Chef John Hall: from Insomnia Pizza to Post Office Pies, from contemporary American cuisine in North Avondale to ?…


Sandy and I met up with Chef John Hall in his modest North Avondale home. Always a host, he offered us drinks as we chatted around his dining table.

Almost as soon as we began talking, John let out a laugh and told us, “I never talk this much.” I do believe John may be on the quiet side at times – for example, in last week’s post, I describe his shy, reserved demeanor while serving us at our recent meal. But John is anything but quiet when it comes to his love for food, his cooking philosophy, and his plans for opening a new restaurant and its place in Birmingham’s food scene.

Early years

When John graduated from Birmingham’s Irwin High School, he knew he wanted to go to college, but didn’t know for what. So he moved to Atlanta to live with his dad while he figured it out. He started off working for a movie theater, and enrolled in junior college at Atlanta Tech. One Monday morning, while riding on the subway, he made an important observation – the commuters around him looked miserable. He asked himself, “what can I do for a profession that I would enjoy going to work every day?” His mind turned to memories of making cookies with his mom, of being in the kitchen with his dad and uncles who he describes as great cooks, and to his favorite childhood TV show, Great Chefs of the World. No one in his family had made a career out of it, but food had always been an important and meaningful part of his life. He explains, “I thought, I’m going to be a chef. And that was it.”

Soon after that, while waiting in line at the bank, John saw a man dressed in a chef’s uniform , floppy hat and all. John followed him out of the bank to his catering truck and struck up a conversation. This led to John’s first cooking job at Anthony’s catering company. There, he learned the basics: how to peel a carrot, cut an onion, make a stock, wash dishes.

John’s next move was to look for work in a restaurant. He walked the streets of Atlanta looking for a restaurant that had a “warm feel.” He came upon the Pleasant Peasant, an Atlanta institution, and soon was plating salads, desserts, working sautee, and learning now to work the grill.

Culinary School

The head chef at the Pleasant Peasant was a graduate of the prestigious Johnson and Wales culinary school. John set his sights on attending too: as he puts it, he thought, “I might as well just try to shoot for the best and see what happens.” This turns out to be an important recurrent theme in John’s rise to success.

John’s experience at Johnson and Wales’ Charleston campus was transformative. Living in Charleston, a Southern port city, allowed him to explore diverse ethnic foods from around the world while also experiencing American and Southern food in a whole new light. For the first time, he ate prawns, filet mignon, low country cuisine, Andouille, and “fish that wasn’t cooked all the way through.” He continued his studies at the Johnson and Wales Rhode Island Campus, earning another Bachelors in Hospitality Management. All the while, John cooked at local French and contemporary American restaurants, gaining experience.

International travel

John’s first went abroad during culinary school. He was an exchange student in Germany, where he gained his first global perspective on food. This was followed by an internship he arranged in Luxembourg with Leah Linster, the only female Bocuse D’or winner, at her classic, old-school French restaurant. John describes this as an “unbelievable but difficult experience.” He worked every day, and while he and his colleagues were treated like family after hours, yelling was a normal part of working in such a traditional kitchen. He observed how seriously everyone took their jobs – from the four chefs to the servers, who wore suits and often handed their trade down generation after generation.

New York

Just after he finished culinary school, John lost his best friend in a car accident. At that point, he knew he was committed to a career as a chef. So he said to himself, “if this is it, if this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to try to do it at the best level possible. At the very least, I can say I tried.”

John came back to Birmingham to plan his next move. He went to the Southside Branch of the Birmingham Public Library and came up with a list of the top 10 U.S. restaurants. He applied to all of them.

Weeks later, he was on his way to New York to begin a new phase of his life. He worked at not one but three of the best restaurants in the world, with mentorship from chefs at the very top of their fields. He started at Grammercy Tavern, a contemporary American restaurant that is consistently rated one of the best, most popular restaurants in New York City. He worked every position in the kitchen, and after four years there, he had achieved the coveted position of saucier – just one step below the sous-chef. After four years, he left Grammercy Tavern for Per Se, an American/French restaurant which the New York Times has called the best restaurant in New York City. John describes Per Se as “the most organized, most disciplined, most professional kitchen in America.” All the station cooks were from the best restaurants in Manhattan. He described the learning curve as so steep, “you find out things you didn’t know you were capable of doing.” Then he took his first management job as a sous-chef at the famed Momofuku, a restaurant that has a reputation for being a little anti-establishment, and an underdog in the New York food scene. During this time, John began making and delivering pizza from his Brooklyn apartment in the middle of the night, an operation that quickly became known as Insomnia Pizza.

