Taipei 101

I’m going to keep this simple. There’s a place on Greensprings called Taipei 101. The exterior of the building prompted Mr Foodie to exclaim “let’s not get the sushi until we see the inside.” Once on the inside, we met a die hard Taipei 101 fan who told us (as did the waitress) that the sushi is where it’s at. And at $7 for two regular rolls and $13 for 2 special rolls, the prices are (maybe frighteningly?) cheap.

But fear not. The sushi is incredible. On our first trip, we had two special rolls: the mango paradise roll (top-fresh mango and shrimp tempura) and the volcano roll (bottom-California roll with baked seafood on top). Great flavors, not too much rice filler – basically a fantastic experience:

20140411-232132.jpg

We were intrigued and had to return to double check our first impressions before blogging. This time, tiger roll on top (tuna, salmon, yellowtail, and whitefish with fried “dynamite” inside), and a rainbow spider roll on the bottom (fried soft shell crab with crab salad). Just as good:

20140411-232746.jpg

As we continue to try more rolls, we will report back. But so far, so good.

Taipei 101 Sushi & Asian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Post Office Pies

You know a neighborhood has arrived when it has a brewery, a top rated BBQ joint, and now, a pizza place that merges them both.

When we moved to Birmingham in July 2011, we had heard that something was afoot in Avondale. I remember going to the building that would become Avondale Brewery and getting an impromptu tour. Just eight months later, after we had taken many more formal tours through the brewery, we went to Saw’s on its opening night. Saw’s in Avondale has since been, in my opinion, the best overall BBQ in town. So when Post Office Pies was slated to open under the direction of 2 of the Saw’s guys, we were excited.

A few months ago, we drove by and noticed some activity in the old Post Office building. We stopped and found out that Post Office Pies was open briefly, just for a few hours, to test out some recipes. What a beautiful space – a large, open room with brick walls and a beautiful brick oven as the focal point. We got a margherita pizza – just cheese, tomatoes, and basil – and it was great. We couldn’t wait to return when the restaurant was fully operational.

So this week, we went back, this time with a friend so we could order more. The menu now featured numerous pizzas, and a few delicious sounding salads:

20140411-213359.jpg

Ordering is done at the counter. We decided on ordering a margherita pizza again, this time adding mushrooms, and the swine pie. I usually try to eat relatively healthy, but for the sake of the blog, I really wanted to experience a pizza that would showcase the best of what both Post Office Pies and Saw’s have to offer. I have to assume that Post Office Pies sources its meat from Saw’s – where Saw’s serves pulled pork, Post Office Pies’ swine pie has bacon and pork sausage. Similarly, the kale and brussel sprout salad also comes with a healthy dose of bacon-so we had to order that too. Post Office Pies also serves a fantastic selection of Avondale beer-but this is a food blog, let’s stick with that.

We sat down and within a few minutes the salad arrived. The kale and brussel sprouts are both raw. The brussel sprouts were cut in relatively thin strips, and the kale in medium sized pieces so as not to be overpowering.
The dressing was amazingly light, In contrast to the small but thick cut pieces of bacon that just melted in my mouth. Amazing. Look in the lower left corner for the pork:

20140411-215333.jpg

Then the pizzas. The crust was doughier than thin crust, but certainly not deep dish. Really delicious. On the margherita pizza, the fresh tomatoes and basil really shone. Even better than the first time:

20140411-220300.jpg

As for the swine pie-definitely the right choice. This pizza’s focus is on the meat. Salty and delicious, and like all their pizzas, topped with delicious fresh basil:

20140411-220612.jpg

It may surprise you to know that pizza isn’t typically my favorite thing-despite my very genuine, glowing posts about Reyes Pizza and Slice, and now Post Office Pies. But what I’ve realized is that when you combine really great dough with other high quality ingredients, it can be an incredible foodie experience. And what makes Post Office Pies unique from the other great places in town, in addition to the unique dough, is one of those high quality ingredients-the pork. Again, I’m assuming it comes from Saw’s (probably a good assumption), but wherever it comes from, Post Office Pies produces a really winning combination.

