Little India: deliciously different and convenient, too

Some of Birmingham’s best Chinese food is at the Shell gas station on Highland Avenue. The one next to Bottega.

But this is not just any Chinese food. It’s Chinese-Indian fusion that combines cultures and flavors in exciting, delicious ways we haven’t seen here before.

After eating there several times, I wrote a story on Little India for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.

The dishes reflect what owner Rahim Budhwani and his family occasionally ate when he was growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai). There have been food trucks in India for a long time, he says. When he was 10 or 11 years old, he remembers going to them about once a month. The foods with culinary influences from neighboring China were favorites, something they longed for and looked forward to eating. One day, Budhwani’s brother, Karim, suggested he bring the Indo-Chinese concept here.

Budhwani, a businessman with an engineering degree, is the CEO of Encore Franchises, LLC. He had originally entered the Birmingham restaurant market the way a lot of people have done—with a hot dog stand. He put a Sneaky Pete’s franchise in his Highland Avenue convenience store. But at the continued urging of family and friends, he and his wife, Kulsum, decided to put their duel culinary degrees to work on something of their own.

“We started playing with it a little bit here and there,” he says. “We started sampling some stuff out, and people really liked it. And I said, ‘Well, that’s a good start.’ And that’s how Little India was born—out of nowhere and a conversation with my brother.”

Budhwani and Kulsum opened Little India in January 2019 (sharing counter space with Sneaky Pete’s), offering “flavorful, healthy, made-to-order food at a reasonable price.”

There are familiar Chinese dishes here, like hot and sour soup, Mongolian beef, shrimp-fried rice and Szechwan noodles, but they are different—lighter and brighter with noticeable Indian spices and ingredients like turmeric and tamarind, red chili powder imported from India, cardamom and saffron and garam masala. But then there also are dishes like Manchurian paneer that combine Chinese spices with the traditional Indian cheese.

“I think if you’re in for a different kind of cuisine, then this is your restaurant,” Budhwani says. “If you like flavor, then this is your restaurant. If you like freshness, then this is your restaurant. If you like healthy, this is your restaurant.” Prices range from $1.99 for a dessert to $3.99 for soup to $8.99 for an entrée. “Economics also plays a part,” he adds. “So it’s all here at this restaurant.”

Little India Birmingham on Highland Avenue is served by Grubhub and Waitr, but you can eat in if you’d like. The 300-square-foot eatery has a few colorful highboys and chairs and a counter in front of the convenience store windows near the Doritos and Cheetos.

On the weekends, and increasingly with the regular, weekday menu, diners at Little India on Highland can enjoy Bombay-style street foods like pav bhaji (thick, spicy vegetable curry served with a roll), ragda pattice (a dish of white peas and potato cakes that is part of the street-food culture in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujarat), dahi vada (lentil balls in a yogurt sauce topped with chutney), and papdi and samosa chaat.

If you’re lucky, you can try the dahi sev puri (made with yogurt) and pani puri (with a tangy, spicy herb-infused “water”) that absolutely must be eaten in one big bite; fans of these little, filled fried dough balls call them “bombs,” and one explosive bite explains why.

(Follow Little India on Instagram or Facebook to see these Indian specials as well as the $5 lunch specials, usually a gravy of some sort – vegetarian and not – with steamed rice; these change daily, so you can try something new often.)

All these dishes—Indian or Indo-Chinese—are made with attention to detail and absolutely fresh ingredients.

“We try to get most of the vegetables from the local farmers’ markets,” Budhwani says. “All our meat is halal meat, so that way it’s basically good for everyone. The halal part is expensive, of course, but it brings the right flavor out of the product. So we try to use the top-quality products to get the right flavor and the right taste. We don’t compromise on the ingredients part of it, because we think that shouldn’t be done.”

They make their own sauces at Little India (including the soy sauces) every day, import the spices they need and cook every single dish to order.

“It could be totally customized to the way you want it,” Budhwani says. “We’ll make it the way you want it because our purpose is to make sure that you are happy and satisfied when you leave. That’s how … I would like to be treated when I go somewhere. … It’s the same thing we want to offer our customers.”

While his customers might wish for more tables and an open kitchen instead of beverage coolers and chip stands, Budhwani says he is happy right now with his convenience-store locations.

He is, however, planning to put a Little India food truck on Birmingham’s streets within the next few months.

For now, Budhwani is content to “bring the flavors of India in a different fashion to the people of Birmingham. I’m pretty proud of that,” he says.