At this point, John had a choice: he could keep bouncing around to different top restaurants in New York, or he could do something different. He also wanted to be closer to family. So he moved back to Birmingham armed with some ideas about what to do next. Insomnia Pizza became his next venture – Post Office Pies.

Philosophy: “I was never like anybody else, I didn’t want to be like everybody else”

John explains that when he went to culinary school, a shift was underway. Celebrity TV Chefs and books like Anthon Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential had glamourized the industry, and there was a massive influx of students eager for stardom. John was determined to be part of the old guard of “old school” chefs. This prompted him to take a departure from many of his classmates and pursue rigorous, classical training.

John has a work ethic to match his training. He explains that being in a white male dominated field, being an African-American (or being a woman, he adds) means “I had to be better, work harder, be more determined and more driven to set myself up for the best opportunities.”

An important lesson learned from his time in New York is the way big cities force people from all walks of life to mix. You walk down the street past movie stars, and you realize that in many ways, they are just like you. This served as the inspiration for the communal tables at Post Office Pies, which are meant to be places where people from all walks of life come together. “You want to make it welcoming and warm and OK for people to mingle. Make a friend.”

John has a very “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of mentality that is hard to describe. Remember, this is a guy who worked his way up from dishwasher at a local catering company to the sous-chef at Momofuku. His restaurant has the same grassrootsy feel. Insomnia Pizza became Post Office Pies. What about his next venture?

Next steps: casual fine dining

About a year ago, John was working as the manager at Saw’s, and Post Office Pies was about to open. He knew that he would want to open a fine dining restaurant in Birmingham, but it would be a few years before he could. He realized the importance of keeping up his skills in that area. John began hosting private fine dining dinners, about which I blogged last week. He explains that the dinners were “a good creative outlet for me, a good way for me to keep up a certain way of thinking.” They’re also a way of showcasing his fine dining chops – a great prelude to his next step.

Just the same way that Insomnia Pizza became Post Office Pies, John plans to turn these Contemporary American dinners into a restaurant – one with his trademark high quality yet easygoing vibe. You wouldn’t have to get dressed up, or go for a special occasion. “I want to change the perception of fine dining in Birmingham. I want to remove the white tablecloth. I want a place that you could go to at least twice a week, but have the execution of a fine dining restaurant.” His restaurant will be a “hodgepodge of my experiences, my culinary journey, not to sound to cheeseball-y. I want to bring back what I saw, what I tasted, and what I experienced: here it is, in a nutshell.”

Contemporary American cuisine served out of a house in North Avondale

My friends Sandy and Ben took us. We drove through Avondale on 41st Street. We passed Melt, Saws, Post Office Pies, and Avondale Brewery. Then we crossed the tracks. We drove another half mile into a quiet residential neighborhood filled with neat mid century modern homes on tree-lined streets. Then we pulled over.

A quiet man greeted us warmly at the door, then disappeared into the kitchen. He looked to be in his early-to-mid 20s, although I later learned he was 33. The place smelled like the best restaurant in France. We entered the man’s living room, took off our coats, and looked around. This was someone’s home. It felt extremely intimate, even intrusive. I felt butterflies in my stomach. I had no idea what to expect.

Sandy and Ben had done this several times before. We followed their lead and took a seat at the generously sized dining table. Another couple, friends of ours, also joined us. They were first timers too and were as awkward as we were. We sat staring at each other, anticipating… something.

And then things stated happening. First, a wine course, with an amuse bouche: liver pate on a crostini. Smooth, earthy, savory, and delicious.


The tension in the room evaporated. We talked and ate, and a glow settled over us. We learned the chef had recently moved back home to Birmingham and bought this house, which was on the same street as his grandmother lived when he was a child.

The food continued to arrive in an almost rhythmic pattern. Each food course was accompanied by a perfectly paired wine course.

An oyster with pickled mustard seeds served atop a bed of sea salt. Fresh and refreshing.


A pan-seared scallop over grits and sweet potatoes with crunchy croutons and frisée. The scallop was buttery, and the grits were velvety smooth.


