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.

 
Great Wall Chinese on Urbanspoon

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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Great Wall Chinese on Urbanspoon

Black Pearl

Wait wait wait. I know you are about to correct me here. Yes, I know there is a much loved authentic Chinese restaurant and supermarket on Valley Avenue called Red Pearl. This is not that. Read on.

Authentic Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese food are my absolute favorite types of food. I think this comes from living in the Vietnamese neighborhood in Philly, which was only a mile from Philly’s Chinatown. (If you are ever going to Philly, let me know and I can make some recommendations.) Then, a few years ago, right before moving here, Mr Foodie and I went to Vietnam. We vacationed together for a week which included a brief trip to Seoul South Korea, and I stayed on in Vietnam for 5 more weeks for work. Business people from Thailand and China created a fairly diverse pan-Asian food scene in Hanoi, and in Haiphong where I spent most of my time.  This solidified my interest in Asian food.

And then we moved to Birmingham. You know how much I love this town. You also know as well as I do that the choices for authentic, really good Asian food are limited. (Yes, I know about Mr Chen’s, which I have blogged about here.) So when a friend at work told me about ANOTHER authentic Chinese place that I had never heard of, I couldn’t believe it. I had to see for myself.  From doing some research on Urbanspoon, it looks like Black Pearl changed hands but not names relatively recently, which may account for it flying under the radar.

So this week, we drove out to the Colonnade, a shopping center in an area that is sort of between Mountainbrook and Vestavia. Basically, it’s a huge strip mall. But if I apply my first principles of eating in Birmingham, some of the best food in this town is in strip malls. So we proceeded. Here’s the outside; fairly nondescript:

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We were greeted immediately and ushered to a table.  There were a few people in the restaurant, and English and ?Mandarin were both being spoken.  A good sign.  The menu looked like any other Chinese restaurant menu except for this first page:

Black Pearl menu

The excitement was building.  This looked pretty legit.  A nice woman took our beverage order.  The sign said they have bubble tea but she explained that right now, they only have “coconut jelly.”  I’m not sure we ever figured out what was in the beverage itself – was a mild, sweet ?coconut milk drink, and was soothing and delicious.  The coconut jellies at the bottom tasted a little like tamarind, and for those of you who are wary of typical tapioca bubbles, these had a much crunchier texture (not slimy at all).  A really nice complement to the drink itself:

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Here’s a close-up of the coconut jellies:

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OK, on to the menu.  A very nice young waiter asked if he could help us with the menu, noticing that we were looking intently at the traditional menu.  He explained that the chef is trying some new dishes and that his favorite things aren’t even on the menu at all.  Our hearts skipped a beat – this is the often discussed but rarely attained holy grail of Chinese restaurants:  the secret menu.  Somehow, without speaking the language, we had cracked the code.

We let him order for us.  We chose two things from the secret menu and one thing from the traditional actual menu.  He brought us each our own little rice bowl to eat with our meals.  He explained that they use sushi rice which gives it a bit of a firmer, stickier texture.  It really absorbed the sauces better than the usual white rice:

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The first dish to arrive was secret menu item #1, tofu with chicken and vegetables.  The tofu was very soft, stir fried lightly, and served with the vegetables in a light white sauce.  A little bit of ginger gave the sauce a great kick.  The whole dish had a very light, fresh taste to it.  Including both tofu and small amounts of juicy, dark meat chicken gave the dish more flavor and a more complex texture.  This goes down as the best tofu dish I’ve had in Birmingham:

tofu with chicken

We were giddy as we anticipated what came next  The waiter was excited that his first recommendation was such a success that he waited expectantly as we tried secret menu item #2, the “Indian lettuce.”  I have been trying to determine exactly what vegetable this was – my typical online source (Wikipedia) doesn’t have much to say.  It was stir fried with garlic in a mild but flavorful light brown sauce.  The greens were very slightly bitter but had a lot of flavor besides that – really hard to explain.  Just trust me – try it.  The portion is huge and could be split as a side dish for a table of 4-6 people:indian lettuce

Then, the only dish from the traditional menu, the fish in hot oil.  This came out in a covered clay pot.  Our waiter removed the top and voila, this was on the inside, all bubbly and wonderful:fish in hot oil

This was a mixture of soft fish, chilies, bell peppers, and oil sauce.  I like but generally don’t love fish, and had just had fish for lunch the day before so really wasn’t in the mood.  That said, this was incredible.  The fish was really, really moist and literally melted in my mouth.  The spicy sauce drenched the rice and along with the peppers and the fish, was an incredible combination.  I couldn’t stop eating it.

