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

Butts to Go

This weekend, we made our semi-annual pilgrimage to Ikea in Atlanta. (Ikea, if you’re reading this, Birminghamsters would be overjoyed with a store in our town. That goes double for you, Trader Joes.) Usually we end up coming back from these trips quite late. But this time, we were so excited by our purchases that after stopping by the Concept Cars exhibit at the High Museum (which has reciprocity with the Birmingham Museum of Art so the exhibit was discounted and was amazing!), we headed home in time for dinner on the road.

Given the semi-regular frequency of our trips to Atlanta, we are becoming familiar with the food options along this corridor. There’s one place that several of my friends have told me I have to try, and that’s Butts to Go.

This place is right off the road near Lake Martin, about 40 minutes from Bham. We passed it 3 times before we found it because…. It’s in a Texaco. Bonus points for us for finding another restaurant in a gas station! We also needed to fill up (we were hanging on at 1/8th of a tank). Classic two birds with one stone moment.

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Note the meat cooking area to the left of the station. I wish I could have taken a picture of the delicious smell of BBQ wafting through the air.

First, off to the pumps. As if the smell wasn’t enough, that adorable pig logo just made me want some pulled pork.

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Into the convenience store we went. Orders are taken under the sign just past the cash register. While we were there, the line was nearly out the door.

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Here’s the menu:

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This place is all about the meat. We ordered pulled pork and a chicken breast sandwich, with cole slaw and potato salad. They are served plain and you control what goes on top, which I like:

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Here are the BBQ sauces:

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After tasting them all (and they are all great-and locally produced, I might add!) we picked Rob’s from Chelsea, AL:

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Rob’s BBQ sauce came in regular and spicy and was flavorful and not too tomato-y. Mr. Foodie and I agreed that it went perfectly with everything we ordered.

The meat was out of this world-tender, juicy, and smoky. There we were, sitting at a table in a gas station store among the M&Ms, sodas, and convenience items, oohing and aahing over every bite of this unexpectedly amazing BBQ. The sides were good-cole slaw was nice and creamy, and the potato salad was actually baked potato salad and was the perfect accompaniment to the smoky meat.

As we learned as we chatted with the gentleman who gave us our food and the gentleman behind the register, they take great pride in their meats. When I asked who was responsible for tending to the meat, they both grinned and said they shared that job. They told us that the sides and BBQ sauce are special ordered locally-and while they didn’t say this exactly, I inferred this was so they could focus on their passion-meat. They thanked us and waved goodbye as we headed back to Bham.

Butts to Go is a unique roadside experience… And is only 40 min from Bham. Well worth the trip.

Butts To Go on Urbanspoon

Boateng’s Cajun Creations

Several of you readers have told me about this place-it’s been on my “to-visit” list for awhile. My only hesitation was that I’ve never had Cajun food before, and so I was waiting to find the perfect dining companions who could help me navigate the menu. Telling this story to a colleague, she proclaimed extensive experience both eating AND cooking Cajun food (see her awesome cooking blog). One dining partner became two, two became four, and soon we were eight, including Mr Foodie and I.

We all met at the restaurant, which is just off of the main drag in Bessemer. The only landmarks I knew of in Bessemer were the DMV, Bright Star, and Gip’s Place, so the explorer in me was really excited to see what this place would be like.

I forgot to photograph the exterior, which is adorable-looks like a modest size southern house with white trim. Inside, the vibe is relaxed and casual. We had made reservations and our table was waiting for us.

Turns out eight is an ideal number for visiting this little gem. The menu is pretty extensive and many things are available in both 8 and 16 oz sizes-perfect for ordering multiple snack-type items and sharing. Mr Foodie and I were in foodie heaven.