Pasta course. Handmade cheese-filled ravioli in a light red sauce with the most tender oxtail you could ever imagine:


Main course. Perfectly-seared steak with carrot purée and root vegetables:


And then dessert. Apples three ways: apple cobbler, apple jack ice cream, served with a sparkling apple cider and homemade whipped cream. The cobbler was hearty and a little crunchy, and the ice cream had little pieces of apple jacks in it. Perfect for a fall evening.


Everything was served by the chef, who explained what we were eating very briefly and quietly then disappeared back into the kitchen. Any expressions of “this is amazing” were met with a genuinely appreciative though reserved nod and a modest smile. When we inquired about the food, the chef told us he drew inspiration from restaurants where he used to work.

And so we ate, course after course, each better than the next. After all that incredible food and wine, we couldn’t help but feel content.

The chef lingered in the dining room after dessert, and so we chatted just a little. His name was John. He went to school in Charlotte, and spent time studying abroad. He’s thinking of re-doing his kitchen cabinets. And he worked at a restaurant in New York called Momofuku.

Waaaaaaitt a minute. This seemingly ordinary, quiet guy living in a quiet house and serving food that blew our minds was anything but ordinary. Momofuku was the tip off. That’s one of the top restaurants in Manhattan. You only work there if you are at the very top of your field. A few other restaurant names were mentioned including Grammercy Tavern, another US institution. And now, back in Birmingham, he co-owns Post Office Pies, a fantastic place we’ve blogged about before. I would need to ask him for an interview to get the full story-I knew it had to be an incredible one.

These dinners, which John (last name Hall) hosts at his home, are best for groups of 6-8 people. And they are an exceptionally unique experience, especially if you consider the absurd fact that one of America’s top up-and-coming chefs is basically cooking and serving a private meal, with wine pairings, for you and your friends.

If you are as intrigued by this as we were, stay tuned for next week’s post. John was kind enough to sit down with Sandy and I for an in depth interview about his life, cooking philosophy, reflections on the Birmingham food scene, and his plans to open a restaurant that will the the first of its kind in our city.

If you are interested in learning more about John Hall’s dinners, email

Very special thanks to my foodie friend Sandy, who made this post possible in every way.

Birmingham Breadworks

Since we moved to Southside about a year ago, we have been absolutely DYING for great new places to open in our part of town. That might account for why we blogged about Everest Sushi five times in the past month… but who’s counting.

So when we heard that Birmingham Breadworks was moving to the neighborhood, we literally ran down there (just a mile and a half from our house!) to check out their Saturday brunch offerings.

The shop is located in a old Antique store on 7th Avenue South.



The space has been beautifully renovated to show off the building’s loft-like bones:



Birmingham Breadworks has a pretty wide variety of offerings. Bread is artfully displayed along the wall, and the hand-written menu is posted above a window through which you can see the baking operation:




We didn’t get there until about 11:30am, and sadly they had run out of everything chocolate (my favorite), and their best seller, monkey bread.Despite that minor inconvenience, we were able to find three great pastries to sample.

First, the cinnamon roll. This is a pastry cinnamon roll-not ooey gooey, but rather, light and flaky. According to one of the workers behind the counter, made from the same dough as the monkey bread. Sweet and delicious. Shown here with a piping hot cup o coffee.


Now a close up and cross section:



From sweet to savory. Proscittio and cheese filled pastry, served cold (I asked and they said either heated or cold was perfectly acceptable). Rich and delicious, a perfect accompaniment to the sweets. First an aerial view, then cross section:



Now for my personal favorite: the apple turnover. Slightly cinnamon-y and very sweet apples in a moist, chewy center of a delicious sugar-glazed pastry. Worth every calorie. Aerial and cross section:



As we ran back home, we contemplated this fantastic addition to the Southside and downtown food scenes. This is a great place for all the urban-dwelling Birminghamsters and their suburban counterparts working in the city to pick up pastries for the office and baguettes for dinner, and for everyone to enjoy an indulgent urban breakfast or brunch on the weekend.

Everest Sushi at the Blue Monkey

Blog friends,

I am happy to report that Everest Sushi, including owner/ chef Abhi and sushi chef Kyle, are safe and sound at the Blue Monkey. Originally, they were at the Blue Monkey just for late nights on the weekend-now they are there Tuesday-Thursday 6pm-10pm, Friday-Saturday 9pm-2am.

