Everest Sushi, Part 2

Since our original post only a week ago, Mr Foodie and I have returned not once but twice to Everest Sushi. The first time, it was just us. The second time, our two wonderful, highly discerning foodie friends joined us. We also ran into the president of our local neighborhood association who had decided to stop by based on our first blog post. He joined us too. With 5 people, we were able to order our old favorites (the Wham Bam Birmingham, Beer Battered Roll, and Fire Roll), and also try a few new things. It was unanimous- everything was fantastic.

First off, there are some advantages to eating sushi at a sports bar. For example, if you want to eat something greasy and deep fried, you can. We ordered the fried green beans, which were battered in ?cornmeal and deep fried. Served with ranch. Perfect start to the meal. They went quickly.

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The dumplings. On our first visit, Abhi told us be had been making Nepalese dumplings with ground turkey in a special “tomato vinaigrette”. We had to try them. Sitting in a light, tart tomato sauce with garlic, coriander, and ginger were dumplings with a delicate skin and very meaty center. The flavors all just explode in your mouth. Have never had anything like them anywhere.

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Then, the salmon skin roll. Usually these just have a little sliver of deep fried salmon skin inside. This roll had a half an inch of salmon skin. I don’t think I’ve ever had one this good before. Smoky, crunchy, and delicious.

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Next, the Super Eel roll. Large chunks of grilled eel atop a roll of avocado, crab, and cucumber. Usually I don’t like eel rolls because the eel you get on top is small and slimy. This was big, had a great char to it, and wasn’t slimy at all. Completely changed my mind about eel rolls.

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Then, the diplomat roll. Not on the menu so know to ask for it. Shrimp tempura and something smoky and crunchy on the inside (sorry, should have asked for more details). Salmon or tuna on the outside. The smokiness, crunch, and fresh fish blend together in your mouth.

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Cross-sectional views are so much easier with sushi:

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When we left, the place was hopping. Three couples at the bar, our table, and another table of four nearly filled the little sushi corner. Seems like Everest is quickly becoming a local neighborhood hangout. And since it seems that we are going there three nights a week, there’s a nearly 50% chance that we will see you there!

Everest Sushi on Urbanspoon

Everest Sushi

What I love about this town is that JUST when you think you’ve found every last [fill in the blank], you find one that has been right under your nose, that you’ve never heard of before, and that is as good or better than all of your favorite places.

To find these hidden gems, I occasionally obsessively peruse Yelp and Urbanspoon. Sushi being one of my favorite things in the world, as I have done many times before, last week I did a Yelp search for all the sushi restaurants in the Ham. Imagine my surprise when I found one that is ON MY WALK HOME FROM WORK. In Five Points, Southside. An area I know like the back of my hand, or so I thought.

Now as excited as I get about sushi, I’m also wary. From a food standpoint, there is nothing worse then bad sushi. So, I did some investigative work. I looked through the photos on Yelp-all were beautiful. Found nothing on Urbanspoon (all my hidden gem radar signals were beginning to go off). Found a Facebook page with 25 four-five star reviews. Just one problem…. Where in the world is this place? The address suggested it was somewhere between the Pancake House and Dave’s. So I sent the restaurant a Facebook message and received a very quick reply. It is a sushi bar that is located in the Red Zone Sports Bar Monday-Thursday 5-9 and Friday and Saturday till 10. On Fridays and Saturdays, they reopen from 11pm till 2am (!!) at the Blue Monkey, also in the neighborhood.

I discovered all of this on a Friday and so…. as part of our bloggerly duties, we headed out for a romantic date nite at the Red Zone. Not that I’m mocking the location, but well, could you fault me for being a little timid? I must admit I’ve never eaten sushi, or heard of eating sushi, at what appears to be typical sports bar. I must admit we drove there, chickened out, drove three blocks past it, and then turned around with the understanding that we would eat just one fully cooked roll before doing anything more adventurous.

As we walked down the street, we noticed a moderately sized neon sign for Everest Sushi hanging in the window of the Red Zone. How had I missed this before? When we walked in, we realized the sports bar is actually really nice-spacious with lots of TVs and not overly loud.

Somehow they realized we were in pursuit of sushi and ushered us to the sushi bar. And sho nuff, there it was. A neat and tidy little sushi bar complete with the usual sushi refrigerator and soy sauce canisters. We were immediately greeted by a gentleman who introduced himself as Abhi, the sushi chef. He introduced the two sous chefs as his “helpers” as the bartender quickly took our beverage orders. Something about all of this convinced us that this was more than just a legit operation – it was a true diamond in the rough. Mr Foodie and I exchanged a knowing glance and a text or two to confirm that we would order whatever Abhi said.