Here’s the menu:

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We ordered strategically so that between all of us, we would be able to taste nearly everything on the menu. This meant ordering po boys and fish plates, with multiple combinations of sides. Here are the things I sampled or ate and can vouch for:

First, a friend got the chicken po boy. The chicken was deep fried and juicy, served on a crusty bun. The chicken reminded me of the chicken at Shark’s-fantastic. Shown here with an 8oz shrimp and grits, which I’ll get to in more detail in a moment:

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Next to arrive was my shrimp po boy. Wow. Again, deep fried shrimp, crusty bun. Served with shrimp and grits.

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Don’t forget the roumelade and tartar sauce-we experimented with both and although I liked the roumelade a tad better for the po boys, both were excellent.

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I’ve been sidestepping the shrimp and grits because it deserves its own paragraph, maybe its own blog post. This was a different style than I’m used to-sauce was more tomato-y, spicier, and slightly less creamy than what I’m used to. Although you can’t see it the grits are beneath the shrimp in the little bowl. This was the BEST shrimp and grits I’ve had. Now, I am a Yankee, and my experience with shrimp and grits is limited, but I’ve had it at places like Dyron’s and Highlands, both of which are fantastic, but Boatengs was out of this world. Try it and let me know what you think.

Next was a talapia plate. Grilled talapia. The fish was great; very flavorful and a nice departure from the deep fried stuff. On to the critical test for a Cajun restaurant-jumbalaya (on the left) and gumbo (on the right). I have only had gumbo once (meh) and have actually never had jumbalaya. Yes, I know. Remember, prior to moving to Bham 3 years ago, I had only ventured below the Mason-Dixon Line to go to Miami on vacation and for a brief southeast road trip that did not include Cajun country. Both the jumbalaya and the gumbo were fairly spicy. They cleaned out my sinuses but didn’t blow my head off-a good thing. Both were extremely flavorful. The jumbalaya included delicious sausage that gave it a smoky taste and a nice meaty consistency. The gumbo made me a believer in gumbo-the veggies were perfectly cooked (I’m always wary of slimy okra-but this was not) and the spiciness was cut nicely by the white rice. It also came with surprisingly tasty buttered toast that served the same purpose:

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After that light meal, we figured the damage to our arteries was already done and we might as well keep going. On to the banana bread pudding. Layers of bananas, bread, cream, and ?rum. The table ordered 2. One came looking all pretty:

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… and the other a little worse for wear, which gave us a chuckle (and hey, it only matters what it tastes like):

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A decadent, rich way to end a flavor and spice-packed meal. We were in our foodie happy place.

This meal was one of my favorites in awhile, ranking up there with Rafiki’s and Southern Jamaican Caribbean Restaurant. Definitely proves that there’s even a better reason to visit Bessemer than the DMV.

Boateng's Cajun Creations Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Backstory: Rafiki’s Grill – a “taste of Africa in Dixie”

It’s not every day that an African restaurant opens in Birmingham.  Given the excitement that Rafiki’s Grill has generated in the Birmingham foodie community, I wanted to find out the backstory.

The inspiration behind Rafiki’s

When Charles Gakumo opened Rafiki’s Grill, he was inspired by his wife Ann.  Gakumo is from Nairobi, Kenya, and came to Birmingham to study finance at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) at the age of 21.  Ann is from Florida but grew up mainly in Birmingham.  Gakumo explains, “Taking [Ann] to Africa, and seeing how thrilled she was enjoying the cultures and enjoying the food … I knew that if Ann can enjoy going to Africa and enjoying all that Africa had to offer, it was ok if I brought a little bit of Africa back with me to Dixie.”

The other inspiration for Rafiki’s is Birmingham itself.  “I’ve been [in Birmingham] for almost half of my life,” Gakumo says.  “That makes this my second home.”  He views Rafiki’s as a way to give back to the city.  “Birmingham has offered me so much in terms of education, opportunity-wise, and I felt the least I can do to give back to Birmingham was part of who I was and that was my culture, and the best way to do that was though food.”

