, among other places, carries them.
Best Bakery – Continental Bakery. I don’t have anything particularly snappy to say about this place, or it’s neighbor Chez Lulu (“best bistro“), but there is no place that has made me happier to visit. My favorite bread is Pain de Campagne, overpriced but delicious. And the olive tapanade (available both places) is to die for.
Best Challah – Are you starting to get the sense that I love starch? Alas, it’s true. One of the oddest things about being a Jew in Birmingham is the paucity of Jews and the abundance of challah options. There are three challah possibilities worth discussing. First, there is the kosher (and surprisingly pareve) Big Sky challah. It’s huge and fluffy and sweet and it’s a good reason to live in Alabama. (So are their whole wheat/whole oat chocolate chip cookies.) Continental Bakery’s challah is one-of-a-kind, a first cousin of brioche. And Browdy’s square challah is solid, if not exceptional. Edgar’s also bakes a challah, but it can’t hold a candle to the chocolate bar.
Best Burger – Try Billy’s in English Village and Otey’s in Crestline Village. Unlike sushi, beef really requires no editorial commentary. Real food for real Democrats. Say what you want about Howard Dean, but at least he understands this.
Best Peanuts – Peanut Depot. The fact that this relic, dating back about 100 years, still exists is enough to justify a trip. And the nuts are awesome. It has to be the best Birmingham landmark everyone misses.
Best Italian Restaurant – Leonardo’s, in Vestavia Hills. Look. This isn’t Philly or New York. Or Boston or San Francisco. Or St. Louis. It’s not even Atlanta. But their rolls are marinated in garlic oil and you’ll probably eat three before you even begin to regret it.
Best Bar – I have little kids. I can barely remember what a bar looks like. Can anyone recommend a babysitter?