By this point it was apparent that we were beside ourselves with how good this was.  The best part was how happy our excitement made our waiter.  He stopped to talk to us about the restaurant, which he said includes both traditional Chinese and Cantonese influences (he himself is Taiwanese).  Without us asking, he offered to write down what we ordered.  Here it is:

Black Pearl

He explained that while he isn’t always there to help with ordering (he has to take a day off once in awhile), any of the waitstaff should be able to guide us.

He asked how we heard about the place, and I told him about my friend from work who tipped us off.  He asked us to thank him, which I already have.  Mr Foodie and I told him we would also spread the word about Black Pearl, but didn’t explain exactly how we were going to do that…. surprise!

 
Black Pearl on Urbanspoon

John’s City Diner

A few weeks ago, close friends of ours from Philly visited us for the first time. When you have a food blog, you sorta feel like you should know the perfect restaurant for every occasion. Especially when there are visitors in town. Trust me, I’m not complaining. This means we more often than not get to choose where we eat (poor us!). But back to the story-we had a decision to make.

Our friends are very easygoing, but we still agonized over where to take them for dinner. Someplace casual as they had just driven 14 hours to get to us (that’s friendship!), and also someplace that serves high quality, traditional southern fare that they probably wouldn’t have occasion to eat at home. And wanting to show them how cool our city is, downtown was a strong preference.

John’s City Diner seemed like a clear choice. Driving there from Southside, we got to show them some of the cool ghost signs around our city, and the pretty skyline.

When we entered John’s, we were informed that happy hour was in full force. Apparently, they have half price appetizers from 5-7 on weeknights if you sit in the bar area. Wow. How had we missed this in the three years we’ve been living here? We had already been scoping out the appetizers before we arrived not knowing about this great deal-happy hour seemed like a no-brainer.

The four of us had the bar to ourselves. Our server/bartender was excited to learn about our mission to show our northern friends the best of Birmingham. As she walked us through the appetizer menu it became apparent that ordering one of every appetizer on the menu, plus the fried oyster appetizer special, would be the perfect amount of food for all of us. She reassured us that we wouldn’t be the first to take this type of approach at happy hour time. Not that I’m shy about stuffing my face with food.

Before I begin the food montage, I want to just have a moment of silence to appreciate how fantastically unique and truly southern this meal was (in my Yankee opinion). Four friends, guided by a really fantastic server/bartender, sharing a good time and food that really, really hit the spot. I don’t know how else to explain the experience.

Ok, here we go.

Pimento cheese . First, I have to explain that I typically intensely dislike pimento cheese. This is one of those foods that doesn’t really exist above the Mason-Dixon Line, and so it isn’t something I grew up eating. I think my aversion to it has something to do with the consistency, which typically seems mushy to me. I discouraged my friend from getting it but she said she really likes Tilkamook cheddar cheese, which is apparently one of the best cheddars out there. This pimento is made of white and yellow cheddar with delicious peppers made creamy by just enough ?mayonnaise. The consistency was fantastic-you could really taste all of the short shreds of cheddar, which gave the cheese an intense sharp flavor. Absolutely addictive. And I love the presentation-the Ball jar makes me nostalgic for all the pimento cheese I could have eaten as a child. Served with crispy pita wedges.

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Next, the roasted garlic hummus. This was basically ordered just to make us feel better about all the other much less healthy items we ordered. But it was actually really stellar, I have to admit. The pita wedges were addictive-soft and chewy, and the hummus was garlicky and creamy.

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Next, the maple brazed pork belly atop creamy grits. I’ve had pork belly before, but never quite like this. Served in an adorable tiny skillet, this was basically like eating bacon at 100X magnification. Crispy and fatty. Good thing this was small because I think a larger portion would have to come with a mandatory ER visit, just to be on the safe side. But it was worth all of the calories and fat… Just melts in the mouth. We split it four ways. Perfect.