Before I get into what we ordered, I’ll show you the menu. Also note that they have a full bar food menu-but we barely glanced at that. Who could eat bar food at a time like this?

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So we put ourselves at Abhi’s mercy. Here’s what we got. Note that some of these are not on the official menu but can be made on request.

First, the Wham Bam Birmingham roll. Tempura shrimp and avocado on the inside. Salmon on the outside. They actually torched it right in front of us.
Finished with toasted sesame seeds, which gave the roll an ever so slightly nutty taste, and horseradish mayo. First of all, I’ve never tasted anything like this. The flavors of the salmon and shrimp with the horseradish worked together perfectly and it was just spicy enough to allow me to breathe well through both nostrils-a good thing. And I mean, just look at this. So beautiful:

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Here’s another look in cross section. Like a work of art:

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Next up, the fire roll (this one’s on the menu). Spicy tuna, avocado and cucumber inside, fresh tuna outside. Topped with house made aioli. On this roll, you could really taste the quality of the ingredients. The tuna tasted so fresh and smooth. Like the ocean. Delicious.

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Next, the hot Asian. Crab on the inside, tuna topped with tempura crunchies on the outside. Again, the freshness shone through. This one was the lightest of the rolls which made it an excellent pairing with the others.

We initially told Abhi that we didn’t want anything deep fried – after what I’ve been eating lately (see ALL previous posts) I’m working on my cholesterol. But he absolutely insisted on having us try the beer battered roll, which he says is his number one seller, without charging us. We couldn’t resist accepting his generous offer. Soon we understood why he was so insistent. I usually dislike fried sushi rolls because they end up being so heavy. This one was light (ok, not healthy, but not greasy or heavy). Filled with salmon and cream cheese, topped with sweet and spicy sauces. We were already stuffed when he brought it to us, but we ate each piece slowly, deliberately, and with our eyes rolling back in our heads from happiness just a little. Fantastic and worth each and every calorie. Here’s the aerial view:

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Now the yummy underbelly:

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As soon as Mr Foodie took his first bite of this feast, he looked at me, then looked at Abhi, and quietly asked, “Where did you learn how to make sushi?” The sushi was such high quality, and so creatively designed, we knew there had to be a good story behind it. And of course, there is. Abhi is from Nepal and worked at the bar at Surin, just around the corner, for many years. After observing the sushi chefs there, he taught himself how to make his own. He tested his recipes on friends until he had perfected them. He loves to make different types of food, especially Asian food- he told us he’s testing out a recipe for Nepalese dumplings that he said we should order next time (yes, please!). Abhi is a genuine restaurant entrepreneur-one that we hope will continue to grow his business. And we hope he will let us interview him for a future Backstory post!

This is what we love about this town. When you take a foodie adventure, not only do you find amazing food, but you meet inspiring people who are eager to share their stories and delighted by people who enjoy their food creations. Everest Sushi is as good as our favorite sushi places in Manhattan and Philly-no doubt. So come for the sushi, but stay to talk to Abhi, watch the game (after all, it’s in a sports bar with a million TVs!), and have an unexpectedly fantastic and unique all-around experience that’s as Birmingham as BBQ or shrimp and grits.

Everest Sushi on Urbanspoon

The Foodies on Flip my Food with Chef Jeff

Hello fellow foodies,

So…. about 2 months ago, something really amazing happened. I received an out of the blue email from a TV producer asking me if Mr Foodie and I would be interested in appearing on a reality TV show that would be coming through town. They were looking for local food people, and told me that food bloggers are always the most passionate about food and fun to hang out with (obviously!). So, they googled “Birmingham food blog” and checked out Urbanspoon, which led them to our little corner of the blogosphere.

A word about the show, Flip My Food with Chef Jeff: Chef Jeff is a guy who started off on the streets of Compton and ended up in prison, which is where he first learned to cook. From there he became a dishwasher at the Bellagio, where he worked his way up to head chef. Lots of reality TV ensued, including this show. The premise is, take unhealthy food and turn it into something healthy. Where better to do that than the Deep South??

The production team asked Mr Foodie and I to create videos talking about our food interests. I’ve shied away from showing my name or pictures on the blog to date but since we are about to be outed on national TV, well, who cares. I have my disguises and can still be anonymous when I need to be, but I’ll show you my face in my audition tape for the show. They were especially interested in our story: two northerners – me a doctor, Mr Foodie a kitchen gadget designer (that got them REALLY excited) – who explored our beloved city through food.