Mr Foodie and I were there on Tuesday night, and again last night. I had never been to the Blue Monkey before – the place is great! It’s a dark little lounge with good music and attentive bartenders. As we sat down to order our drinks (they have great drink specials every night), they handed us this menu:



It’s the same menu as before, except it contains my favorite off-menu items-like the Wham Bam Birmingham roll. Blue Monkey is a little too dark for the best photos-rest assured that both nights we ate ourselves silly with all the rolls from this post and this post. The quality was exactly the same as before-top notch.

On Tuesday, Abhi asked us to try a new roll that they haven’t named yet but are calling “the Kyle” for now. Tuna, salmon, avocado, cream cheese, and 3 sauces that I like to use together: an aoli, sriracha, and eel sauce. Spicy and fresh-tasting; the cream cheese (which I usually don’t like) gives it just a little richness.

Sorry for the quality of these photos; we had to use the flashlights on our iPhones to light them. Adds to their character, I say.



In sum, Everest Sushi is back doing it’s thing and doing it well at Blue Monkey. When you check it out, be sure to order the Kyle roll. It’s one of our new favorites, and I think Kyle really enjoys preparing his namesake roll. Who wouldn’t be excited about having a sushi roll named after them at Everest, even if only temporarily?

Everest Sushi is Back!!

Dear loyal blog fans,

Everest Sushi Lives!

As I previously discussed here and here, Everest Sushi is some of the best sushi in town.
And to our horror, we recently learned that it had lost it’s space at the Red Zone.

But good news-I heard from Abhi just yesterday that he is back in business!

Everest Sushi will now be at the Blue Monkey Lounge at 1318 Cobb Lane in 5 points during the following hours starting tomorrow, December 9:

Tuesday-Thursday 6pm-10pm
Friday-Saturday 9pm-2am.

We will be there to check it out…. Hope you will be too!

And we will probably order one of these (Mr Foodie’s favorite, the Wham Bam Birmingham):


And one of these (my favorite, the diplomat):


And one of these (my other favorite, the super eel):


As you can see, this is going to be a very happy foodie occasion for Mr Foodie and I.

Galley and Garden

We got home early on a Sunday morning from our Thanksgiving trip to Philly, where we ate ourselves silly. It’s a wonder that we had any interest in food at all but – but at 10:30am, we realized our stomachs were grumbling. So we ran through our typical list of favorite Sunday brunch places – Chez Lulu, Continental Bakery Downtown, Big Bad Breakfast, Pancake House. But before we made our final decision, I decided to take a peek at Yelp to see if there were any newcomers to the brunch scene that might be fun to explore. And low and behold, we realized that our city’s newest upscale restaurant serves a yummy looking brunch starting at 10:30. And even better, it’s in our neighborhood. It was meant to be.

Galley and Garden took the spot occupied by Veranda on Highland, so I’ll acknowledge that eating at Galley and Garden was a little bittersweet. My pangs soon went away when I realized just how special this new restaurant was. They totally renovated the place, and now have an incredibly inviting fire pit in the front:


Here’s the rest of the front of the place:



I had called for reservations but at 10:30 on a Sunday, the place was surprisingly quiet. I’m not sure if the word has gotten out yet that they do brunch – there was a slow trickle of patrons during the hour or hour and a half we were there.

When we entered, we were greeted enthusiastically by a friendly gentleman who led us to our table. As you probably know if you read the blog, the places we frequent tend to be more on the hole-in-the-wall end of the spectrum. So maybe it especially stood out to me when the man who seated us seamlessly placed a napkin on my lap. This kind of effortless and non-overbearing attentive service continued throughout the meal.

Given our recent Thanksgiving pigging out, we were looking to order either something light, or to exercise excellent portion control. Here were our options:


After a brief struggle for foodie decision-making power, I guided Mr. Foodie to the obvious best choice: the portion control option using chicken and waffles (one of my favorites) and pork belly dumplings. These stood out to me as dishes that, if extremely unhealthy, ought to be really good.

The dumplings were a stand-out. Tons of delicious pork flavor, and although they used pork belly, they didn’t taste overly fatty or greasy (a good thing). They weren’t exactly light, but they weren’t heavy-they were hearty and crispy, delicious. Served with a fresh brussel sprout slaw. Came with a siracha aoli, sweet and sour sauce, and soy sauce-based sauce for dipping, all of which were excellent. After Mr. Foodie dripped a dollop of the sweet and sour sauce on the white tablecloth, an attentive waiter came by to wipe it off saying “we don’t want that to get on your clothes.” Now, that’s service.