Post Office Pies on Urbanspoon

Silvercoin Indian Grill

First off, this post is dedicated to my wonderful foodie friend who has much more experience with Indian food than I do. Her knowledge of Indian food is nearly encyclopedic. She deserves credit for helping me figure out the names of some of the foods shown here, and for introducing us to Silvercoin when we moved to Birmingham!

Often, when I mention that I have a restaurant blog, an early question that arises is, what is your favorite Indian food in town? Although I do really love Taj and have blogged about it, and also love Mughal and the Sitar in Tuscaloosa (both on my “to blog” list), I have a special place in my heart for Silvercoin. While I have my favorite dishes at Taj, everything I have ever tried at Silvercoin is incredible. And, it is served with such grace and kindness, especially from the owners (I think), a man and woman who check on you from time to time between courses, make conversation, and above all give the place a homey feel.

This post is a mash-up of two trips to Silvercoin-so that you don’t think we are this piggy!

On our most recent visit last week, when we arrived, there was a bit of a wait for a table. While waiting, we ran into some friends and began trading insider information about favorite dishes. We all agreed that the masala dosa, a crepe filled with spiced potatoes and nuts, is a must. Another dish that I love but had not tried at Silvercoin was chicken briyani, spiced rice that in my experience is often served but hard to perfect.

We also saw this sign and took it as a sign:
20140406-093038.jpg

When they located a table for us, they didn’t like the cleanliness of the floor beneath it so in a flurry of motion they moved the table halfway across the restaurant for us. Everyone in that section of the restaurant laughed-that’s service!

When you are seated, you immediately get a basket of fresh papadum and mint and tamarind chutney . Light and great for snacking. My understanding is that these are heat dried rather than fried.

20140406-094324.jpg

20140406-094330.jpg

We always order a mango lassi at every Indian restaurant. The cardamom flavor was prominent but not overpowering; it was frothy and very refreshing.

20140406-094523.jpg

Then, the carrot pickle. Very spicy. We ate a little bit on its own, which was good, but not as good as when combined with the food we ordered. We put it on and in everything, and it made everything that much better.

20140406-094814.jpg

Next, the dosa. This is the only place I am aware of in the Ham that serves these. Please, let me know if I am wrong! These are impressive, partially because they are so large and perfectly triangular! When they come out of the kitchen, everyone turns to look:

20140406-095628.jpg

What in the world is going on inside this thing? Fold in the corners and flip it over to look under the hood:

20140406-095825.jpg

Surprise! Potatoes, spices, and nuts!

It is served with coconut chutney (which I poured all over it-just rich and fantastic). And sambar, which has a strong tamarind flavor and we also used liberally:

20140406-100452.jpg

Chicken tikka masala. Always a classic-although not exactly 100% authentic, we always order it because when done well, it is so good. Always a winner at Silvercoin. Rich but not overly rich, thick tomato broth, a little spicy (at our request).

20140406-100716.jpg

Chicken briyani, our friend’s suggestion. The best I’ve had in town, and among the very best I’ve had anywhere. Also spicy at our request, with a complex blend of delicious spices.

20140406-101206.jpg

We doused everything with raita – cuts the spice slightly and adds additional creaminess.

20140406-101448.jpg We were still sweating at the end of the meal-we enjoy a good sinus cleansing and this meal provides that. (The food can also be made mild, or even spicier, by request.)

Now for dessert. The last time we went to Silvercoin with my Indian food expert friend, my eyes drifted to the “Silvercoin brownie special,” which the menu reports is served in a “sizzling pan.” I was having a craving. I’m human, alright? The owner heard us having a discussion of the questionable authenticity of eating a brownie at an Indian restaurant, and she explained. On her last trip to India, she ate dinner at a hotel where they served this for dessert. When she ate it, she knew she had to bring it back to Silvercoin. That story did it for us-we had to try it. It did not disappoint. Just look at this photo:

20140406-102227.jpg

Now that’s a good way to end a blog post.

Silvercoin Indian Grill on Urbanspoon

El Taco Loco

A lot has happened these past few months. Most notably, we moved to Southside. Moving has caused us to get a little distracted-all those pesky boxes, lots of urgent home improvement projects…. Excuses, excuses. But let me tell you, my foodie friends, this move will be great for our blog. It has introduced us to some hidden food havens in this part of town that we can’t wait to share with you. Tonite, I present you the first of these: the Green Springs/Valley Avenue corridor.