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Then the crab cakes-lump crab meat over top of skillet corn. The crab cakes were slightly crispy and perfectly seasoned. If you haven’t had John’s skillet corn, you need to stop what you are doing and go get some RIGHT NOW. Basically buttered fried corn. I’m so glad they included it in an appetizer, and the pairing with the crab cakes just worked.

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Then the homemade potato chips with blue cheese alfredo sauce. These had to be forcibly removed from my end of the bar. I don’t think they require much additional explanation:

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Fish and chips. Perfectly battered and fried, served in a bag (adorable). The fries had that perfect coating of crusty seasoning-you know what I’m talking about. Dunked liberally in homemade tartar. They were all gone instantly.

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Fried oysters. Soft, thickly battered little nuggets over top of spinach drizzled in balsamic. One of our friends swore he hated oysters; he ate the most out of any of us! This dish made him a believer.

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After all that, we were uncomfortably stuffed but…. After a few minutes of chatting with our server/bartender about the history of the restaurant, we had worked up an appetite. And besides, there were four of us… So we ordered two desserts to share: the white chocolate bread pudding and peanut butter pie. Given the number of dishes I’ve had to describe in this post, I’m out of adjectives to use for these desserts. All I can tell you is they tasted as good as they look, probably better:

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After that light meal, we needed to walk. We went by Railroad Park and it was buzzing with activity-people walking, running, biking, sitting and people-watching. We took a long, sloooow evening stroll. The perfect ending to our urban southern culinary adventure.

John's City Diner on Urbanspoon

Big Bad Breakfast

Brunch. That elusive meal. Ever since moving to Bham Mr Foodie and I have been in search of that perfect brunch place. Ok, I know what you are going to say. We do love Over Easy because it’s possible to have a healthy meal there, and we’ve blogged about it here. Other blogworthy brunches that fill important niches are the Pancake House in 5 points (admittedly, it’s a chain, but woah, sourdough pancakes with chocolate chips….), and for lighter fare including TO DIE FOR crepes, Chez Lulu. We will write about those soon, I hope.

But, what if, let’s say, you are looking for a place to blow your caloric budget for the next week that serves more than just pancakes. And in order for you to do that, obviously, it has to be so food-gasmically good that you won’t feel (that) bad about it.

A few weekends ago, we were looking to do just that. Because this type of mission is much more fun with company, we enlisted a foodie friend who knows her major brunch food groups: eggs, meat, and things that pass as entrees but are essentially dessert.

I had heard about Big Bad Breakfast from a friend who told me that they make all their own preserves and cure their own meats in house, which sounded very legit. Also, we had heard that their first restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi was a huge success. As we pulled off of 280 and into the strip mall parking lot, we saw the packed parking lot and line out the door. A hopeful sign. Speaking of signs, we just thought this looked cool with the pretty summer sky so we took this shot:

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After a pleasant 45 minute wait (Mr Foodie ran a few errands-one benefit of eating in a strip mall-and I sat outside on a bench writing the Jasmine’s post), we entered. Wow, this place is beautiful.

As y’all prolly know I don’t take a lot of interior restaurant shots because I tend to get distracted by the food, but Mr Foodie insisted so here it is for your viewing pleasure:

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You can see right back into the kitchen too; I love how open the space is:

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And they sell a few goodies as well:

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We were seated by our extremely friendly server who helped us with the menu. She confirmed the rumor I had heard about the preserves and the meat, and walked us through why she loves virtually everything on the menu in a way that made me believe it. She even told us that she came back to eat at BBB on her day off – now that’s saying something.

So, we decided to go with one item from each food group. An omelette called the Cahaba Lilly (all I read was “fresh herbs” and I was in), pain perdu AKA French toast, and a plate of each of their delicious homemade meats. We made sure to order essentially one of each side dish: biscuits, potatoes, grits, etc.

Ok, let’s begin. First, they serve Octane coffee, which is smooth and delicious. Really good coffee is best served unadulterated, IMO. This was great.

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Then, the omelette. You can really tell how pretty this dish is from this view-served with an adorable flaky biscuit and crisp, light potatoes.