“And giving a different flavor that people were not used to—I think that’s what I’m really proud of.  And to do it in such a small footprint. I think that’s the best part. Because a lot of people said, ‘You can’t do it.’ And I said, ‘I’ll show you how to do it.’ And that’s how we did it. It worked out.”

Little India

2236 Highland Avenue

Birmingham, AL 35205

205-933-6512

https://littleindiabhm.com

HOURS

Monday – Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday 10 to 10 p.m.

Farm Bowl + Juice Co. is Convenient, Flavorful and #Fresh

Andrea Snyder is all about healthy, convenient and local dining – whether that’s a full, family meal; an easy, nutritious breakfast; a cup of coffee with a friend; or a quick, vitamin-rich juice shot on the way to a gym.

The Birmingham entrepreneur has all that covered.

Snyder and her husband, David, first brought us Urban Cookhouse, a farm-to-fire-to-table fast-casual restaurant, in 2010.  They now own a licensee group that includes the Homewood, Summit, downtown Birmingham and Tuscaloosa locations, and Urban Cookhouses are in three other Alabama cities as well as four other states.

“We were one of the first concepts to bring local food to the fast-casual segment and figure out how to do it at that price point, which is $10 to $12 a meal,” she says.

Farm Bowl + Juice Co., which the Snyders founded in Homewood in January 2018, is just as forward-thinking.

I recently sat down with Andrea Snyder for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.

The small, bright storefront with an Instagrammable abstract mural outside and charming rope swings on the porch, is a neighborhood wellness stop specifically designed to promote a lifestyle of clean eating. There are two locations–one in Homewood and the other in Tuscaloosa.

“We wanted it to be a wellness brand, and so we decided that we would be plant-based,” Snyder says.

“We have no animal products. We want you to always feel good. So we make cold-pressed juices. All of our smoothies are exactly what’s listed on the menu with whole ingredients like almond milk and coconut milk. We have overnight oats and coffee. It’s just a good place to come for clean eating,” she adds, whether that’s a snack or meal replacement or breakfast or lunch or something in between.

Acai berry bowls are at the center of the colorful, healthy menu, which includes oatmeal bowls, cold-pressed juices and smoothies, juice shots, toasts, juice cleanses and a kids’ menu featuring acai and oatmeal bowls and a strawberry smoothie.

Some of the ingredients, like acai berries and mango, are tropical but the Snyders source Alabama ingredients as much as possible. The same area farmers and makers who supply Urban Cookhouse also deliver here. This not only insures the restaurants have fresh, flavorful foods, but there’s also an economic impact and a sense of social responsibility in supporting the farms. “We’ve partnered with these farmers for a long time,” Snyder says, “So it was easy to … just get them to come next door and drop off another batch of something.”

There are in-season strawberries, blueberries and blackberries from Smitherman Farms; kale, spinach, honeydew and watermelon from Southern Oaks Farm; and year-round honey from Eastaboga Bee Co.; wheatgrass from Southern Organics; and coffee roasted locally at Seeds Coffee Co. Framed photos of these trusted partners line the walls of the restaurants.

The ingredients are made into things like the popular Nutty Professor, a bright, satisfying acai bowl. It has Sambazon Açai Berry Sorbet as the base, and then they add strawberries, almonds, granola, peanut butter and local honey. The staff can recommend add-ons, like sliced bananas, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds or cacao nibs.

Oatmeal bowls, with Farm Bowl’s blend of overnight oats, come topped with a variety of things, such as almond butter, local honey, chia seeds, hemp seeds, blueberries, strawberries, apples, nutmeg, cinnamon, toasted quinoa, walnuts and pecans.

The Power Up smoothie is a blend of almond milk, coconut water, avocado, blueberry, spinach, banana, coconut butter, cocoa nibs, chia seeds, hemp seeds, local honey and cinnamon. Recommended add-ons include vegan protein, nutmeg, spirulina or freshly made Seeds coffee ice cubes. The Bounce Back has kale, chard, almond milk, banana, local honey; chia seeds, cinnamon, vegan protein and ginger can be added.

There are cold-pressed juices for every need.

The Refresh is made with watermelon, mint, cucumber and beets; Hydrate works with coconut water, pear, cucumber and honeydew; Gym & Juice is a mixture of honeydew, apple, spinach, spirulina, lemon and celery.