And now the chicken and waffles. Crispy fried chicken (airline cut, my favorite), nice and salty and juicy, on top of a soft, sweet waffle with just enough syrup and creamy gravy. When we were getting down to the end only salty little skin pieces were left, and they were the best, mixed with the sweet waffles…. mmmm, delicious.


Galley and Garden is a really wonderful addition to the downtown/5 points brunch scene. I know this is a relatively short post for us-remember, portion control. That just means we will have to come back to fill you in on the rest of the brunch menu. I’m also really looking forward to trying their dinner offerings. Next time it’s a cold night I would love to score a seat on that fire pit patio!

Save Everest Sushi!!

**please note: Everest Sushi is now located in the Blue Monkey lounge, 1316 Cobb Lane, hours 6-10pm Tuesday-Thursday, 9pm-2am Friday and Saturday.

Now for the original post:
Loyal blog fans,

This is a plea for your help. We have a foodie emergency on our hands. Everest Sushi, which I blogged about here and here, has lost its space at the Red Zone.

I know y’all love Everest because it’s #1 on Urbanapoon’s talk of the town, and my two posts had the most shares of any place I’ve blogged about. Everest is a true Birmingham foodie gem, and even moreso, it’s owner Abhi is a foodie treasure. He is self taught and meticulous about his work. He makes some of the best, most creative and inspired sushi in town. His long term plans are to open an Asian fusion restaurant. We’ve sampled his cooked dishes and they are off the charts.

This blog is about food and restaurants, yes. But what it’s really about is helping the small-time restauranteurs who are doing great things for our city. When people read our blog, a post gets shared, we know it helps. So let’s all help Abhi.

If anyone knows of a new location for Abhi and Everest Sushi, don’t be shy. Comment on this post, or email me directly at, and I will get the info to Abhi. He doesn’t need a kitchen, just a table with a hand sink. AND PLEASE SHARE THIS POST in case someone else in your circle of friends has any ideas. As a community of food lovers, we can find a way to Save Everest Sushi!

Eli’s Jerusalem Grill

Mr Foodie and I were running some errands at the Summit (read: guiltily returning some online shopping purchases) and looking for a place to have lunch afterwards. Whenever we visit an area of town, even one we’ve been to a million times, we try to find a new and interesting place to eat. A few Google, Yelp, and Urbanspoon searches revealed a brand new Isreali place on 280 that had been open for less than a week and already seemed to have a dedicated following.

Israeli food is something I grew up with as a kid in Pittsburgh. There used to be an Israeli restaurant in Birmingham but it closed a few years ago, leaving a big void in our food scene. My heart started to race… Could this be our next big foodie discovery?

Eli’s Jerusalem Grill is located in a pretty run of the mill strip mall past Target on 280 (if you’re coming from the city). They already have a nice temporary sign up:


When you walk in, there’s a wall to your right with photos of a market in Israel to get you in the mood. As we approached the counter, a nice gentleman with a big smile gave us the menu and prepared to take our order. Here is the menu; I love the graphic design!




And he added “everything else you need to know is here,” pointing to himself. Turns out this was Eli, the owner.

So as usual, we asked him what we should order. And then we noticed this in the background:


This is schwarma, where meat is grilled for hours or days on a spit. They had chicken and lamb/beef; we went with the latter. Besides that, we told him we wanted to try a little bit of everything. He recommended the vegetarian plate with a side of falafel. Sold.

As we waited for our food, we struck up a conversation with Eli. Originally from Israel, he lived in Chicago for many years. His dream was to open an Israeli restaurant, and when he moved to Birmingham for family a few years ago, he began perfecting some of his grandma’s recipes. The restaurant has only been open for a week, and is the only Israeli place in town. While I don’t know this for sure (correct me if I’m wrong), I believe they are the only place that does schwarma on a spit like the photo I showed. They make everything in house, even the pita, and have lots of gluten free options. All of their meat is organic and shipped in from a farm in the Carolinas daily, and they also receive daily shipments of fresh produce.

After that lead in, we were starving and ready to eat. First, the schwarma. Crispy pieces with pieces that are melt-in-your mouth tender. Fantastic.
Served with rice and Israeli salad. The salad was lemony with tomatoes, cucumbers and onions -the best I have had – it just tasted so fresh.