An early interest in food

As a young child, Gakumo was drawn to the kitchen.  Little by little, he learned to cook traditional Kenyan food from his mother and sisters.  And cooking wasn’t just about the food itself – it was about the mealtime experience.  Gakumo explains that in Kenya, taking a break from a busy day to come together over a good meal is a respected daily cultural experience.   Meals are eaten in a communal way, even in restaurants, with one’s hands.  “We massage the food so it can be good to us inside the stomach.”

Getting in touch with his roots

As a student far from home, Charles found himself missing Kenyan culture, food, and the food experience.  As a child, he had envisioned coming to America for a “white collar job” – and as a day job, he owned a convenience store.  But he wanted to have a way to stay in touch with his roots.  In Kenya, it is common for people to have their weekday jobs in the city, and their goat farm in the country to visit on the weekends.  So, he got a few goats.  A few goats soon became 100 goats, who he raises both as pets and for food.  This is Gakumo’s weekend getaway spot – a place where he can relax and interact with the animals he loves.

Gakumo also started experimenting with his childhood recipes.  But he still didn’t have that place to enjoy a communal African-style eating experience.  That’s where Rafiki’s comes in.

The vision for Rafiki’s

Rafiki’s has been in the works for many months, but has only been open for 3 weeks.  Gakumo envisioned his restaurant as place to eat, but also as a place where “good food and good people meet.”   And it has been just that.   “Before they eat the food … they’re not talking, everybody’s quiet, they’re looking around …but when they get to eat the food, the conversation starts.  And they start talking about the food…. it warms up the place…..the food is doing it’s magic.”  This is a source of great pride for Gakumo.

Rafiki’s also serves as a sort of multicultural meeting place.  Gakumo has served people from Zambia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania, in addition to Kenya, and of course, Birmingham.

The Kenyan Community in Birmingham

Gakumo estimates that there are 5,000 Kenyans in Birmingham – the largest population of Africans in the city.  Immigration from Kenya to Birmingham began in the mid-1990s.  It started with a small group of a few hundred Kenyans, and grew as word spread back home of opportunities for education and work.  Much of the immigrant community in Birmingham – including Africans, but also others – are concentrated in the Greensprings/Valley Avenue corridor.  I had always wondered why that was, and Gakumo offered an explanation.  As many Kenyans in Birmingham are students at UAB, living in this area allows them easy access to the University.  Many of them attend the Laborers Church on Valley Avenue, just down the street from Rafiki’s.   This makes Rafiki’s a convenient destination.

The Menu

Gakumo created the menu with his chefs – one of whom is from Kenya, and the other who is from Zambia.

Currently, the menu includes some of Gakumo’s favorite Kenyan foods.   Everything – from the samosas to the stews to the mandazis – is homemade, except for the sausage, which is specially imported from a Kenyan sausage factory in Delaware.  They get some of their ingredients from Wanainchi, an African grocery store just down the hill from Vulcan (1900 21st avenue S).  All of the spices are ordered directly from Kenya, which GAkumo believes contributes to the food’s authentic tastes.

The most popular dish is the mbuzi karanga (goat stew) and the (mbuzi choma) (grilled goat).  Gakumo says that people often start with the kuku karanaga (chicken stew), and work their way up to the goat.  For those who are less adventurous, the menu also includes a few America items like burgers and French fries.  But, as Gakumo acknowledges with a laugh, they aren’t ordered very often.

I had to ask about the dessert, Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Gakumo explains that Kenyans aren’t traditionally big dessert eaters – but this dessert is something that is often served to tourists who visit Kenya.  Instead of naming this creation Mt. Kenya, he calls it Mt. Kilimanjaro – as a way to make all Africans feel welcome.

Next steps

“I’m trying to get more out of this restaurant: not just food, culture.”  Already, he has heard stories of people who are African and whose children were born in the US brining their children to Rafiki’s to introduce them to the food and the people.  A Safari leader who brings groups from Birmingham to Kenya has already initiated pre-travel meals at Rafiki’s.   Long-term, Gakumo’s plans include a store, an outdoor fire pit for cooking meat, and an expanded outdoor patio for food and entertainment.