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Look at all the herbs:

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Now in glorious cross section. You can see the fresh dill, tomatoes, and Swiss cheese. I typically hate tomatoes in omelettes and had forgotten to ask for them to be left out but these were amazing-they made the omelette a little moister but not soggy, and the flavors blended perfectly with the rest of the ingredients. Aaaaah.

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Oh, this biscuit. Flaky, soft, buttery.

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Here she is all dressed up. Raspberry and peach preserves. Look at that color, and thickness-you can almost taste how bright and fruity and hearty they are.

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Here are the grits. Buttery and delicious, my friend, who is from the south so she has authority, proclaimed them to be excellent:

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Now the house cured meat. From upper left going clockwise: andouille sausage (spicy, smoky); pork sausage patties (mild and a little smoky); and chicken sausage (sweet). All absolutely outstanding.

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Because our arteries weren’t clogged enough, we also ordered bacon to go with our pain perdu. This bacon deserves it’s own blog post. They soak it in hot sauce at some point in the process so it’s spicy; it is also candied (?) and has a crispy, salty, and slightly sugary consistency. Our eyes rolled back in our heads as we ate it alongside the sweet, crispy, decadent pain perdu. I mean, there are no words.

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I have to say, we were quite a sight to see. First of all, we ordered a large portion of the breakfast menu offerings. Additionally, we were taking photo after photo and were so delighted that we lost all ability to be discreet. It was a bit of a spectacle. A very nice gentleman (manager? owner?) smiled at us and asked us if we were going to be putting them online somewhere to which I replied “maybe….” And here we are.

So sir, if you are reading this, I have only one complaint. You need a second location, downtown, so that I can visit you more often. And because downtown Bham is mad cool, people really appreciate quality ingredients (look at the success of El Barrio, John’s City Diner, Carrigans… the list goes on), and we don’t have anything quite like what you are doing. If you are wondering how busy you will be, check out the Pancake House line on a Sunday morning. Downtown Birmingham will literally eat you up.

Big Bad Breakfast on Urbanspoon

Kati Thai

Ok, I know, I tricked you. There are so few (if any?) truly authentic Thai options in Bham that when you saw a place you didn’t recognize, your heart skipped a beat. You felt butterflies in your stomach. Well – made you look. This place is actually in Gadsden. So sue me. I would drive an hour for amazing authentic Thai food any day.

A few weeks ago, Mr Foodie and I took a road trip north of the Mason-Dixon Line to attend a family reunion in Pennsylvania. We left Birmingham just before 5pm, so predictably, we began to feel hunger pangs while approaching Gadsden. Knowing that Gadsden has an NPR station, I went out on a limb and made an assumption that we could find some good food in town. And sure nuff, their #1 rated restaurant on TripAdvisor was Kati Thai. Since Thai food is Mr Foodie’s number one favorite kind of food, hands down, and we always love trying places that seem unexpected (read: Thai food in small town Alabama), we pointed the GPS to Kati.

We almost didn’t find the place-Mr Foodie was convinced that it must have closed after we passed it twice. But luckily, nestled in the back of a tiny strip mall, we spotted this sign:

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This place is adorable on the outside, and just as welcoming and homey on the inside. The menu is fairly focused, which I like-to me that’s a signal that they like to focus on doing a limited number of things well. And they have all the classics you’d expect.

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When we were there, the dinner rush was in full force. A very friendly server greeted and sat us, while simultaneously answering the phones and then seating and serving us and others. She never missed a beat and took the time to make a few menu recommendations.

If you’ve been keeping up with our blog you know that although we aren’t from ’round here we have adopted the eating habits of a native Alabamian (at least for the purposes of this blog… and not that there’s anything wrong with that). So, we wanted to eat at least a little lighter. Our waitress suggested the larb, a mince meat salad that is one of my favorite Thai/Laotian dishes. And Mr Foodie always needs to have chicken curry, so he ordered the Penang curry, which is healthy if you compare it to turkey necks or rib tips….

First, the larb. Tell me this isn’t gorgeous. The presentation was amazing with the little fan of crisp cabbage in the back. This is the best larb I’ve ever tasted-bright, citrus-y flavors (lime?) mingle with basil, red onion, and perfectly cooked chicken. Foodie heaven.