Wellness shots, which Andrea showcased at a chef’s demo at The Market at Pepper Place this summer, are made to order like all the smoothies and bowls and avocado and honey toasts. Juice cleanses are daily combinations of juices and shots that cost $40 and $50. The “summer cleanse challenge” is popular with Farm Bowl’s Instagram followers.

Farm Bowl + Juice Co. provides a fresh, fun and convenient way to consume optimum nutrition, but Snyder wants it to be a place of fellowship, too. She has been pleasantly surprised by the social media following Farm Bowl has inspired. The store features photos of #farmbowlfamous fans online and in stores.

“I want people to make this a part of their lifestyle, to realize that this is convenient. It is a good value. We’re always going to take care of our customers. We also love for them to think of us as an alternative to your coffee shop. I want more of this,” Snyder says, pointing to two young women deep in conversation at a nearby table. “Come and have something healthy besides a muffin. We have great Wi-Fi, and we’d love for you to just come and hang out all day.”

Farm Bowl & Juice Co.

1920 29th Ave. S.

Homewood, Alabama 35209

205-848-2929

1470 Northbank Parkway #170

Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35406

205-710-2990

HOURS

Monday-Friday

7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Saturday-Sunday

8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

https://www.farmbowlandjuiceco.com

On Being Thankful

I love Thanksgiving. I dread Thanksgiving.

There’s so much expectation with this holiday. I love going around the table and saying what we’re thankful for, but before that happens, I get stuck on the food and family and the perfection of those things. Of course, I know nothing is perfect. But still.

And I really, really stress about my menu.

It was so much simpler when all I had to do was bring an appetizer to the feast my grandmother put together each year. Turkey and dressing and fried chicken and the assorted casseroles—green bean, sweet potato, squash—and pecan pie and sweet potato pie and coconut cake.

Now that Thanksgiving is up to me, I spend hours researching recipes and then days comparing them. This stuffing or that one? Green beans or Brussels sprouts? Mashed potatoes or sweet ones?  Pie or cake?

Not this year.

This year, I gave myself permission to simplify. I took one look at the New York Times Cooking suggested menu from Alison Roman who cooks her big feast in a tiny Manhattan kitchen and said, “That’s certainly good enough.”

It took all of five minutes to make this decision. And it will be just fine.

So I’ll make Alison’s Dry-Brined Turkey and (maybe) Sheet-Pan Gravy, Buttered Stuffing with Celery and Leeks, Green Beans and Greens with Fried Shallots, Crushed Sour Cream Potatoes, Spicy Caramelized Squash with Lemon and Hazelnuts and Leafy Herb Salad.

I ordered a chocolate-bourbon pecan pie from Pie Lab, because I am not a baker. And that also is OK. Besides, we have tons of Lebkuchen from friends in Germany.

I’ve assigned appetizers to my kids. We’ll start with Bavarian pumpkin soup and move on to Ashley Mac’s strawberry jam cheese ring. We’ll probably throw in some Dean’s Dip and chips. Maybe just a board with cheeses and nuts. Or rounds of Continental Bakery baguette baked with blue cheese and drizzled with honey.

Even the leftovers are simplified.

I’ll make Becky Satterfield’s Day-After Turkey Soup and Sweet Potato Biscuits (recipes below). And the day after that, it’s the Silver Palate’s Turkey Hash Salad. My family loves that. Then, if there’s still turkey left, I’ll do Sour Cream Turkey Enchiladas with Coriander from the Penzey’s website.

It’s still a lot of work. But I feel really good about it. I am thankful.

Leftover Thanksgiving Turkey Soup with Sweet Potato Biscuits

Total time: 2 hours 30 minutes (prep time: 30 minutes, cook time: 2 hours)

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Turkey Soup

8 cups chicken broth (fresh or boxed) or turkey broth that has been strained through wet cheesecloth before starting new stock

1 turkey carcass, all meat removed

1 carrot, washed, peeled and halved lengthwise

1 whole stalk celery, washed, halved lengthwise

1 medium onion, peeled and halved

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

  • Put everything into a large stockpot. Bring to a boil, and then simmer while covered, about 1 1/2 hours, then strain.
  • When you strain the broth, remove the large bones and carcass with tongs. Strain the broth through a sieve covered with wet cheesecloth. Discard the solids. Add strained broth back into the stockpot.

