Cajun Flavors in the Fountain City

You might have an ahnvee and not even know it.

Ahnvee is Cajun slang for “hunger,” as in: “I’ve got an ahnvee for some good gumbo.” 

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café in Prattville can satisfy that hunger. In fact, the restaurant’s chicken and sausage gumbo is one of the 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. And it really is that good, with tender pieces of smoky chicken, spicy slices of andouille and finely diced “holy trinity” (onions, bell peppers and celery) in a roux-dark stew with a healthy, but not overwhelming, bite. 

But Uncle Mick’s shrimp creole over dirty rice or the wonderfully rich shrimp a la creme or the crawfish etouffee or even the not-so-Cajun-sounding pork tenderloin in a savory red wine cream sauce also are worth a visit. 

I visited recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can see the entire story (and a cool video by my friend Brittany Dunn) here.

Mickey “Uncle Mick” Thompson opened his restaurant in February 2009, aiming to serve authentic, scratch-made Cajun food in a family-friendly atmosphere. 

Thompson is not Cajun, but he has a definite passion for this rustic Southern cuisine, and he learned from a Lafayette, Louisiana, native. The guy was a Cajun and a master carpenter. Thompson hired him for a two-week stint, and the man ended up staying on for 17 years. “We cooked and we ate, and we cooked and we ate,” Thompson says. “And that’s where I learned to enjoy Cajun.” 

Thompson is a businessman who, after some three decades of success in the Montgomery-River Region real estate market, retired and pretty quickly recognized that retirement was not working for him.

So, he did some research and realized that authentic Cajun food is hard to come by between Birmingham and Mobile. Plus, he loves this kind of country cooking. And, because Cajun dishes usually are made in large, one-pot quantities (and get better the longer they simmer), this kind of cooking lends itself to no-frills cafeteria-style dining. 

No frills, however, doesn’t mean an impersonal experience. A visit to Uncle Mick’s is exactly opposite. 

The first thing you’ll notice is Lacy Gregg, Thompson’s daughter and the restaurant’s manager, greeting customers at the beginning of the steamtable line. She’ll ask if you’ve been there before, if you have any food allergies, if you like spice or not. Then, even if there’s a line of people out the door, she’ll offer you some samples. After all, not everyone likes alligator, or they might not think they do. 

“Once I get them past the idea of eating gator,” Gregg says, “most people love it.” In fact, the alligator sauce piquante was one of the best dishes we tried during our visit—the gator was surprisingly tender and not at all gamey. Also, the spicy, tomato-based sauce had a delicious, back-of-the-throat bite.

This “try before you buy” approach with every customer is simply what they do here. “From day one, we’ve always done the tasting,” Thompson says. “And the reason we do that is because people don’t realize what it’s supposed to taste like … unless you’ve been to Cajun country.” New Orleans, he adds, is more about Creole cooking.

The tasting tradition is part of their commitment to customer satisfaction. “Good service doesn’t cost a thing,” Thompson says. “People take the time to drive from Montgomery or Birmingham—people come from all over to eat—they need good food and good service and a good place to sit down and enjoy it.” 

Uncle Mick is a Cajun ambassador of sorts. He’s the friendly guy with the gray ponytail walking around the restaurant greeting people and posing for photos with some.  His restaurant’s website has a Cajun FAQ section to explain dishes and guide pronunciations. It’s all to gently educate and encourage folks who might be unfamiliar with Cajun cuisine beyond gumbo. 

“People hear about Cajun … and think, ‘heat, it’s too hot’ Tabasco and all that,” Thompson says. “But Cajun is all about flavor. You can be flavorful without the heat. You can’t just put heat in there and call it Cajun.”

Here’s another cool thing they do at Uncle Mick’s:  You can order cups or bowls of the gumbo and other dishes as well as small or large plates of entrees and sides. And you can get two different entrees on both the small and large plates. It’s a good approach when there are so many great choices. 