Gakumo also plans to expand his menu to foods from the coastal regions of Kenya (more seafood), and to other African countries.  Included on this list is Ethiopia.  He notes that Ethiopian food is the most common type of African food eaten in the US, and he is exploring opportunities to include it on his menu.

Final thoughts

I asked whether he thought he would be herding goats and running a Kenyan restaurant when he was a kid.  He said no, and with a broad smile, added – “funny enough, you can’t run away from who you really are.”

For more information, read our original Rafiki’s post here.

St Elias Lebanese food festival

One of the many unique attributes of Birmingham’s food scene is its food festivals. I’ve never lived in a place that has such eagerly awaited festivals that really draw the attention of the entire city.

Last nite, it seemed like the entire city was at St Elias’ church in Glen Iris for their Lebanese food festival. Not that we’ve been to every food festival in town, but of those that I’ve attended, this one is our overall favorite. It was also the first one we attended after moving to Bham, which gives it some nostalgia for us. But there are a couple of things that really set this food festival apart. First of all, there are foods you can get there that you can’t get anywhere else in town. Second, of the more usual offerings, everything is homemade and absolutely outstanding. And finally, the atmosphere. The place was mobbed but in an orderly way, if that makes any sense. Neat lines were moving quickly and people were getting served efficiently-a difficult feat even for a restaurant that does this every night. These folks are clearly pro food festival leaders. And while waiting and while eating, there was plenty keep us occupied. When we went last night, we had the opportunity to see kids from the church perform Lebanese dancing-which really gave the event a festive, community oriented feel. Plus watching people serving and making food (more on that in a minute) was entertainment in and of itself.

The other thing that gives this festival a community feel is the communal seating. We were meeting a foodie friend and her parents who were in from out of town, and another foodie couple. Somehow, despite the crowd, we were able to get a spot at a table that accommodated all of us. We had a great time sharing food and taking it all in.

This is always a very well-attended and well-advertised festival that no doubt many of you already know about or have attended. So, I figured I would just share with you our favorite selections and hope to hear from you about yours.

Combination Plates

This is our go to meal at this festival. I love baked kibbeh , and this festival has my favorite in the city. Moist with a touch of ?cinnamon. Delish. We got the Beiruit combo which comes with a few of my other favorites: 2 grape leaves, spinach pie, rice, and green beans. All fantastic. This is the only place I’ve had a homemade middle eastern spinach pie in town (although Makarios has one, so I’ve heard-let me know if there are others).

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Comes with a salad with a light, citrus-y and vinegar-y dressing-a great complement to the heavier entrees:

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Labneh mint sandwich

I also had to get the one very unique item that for me is a must-eat every year. I’ve been trying to find out more about this dish online but I just can’t. If someone can help me I would greatly appreciate it. The ladies who were making and selling it were throwing thin dough in the air and then cooking it on this, which they told me was called a saaj. A piece of just-made bread is in the lower left corner. The ladies proudly told me that this is the closest thing to Lebanon in Bham, and I believe them:

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And here’s what they make with it. A sandwich with labneh (like Greek yogurt) and mint. Served hot in a paper towel:

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Now in cross section. Beautiful. The bread is light, and the labneh gives it a slightly tart flavor, which is contrasted by the bold fresh mint. We bought two and shared-it was a hit!

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Dessert

Speaking of sharing-desserts can’t be individually purchased so-our foodie friends were kind enough to buy this box for all of us to share:

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I wish I could tell you what they all are.
And we didn’t sample them all, of course. But I can tell you that the bottom two were similar to baklavah-phyllo dough with sugar, nuts, and honey. Fantastic. And the upper right pistachio cookie was light and literally melted as I ate it.

I was so glad we were able to share this experience with both local foodie friends and out of town guests-this festival is a real gem. If you haven’t been yet we hope you make it to St Elias this weekend-they’re open today for lunch and dinner. Their website is down right now-I’m getting an “exceeded bandwidth” error-but don’t worry, the festival itself is running in full force!