So, Mr Foodie and I joined Chef Jeff on his mobile food truck in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. They told us that they usually like to separate couples, so we each cooked individually with Chef Jeff using recipes based on a list of favorite foods we submitted. Mr. Foodie made fish tacos and even got to use a cheese grater he designed while on air, and I made soba noodles with lobster. We were totally geeking out over what was going on. Here are some behind the scenes shots we took of each other, and a few that the crew was kind enough to take of us:

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So, set your DVRs or ask for that day off now-the show will air around the country on October 31. Here in Bham, it will show on Fox 6, WBRC, on October 31 at 11:30am central. Tune in and let us know what you think!!

Olive Branch

Last week was our 7 year wedding anniversary. Adorable, I know. Since we’ve been kinda obsessed with this blogging thing lately (have you noticed?), we decided to try a place we had never been to before with the hopes of writing an adorable, romantic blog post about our new find. Well-epic fail. This is not that post, because the place we went was just … meh. We were both so disappointed that we decided to have an anniversary do-over – adorable, yes, I know. At a tried and true local gem that we have been to at least a dozen times. It’s one of our absolute favorites. And we were shocked when we realized we had never written about it. This is THAT post. Welcome to the Olive Branch.

The Olive Branch is located in Cahaba Heights across from the fire station. On our anniversary-plus-one evening, we arrived at sunset… which made for a beautiful picture.

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The observant will note that in the parking lot below the Olive Branch is Doodles… Stay tuned for the companion post. But I digress.

Here’s a pic of the front of the restaurant:

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Since it was such a perfect September night, we chose to sit on the beautiful deck to the right of the restaurant. Romantic for sure. When the waitress came for our drink order we knew what we wanted to eat – all of our favorites.

Starting with the hummus. Theirs is very lemon-y and smooth, served with soft pita. I don’t think these pita are homemade but they might as well be-they’re always perfectly soft and fresh-tasting. I love that they give you a few veggies, too.

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Next, fried cauliflower. I think these are flash fried and then doused generously with lemon juice. Addictive.

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Just because it’s so beautiful… Now the glamour shot:

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Then, the entrees. The kibbeh plate. Baked kibbeh-a combo of lamb and beef in this case, I think-cooked with lots of spices (we could taste the cinnamon!). Soft, moist, and the most amazing flavor imaginable, with yogurt dipping sauce. I have craved this every day since we ate it:

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I love that all the entrees come with a little hummus and a piece of fruit. Makes for a complete meal. It’s served over a bed of very flavorful rice pilaf, and a light Greek salad with feta is the perfect complement. Now for a closer shot so you really can see this is a unique meatloaf:

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Next up: stuffed squash. They once told me that grandma makes these every morning-she cores out the yellow squash, then stuffs it with a lightly seasoned mixture of ground beef and rice. Delish. We ordered ours with tabbouleh-a mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, and parsley with a light dressing-the perfect consistency and very refreshing.

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Now in cross-section:

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The Olive Branch is our go-to place for an any-night-of-the-week romantic, solidly yummy, meal. So, the moral of the story is: when you want to have a romantic anniversary dinner with your partner, it might be better to stick with what you know. So Mr. Foodie, thanks for 7 years of foodie adventures and missteps, and for always having something predictably wonderful in case plan A doesn’t work out. This post is for you.

Olive Branch on Urbanspoon

Tropical Grill

Mr. Foodie here. As regular readers may know, I am Ms. Foodie’s fulltime tasting assistant. I also occasionally help out with photos, but this is my first full post here at What to Eat in Birmingham. In order to keep pace with all the yummy tips coming in from our readers, I am going to help out by writing a post here and there from now on.

Ms. Foodie and I were jonesin’ for some Jerk chicken as tends to happen from time to time. We decided to check out a tip about a restaurant that sounded like it might be a great new place to get our fix.

We pulled up to Tropical Grill, which we recognized from the sign – it features the Jamaican flag and cartoon palm trees. I am a sucker for signage with cartoon palm trees. There’s a very convenient parking lot in the back.

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As soon as we walked through the door, we were greeted by the owner with a broad and welcoming smile. Something about his enthusiasm and charm tipped us off that this place was probably going to be good. We later found out the owner is from Montego Bay, and actually owned a restaurant in Jamaica years ago. After moving to the US and working in a factory for many years, he jumped at the chance to start a restaurant when this current space opened up. (Longtime Birminghamsters may remember that the previous restaurant in this location, Gwen’s Caribbean Kitchen, closed awhile ago. We have heard it was beloved by many though unfortunately we never had a chance to try it.)

Here’s the menu:

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After some debate over which items to order, we knew we had to try the brown stew when the owner mentioned that they had just finished cooking up a fresh batch. The aforementioned Jerk Chicken made the cut, though many other tempting options made us wish we had brought some friends so we could try a number of other items like the Oxtail and Pineapple Chicken. Those will have to be for another trip. Our choices of sides included steamed broccoli, steamed cabbage, meat pie in cocoa bread, and plantains. I also had to try the DG Jamaican ginger beer.