Then, the veggies. All amazing. The beets stood out as they were seasoned with a little bit of cumin. The tabbouleh was totally unique-in an effort to be gluten free, Eli uses quinona rather than bulgur wheat. I really dislike the texture of bulgur wheat, so I loved this substitution. The tabouleh was bright and flavorful, the best I’ve had.


Mr Foodie’s favorite food of all time (no exaggeration, I think) is hummus. Eli told us that this hummus was made with dried chickpeas rather than canned. This makes the texture deliciously creamy. Served with soft, thick homemade pita. Amazing.


Then the falafel, which were light and crunchy. I’m not usually a big falafel fan but these were great-the best I’ve had, in fact. They might have converted me into a falafel believer. Shown here with homemade tahini (which had a light, delicate sesame seed flavor), a green spicy sauce (not sure what it was, didn’t use it), and the hummus.


Now in cross section. Isn’t that gorgeous? So green!


We weren’t really hungry for dessert but, for the sake of our readers, we indulged. Again, everything is homemade. Knafeh, which is a cake made of cheese and toasted pistachios, and light, flaky baklavah. Both fantastic.


Eli insisted on giving us some Moroccan tea with our dessert, which I highly recommend. Tasted like a menagerie of spices. Hard to explain. Went perfectly with the sweets.


Can’t wait to go back to test out the rest of the menu, especially the Shakshuka. This is one of only two shakshukas in town as far as I know, and I’ve already blogged about the other one! What a fantastic experience. And what a fantastic addition to our food scene!

Eli's Jerusalem Grill on Urbanspoon

Wilson’s Hot and Sweet Cafe

Mr Foodie here.

When Ms Foodie and I moved to Southside last year, we asked around for tips on great places to eat. One of the things we noticed right away is that our neighborhood has a great international vibe. My guess is this has to do with UAB drawing students and faculty from all over the world. So when we found a hidden ethnic food gem right around the corner we were not surprised.

We started hearing about a place called Wilson’s Market, which we were told sells homemade samosas by the dozen. We then realized we live just a block away. It took us nearly this whole year to figure the place out-so we figured we would pass that knowledge along to you, our loyal readers, so you can begin enjoying the wonders of Wilson’s right away.

Wilsons is mysterious. Like a turducken, or a riddle wrapped in an enigma. I think it can be best described as an Indian carry-out restaurant wrapped in a Wal-Mart wrapped in an Indian grocery store wrapped in a convenience store. Read on.

Wilson’s Market in Southside is located in a simple brick building across the street from Dreamland BBQ and next to a laundromat. At first glance it looks like a typical convenience store.


When you walk in, there is a cash register with snacks on the counter, large soda cases, and an ice cream freezer is visible along the wall – a convenience store. When you walk up and down the aisles, you find paper towels, pet food, and dish soap. A Wal-Mart. But then you notice the indian frozen food and the large bags of a dozen varieties of rice and lentils. An Indian grocery store. And then there’s this:


Yup. Wilson’s is a foodie gem hiding in plain sight. This part of the operation is called “Wilson’s Hot and Sweet Cafe.”

At this point, I think I need to take a moment to comment on where the food in the cases comes from and how you procure the food. We were told awhile ago that you can either eat what is in the case, you can call a day ahead for a custom order, or you can eat in and they will heat it up. I know the call ahead thing sounds a little unusual but we plan to try this for a party this winter so we will comment more on that in a future post. As far as the case goes they don’t always seem to have the same items and they don’t always have rice. If they don’t have rice when you stop by ask about their Naan.

I walked over to Wilson’s on my lunch break this past week. I grabbed some chicken tikka masala from the refrigerator case and the gentleman working behind the cash register suggested I try the beef samosas. These were in the heated clear box on the counter a bit to the left of the register. I had not noticed these before and I was really excited to try them.

When I got home, I plated them. [Ms Foodie's editorial comment: isn't this picture like a work of art?]


I started with the beef samosa. I bit in with a satisfying crunch through several crispy layers of dough. The ground beef was light and had a nice heat to it that was not overpowering. You could still thoroughly enjoy the flavors of the beef, onions, and spices combining with the dough in your mouth. Great texture and flavor all around with minimal grease. A really fantastic samosa. Mine was still warm from the case as I ate it right away but if you are taking it home remember to use your toaster oven to preserve the crispy quality of the dough.


