master Wade Reich operates Butts-to-Go in a Texaco
Station parking lot in Pell City, just outside of
the uninformed, a culinary experience in the state of
Alabama might be construed as choking down bites of a
jumbo dog at Tuscaloosaís Bryant-Denny Stadium between
chants of "Roll, Tide, Roll."
after a weeklong road trip with my friend Verna, an
Alabama native, I know thereís a lot more to the
culinary scene here than stadium fare. Armed with a
Tourism Department list of "100 Dishes to Eat in
Alabama Before You Die," we two road warriors
traveled from Mobile to Huntsville, on a relentless quest
to discover the best the state had to offer.
we didnít make it through all 100 Dishes, it wasnít
for lack of trying.
in Mobile, we headed to Wintzellís, where a sign over
the bar advertises that you can have your oysters
"fried, stewed or nude," and where the signature
Bloody Mary, using Whiskey Willyís Bloody Mary mix from
nearby Orange Beach, contains ó I swear ó at least
four of the seven major food groups.
as the Weekender, it may take you that long to finish it,
but donít worry. Willie Brown, who has been shucking
oysters at Wintzellís for 40 years, will present you
with a platter of Oysters Four Ways (Monterey, Bienville,
Rockefeller and Chargrilled) to go with it.
contributions to the "100 Dishes" list include
the shrimp and grits at the Blind Mule and the Diver
Scallops at the cityís historic Battle House Hotel. At
the famous Spot of Tea, a Mobile institution for 22 years,
there are two ó Bananas Foster French Toast and Eggs
Cathedral, which satisfied diners liken to "a
(whoís partial to the moon pie banana pudding),
introduced me to Miss Ruby, Spot of Teaís owner, who
joined us for our meal. I couldnít help but notice that
her lipstick and nail polish were the exact same shade as
her stylish outfit, and when Verna persuaded her to tell
me how her husband, a gambler, put three kids through
college on his wits alone, I decided she was as unique as
the dishes she served.
Mobile it was on to Birmingham, Vernaís hometown, where
celebrity chef Frank Stitt rules the culinary roost. From
his James Beard Award-winning restaurant, Highlands Grill,
to its more casual sister property, Bottega, and his take
on a Parisian bistro, Chez Fon-Fon, Stittís mastery in
the kitchen offers a dining trifecta.
another legendary Birmingham eatery, Nikiís, itís
"My Big Fat Greek Lunch" Alabama-style. Nikiís
steam table has 70 offerings with a Southern take on
traditional Greek favorites ó collard greens instead of
eggplant, country ham instead of moussaka and sweet potato
pie instead of baklava.
popped in for dinner one evening at SAWís Soul Kitchen
(SAW is an acronym for owner Mike Wilsonís high school
nickname ó Sorry Ass Wilson). There was nothing sorry
about the pork and greens, the restaurantís delectable
entry on the "100 Dishes" list.
we stopped in at Avondale Brewing just down the street to
sample one of the 16 rotating hand-crafted beers on tap.
Avondale is far from your typical brewery. It began as a
brothel (try the Brothel Brown Beer) and once had a
beer-guzzling elephant as a mascot. It hasnít shed its
quirky roots ó itís now the starting point for the
cityís Wacky Tacky Christmas Lights Tour.
another day, we ran into a traffic jam in the tiny town of
Pell City, just outside of Birmingham, which on closer
inspection proved to be a waiting line for a Texaco
first thought was they had to be selling gas for a dollar
a gallon, but it seems the real draw here is Butts-to-Go,
a BBQ pit in the parking lot where grill master Wade Reich
smokes beef, ribs and something he calls "Drunken
Chicken." A devoted clientele, whose motto is
"Gas up and pig out," makes it unwise to even
think about showing up on weekends without reserving your
cut of meat.
might seem strange to discover a philosopher of French
food ó Reich spent 14 years in Paris ó now grilling in
a Pell City parking lot. However, I can attest that his
Boston Butt Baby Back Ribs can hold their own with Beef
Montgomery, the state capital, our first stop was at Chrisí
Hot Dogs, a family-run establishment that next year will
celebrate its 100th year in business. Martin Luther King
Jr., Bear Bryant and Elvis Presley were all regulars, and
former Gov. George Wallace once placed an order for 2,000
I was sitting on the stool that was reserved for Chrisí
favorite customer ó country legend Hank Williams, who
always ordered his hot dog with a shot of whiskey chased
by a beer. In fact, Chrisí may be the only hot dog joint
in the country with a liquor license.
do a brisk business with the Legislature," says
current owner Theo Katechis.
I asked him what made Chrisí dogs so special, he claimed
it was their secret sauce.
a sly wink, he says, "Only three people in the world
and its environs is also home base for two young Alabama
food and drink entrepreneurs. For those who like it hot,
29-year-old Auburn native Jessi Norwood provides it
scorching. Norwood has spiced up traditional pepper jelly
with her own version ó Hot Damn Jelly.
sampled her classic cream cheese and pepper jelly with a
jalapeno pop during breakfast with her at a local hot
spot, Davis Cafe, but her jellies are also available at
the Montgomery Visitors Center.
joining us for breakfast was another millennial, Wes
Willis, who just may be the cleverest marketer of his
generation. His company, Alabama Sweet Tea, offers the
beverage in 16-ounce bottles and gallon jugs, and even
though in these parts, itís all about sweet tea ó
labeled Southern ó he hasnít forgotten those who live
offers them an unsweetened tea called Yankee, and for
those who canít make up their minds, thereís a third
brand, Mason-Dixon, which he describes as "half and
the way to Huntsville, the final stop on our foodie road
tour, we made an obligatory detour to Decatur to sample
the barbecue at Big Bob Gibsonís. Yes, there really was
a Big Bob, and now his great grandson-in-law, Chris Lilly,
is the pit master at the restaurant that has won two World
Alabama, which Verna acknowledges to be a "red sauce
state," Big Bobís is noted for its white sauce,
especially good on chicken.
had two of my favorite places, occupying different ends of
the dining spectrum. At breakfast at the Blue Plate Cafe,
a typical diner housed in what was formerly an auto parts
store, I unashamedly gorged on their cocoa biscuits (not
room for much else after that).
was at Cotton Row, a sophisticated restaurant on
Courthouse Square, dating to 1821 and once occupied by a
cotton merchant. Checking our trusty "100
Dishes" guide, we ordered the braised Meyer Ranch
beef short ribs served with creamy grits.
mid-March to mid-October, there is one dining experience
that you can only find in Alabama ó sampling authentic
German fare in the beer garden under the shadow of the
Saturn V Apollo Moon Rocket at Huntsvilleís U.S. Space
and Rocket Center.
Saturn V is one of three remaining Saturn rockets that
first took man to the moon. I couldnít swear that my
brat and sauerkraut tasted better eating it in the
presence of history, but it sure seemed to.