So we sipped sodas in our booth in anticipation of our first Styrofoam clad course. I love trying new ginger beers, birch beers and root beers from mass market to small batch microbrew and anything in between. I am happy to report this “brew” was fantastic. It was a 7 out of 10 on the ginger scale…one being day old tap water and 10 being a sinus clearing sneezing fit. [For point of reference Birmingham's Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale is 10 for me.] So DG brand ginger beer has just enough kick from the ginger to have a nice bite. It has a well rounded ginger to sweetness flavor and I could have sworn it had cane sugar in it even though when I looked on the label it was actually corn syrup. I highly recommend it.

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Next up is the meat pie wrapped in cocoa bread. The meat pie is from a bakery in Atlanta. The cocoa bread was very “white bready” in the best possible way. The meat pie had spiced beef inside of a pastry shell. We both found it to be quite tasty.

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The jerk chicken was served on the bone which may have been part of why the chicken was so nice and juicy. It was sweet, smoky and spicy all at once. Truly delicious. I highly recommend it.

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The fresh cooked brown stew had a great medium heat to it. The rice was buttery and along with the beans served as a delicious counterpoint to the spiced chicken and potatoes of the stew. The brown sauce was not as sweet as the jerk seasonings, but we both found it equally delicious.

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The plantains were perfect. Nicely sweet and browned. A bit of grease. Super tasty. The cabbage was steamed. I am used to having cabbage either raw or with a heavy dose of vinegar or both. Steaming the cabbage gave it a lightness that played off of the spicy sweet jerk chicken quite well and made it a very complimentary side.

Tropical Grill is worth the drive to Fairfield. It’s right down the street from our other favorite Jamaican place, Southern Jamaican Caribbean Restaurant, which Ms. Foodie posted about here. Ms. Foodie is looking over my shoulder and asking me to suggest that you have a progressive meal – start at one, get a few things, go to the other, get a few more. Why not? Even better would be a cook-off between the two chefs… do I smell another blog post?

Tropical Grille on Urbanspoon

Ms. Foodie on the radio live this morning!!

Hey y’all! In case anyone wants to tune in, I’m going to be on Baton Rouge’s Talk 107.3 WBRP this morning at 11am central chatting with host Karen Profita about the blog, what to eat in Birmingham, and our amazing Birmingham food scene! Might even mention a restaurant or two if I get the chance….

To tune in, download their iTunes app. There will be a play button at the bottom. Just press play!

There’s also a listen live button on the website:

http://www.talk1073.com/home/

And if you want to live tweet from the show, my twitter handle is deepsouthfoodie.

Update: here’s the audio of that interview! Enjoy!

Continental Bakery Downtown

French Colonial/Moroccan soul food brunch in downtown Birmingham. Yes, you read that right.

Continental Bakery Downtown is an offshoot of the very popular Continental Bakery and Chez Lulu restaurant in English Village that has always been one of my faves. They started by serving weekday lunch, which is very similar to Chez Lulu’s lunch – outstanding – I’ve visited several times in the past few months and always forgot to take pictures for the blog. Last week, I heard through the grapevine (aka a very helpful fan-thank you!) that they are now open for weekend brunch on Sundays only. So, Mr Foodie and I did what all reasonable and responsible foodie bloggers would do – we cleared our Sunday morning schedule.

The space is so adorable. Sorry for not taking any interior shots, but just trust me. It has the feeling of a French bistro. I’ve never been to an actual French bistro, but I can Google image search just like you can.

We were there on the second weekend they were open-something we usually try to avoid since places are typically still working out the kinks.
But that didn’t seem to be the case here. We were cheerfully greeted by the hostess, then the chef who poked his head out of the kitchen, and the owner. Everyone told us how excited they were about their menu, and made some suggestions for us.

First, the tagine. This is a dish I’ve only ever seen on the menu at middle eastern restaurants but is turns out to actually be a Moroccan dish- a stew cooked and served in a traditional earthenware dish that has many variations – can be meat-based or vegetarian.

The tagine presentation was gorgeous. Look at this. This is what gets delivered to your table:

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Then the server dramatically removes the super-hot lid to reveal:

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I’m sorry, but tell me that isn’t gorgeous. A rich tomato sauce with large cherry tomatoes, other vegetables and a soft boiled egg over top. Served with slightly crispy homemade naan and spicy olive tapenade.

We ate the entire dish by putting the delicious tagine on the naan and at times adding the tapenade. Absolutely fantastic-light and healthy, and also very filling. I’ve never seen this on a menu in Birmingham before-and it is the best tagine I’ve had anywhere.

Ok, I know I’m being gratuitous but here’s one more close up. Ahhhh.