While your stock is boiling/simmering, prepare:

1 whole carrot, washed, small dice

1 whole stalk celery, washed, small dice

1 medium onion, peeled, cut in small dice

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped roughly

1 bunch rough-chopped, blanched and shocked parsley

leftover Thanksgiving Day vegetables (like green beans, Brussels sprouts and squash)

3 cups leftover turkey meat, white and dark, diced into pieces no larger than a soupspoon

  • In a separate skillet or pot, heat the garlic in the olive oil over medium heat. Allow to brown slightly, about 3 minutes. Add the diced carrots, diced celery and diced onions. Sweat over medium-low heat until softened, 7 or 8 minutes. Set aside until broth has been strained.
  • After broth has been strained and added back to the stockpot, add these sweated vegetables from the pan into the stockpot containing the strained broth along with a medium bunch of rough-chopped, fresh blanched and shocked parsley. Also, add 1cup leftover green beans cut in two-inch segments, 1cup leftover Brussels sprouts cut in fourths, 1cup leftover yellow sautéed squash cut in fourths, 3 cups leftover turkey meat light, dark and also turkey neck meat, if on hand. Dice the turkey meat. Make sure the meat pieces are no larger than the size of a soupspoon.
  • Continue to simmer covered for 25 minutes and then serve 6-8 people with sweet potato biscuits on the side. (Store leftover soup in an airtight container after completely cooling in an ice bath. It should be good for a couple of days.)

Sweet Potato Biscuits

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Prepare baking sheets with parchment paper or cooking release spray. I prefer parchment paper. Set aside.

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

  • Sift all above dry ingredients together

2 tablespoons of finely chopped blanched/shocked parsley (optional)

2 tablespoons of finely chopped blanched/shocked chives (optional)

4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (2 ounces)

1 cup leftover sweet potato casserole with marshmallows (or mashed sweet potatoes)

1/8 – 1/4 cup milk (or more, if needed

  • Mix dry ingredients in food processor. Pulse butter into flour mixture until all butter has been blended into the flour. Process in the sweet potatoes to the flour mixture, just until fully combined with flour.
  • Add 1/8 cup of milk to mixture. Add more milk, a tablespoon or two at a time, if necessary, to achieve a ball of dough in your processor. Dough should be soft and smooth, not dry or too wet. If you end up with dough that is too wet and sticky, add a bit more flour so that it can be handled and rolled. If too dry, add more milk.
  • Roll dough on your lightly floured surface so that it is approximately 1/2-inch thick. Cut in 2-inch rounds with a biscuit cutter. Place rounds on prepared baking sheet. Re-roll remaining dough and continue cutting rounds until all dough is used.
  • Bake for 9-10 minutes, or until biscuits are golden brown.

If you don’t have a food processor, you can prepare this recipe by hand or in a mixer with a paddle attachment. Simply do all the steps in a bowl. If by hand, combine butter with flour using a fork or pastry blender to work the butter into the flour.

If you don’t use leftover sweet potato casserole (a casserole that has had sugar and marshmallows added to it) but use mashed sweet potatoes, I recommend adding 2 tablespoons of brown sugar to your dry ingredients.

Once baked and out of the oven, brush lightly with melted butter or honey or serve plain depending upon your preference.

—Becky Satterfield

Back Forty Beer Company Birmingham: Where the Food is as Popular as the Beer

Photo by Russ Bodner

Invariably, whenever someone mentions Back Forty Beer Company at the Sloss Docks in Birmingham the talk turns to food.

That’s because an award-winning chef with a fine-dining background helms this open kitchen (next to the open brewing production) and is turning out dishes that are delicious and inventive, seasonal and locally sourced and perhaps more than you’d expect.

 I visited Back Forty Beer Company Birmingham recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.

Owner & CEO, Douglas Brown says the full restaurant here is one thing that sets Back Forty Beer Company Birmingham apart from other great breweries in the Magic City. That was part of the plan from the very beginning, and executive chef Russ Bodner has led the restaurant since before Back Forty Birmingham opened in the summer of 2018.

Photo by Russ Bodner

Bodner, a St. Louis native who studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, worked in the kitchen of the Michelin-starred, haute Greek restaurant Anthos with celebrity chef Michael Psilakis and restaurateur Donatella Arpaia. He was the sous chef with James Beard Award-winning chef Gerard Craft at Taste in St. Louis. He honed his unique blend of fine Southern comfort food and exciting global influences on Lake Martin at SpringHouse (with acclaimed chef and Hot and Hot Fish Club alum Rob McDaniel—a five-time James Beard “Best Chef: South” semi-finalist) and then at Kowaliga as executive chef.