This area of Homewood is filled with, well, frankly awful looking strip malls. But in those strip malls are hidden gems. One of those is Taco Loco. I had been hearing for awhile that it is as good as Gordos, which hardly seems possible. But tonight, after working up an appetite thrift shopping, I decided to give it a try.

Nestled in a neon-filled strip mall next to a Karaoke bar and a dry cleaner, Taco Loco looks like your run of the mill mediocre Mexican restaurant. But when you enter, everything changes. Pretty, colorful murals cover the wall separating the restaurant and small bar from the kitchen. You can smell the fresh salsa. I was immediately greeted by a very friendly server and taken to my table, in front of a giant TV playing ’80s throwback Univision. I noticed that most of the patrons were speaking Spanish-a good sign.

My plan was just to get tacos, which seems like what they are known for. But I had to take a peek at the rest of the menu. This place is much more than just a taqueria. They have enchiladas, burritos, fajitas, and large entrees like chicken mole. When I go back to try them all, you will be the first to know. I stuck mostly with my plan, and got one chicken taco and one carnitas taco. The waitress asked if I would like some guacamole, and I didn’t want to be rude so…. I took one for the team and ordered that too.

First, the chips and salsa came out. I forgot to take a picture. The salsa was mild and tasted fresh with bright flavors.

Then the guacamole. Wow. It tasted like perfectly ripe avocados doused with lime juice.

20140405-230057.jpg

The tacos. The chicken taco made me literally stop thinking. You know what I mean-I was daydreaming, thinking about my to do list, and then-TACO. Corn tortillas, onions and cilantro, with a squeeze of lime and radish on top. Very flavorful and juicy. Although the chicken was my favorite, the carnitas was also outstanding-rich, fatty melt-in-your-mouth meat served the same way.

20140405-230518.jpg

By this point, I was feeling a wee bit guilty for enjoying all of this while Mr Foodie was back at home putting down some hardwood floors and planning to eat the soggy leftover lasagna in the fridge. I spotted the fish tacos on the menu-his favorite-and ordered them to go.

I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were, even in their takeout container. Served with a spicy smooth sauce described as “pico de gallo” on the menu, these were among the best fish tacos either of us had ever eaten. And for $7.75, also the cheapest. The fish wasn’t too fishy, but was light and flaky, served with fresh herbs and vegetables on corn tortillas:

20140405-231115.jpg

So, the moral of the story is, Taco Loco is more than just a taqueria, and once again, strip mall food is the name of the game in this town.

El Taco Loco on Urbanspoon

Taj India

For me, Indian food has been an acquired taste. Until the past 5 years, I’ve avoided anything spicy. I’m not entirely sure why. Until a friend of mine, whose mom is Indian and dad is Pakistani, gave me a life changing piece of advice. We were in Botswana, which has a significant Indian community. Botswana was probably the first place I tried authentic Indian food. My friend told me, if the food is spicy and you can’t handle it, eat it with a little bit of raita to tone it down but preserve the flavors. That advice allowed me to slowly explore Indian food, and now, it is one of my favorite types of food.

There are only a handful of Indian restaurants in Birmingham. I have tried most of them, and like everyone else, I have strong opinions about my favorites. I will write about other places in other posts, but today I will focus on a place that I’ve eaten at twice this week and am craving more: Taj.

Taj is in a small strip mall on Highland Avenue, right near the highway entrance, between Southside and Highland park. This strip mall contains a Western grocery store, a package store, and a nail salon. Quite frankly, it looks sketch. But once you enter Taj you are in a different world.

The place smells like a blend of welcoming spices. The atmosphere feels very homey-it’s a modestly-sized restaurant, with a small bar and friendly staff.

This post is a mash-up of my favorite items from the two meals we had at Taj this week.