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Next, crepes. The tagine is meant for two and was more than enough. But, I mean, this is a Chez Lulu offshoot, and there are so few places to get good crepes in the Ham. So we got the pear crepes with whipped cream. They were served with a delicious berry salad.

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Now, in cross section:

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The pears were just a little crunchy and a little sweet. With the pillowy whipped cream, it couldn’t have been a better midday dessert to cap off the tagine. Wow.

At this point, I have to assume that the waitstaff and kitchen staff had observed our glee. We try to be discreet but sometimes we have trouble containing ourselves. The over the top number of pictures we were taking didn’t help things. The chef (or one of the chefs?), Joshua, came out with a smile to greet us and ask how we were enjoying our food. As we like to do, we asked him a little more about his vision for the restaurant. His excitement about the food he serves was infectious-if we weren’t already fully infected by the meal. He explained that he wants to create a French/Moroccan soul food experience. Not fusion, but rather, authentic dishes from former French colonial areas. Ultimately, he plans to be open for dinner as well (more blog posts, hooray!). This place is certainly unique in the Bham food scene in terms of the type food it serves, and having a passionate chef like Joshua makes the experience an all around win.

Brunch was ending and he sent us on our way with some kitchen leftovers-an extra “birds nest”-a pastry with sprouts and an egg. I’ve never seen anything like it. Mr Foodie ate it for lunch the next day and loved it. Ordinarily I wouldn’t write about something I haven’t personally tried but 1. Mr Foodie is pretty reliable and 2. I mean, I had to show this spectacular picture:

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I’m going to go out on a limb and say something controversial. Yes, I know there are a small handful of good places to grab brunch downtown. And everyone has their favorite. This one is my favorite. So next time you’re in the mood for a hearty, heartfelt urban brunch-this is the place.

Continental Bakery Downtown on Urbanspoon

El Girasol

Date night, foodie style.

Around 5pm one day last week, I checked my email and noticed that one of my readers had sent me a list of “hidden gems” to try. One of them was El Girasol, described as a fantastic Mexican place where they grill chickens in their parking lot on the weekends. Although it was a Wednesday, something about this made my stomach start to grumble for tacos and guacamole. I called Mr Foodie, and within 15 minutes we were on our way to the Huffman/East Lake neighborhood for an impromptu date night/urban food exploration adventure.

El Girasol isn’t much to look at from the outside – a large-ish building that houses the restaurant and a Mexican grocery store:

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When we walked in, we were greeted by a very nice young woman behind the supermarket counter who invited us to take a seat. We grabbed some menus. Sorry they’re a little blurry, I was trying not to be too obvious….

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Immediately I realized that while I could have some tacos and guacamole …… There were a few other menu items beckoning my attention.

I struck up a conversation with the young woman behind the grocery counter. I asked her if she could help guide our culinary decisions. Together, we opened the menu and began to make some decisions.

Let me cut right to the chase folks. Ceviche. As soon as
I saw it I asked her if it was good and she told is it was great-especially the mixed shrimp and octopus ceviche. Octopus ceviche? That seemed like a must eat.

There are only a handful of places in the Ham where I’ve had great ceviche. I’m sure I’ll get a chance to blog some day about the ceviche at Sabor Latino (Peruvian ceviche) or El Barrio (fancy Mexican ceviche). Both are excellent. But when it comes to authentic Mexican ceviche, if you know of a place better than El Girasol, let me know and I’ll meet you there.

Seriously, this ceviche was off the charts. Shrimp and octopus, marinated in citrus with tomatoes, hot and mild peppers, and tons of cilantro. The shrimp and octopus were both prepared perfectly-neither slimy at all (as they can be, especially in ceviche). Just perfect. We both loved it.

Mr Foodie was silent as he bent over the bowl, eating it slowly and methodically until it was gone. I’m sorry, did I forget to mention that you get an entire BOWL of ceviche, served with chips? Ok, I’ll stop talking and just show you the food porn:

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How about a close up. Isn’t that beautiful?

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Our friend told us that her favorite dish was a weekly special that actually wasn’t anywhere on the menu. A secret menu at a Mexican restaurant?? We had to try it. She told us it was “pollo en crema”, which pretty much says it all. She let us try a little and we literally licked the little tasting cup. Creamy and bright with a little kick, this was spectacular. The best was pulling the dark meat chicken off the bone and eating it together with the rice and beans in the tortilla. The beans were smoky, and the rice was buttery and delicious-perfect complements to the chicken:

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Next, the mole chicken. I have never had mole like this before. Deep, dark chocolate mole flavor. Spicy. Again, the rice and beans were a perfect complement. Amazing without the tortillas but even better in the tortillas.