“Our goal here,” Bodner says, “is to provide not just regular brewery fare but to have a restaurant that brews beer or a brewery that has a restaurant.”

Either way you look at it, it’s working.

Chef Bodner has created an impressive yet casual farm-to-table menu that is way more than just pub food. Most everything here is made from scratch—the pickles, the mustards, the sausages and sauces. Bodner relies upon local growers like BDA Farm near Tuscaloosa or Ireland Farm for his seasonal produce. He visits the farmers markets for smaller, specific quantities of things, and he turns to locally owned Evans for most of his meats and Gulf-fresh seafood.

photo by Russ Bodner

So you’ll find a beet salad that’s colorful with mustard greens and radishes or local butternut squash soup topped with pickled golden raisins and homemade crème fraiche. Pan-seared jumbo scallops might come with caramelized bok choy, local sweet peppers, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and radishes in a homemade dashi broth. The Niman Ranch pork porterhouse is paired with sweet potato hash, Benton’s ham, peppers and onions. Pastas are homemade, and chef Bodner is excited about the Asian noodle bowls and ramens guests can enjoy during the cooler months.

It’s comfort food, Bodner says, “but done in a really nicely presented way and using the best ingredients that we can.”

That approach gets you wings that are confit-cooked and perfectly spiced whether you choose the mild Naked Pig sauce or Puck’s smoky-sweet heat.

Beautiful, thin-crust pizzas are popular and range from a simple margherita with San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil to a bright, flavor bomb of a pie topped with pancetta and broccolini, mozzarella, garlic, fennel pollen, Calabrian chilies, chili crunch and preserved lemon.

The Burger Throw Down-winning Back Forty cheeseburger is the most popular item on the menu with two patties, American cheese, homemade aioli, house-made pickles and onions sliced so thinly they cook on the burger. They’ve sold some 50,000 so far. It comes with some of the best fries in this city and more of that homemade aioli for dipping.

Then there are beer dinners on Mondays—usually five or six courses all paired with a beer. “It’s a pretty big hit,” Bodner says. “Sometimes we have beers that aren’t necessarily on the menu, that we have smaller quantities of, that we can pour.”

Master brewer Tosh Brown, who trained with Back Forty Gadsden’s master brewers, is responsible for those. He freshly brews popular core, year-round Back Forty beers like Naked Pig, Truck Stop Honey, Freckle Belly and Paw Paw’s Peach Wheat Ale, but he also brews a steady stream of new, experimental beers you’ll only find here. Beers like Hop Tosh West Coast IPA, Unbridled Passion Wheat and “Hike Out” Hefe.

“We focus on hyper localization in all aspects of what we do,” Douglas Brown says. That means offering beer and food that you cannot get anywhere else. And these offerings are always changing.

Douglas Brown credits his staff for the brewery’s success—from Diane DeBord who manages the tap room to Tosh Brown who makes the beers that flow there to Bodner and his kitchen staff to the friendly servers who deliver the foods.

“We’d like for people to walk away from here with this feeling that they were welcomed from the beginning, they were treated well, and they got served great food and great beer,” Brown says.“We ask our employees to ‘act like an owner, experience like a customer, create like an artist, and also take care of our environment and our community.’”

Douglas Brown intentionally set out to create the kind of interesting and inclusive atmosphere he saw in brew houses in Europe. He wanted something that was family friendly.

“I’m most proud of what you see here on a Saturday,” he says, “with just hundreds of people coming through here. … from toddlers up to great-grandparents. Of course, it’s always nice if they’re enjoying the food and the beer; we’re always happy for that. But I’m just happy to see the people here enjoying themselves.”

Back Forty Beer Company Birmingham

3201 1st Avenue North
Birmingham, Alabama 35222

​205-407-8025

https://www.backfortybeer.com/birmingham

Taproom & Kitchen Hours:

Wednesday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Thursday: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.

Sunday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Monday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Tuesday: Closed

Opa, y’all! It’s time for Birmingham’s Greek Festival

It takes a village to put on Birmingham’s beloved Greek Festival.

For months before the event, now in its 47th year at Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Birmingham, hundreds of people from this city’s thriving Greek community work together to prepare. They cook, they bake and they practice centuries-old dances. They are doing what they have always done – what people still do in villages all over Greece – creating a celebration and inviting people to join them.