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Now let’s take a close-up-you can almost see the flavors mingling:

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We always order basil rolls – a pretty good indication of a place. These were just right-perfectly cooked chicken, fresh veggies and basil:

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Then the Penang curry. Mild and very flavorful with lots of bell peppers – fresh, light, and absolutely delicious. We ordered it with delicious multigrain brown rice to feel a little healthier, and because we love brown rice and so rarely see it on menus in Birmingham:

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We’ve eaten at some great Thai restaurants in Philadelphia and Manhattan while living up there, and always eat Thai when we travel. This place really holds up against those standards. What’s an authentic Thai place doing in Gadsden? I’m really not sure. We started telling the waitress how excited we were to have found the place and telling her how much we wished they were in Birmingham, and ask about the restaurant’s history, but the place was too busy for us to keep her away from other customers for long. We’ll just have to go back to try more food and learn more…

Kati Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Jasmine’s

A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a great neighborhood meat and three in Ensley. I know this may be controversial but-meat and threes have never been my favorite. They seem like they all serve the same greasy flavorless food in too-large quantities. But when I heard about this hole-in-the-wall that gets rave reviews, I had to try it.

The other factor drawing me to this particular meat and three was its location in Ensley. At one time, Ensley was a booming steel town outcropping of Birmingham’s city center. It inspired native Erskine Hawkins to compose the famous song Tuxedo Junction. Also, we recently went on a civil rights tour of Birmingham and learned that Ensley was the center of a great deal of very selfless, heroic civil rights organizing. Despite all of these things that put Ensley on Birmingham’s map in a big way, I realized we had never eaten there.

So one Sunday morning, off we went. For this culinary adventure, Mr. Foodie and I brought one of our favorite foodie couples-one half of which grew up in Birmingham eating at meat and threes, and the other, like me, is not from ’round here but knows a good meal when she eats one.

Jasmine’s is in a residential neighborhood, nestled on a small side street. Here’s the outside, so you know what you are looking for:

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I love the vintage signs-gives the place a real neighborhoody feel, exactly what I had imagined it would be.

When we walked in, there were a few people in line ahead of us. We must have had that “no idea what to order” look on our faces as we scanned the extensive list of meat and veggies on the wall. The gentleman in front of us gave us a big smile. I asked whether he had ever eaten here before, to which he replied “this is my brother’s place, and EVERYTHING” is good. He told us they’re particularly known for their oxtail, but that their beef tips, chicken, and turkey necks are also fantastic.

I should probably stop here and tell you that surprisingly, despite the fact that I have a very broad food palate and write a very diverse food blog, I have a thing about meat. I am fine with the usual stuff – garden variety chicken, beef, fish – but I have a rule that I don’t eat meat that I don’t understand. Oxtail and turkey neck fall squarely in that category.

So, I asked for his thoughts on getting roast chicken and dressing – he approved – so we proceeded. Between the four of us, we practically ordered the whole menu – which would mean that if I could muster the nerve to do it, I could try some of those more mysterious meats.

I looked behind us as we paid for our meal and saw that the place was suddenly completely packed – standing room only – with people dressed for church, with a line out the door. Looks like we got there just in time!

The place has a few tables inside but given the crowd, not really enough space for us to eat our meal. So, we took our food to go and adjourned to our back porch for a meat and three picnic.

First, what I ordered. Delicious, juicy dark meat roast chicken with dressing, yams, and cornbread. The dressing was made up of chunky pieces of bread, which is exactly how I like it. The yams were sweet but not too sweet-just perfect. The cornbread was savory, but not greasy-delicious.
The perfect meal.

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And of course, we shared. Mr Foodie ordered the beef tips over rice. They were hearty and delicious. The mac and cheese was made with real cheese, and was creamy and savory. Great compliment to the beef:

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Our friends were more adventurous. My not from ’round here friend ordered the turkey necks, served with greens and cabbage. She explained that as a kid, she loved to eat leftover turkey necks from Thanksgiving but had never actually ordered them at a restaurant before. She was clearly enjoying hers so much that I had to try it-and wow. The juiciest possible dark meat, full of flavor. My friend commented on how huge they were-they are definitely enough for a meal. The cabbage and greens were also cooked perfectly and were delicious.