When you sit down you are given papadum, a slightly spicy cracker served with 2 chutneys:

20140118-143920.jpg

We almost always get 1 mango lassi to share, and within minutes, have ordered a second. These are light and delicious mango and yogurt drinks, the perfect way to start a meal:

20140119-074742.jpg

We tried an appetizer we had never eaten before, Sev Betata Puri. This is a combination of crunchy biscuits, potatoes, and vegetables. Something I will definitely order again:

20140119-075325.jpg

Then, the main dishes. This week, I tried saag for the first time. Saag is a dish of pur√©ed, creamy, slightly spicy spinach. It is often served with cheese, but I ordered it with potatoes. I’ve been craving this every day since (hence the second trip to Taj this week):

20140119-075608.jpg

Then, chicken tikka masala. One of the most popular Indian dishes around the world, it probably originated in a restaurant in the UK! Mild to moderately spicy, and delicious. Look at that beautiful red color:

20140119-075830.jpg

Then naan, both garlic and regular, an essential accompaniment to any meal. Naan allows you to sop up every last bite of your main dish, ensuring that no drop is left behind:

20140119-080021.jpg

Every time I go to Taj, a plate of sizzling meat and veggies goes running by. This week, I had to try it. This is one of Taj’s specialties, cooked in a tandoor or clay oven. We had the mixed grill, which consisted of chicken, beef, and lamb. That blurriness is steam. Amazing:

20140119-080333.jpg

We ordered raita, but we ate it before we could photograph it! The mango chutney was slightly sweet and slightly spicy, and like the raita, was mixed in with every bite:

20140119-080522.jpg

And if course, every meal is served with delicious basmati rice:

20140119-080550.jpg

Taj India on Urbanspoon

El Barrio

Lately, I’ve been writing about places that are completely off the beaten path. Tonite, I’m writing about a place that everybody loves to love.

We picked up my father-in-law at the airport tonite around dinnertime. He’s here to help with some home improvement projects, so we wanted to take him to a nice place to eat. Although he’s been to the Ham before, we were excited to show off downtown, which seems to get even cooler by the month. So we went to, in my opinion, the most dependably cool place downtown-El Barrio.

El Barrio opened a few months after we moved to Birmingham. We ate there that first week and have been eating there often ever since. The food has always been good but has continued get even better. The menu has been through some changes and I’ve eaten there often enough to find several really excellent dishes that I come back for again and again.

Tonite, we started with my favorite appetizer, their chips and guacamole. Don’t forget to squeeze the lime on top!

20140116-231222.jpg

20140116-231228.jpg

Then, the chicken and rice soup. I always get a bowl of it. It is only a tiny bit spicy, and is finished off with a small amount of cream. It is probably my favorite thing on the menu. Pure comfort food.

20140116-231338.jpg

Then, the shrimp ceviche. This is shrimp cooked by marinating it in citrus. This is some of the freshest tasting ceviche around, served with chips on top of their delicious guacamole. Not only delicious, but beautiful. And one of the only ceviches in town.

20140116-231552.jpg

All three of those dishes are El Barrio favorites for me. Tonite, we tried something new: the pork loin. Served with brussel sprouts, apple mole, and sweet potatoes-all of my favorite things in one dish. They worked well together-adding this to my new list of go-to El Barrio dishes:

20140116-231808.jpg

El Barrio on Urbanspoon

Miami Cafe Xpress

—-UPDATE—- Miami Cafe express is closed, at least for now. Seems like it is expected to reopen but not sure when. Will keep y’all posted!

If you’ve been following my blog posts, you probably realize that I’ve become obsessed with finding hole in the wall ethnic restaurants in strip malls or attached to gas stations. Today, I struck foodie gold yet again. I found a hole in the wall ethnic restaurant attached to … wait for it … a car wash.

Not that Miami Cafe Xpress is a secret. To the contrary, it has a devoted Urbanspoon following. When we went today, a Saturday, at noon, it was absolutely packed.

Miami Cafe Xpress
is a Puerto Rican/Caribbean restaurant located on Lorna Road in Hoover next to the Riverchase Car Wash:

20140111-170253.jpg

Once inside, you wait for your food practically inside the carwash lobby. This genuinely adds to the restaurant’s charm.

But what makes this place really great is the owner. He is a one man show. When we arrived, he was behind the counter using a mortar and pestle to make what he explained to us was mofongo, a dish of fried green plantains mixed with pork and other goodness. He is in business by himself, and is a greeter, cook, cashier, and storyteller all rolled into one.

I arrived with a group of 4 friends with the specific purpose of trying as many menu items as possible. Here’s the menu:

20140111-170350.jpg

20140111-170355.jpg

Several patrons and the owner guided us as we got one of almost everything to share. We took a seat outside, enjoying the hustle and bustle of the car wash and parking lot on either side of us. Was the perfect day for an outdoor meal – finally nice and warm after the polar vortex.