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At this point, of course, we were beyond stuffed. We waived goodbye to our friend as we stumbled out. I was just thinking how nice it would be to take an after dinner walk when…. We passed a beautiful park! Unfortunately we didn’t slow down fast enough, so onto the highway we went. We actually turned around and headed back to find that what we had passed was no ordinary park. This was the beautiful East Lake park, which is just stunning at sunset. Here are a few pics from our walk. Next time-an El Girasol picnic in the park!

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El Girasol on Urbanspoon

No Secret Menu – the story of Great Wall

This is the story of Great Wall, and also the story of Sunny. Sunny is Great Wall’s owner, and she has been the face of the restaurant for decades. If you have ever been to Great Wall, you have probably been greeted by her always-cheerful personality and warm smile as she takes you to your table. Last week, in between calls for take-out orders and teaching her American customers Chinese one word at a time, Mr Foodie and I had the opportunity to talk to Sunny about her passion for bringing “high-class,” “authentic” Chinese food to Birmingham.

History of Great Wall

Great Wall is a Birmingham institution. One of my neighbors tells me he ate there with his girlfriend in high school, which I’m guessing was 30 years ago (hope I’m right!). In 1994, Sunny entered the story. She moved from China to Tuscaloosa, and shortly thereafter Birmingham, with her then-husband. At the time, the restaurant was owned by a Chinese gentleman named Jimmy, who hired Sunny to be his cashier. Great Wall was one of a handful of “old-style” Chinese restaurants in town, including Golden City, Mandarin House, and Formosa. All of these restaurants served typical Chinese-American fare like Mongolian Beef, Egg Foo Young, and Sesame Chicken, and emphasized a sit-down, fine dining experience. However, from the beginning, Great Wall separated itself from the others based on its quality. Great Wall always ordered the very best ingredients, like all white meat chicken and the best cuts of beef, and had large portions. To this day, many of Great Wall’s customers from this period are still regulars.

When Jimmy passed away, Tom Henson, his accountant and also the husband of Ms. Alabama 1972, took over the business. Sunny describes Tom as an excellent businessman. Although business had always been good, Tom began to market the restaurant in print and on television. Business boomed for many years, and the restaurant moved from its original location in what is now Starz Karaoke Lounge, to a larger space just next door.
During that time, Tom trusted Sunny to run the day to day operations of Great Wall. Officially, she was still the cashier, but in reality, she had become the face of the restaurant. During that time, Sunny learned more and more about cooking. She would taste the food and give the chefs feedback on whether to add more spices, or to cook it for longer.

As we spoke to Sunny, it became obvious to us that her interest in food is more than just a necessity of her job; it is her passion. To really understand Sunny’s passion for food, one has to go back to her childhood in Shangai.

From Shanghai to Birmingham

Sunny grew up during the Cultural Revolution, a period of great upheaval and food insecurity. Despite being from a well-off family –her mother was a doctor and her father was a policeman – they were not allowed to have any help in the home. Sunny’s mother and grandmother did all of the cooking. Her grandmother was a particularly outstanding cook who could even roll dumplings with both hands at the same time.
Although she never learned how to cook, Sunny emphatically states that “I know how to eat!” Growing up, food was an extremely important part of her family’s life. Even with the restrictions imposed by the Chinese government and the lean times, every Saturday night, Sunny’s family would gather for a big meal. This was her father’s way to “keep the family together.” These meals became Sunny’s reference point for what a good Chinese meal should be.

In Shanghai, Sunny worked in sales for an office supply company. When she moved to the US with her then-husband, she barely spoke English. Without internet, she couldn’t watch Chinese TV or movies. So she learned English by watching American TV. She describes initially living in Tuscaloosa, which at the time had no Chinese grocery store and no authentic Chinese restaurants. When she moved to Birmingham, she took the job as cashier at Great Wall.

Cashier becomes Owner

Fast forward to 2010, when Tom Henson decided to retire. After being the face of Great Wall for so many years, Tom asked Sunny if she wanted to buy the restaurant. Although she had reservations at first, Tom assured her that he would stay involved. With Sunny as the owner, things stayed the same – she continued to work the front of the restaurant and kept the menu as it was.

The Fire

December 15, 2012. After a long day at work, Sunny returned home just after midnight. She started receiving calls from friends that Great Wall was on fire. At first, she didn’t believe it. She drove back to the restaurant and found the front door had been kicked down by the fire department. Things seemed fine, and she wondered what all the fuss was about, until she entered the kitchen. What had started as a small refrigerator fire had caused substantial smoke damage in the kitchen, and she realized, the rest of the restaurant.