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Our native Birminghamster friend ordered the oxtailwhich he insisted I try. I couldn’t imagine that this was really the tail of a cow, but he assured me it was. This wasn’t a reassuring thought, but I told myself this was my chance to have the best oxtail in town-so I gave it a shot. One of the meatiest, most delicious pieces of beef I’ve ever had. Served with mac n cheese, black eyed peas, corn and a cornbread muffin so good it already had a bite taken out:

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I wish I could tell you what the corn and black eyed peas tasted like… And I remember they were good… But all I can really remember was that oxtail. Mmm-mmm. Yeah.

So to sum it up, Jasmine’s converted this Yankee skeptic into a meat and three fan and a lover of turkey necks and oxtail. That’s saying something.

UPDATE:
Turns out that Jasmine’s is in Pratt City, which I thought was part of Ensley, but is just one neighborhood to the north (Village Creek is the dividing line). I’ll blame it on the fact that I’m not from ’round here, and that I haven’t found a great map that clearly delineates Birmingham’s neighborhoods…. Let me know if you have one I can post!

Jasmine's on Urbanspoon

Rib it Up

I have just one thing to say. Rib Tips.

What the heck is a rib tip? Yes, I had to look this up, so don’t be ashamed if you do too, that’s what the link is for.

Last week, Mr Foodie, some friends, and I decided to try a BBQ joint that had a name I couldn’t resist: Rib It Up. And their self-proclaimed specialty-rib tips. That meaty little gem between the rib and the sternum which is used in St Louis style BBQ is their most popular dish.

First, I should mention that Rib It Up sits on 1st avenue N just on the other side of the I65 underpass from downtown. This place is no rib shack-the surprisingly large building includes a drive thru as well:

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And boasts an absolutely adorable sign:

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We walked in and were welcomed by a very friendly cashier and a gentleman who was the ?owner-both of whom guided us through the extensive menu. Look at the prices-what a bargain!

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As I mentioned, they explained that the rib tips are where it’s at. Never having tasted a rib tip, the gentleman insisted I try one. Just one tip was so meaty that Mr Foodie and I both got a large bite. The meat was juicy and tender, just perfect. And the sauce. It’s on the sweeter side-tastes of ?molasses rather than vinegar – and quite smoky. I’m sure I’ll get some flak for saying this but-to me, this is the best BBQ sauce I’ve had yet in the Ham. But don’t take my word for it-try it yourself.

After that we had to get the rib tips. Together, the four of us ordered 3 rib tip dinners and one chicken dinner with a large assortment of sides.

You order and pay at the counter, then sit and wait for your order. The place is huge-a large dining room and even a full bar. Reminds me of the homey mom and pop family restaurants I are at as a kid. We picked a 1980s style booth and scootched in.

Everything we ordered was great. The sides were a perfect compliment to that meaty focus, and per the owner all made in house. Here we go…..

Rib tips with creamy Mac and Cheese (real cheese! Nice and mild, not too overwhelming) and collards:

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Let’s take a closer look at that rib tip.
Wowie.

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And no one had ever told me you are supposed to put this magic sauce on your collards. Fantastic:

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We all ordered the cornbread, which was just a little sweet and mostly savory, not too greasy, and basically exactly what you want to eat with BBQ.

Then, the chicken. Smothered in BBQ sauce, juicy and delicious. Served with creamy cole slaw (tastes like KFC-sounds like a knock but is actually a huge compliment-that is the creamy cole slaw against which all others are judged in my book) and fried green tomatoes:

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A word about fried green tomatoes. I have never liked them. They are either too sour, too soggy, or too bland. These were none of those and were spectacular. The breading was really flavorful and crunchy as well. Let’s get a close up of those beauties:

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Even though we were there just before closing, the staff checked on us a few times and offered us refills of our teas and sodas, which were served in these adorable cups with that dancing pig again (how can he dance without his rib tips?):

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So in sum, Rib It Up delivers across the board. I’d have to say that the rib tips, sauce, cornbread, and fried green tomatoes steal the show, along with the friendly and welcoming staff.
On the way out, I chatted with the owner for a few minutes-this place has been in business since 1993 and is still going strong. Clearly they are doing something-many things-right.

Rib-It-Up on Urbanspoon