First, the owner brought us some Jesus Cake. Yup, like the sign says, don’t forget to try it. We hadn’t ordered it but he heard us talking about it and since we ordered so much at once and had to wait, he brought us one to share as an appetizer. You will have to get him to tell you the story behind why it’s called Jesus Cake – it is really an incredible tres leches cake. If you don’t find religion after you eat this, well, you probably won’t. It was moist but not soggy like tres leches cakes can be, and was sweet and delicious. And beautiful:

20140111-171033.jpg

After that start we had great expectations for the rest of the meal and were not disappointed.

First, the special of the day, a chicken salad sandwich. The board said “chicken salad” and we were all confused when we received a dish wrapped in tin foil, but this was a serendipitous mistake-it was one of our favorite dishes. Had the perfect amount of mayo and some mustard on a delicious roll:

20140111-171425.jpg

Next, the chicken stew with huge pieces of chicken and bones, rice, carrots and potatoes, mild and comforting while still flavorful:

20140111-171932.jpg

Fried sweet plantains, as sweet and buttery as you can imagine:

20140111-172148.jpg

A Cuban sandwich – ham and shredded meat (?pork) with melted cheese and pickles – perfect balance of ingredients, and really, the perfect sandwich:

20140111-172423.jpg

Ground beef empanadas, aren’t they adorable? Crispy on the outside, soft and perfectly seasoned on the inside. Very filling:

20140111-172613.jpg

Pork chunks with tostones, which are fried green plantains. The pork was juicy and wonderful. Tostones can be dry and flavorless, but these were moist and salty, with lots of great flavor. The best I’ve had. The lettuce looked like just lettuce but was actually salad with a light vinegar dressing that was a perfect complement to our heavier entrees:

20140111-173026.jpg

Had to try the rice and beans. They were not spicy like I expected but had good flavor, and the rice was slightly salty in a way that I really liked:

20140111-173334.jpg

Then, the mofongo, with pork chunks. Of course I had to order it. This dish was incredibly rich. Diet food it is not, but wow. Really amazing. The mound of mashed fried plantains is seasoned with pork (I think), and tasted delicious alongside the pork chunks.

20140111-173852.jpg

I can’t believe there are 2 amazing Caribbean restaurants in Birmingham (not a city known for its ethnic food), one in a gas station and the other in a carwash, run by guys who cook food they love. (If you don’t know about the other one, see this blog post). Pretty incredible.

Miami Cafe Express on Urbanspoon

Gordos Market and Taqueria

As you may know, I’m on a quest to find all the great taquerias of Birmingham – see also my post on Taqueria La Herrudura. Tonight: Gordos.

Gordos was the first taqueria I visited after moving to Birmingham. It’s on Valley Avenue in Homewood, in a strip mall. It has 3 parts-a grocery store, a bakery, and of course, the restaurant.

The restaurant serves tacos, tamales, gorditas, burritos, and quesadillas. Vegetarians beware-there is meat EVERYWHERE you look – a giant piece of meat hangs next to the register, which we are told is what carnitas looks like before it gets into your taco.

I decided to start with 2 tacos. Of course, my friend and I were taking awhile to decide-carnitas? Chicken? Lamb?

Our friend behind the counter took pity on us and decided to let us taste test all the meats. Wow. I had only had carnitas at Gordos previously, as that is my go to – shredded pork perfectly spiced. But EVERYTHING was amazing-and the chicken was in a stew-type sauce, spicy, and moist, so much better than the ultra-dry taco chicken I’ve suffered through in the past. So, I asked for one chicken and one carnitas:

20140111-101100.jpg

These are the more authentic Mexican street tacos, with delicious homemade corn tortillas.

Don’t they look naked? Don’t worry friends, there’s the topping bar, with onions, cilantro, 4 kinds of salsa, and more:

20140111-101224.jpg

Amazing. I doused mine in onions and cilantro, but went more gingerly with the salsa-one was mild but the others blew my head off, in a friendly sinus clearing way:

20140111-101337.jpg

As I devoured my delicious tacos I looked with jealousy at my friend’s meal- 2 gorditas, one chicken and one carnitas. These are made from fried dough stuffed with meat and other goodness, served with perfectly ripe avocados:

20140111-101552.jpg

So worth every fried, greasy calorie. Wow, just wow.