Paramount

Lately, I’ve taken great pride in writing about hidden hole-in-the-walls. But sometimes, a girl’s gotta follow the trendy hipsters. But not to the kind of place that makes you feel like you are out of place in an episode of Portlandia. Rather, to a place that’s accessible, and whose quality stands on its own. And so, tonite, I bring you Paramount.

This is one of the newest additions to the downtown nightlife scene. I’ve been here a total of 4 times, once at 11pm, once at 9pm, and twice in the past week around 6pm. It is always packed.

This restaurant/bar is an amazing indoor-outdoor space. Tonite, the weather was beautiful. We sat just inside the patio, where we could still feel the breeze. I’ve also sat at the bar, which is beautiful. The entire place, including a huge back room, is filled with vintage arcade games. This gives the place a really unique feel. As Mr Foodie likes to say, it’s the kind of place where, if we found it on a road trip, we would feel like we found something truly unique that doesn’t exist anywhere else and want to tell all of our friends about it.

This is the kind of place where you expect to find good drinks. But the food here is shockingly good. Maybe not so shocking, since these are the El Barrio guys. And regardless of the hour, once ordered, the food arrives quickly, also an impressive feature given how busy the place is.

This post includes photos from the two meals eaten here in the past week-both with a foodie friend who liked it so much the first time she requested to go back a second time. OK, if you insist….

Small plates

First, the Ploughman’s Platter. Delicious bread, smoked trout dip, pimento cheese, sausage, candied bacon, salami, and olives. OUT OF THIS WORLD. Ordered this both times and devoured it both times. I have to apologize because this photo just does not do it justice:

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Sandwiches

They have other main courses-notably burgers and hot dogs-but I’ve always stuck with the sandwiches.

Grilled cheese with gouda, goat cheese, mozzarella, and sundried tomatoes on sourdough. The best grilled cheese I’ve ever had. Shown with fries with garlic mayo. Addictive.

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Then there’s a creation called “Going back to Cali”-chicken, avocado, basil, and lime on sourdough. This is quite possibly the only healthy thing on the menu-and it is fantastic. The combination of avocado and chicken is a bit like a lighter version of chicken salad, and with the delicious bread, it’s perfect.

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And finally, the Fun Guy. Balsamic marinated mushrooms, mozzarella, garlic mayo, and greens. I’m not typically a fan of balsamic vinegar but I wanted something lighter after my recent fried meals (see my last several posts), and wanted to try something new (I had the chicken last time). The chicken is still my favorite (I’m a sucker for anything avocado), but this is also hearty and delicious. Served on thick ?homemade pita bread.

I’m hopeful that this place will continue to be a strong presence in the Birmingham nightlife and and also food scene. It’s off to a great start, that’s for sure.

Paramount on Urbanspoon

La Libertad

La Libertad is a coastal town in El Salvador. It’s also a restaurant in Pelham. Tonite, Mr Foodie and I visited the latter.

This place was quite a find. I don’t believe we have ever had El Salvadorian food before so I must admit, I’m not an expert and I have no basis for comparison. But what we had, we loved. And it was served by a waitress who had a genuine interest in making sure we enjoyed the food, which made for a fantastic foodie experience.

La Libertad can be found-where else-in a strip mall in Pelham. I continue to be intrigued by the quantity of places like this in strip malls…. Where I’m from, anything in a strip mall is to be strictly avoided. Someone, explain this to me. But I digress. I forgot to photograph the outside-a standard Birmingham strip mall neon sign.

Once on the inside-this is a warm, cozy place where mostly Spanish (and in my case, a semester of college Spanish) is spoken. We knew that was a great sign and proceeded with our usual strategy at a place that looks like it is going to be great-order a little bit of everything.