On to the Chicken Tikka Masala. It has an almost slightly smoky taste. The chicken is juicy and flavorful with the right amount of heat to it. The sauce has a tomato and herb base with a variety of Indian spices making for a complex but well balanced flavor. I liked the sauce so much I will admit I spread it on crackers after all the chicken was gone.


One serving of Chicken Tikka Masala lasted for three lunches. What a great value.

If you don’t want to do carry out, there are a few booths and they’ll even microwave it for you.

So in sum, check out this unexpected foodie find. I know it sounds a little unconventional, and it is, but hey, that’s why you keep coming back to read this blog, right? So you can brag to your friends that you ate at an Indian restaurant in a Wal-mart in an Indian grocery, all wrapped up in a convenience store.

Wilson's Hot and Sweet Cafe on Urbanspoon

Champy’s Chicken and Tamales

Last Friday, we set out for the Gulf Coast with empty stomachs, hoping we would find a blogworthy surprise within an hour south of Birmingham. As relative newcomers to town, we still have to study the map carefully. Our choices were Pelham, home of our favorite El Salvadorian restaurant La Libertad, or Alabaster, a place we had never been. After some intensive Yelping and Urbanspoon-digging, we read about what sounded like the kind of unique dining experience often discussed but rarely attained on a road trip: a place with fried chicken, Mississippi delta tamales, and blues.

Champy’s is located in a juke joint-inspired building. Can’t miss the sign:



On the inside, the place is surprisingly huge, with a bar, booths, and lots of tables. We grabbed ourselves a seat at a booth and were immediately greeted by a very friendly waitress who helped us navigate the menu. Although we forgot to photograph it (sorry), I’ll give you the summary: Fried chicken, po boys, and tamales. And sides. Based on her recommendations, we made our selections.

First, the tamales. A little bit of history is in order. Many years ago, before we moved to Bham, we took a road trip through Mississippi. At that time, we learned that there is a long tradition in the delta of making “hot tamales.” These tamales are different from the usual Mexican tamale. They are indigenous to this region, and are thought to originate from interactions of African Americans and Mexican migrant workers (to learn more, see this fantastic article from the Southern Foodways Alliance). In fact, there’s even a Tamale Trail, along which we traveled briefly during a recent Blues-related trip to Clarksdale, MS. On that trip, we ate at 3 different classic Hot Tamale shops. What an experience.

All of that came flooding back when this arrived at our table:


Now for a close-up:


Served in a corn husk, these little tamales were made from corn meal and stuffed with perfectly seasoned ground beef. Sometimes, hot tamales can be greasy, or even a little bitter (maybe from the combination of too much cayenne pepper and cumin?). These were delicate and light, but spicy and flavorful. Mr Foodie liked these so much that he forgot his assignment to take a picture of what’s inside the corn husk. Trust us, it looked and tasted like a delicious hot tamale. These tamales were just like what we had in the delta, but, I shudder to say… Better?

Next up, the fried chicken. We got the two piece white meat. Heavily breaded (in a good way), crispy, juicy, and perfectly fried, served hot hot hot (temperature-wise). Probably the best white meat fried chicken I have ever had. Served with creamy cole slaw and baked beans:


I love that it comes on a slice of white bread. Since this isn’t really an open faced sandwich… It’s a Southern thing, I know.

And then lastly, the catfish po boy. Breaded, fried, and served with horseradish mayo on soft yet crusty bread. The perfect sandwich:


Now for the side view. See what I mean about the bread? You can see its crusty soft goodness:


I have to spend a moment on the fries. They were really good, breaded deep fried fries. As I was stuffing my face with them, I noticed a squeeze bottle out of the corner of my eye. Looks like a few others had also noticed this bottle, given it’s well-loved appearance:


I put some on my plate, started dipping the fries, and – wow. Smoky, sweet, just a little tangy, I have no idea what this stuff is but it’s addictive. I wonder if they sell it… Forgot to check.

As we sat there obviously enjoying the food, our very attentive waitress and the ?manager checked in often and offered helpful tips (the chicken is really temperature hot, be careful!) or information that will be useful on future trips (they often have live blues in the evenings).

To sum it up, Champy’s re-creates what we experienced on our trips to the Delta-great tamales and other southern favorites served in a juke joint atmosphere by warm, friendly people. We can’t wait to return for blues to get the full on Champy’s experience.

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