Mr Foodie and I are always looking to learn more about Alabama, and explore some of the smaller cities near Birmingham.  Last weekend, we had the perfect opportunity.  Some foodie  friends and I (Mr Foodie was out of town) traveled to Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and walk together with thousands of others across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.   What an incredible experience it was. As we shuffled slowly en mass over the bridge in the company of those who made the same walk 50 years earlier, their children, and supporters from all over the world, the crowd almost instinctively began to sing We Shall Overcome in perfect unison.  I know that last sentence sounds corny, but it isn’t meant to be. It was a very powerful experience and something I won’t forget.

The week before the event, our little group of traveling foodies began discussing where we should eat.  What can I say, this group loves to to explore through food.  We anticipated a giant crowd and lots of walking/standing once we actually reached Selma (we were right), so we decided to try to eat a fairly large late morning meal along the way.  I tweeted the question of where to eat (which was even retweeted by The Bitter Southerner – swoon).  This was met with suggestions to take significant detours to Mobile and Oxford–which would have been fun but we didn’t want to be late to the march–and a comment that I-65 is “no-man’s land on a Sunday.”

Despite this, I was determined that we would find something decent along the way.  As we set out, I began an aggressive bout of Yelping, Urbanspoon searches, and Google maps queries.  And I started randomly calling places.  At around the fifth call, as I was about to acquiesce to that no-man’s land comment, a friendly voice picked up.  “We open at 11!”  Sold.

I was really surprised to find Clara’s Country Cafe in Clanton, a town less than an hour from Birmingham that I’ve stopped in dozens of times on the way to the beach.  This place seems like it’s been there forever, and yet somehow it flew under my foodie radar.

Clara’s isn’t far off I-65, but as you get further from the highway, you are slowly transported to another universe.  The landscape becomes more rural, the road becomes dustier, and there’s even a cowboy church (yes, you read that right) complete with stockyard that emerges seemingly out of nowhere.  That last part was highly photo worthy, so here you are.  I love their tag line:  “we love you, no matter how dirty your boots are.”

Anyways, a few minutes later, there was Clara’s.

We arrived just before 11 and were not the first ones there-a couple was sitting in their car out front waiting.  A good sign.  Since we had a moment, we took some photos, including this one of their welcome mat:

A moment later, the door creaked open and a gentleman called out with a friendly voice, “when y’all are done with what you’re doing, y’all can come on in!”  We snapped to attention and filed in.

We were immediately overcome by what can best be described as an aroma-wall of fried chicken.  We stood around for a moment a little lost,  but were quickly shown a seat and told to go to the buffet.  This place is simple-a buffet that focuses on fried chicken, collards, black eyed peas, mac and cheese, and dressing.  There was also a table with smoked pork, cole slaw, and cornbread, and of course, dessert.

This is what it all looked like:

And yes… in case you were wondering that is a ham hock waving its piggy little toes from inside the black eyed peas.  

We piled on the food, as is typically the  risk with all-you-can-eat buffets.  Here are some plate shots:

Everything was outstanding.  The collards were slightly sweet, slightly twangy (y’all know what I mean).  The mac n cheese was the cheesiest.   The cornbread was savory and rich, not jiffy-corn crumbly.  The cole slaw was vinegar-based and some of the best I’ve had-bright flavors, nice and light compared to the rest. I hate black eyed peas but I was told they were as good as the other sides. 

But all of those amazing sides were really just playing the role of supporting actor to the headliner, the star of the show.  That would be the fried chicken.  Fellow foodies, I DARE you to find better chicken anywhere on the planet, and if you do, well, I’ll blog about it (obviously).  This chicken was very lightly breaded, crispy but not crunchy on the outside, and pouring with juices on the inside. As we took our first bites, there were audible gasps and shudders.  Some of us began planning our second plates:  just fried chicken.  

But all of this was just the beginning.  Remember, there was an entire table full of desserts.  We took one of each and split chicolate marble cake, chocolate cake, key lime pie, vanilla sheet cake, and some kind of fruit and nut cake.  All were amazing, but the key lime pie was a standout.  After all of that fried chicken, the bright flavors and creaminess seemed like the perfect way to end the meal.

The place quickly filled up with couples, groups of friends, and families as we ate.  Servers brought out giant vats of fried chicken for the buffet and chatted with customers (of course including our table of tourists-we tend to attract attention when we pull out our cameras).    People talked and ate.  The atmosphere was one of more than just a restarant-Clara’s seemed like a naturally occurring community gathering place.  Everyone seemed like they felt at home.

And in case you’re concerned that you’ll have to have an uncomfortable football-related conversation with someone at the table next to you, Clara’s has a way to make you feel right at home about that too.  We didn’t notice it till halfway through the meal, but we had clearly made an important statement by sitting on the right side of the restaurant:

As opposed to the left:

The table next to us, with that same couple from the parking lot, couldn’t help but notice our overwhelmingly positive if not giddy reaction to the whole experience.  Being from Clanton, they verified Clara’s Country Cafe’s status as a hidden gem-the foodie’s holy grail.

Our whole meal can be summed up by a final comment from that couple:  “Y’all need to get out of Birmingham more often.” 

Photo credits (mostly-just the good ones) go to my wonderful foodie friend Leights.

Clara's Country Cafe on Urbanspoon