Everything—from the Louisiana-style entrees to the country-cooking sides like lima beans, cucumber salad, field peas, deviled eggs and the absolutely delicious cornbread—is made from scratch. There’s regular potato salad and a Cajun version. Thompson says he knows the folks who visit from Louisiana because they want their gumbo served over potato salad. Desserts range from caramel cake to pecan pie; some are made in house, others come from Yesteryears (another of Uncle Mick’s businesses) a few doors down. 

The restaurant’s dining areas (a front room, a long hallway and a light-filled back room) are almost as much a draw as the food. 

The spaces are filled with a wide variety of items Thompson has collected:  antiques (including a wood fragment of the Eagle and Phenix dam on the Chattahoochee River that dates to the late 1800s); paintings from regional artists; taxidermy birds, fish, foxes, squirrels, raccoons, deer and a bobcat; several framed wildlife conservation certificates; Mardi Gras beads and a vintage Second Line photograph; Alabama tourism posters; and architectural elements including a stunning stained glass window from a New Orleans church that Thompson had custom set in iron so he could hang it from the beadboard ceiling of the front room. 

People come to Uncle Mick’s in Prattville from all over the state and beyond. The nearby military base brings in customers, so does the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. “Golfers come here from all over the country,” Thompson says, “all over the world.” They play golf, and they eat gumbo.

The restaurant caters; sells roux as well as its own house-made hot sauce; and does a brisk business in to-go items in pint, quart and (with a little notice) gallon quantities.

Of course, the pandemic delt the restaurant a blow; but regular, loyal customers have kept the place going with take-out and, now, socially distanced in-person dining.  

“Back in March of last year when the whole thing started,” Gregg says, “we dropped 60% pretty much overnight, which was a very, very scary experience going from increasing business every year to all of a sudden your business is just pretty much non-existent.

“With our set-up, we were able to very quickly transition into to-go (orders), and being such a small town … we had a lot of community behind us. They were making sure that the small businesses were getting what they needed, customer-wise, to be able to make it through what was going on.” 

Uncle Mick’s customers, Gregg says, range from blue collar to professionals. “I’ve had Riley Green come in and eat, and the mayor of the town comes in all the time. The (Alabama) Secretary of State was in here a couple weeks ago. And it’s a lot of families; I love being able to see them come in.”

When Thompson and Gregg were worried about losing income from the holiday parties that usually book the back room during all of December, the Fountain City became a Christmas lights destination. “People came from everywhere to look at our Christmas lights downtown,” Gregg says. That influx of new business helped offset those holiday parties lost to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Thompson says he’s happy about the consistency (in product and in personnel) he’s had over the past 12 years. There’s very little turnover with the Uncle Mick’s staff. “I treat my people fair and treat them good,” he says. “We’re like a family.”

Gregg says she’s proud of her father and what he’s been able to accomplish with his life’s second act. 

“He has taken something that we didn’t know what was going to happen when we first opened the doors to something that is amazing and talked about all through town and talked about all over the state and talked about in other states. … I am proud of taking this community and making it part of our family and getting to know all these people.”

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café

136 West Main Street

Prattville, AL 36067

www.unclemickscajun.com

(334) 361-1020

Hours

Lunch served Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

Dinner served Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 8:30 p.m.

Closed Sunday

Celebrating Girls with GirlSpring

Friends,

I am on the host committee of GirlSpring’s Winter Party. GirlSpring was founded by my friend Jane Stephens Comer in 2010, and its mission is to empower girls by giving them access to accurate information, inspiring events, and positive female role models.

Their largest program is https://www.girlspring.com, an online magazine run and managed by GirlSpring’s teen leadership group, the Springboarders. Girls use the digital platform to create content and express themselves via blog-style articles, videos, poetry, and artwork on the topics they feel most passionate about, and as a way to connect with peers in Alabama and across the globe!

On average, 15,000 girls per month visit the website and now, with a newly launched app, we anticipate even more girls will be reached! Their website and app have been a wonderful space for girls to stay connected, even when schools were closed and in-person contact wasn’t possible.