Shaking, Sunny went home. Soon, she realized she had a choice to make. She could take the insurance money and leave the restaurant business, or she could rebuild. She thought about her business, and what made great wall unique from other Chinese restaurants in town. Great Wall was the only remaining “old-style” restaurant. All of the other Chinese restaurants were buffets, or smaller, quick in quick out restaurants without a focus on fine dining. She went home to Shanghai, and sought advice from her family and inspiration from the city where her passion for food originated. Her brother and sister introduced her to a chef from Shanghai living in Atlanta, Mr. Kong. She invited him and his wife to her house, and they spent a weekend eating at all the Chinese restaurants in town. Together, they realized that they had a tremendous opportunity to fill an important niche in the Birmingham food scene.

Re-opening

Great Wall re-opened in December, 2013. Physically, Sunny rebuilt it to look as it had before – decorated in red with traditional accents. Thankfully, the antiques, including antique carvings on the walls, survived the fire. They added new improvements, such as newer, more elegant tables for large parties and two televisions. The large, upscale restaurant space means she can host weddings (she has one Chinese wedding coming up, she told us) and other large parties.

The menu, however, was dramatically different. She laughs as she recalls what happened when they printed it. Also a Shanghai native, the printer asked her, “sister, are you from Shanghai?” Sunny and Mr. Kong had removed all of the American dishes and instead focused on traditional, authentic Shanghai cuisine. The menu was the food Sunny (and apparently the printer) ate as a child, using Mr. Kong’s recipes.

Great Wall’s regulars came back in droves, looking for their old favorites. Sunny recalls, “A lot of people said, ‘you don’t have Schezuan chicken?’” Other Chinese-American favorites from Great Wall included Mongolian beef, egg foo young, and sesame chicken. She would always cook these on request.

After two months of doing this, she made a decision. She put all of the old Chinese-American favorites back on the menu. Her Chinese customers told her not to bother keeping the authentic dishes on the general menu, but rather, to have the much discussed but rarely seen “secret menu” for her Chinese customers. Sunny emphatically told us, “This is not fair! American people, they like Chinese [food] too! They pay the money, they come here, they walk in this door, they need to enjoy good food too. Why would you give them a different [menu]?” And so she created the current menu, which is a hybrid of Chinese-American and authentic Shanghai dishes.

Sunny recognized that some of her American clientele might still be reluctant to try the more authentic dishes without some help. “They don’t know what is what. Like black pepper beef,” which is now one of her most popular dishes. To address this issue, she has added photographs of the authentic dishes throughout the menu to allow her customers to “get ideas” about new things to try

Over these last 8 months since the re-opening, she has grown her American, Chinese-American, and Chinese customer base. She has also seen her American customers gravitating towards some of her favorite authentic childhood dishes – black pepper beef, chicken and eggplant in hot pot, pork meatballs, and steamed buns. Sometimes, it’s the even more exotic dishes – “American people ordering beef tendon and tripe!” she exclaims with a huge smile. For Sunny, introducing Birminghamsters to her food is a huge source of pride.

Next Steps

Sunny’s goal is to build her business providing “high class,” “authentic” Chinese food to American, Chinese-American, and Chinese customers alike. Any day of the week, you can have lunch or dinner at Great Wall and watch her in action. She is there from morning till night, tasting the food that comes out of the kitchen, comparing it to her grandmother’s gold standard.

At our last visit, we watched Sunny go from table to table checking on peoples’ meals. When people order mostly Chinese-American food, her background as a saleswoman and her know-how as a businesswoman kicks in as she gently points to the delicious-looking pictures on the menu. She does it all with her trademark cheerful smile. Like her food, Sunny is about as authentic as they come.

 
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Great Wall (alert-includes homemade Dim Sum!)

I have a theory that Birmingham is full of amazing, authentic ethnic restaurants flying under the radar. For authentic Chinese food, most people know about Red Pearl and Mr Chen’s (I think). Earlier this week we blogged about Black Pearl, a Chinese place that’s been around for awhile, but now has a new chef who has introduced more authentic Cantonese dishes. This got me to thinking… Maybe there are other places around with similar stories. All it takes is one chef… And so I started poking around Yelp and Urbanspoon. Great Wall, a Chinese restaurant in Homewood, seemed like exactly this kind of place.

Having just barely finished the leftovers from Black Pearl, we headed over to Great Wall for dinner. The outside looks like the typical Chinese restaurant of my childhood:

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We were greeted warmly and taken to our booth. On the inside, the place really, really reminded me of the places I had eaten as a kid-lots of red 1980s decor (in a good way), very casual and inviting, and fairly busy. We anxiously opened the menu to find an enormous selection of food. We immediately explained to our waiter what we were looking for: authentic Chinese food. Based on the Yelp reviews, I knew the steam buns were actually the elusive soup dumpling, which I have eaten and blogged about at Mr Chen’s. These are a favorite Dim Sum, or bite size small plate, item. So we automatically ordered those. The waiter recommended the chicken and eggplant hot pot and the pork meatballs. He assured us both were non-Americanized. We were sold.