The Menu

So much of the menu looked so fantastic. I like how colorful the menu is, and that there are clear translations:

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After reminding ourselves that we would be back (but probably not for at least a few weeks-Pelham is far-so we HAD to stock up), and with our waitresses’ guidance, we went with the following:

Appetizers and Small Plates

Our pork tamale came wrapped in some kind of paper that I’ve never seen before:

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This was the biggest tamale I’ve ever had, and was stuffed with juicy pork and vegetables. Absolutely wonderful. Here’s a closer look:

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Then a papusa, or homemade corn meal stuffed with, in this case, cheese. This one was oozing a little cheese, mmmmmmm:

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This is delicious if eaten alone, but even better with the condiments they bring-pickled slaw and tomato sauce:

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Then the plaintains. We accidentally ordered two kinds of plantains; the traditional delicious sweet kind:

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And then this. This was quite possibly one of the best things I’ve ever had, and also the richest. Looked like mashed up plantains encasing a sugary sour cream center deep fried and covered with sugar.

When they arrived, we weren’t sure what we had ordered. Mr Foodie looked at the plate, looked at me, and said, potato?

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After some dissection…. NOT a potato.

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Main Course

Wow. By this point we didn’t think things could get much better and we weren’t sure whether there was anything else coming. Of course, there was. We had ordered chicken stew-which turned out to be an amazing chicken soup chock full of veggies with a quarter chicken, rice, and beans on the side. Served with 2 homemade ?flour tortillas. Spectacular:

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Beverages

I usually don’t talk much about beverages-I am just more interested in food-but I have to show you this. Mr Foodie ordered this banana flavored soda which was out of this world. I’m sure bananas had nothing to do with the making of this treat, but I don’t care:

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Seeing that I didn’t have anything to drink, halfway through our meal, our waitress brought me some “juice.” When I asked what it was, she told me “mango and other fruit.” It had little bits of pulp (orange, maybe?) in it and was the perfect refreshing compliment to our meal:

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La Libertad, just as soon as I finish working off those plantains, I’ll be back. Give me a few days…..
La Libertad on Urbanspoon

Los Pedros

Recently, a friend told me about a taqueria that is his new favorite place to get authentic tacos. When he told me it was on Valley Avenue, in a strip mall in the parking lot behind the Salvation Army, I knew I had to go ASAP.

I absolutely love the fact that they put photos of their menu on the outside of the restaurant. Makes for a colorful facade:

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Menu

Here’s the actual menu: an extremely affordable mixture of the usual tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas etc:

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I went with a friend for lunch, and we had a strategy. Guacamole (of course), one taco each (pastor), and per the waitresses’ suggestion, the chicken quesadilla. In fact, much to my surprise, she told us that the grilled chicken quesadilla was the best thing on the menu. We took her advice.

Guacamole

Look at this. Delivered to the table as fresh avocado, tomatoes and onions. Mixed by us right before eating. No limes were available (assuming this has to do with the international lime shortage we are currently facing). But a squirt of fresh lemon and we were good to go. Amazing. Before and after:

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Tacos

This place is, I think, unique from the other places I’ve blogged about in that they make their own homemade corn tortillas. And they.are. so. good. The pastor had chunks of fresh pineapple in it and is probably now my favorite pastor in Birmingham.

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Quesadilla

I understood why the waitress insisted this was such a good dish. The combination of the homemade tortilla with almost smoky grilled chicken and mild Mexican cheese was unbelievable.

First, the aerial view:

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Now in mouth-watering cross-section:

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I’ve never had a quesadilla like this before-it wasn’t greasy, but it was still very hearty.

The Fixins

This place has a more extensive fresh fixins bar than most: not just salsa but amazing pickled veggies and other fresh toppings:

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And at $20 for all of that including a nice tip-you can’t beat it. Not even on Greensprings.

UPDATE, 4/26/2014: Hurache

I just keep going back, and I’ve heard from several of you who have been there since our original post. Please feel free to comment about your favorite dishes. Here’s my new favorite dish at Los Pedros: shredded chicken huarache:

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Fried masa on the bottom, and meat, cheese, and sour cream on top (that’s what that stringy looking line is-at first I thought it was some kind of cheese wiz-the horror-luckily it was not). Filling and delicious. Mr Fooodie and I split one of these and had one taco each. The perfect $10 dinner for 2.

