To the uninformed, a culinary experience in the state of Alabama might be construed as choking down bites of a jumbo dog at Tuscaloosa’s Bryant-Denny Stadium between chants of “Roll, Tide, Roll.”
However, after a weeklong road trip with my friend Verna, an Alabama native, I know there’s a lot more to the culinary scene here than stadium fare. Armed with a Tourism Department list of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die,” we traveled from Mobile to Huntsville on a relentless quest to discover the best the state had to offer.
We we didn’t make it through all 100 dishes, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Starting in Mobile, we headed to Wintzell’s, where a sign over the bar advertises that you can have your oysters “fried, stewed or nude,” and where the signature Bloody Mary, using Whiskey Willy’s Bloody Mary mix from Orange Beach, contains — I swear — at least four of the seven major food groups.
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It’s known as the Weekender, and it might take you that long to finish it, but don’t worry. Willie Brown, who has shucked oysters at Wintzell’s for 40 years, will present you with a platter of Oysters Four Ways (Monterey, Bienville, Rockefeller and char-grilled) to go with it.
Mobile’s contributions to the “100 Dishes” list include shrimp and grits at the Blind Mule and diver scallops at the city’s historic Battle House Hotel. At the famous Spot of Tea, a Mobile institution for 22 years, there are two: bananas Foster French toast and eggs cathedral, which satisfied diners liken to “a religious experience.”
Verna (who’s partial to the moon pie banana pudding), introduced me to Miss Ruby, Spot of Tea’s owner, who joined us for our meal. I couldn’t help but notice that her lipstick and nail polish were the exact shade as her stylish outfit, and when Verna persuaded her to tell me how her husband, a gambler, put three kids through college on his wits alone, I decided she was as unique as the dishes she served.
Southern variations in Birmingham
From Mobile it was on to Birmingham, Verna’s hometown, where celebrity chef Frank Stitt rules the culinary roost. With his James Beard Award-winning restaurant, Highlands Grill; its more casual sister property, Bottega; and his take on a Parisian bistro, Chez Fon-Fon, Stitt’s mastery in the kitchen offers a dining trifecta.
At another legendary Birmingham eatery, Niki’s, is “My Big Fat Greek Lunch” Alabama style. Niki’s steam table has 70 offerings, with a Southern take on traditional Greek favorites — collard greens instead of eggplant, country ham instead of moussaka and sweet potato pie instead of baklava.
We popped in for dinner one evening at SAW’s Soul Kitchen (SAW is an acronym for owner Mike Wilson’s high school nickname, Sorry Ass Wilson). There was nothing sorry about the pork and greens, the restaurant’s delectable entry on the “100 Dishes” list.
Afterward, we stopped in at Avondale Brewery just down the street to sample one of the 16 rotating hand-crafted beers on tap. Avondale is far from your typical brewery. It began as a brothel (try the Brothel Brown Beer) and once had a beer-guzzling elephant as a mascot. It hasn’t shed its quirky roots. It’s now the starting point for the city’s Wacky Tacky Christmas Lights Tour.
On another day, we ran into a traffic jam in the tiny town of Pell City, just outside of Birmingham, that to be a waiting line for a Texaco station.
My first thought was they had to be selling gas for a dollar a gallon, but it seems the real draw here is Butts-to-Go, a barbecue pit in the parking lot where grill master Wade Reich smokes beef, ribs and something he calls “Drunken Chicken.” A devoted clientele, whose motto is “Gas up and pig out,” makes it unwise to even think about showing up on weekends without reserving your cut of meat.
It might seem strange to discover a philosopher of French food — Reich spent 14 years in Paris — now grilling in a Pell City parking lot. However, I can attest that his Boston butt baby back ribs can hold their own with beef Bourguignon.
In Montgomery, the state capital, our first stop was at Chris’ Hot Dogs, a family-run eatery that next year will celebrate its 100th year in business. Martin Luther King, Bear Bryant and Elvis Presley were all regulars, and former Gov. George Wallace once placed an order for 2,000 dogs.
I sat on the stool that was reserved for Chris’ favorite customer: country music legend Hank Williams, who always ordered his hot dog with a shot of whiskey chased by a beer. In fact, Chris’ might be the only hot dog joint in the country with a liquor license.
“We do a brisk business with the legislature,” says current owner Theo Katechis.
When I asked him what made Chris’ dogs so special, he claimed it was their secret sauce.
With a sly wink, he said, “Only three people in the world know it.”
Montgomery and its environs are also home base for two young Alabama food and drink entrepreneurs. For those who like it hot, 29-year-old Auburn native Jessi Norwood provides it scorching. Norwood has spiced up traditional pepper jelly with her own version: Hot Damn Jelly.
I sampled her classic cream cheese and pepper jelly with a jalapeño pop during breakfast at a local hot spot, Davis Café. Her jellies are also available at the Montgomery Visitors Center.
Also joining us for breakfast was another millennial, Wes Willis, who just may be the cleverest marketer of his generation. His company, Alabama Sweet Tea, offers the beverage in 16 oz. bottles and gallon jugs, and even though in these parts it’s all about sweet tea — labeled Southern — he hasn’t forgotten those who live “up North.”
He offers them an unsweetened tea called Yankee, and for those who can’t make up their minds, there’s a third brand, Mason-Dixon, which he describes as “half and half.”
On the way to Huntsville, the final stop on our foodie road tour, we made an obligatory detour to Decatur to sample the barbecue at Big Bob Gibson’s. Yes, there really was a Big Bob, and now his great grandson-in-law, Chris Lilly, is the pit master at the restaurant, which has won two World BBQ Championships.
In Alabama, which Verna acknowledges to be a “red sauce state,” Big Bob’s is noted for its white sauce, especially good on chicken.
Huntsville had two of my favorite places, occupying different ends of the dining spectrum. At breakfast at the Blue Plate Café, a typical diner housed in a former an auto parts store, I unashamedly gorged on their cocoa biscuits (not room for much else after that).
Dinner was at Cotton Row, a sophisticated restaurant on Courthouse Square, dating to 1821 and once occupied by a cotton merchant. Checking our trusty “100 Dishes” guide, we ordered the braised Meyer Ranch beef short ribs served with creamy grits.
From mid-March to mid-October, there is one dining experience that you can find only in Alabama: sampling authentic German fare in the beer garden under the shadow of a Saturn V Apollo moon rocket at Huntsville’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
The Saturn V is a replica of the Saturn rocket that first took man to the moon. I couldn’t swear that my brat and sauerkraut tasted better eating it in the presence of history, but it sure seemed as if it did.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.