Instead of GirlSpring’s annual Winter Party, in the spirit of safety, this year will be a “grazing box and wine delivery” direct to your door! Each grazing box and wine package feeds 2 people and comes with a specially created music playlist!

I hope you’ll consider supporting GirlSpring this year by clicking here!

XOXO,

Susan

Fox 6 Books: A Fresh Start

Here we go! A new year, a new year of great books! These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. Let’s escape with a strange and beautiful debut novel set in Columbia, train our brains with some expert advice and then learn some new stuff.

The Anthill by Julianne Pachico

This debut novel is set in Medellin, Columbia, and the vivid setting will satisfy armchair travelers. The writing—honest and beautiful and, at times, brutal—will satisfy lovers of literature. The tale, a ghost story, really, is thrilling and told by an unreliable narrator, which makes it even spookier and quite hard to put down. Lina has come home to Columbia after being away for 20 years in England where she grew up, and she’s looking for her childhood friend Matty—and for answers to her hazy early memories. Matty runs a day-care refuge called The Anthill for Medellin’s street children, and Lina begins volunteering there. But she doesn’t really recognize her city, which has become a tourist destination; Matty isn’t the friend she remembers; and there’s something sinister about The Anthill—especially the mysterious small, dirty boy with the pointy teeth. As Lina comes to terms with what happened when she and Matty were very young children, the city’s bloody and traumatic history is the backdrop for a novel about privilege, racism and redemption.

Keep Sharp:  Build a Better Brain at Any Age by Sanjay Gupta, M.D.

The television commentator and practicing neurosurgeon shares a 12-week program designed to keep our brains healthy and elastic with new nerve growth and wiring. As a child, Dr. Gupta watched his grandfather struggle with Alzheimer’s, so his lifelong dedication to understanding the brain is personal. The ideas he puts forward in this science-driven book are practical and easy to incorporate into daily life. First, exercise. Aim for moderate movement every single day, and change your habits to incorporate more movement (take the stairs instead of an escalator or elevator; park farther away from the door of the grocery). Eat healthy: less meat and processed foods, more fresh veggies and fruits; berries are especially good for the brain, he says. Try to get a good night’s sleep because that’s when the brain refreshes itself by removing toxins and sorting experiences into memories. Take up a new hobby. Crossword puzzles are fine, but learning something new is especially good for the brain. Challenge yourself every day. For example, if you are right-handed, eat dinner with your left hand. Finally, turn to family and friends as much as you can right now. Social interaction is critically important. “We are social creatures,” he told an interviewer recently. “We know that there are certain neurochemicals that are released when we actually have touch and look someone directly in the eye.”  In short, a brisk walk with a friend when you spend time talking out problems (exercising and exercising empathy) checks a lot of boxes for a healthy mind and body. 

What It’s Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley

How about birding for a new hobby this year? It really takes little more than an interest to get started, since birds are everywhere. A new book by bird expert David Sibley is perfect for birders and non-birders alike, because it’s a guide to what birds do and why they do it. Sibley answers some frequently asked questions like, “Can birds smell?” “Do robins ‘hear’ worms?” while sharing information about how birds nest, fly, sing and eat and delving deeper into how birds adapt to environmental changes. The large-format book covers more than 200 species of birds and features some 300 illustrations by the author (many of them life-sized). The focus here is on backyard birds like cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees and robins, but other easily observable birds like shorebirds at the beach are included, too. Sibley is the celebrated author and illustrator of several guides to nature including The Sibley Guide to Birds.

The Complete Air Fryer Cookbook by Linda Larsen

This book is not new, but since air fryers are the new Instant Pot (judging from holiday sales), there’s tons of interest and lots to learn. This cookbook shows you how to not just fry, but also bake, grill and roast with your new versatile kitchen tool. There are 101 recipes here ranging from mixed-berry muffins to spicy Thai beef stir-fry. They are easily identifiable as “fast,” “vegetarian,” “family friendly” and “meat-centered.” You’ll also learn air-fryer basics about cooking temperatures, oil options and more.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.