Los Pedros on Urbanspoon

Rafiki’s Grill

As you know, or can tell by the types of places I blog about, I like all kinds of food, so long as its good. But I gravitate towards places that seem unusual for the area. In a state like Alabama, known for its soul food and BBQ, that typically means food from other countries and cultures. Take that a step further-food served in an atmosphere that transports you to a different continent, and introduces you to new people.

I’ve spent some time in Botswana and in Vietnam. Being away from home as an American “ex-pat” and walking into an American establishment abroad always had a very homey, let’s get to know each other feel. The only way I can describe the vibe at Rafiki’s is this kind of experience here in the US. At Rafiki’s, I talked to people from different places in Africa – mostly Kenya and Zambia – and we all felt at home.

Rafiki’s Grill is, to my knowledge, the only full service African restaurant of any kind in town. (Please, prove me wrong! I would love to try another if it exists.) It is on Valley Avenue, near Gordos and some of the other small restaurants I’ve blogged about. It is Kenyan, and serves a focused menu of Kenyan food. And all of it is homemade, as the waitress bragged to us with a smile.

I’ve been there twice in two weeks and so have had the opportunity to try nearly everything on the menu, thanks to Mr Foodie and two foodie couples who helped me out (they didn’t seem to suffer too much). In fact, everyone I’ve taken there has loved it. One consistent theme in all of Rafiki’s food is quality. The menu is relatively small, but the quality of each dish is top notch. Speaking of the menu:

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As you can see, Rafiki’s has some items that aren’t available anywhere else in town-with their English translations.

Appetizers

African turkey sausage (specially imported from a Kenyan sausage factory in Delaware we were told), flavorful and delicious; house-made ground turkey samosas with the lightest flakiest crust I’ve ever tasted on a samosa; and “African salsa,” very refreshing:

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Here’s a closer look at that beautiful sausage:

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And the salsa:

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And served with a smoky homemade hot sauce that goes well with all of the above:

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Here are our fries masala (and if you don’t believe that fries masala are a thing check this out :

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The Main Course

I’m not much into meats other than chicken, beef, or pork, but I understood that Kenyan goat stew is something not to be missed. The restaurant’s owner also has a goat farm near Birmingham where the goats are raised …. I had to try it. This was my first ever experience with goat:

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On my second visit, I was joined by two friends who were goat pros and had several observations. First, goat often has a gamey, bitter aftertaste. Second, goat is typically served full of bones, making it difficult to eat. Neither was the case here. The meat was tender and the stew had a deep flavor that tasted of ?bell peppers and was fantastic. The goat stew here is shown with chapati, thicker and doughier than the Indian version and great with the stew, and sakuma wiki or collard greens, which complimented the stew well.

Next up is the grilled chicken:

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This was extremely juicy and delicious. Was served with pilau rice, which is a spiced rice, and ugali, or cornmeal cooked to dough consistency. Ugali doesn’t have any flavor but has a wonderful texture, and takes on the flavor of whatever you eat it with. Highly recommended with the stew.

Here is some of their delicious chicken stew-brighter flavors than the goat stew, equally as delicious. I ate it with the ugali and chapati, probably my favorite combination:

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The grilled goat was also perfectly cooked, and beautiful. Goes great with the homemade hot sauce. Served with chapati and cabbage:

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Dessert

While we were told that the chocolate cake is also homemade, Mt Kilimanjaro is their house specialty. I will have to find out the story behind this dessert. For now, I was just glad to eat it: bananas, brown sugar, butter, vanilla ice cream:

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This place is a real gem, but not a hidden one. Of all of my Greensprings and Valley Ave finds, this place gets the award for the best signage. You can’t miss it!

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Rafiki's Grill on Urbanspoon