So of course, I had to get my own:

20140111-101808.jpg

We closed the place down, but luckily, the bakery was still open. My friend got this piece of “cheesecake.” I intensely dislike the traditional American cheesecakes, but this was totally different. Crusty and flaky on the outside with a layer of light cheese on the inside, absolutely delicious:

20140111-101955.jpg

Gordo's Market on Urbanspoon

Mr. Chen’s

Recently, I heard something I could hardly believe. Mr. Chen’s-arguably the best Chinese restaurant in Birmingham-serves soup dumplings.

Mr. Foodie and I lived in Philadelphia for 10 years, which has one of the best Chinatowns in the US. This experience completely spoiled us. We are used to eating non-greasy Chinese food with fresh ingredients, and have come to love dim sum — a Cantonese style of bite sized dining which typically includes dumplings.

A really good dumpling – one that isn’t from the freezer section, that is hand made with perfectly seasoned filling – is hard to find. One specific type of dumpling that I have only found in restaurants in Chinatowns is a soup dumpling, also known as a juicy dumpling. These guys are filled not only with meat but with boiling hot soup. For more information on how on earth this is even possible, read this. Eating a soup dumpling should come with instructions-without advance notice you could really burn your face off. But if you are aware of the proper method of consumption, you are in for a treat.

Look for “small steam bun” on Mr. Chen’s appetizer menu. They come in batches of 10, and look like ordinary dumplings:

20140106-155521.jpg

Here’s what to do:

Pick up the dumpling like so (dip it in the sauce if you wish):

20140106-155744.jpg

Take a tiny bite out of the corner, and pour off at least some of the soup into a spoon:

20140106-155952.jpg

Put the dumpling into the spoon (works better with large spoon), and slurp/eat. Delicious.

Kudos to our awesome friends who tipped us off that Mr Chen’s has soup dumplings!!

This certainly isn’t enough food for an entire meal. We combined this with our favorite Mr. Chen’s entree-cilantro chicken. This consists of shredded white meat chicken along with thin slices of tofu and cilantro in a light sauce. I’ve never seen this dish anywhere else and it is absolutely amazing.

20140106-160242.jpg

Mr. Chen's on Urbanspoon

El Cazador

Foodie friends, brace yourselves. I’m about to go where no Birmingham food blogger has gone before, and admit a shameful secret.

It’s true-occasionally, I eat at one of our city’s dozens of cheap Mexican restaurants. You know the places of which I speak. The places where the decor consists of brightly colored statues of animals; where the servers give you refills on your chips and salsa within seconds of consumption of the last chip, whether you want them to or not; and where the waiters may or may not be wearing sombreros. I am not an expert on Mexican food, so I can’t speak to the authenticity of such places. But I can say that these places can really hit the spot, whether you are trying to satisfy a craving for mole, eat a filling meal for less than $10, or are just searching for a $2 margarita between the hours of 3 and 5pm.

Each of these places, in my experience, has at least one, if not several, unique reasons to visit. My favorite of these is the shrimp soup at El Cazador in Irondale.

El Caz is across from Bojangles, next to Zaxby’s, on Montclair. Just so that you can take in all of that ambiance, it has a great outdoor patio. I really do like to sit out there when the whether permits, which it hasn’t lately.

I was in Birmingham by myself, without Mr. Foodie, one week in December when unfortunately, I came down with one of the many lovely colds or flus that has been plaguing the Birmingham area. Who wants to cook, or eat somewhere fancy, when one cannot breathe out of either nostril and when the only sound one can make is a cough. I pointed my GPS to El Caz, and ordered the best sick-person food I know of in the Ham.

The shrimp soup is huge, enough for a light meal. It is made with a clear (perhaps chicken?) broth. Swirling in it are large shrimp, plus rice, avocados, tomatoes, and some peppers, which make it just spicy enough to clear the sinuses. It is really delicious and just what I needed. It was more effective than my Sudafed and Robitussin combined:

20140106-153015.jpg

And you can’t beat the price:

20140106-153044.jpg

El Cazador on Urbanspoon