We were forewarned that the soup dumplings take 20 minutes because they are homemade. They were completely worth the wait. Doughy exterior with a nickel size piece of minced pork and vegetables bursting with flavor on the inside, filled with hot broth. If you don’t know about the broth you’ll burn your face off.

So, let’s review. Steamed buns aka soup dumplings, which arrive to your table like so in a double decker container:

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Each level contains three amazing buns:

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Which then you are best off eating by dunking into the dumpling sauce, placing into a giant spoon, biting a tiny hole out of the side, slurping the liquid from the spoon, then eating the dumpling. I was missing the spoon and was in too much of a hurry to ask for one, so I took a bite out and slurped off the plate. It was just me and my dumpling. No one judged. Here’s a photo of the deflated little dumpling after the soup was slurped just before it was eaten:

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Next came the entrees. Chicken with eggplant in hot pot. Came to the table in the clay pot with the lid on and the server opened it to reveal a bubbling dish. We could NOT get enough of this. A slightly sweet dish with eggplant, garlic, and and juicy chicken. The eggplant was soft and full of flavor. Very light and healthy, not oily or greasy at all.

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Next up was the pork meatball. That description did not sell me whatsoever, and by this point I was pretty full. Again, clay pot and voila, what’s inside?

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I wish we had smell-a-vision or whatever because this smelled absolutely fantastic-rich and meaty. I grabbed a meatball-look at the size, like a baseball for goodness sakes:

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This was the perfect complement to the chicken. Savory and rich coating on the exterior, soft and a little crunchy from onions inside. I’ve never had anything quite like this.

In our food afterglow, we noticed a very nice woman introducing herself to diners. When she came over to us, she said, wow, you ordered all authentic Chinese dishes! How do you like them? This was the perfect opportunity for me to ask a few questions….of course, we told her how much we loved everything. And then we asked for a little bit of the backstory. I’m saving some of this for another post (I really want to interview her properly and I hope she will let me!). But suffice it to say, her name is Sunny, she is the owner, and there is a new chef in the back from Shanghai, which is also where she is from. She says that a few months ago they decided that Birmingham needed more authentic Chinese food, and so they decided to expand their authentic menu. The bottom half of the chicken and beef menus, and all the seafood and lamb menus, are authentic. Of course they still have the American favorites like sesame chicken, which she said is one of their most popular dishes, as well. Although she doesn’t cook, she tastes everything to be sure it is up to her high standards before she serves it to customers. And it shows.

I asked her if she had ever considered a dim sum menu. She explained that while there are a few dim sum items on the menu, having a full dim sum experience complete with carts etc would require a bigger place. But this conversation made me realize that their menu probably has the most authentic (if limited) dim sum offerings in town. And all are homemade. So if you want dim sum and you are in Bham-this is the place. End of story.

Our waiter came back and boxed up our food for us (I love it when places do that-much classier than doing it myself, and I always end up dripping or dropping something). We chatted for a long while with another foodie couple about how excited we all are about Great Wall and other ethnic restaurants in the ‘Ham that fly under the radar. To me, that’s the best indication of a restaurant – when the food inspires great conversation.

Mr Foodie reported that the leftovers were just as good for lunch today. And by 8pm tonite, amazingly, we were both in the mood for more.

Sunny greeted us at the door tonight when we returned for round two. Today, my allergies have really been bugging me, and I was in the mood for wonton soup. Wow was I in luck. I didn’t get a chance to ask but these really tasted homemade. Shrimp and pork on the inside, perfect dough consistency on the outside, and a flavorful broth with a little kick. The stock included carrots and snap peas. Incredible:

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Next up, totally homemade pan fried pork dumplings. Sunny told us they had sold out the night before so we knew we were in for a treat. These guys are enormous and have a perfect little bit of char on the bottom. Served with black “Shanghai vinegar” and “garlic sauce.” When you bite in, especially after dunking in a sauce, you get the pork mixed with the sauce with chewy and crunchy…. Just spectacular. Check them out, aren’t they beautiful:

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And then, Mr Foodie’s entree. Pepper beef tenderloin. Slightly fatty and very succulent meat, a little bit sweet and a little bit savory. Served on a bed of crunchy fresh onions, meant to be eaten together. I’m not a big beef eater but I have to admit that this was great. Mr Foodie ate it up:

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Sunny waived us goodbye as we left, saying we would see her soon-which I know we will. I opened up my fortune cookie as I got in the car-I’m not much into fortunes, but I did a double take at this one. I’m substituting the word “blog” for “book” and took it as a sign that I should go home and write this post.

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