Some 30,000 people will show up for this year’s three-day festival Oct. 3-5. Many are Greek. Most are not, and that’s just fine. “It’s a time,” says Sonthe Burge, “when everybody gets to be Greek for the weekend.”

This story originally ran on Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire piece and see our cool video here.

Burge is chair of a cookie committee that started working early in the summer with a series of cookie workshops to make a single kind of pastry – koulourakia, the twisted, buttery one.

“It’s a great cookie,” she says. “It’s just really nice … it’s more of a butter cookie that’s not super sweet. So it doesn’t go in the category with the baklava or the melos (melomakarona). They have a syrup and are so much sweeter. This is more like a biscotti. Like a Greek biscotti.”

By the time she and her teams are done, they will have made more than 1,600 dozen of these cookies. They will sell them for $10 a dozen, and they very likely will sell out of all 19,488 pieces by Saturday morning.

Burge’s crews of 50 or so volunteers for each two-day workshop include women (and some men) of all ages who work with a few church employees to measure, mix, roll, shape, butter and bake the sweets. Young mothers drop off their children at mothers’ day out and come to the church kitchen to work – and learn – alongside older women who could roll and twist these cookies in their sleep. In the banquet hall, yayas and papous, who no longer want to stand in the kitchen sit at tables and bag the baked koulourakia.

And this is just one variety of sweets that you’ll find at the Greek Festival.

“We have koulourakia, which we’re making today,” Burge says. “We have baklava; that’s what most people are familiar with, and we are really known for our baklava. (That committee will make nearly 25,000 pieces.) We have kourambethes, that’s a Greek wedding cookie (there are 9,034 of these), and then melomakarona, which is a honey spice cookie (more than 6,000 pieces of this labor-intensive pastry are made), and we have Greek donuts (these loukoumathes will be fried to order).”

There’s also chocolate baklava; almond crescents; and kataiffi, made with shredded filo, walnuts, honey and cinnamon.

Of course, there are lots more foods at this free, family-friendly festival.

Appetizers and entrees include pitas (filo triangles filled with feta cheese or spinach and feta); dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves); lamb souvlakia; Greek-style chicken; Greek salad; pastichio (a kind of Greek lasagna topped with béchamel); beef and lamb gyros; and a veggie plate with rice pilaf, Greek-style green beans, a Greek salad, spanakopita and tiropita. These savory dishes are individually priced. Everything is handmade.

All this is available to eat there or take away. You also can use the drive-through, which is available all three days from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. No need to call ahead and place your order.

All-day entertainment includes the George Karras Band, DJ Disco Hristo and local dance troupes ranging in age from kindergartners to high schoolers.

“I always encourage people to go into the cathedral,” Burge says. “There are church tours that are guided, and also you can … just take one on your own.” This is the fourth oldest Greek Orthodox parish in the Southeast. The basilica features a stunning Byzantine interior with stained glass, and the iconography is beautiful.

The Greek Festival is lots of fun, but there’s a serious side to all this, too. The festival has donated more than $3 million to local and national charities, including The Bell Center, The Exceptional Foundation, Firehouse Ministries, The WellHouse and Greater Birmingham Ministries.

The Birmingham church has an active Philoptochos Society, which is one of the largest women’s philanthropic organizations in the U.S. (although men also can be involved). Just recently, Burge says, the national organization sent $25,000 to the Bahamas for disaster relief.

“We’re all part of something bigger … all across the country … we all belong to this national organization, and we’re just a little microcosm of it here in Birmingham,” she says. “So in Birmingham, our mission is to help the needy, to help the poor. And we give money to different sorts of organizations. We’ve paid for equipment and different things at Children’s Hospital. We also have a scholarship fund for members of our church – for children who are graduating from high school going to college.”

The local chapter’s biggest fundraiser is the sale of frozen pans of pastichio during the Greek Festival.

One Cavernous Dining Room

The Rattlesnake Saloon, in a cavern under an enormous rock bluff in north Alabama, has been called one of the most unusual restaurants in the United States. The Duke Burger at this cave café is on the list of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.” If you haven’t yet been there and eaten that, thousands of people from around the world have already beaten you to it. The guest books show visitors from all 50 states and more than 30 countries.

I traveled to the Rattlesnake Saloon recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.

The restaurant is only part of what the Foster family has built on their thousands of acres of beautiful forested land with miles of trails, stunning views, places to fish and several ancient Native American shelters, one of which houses a burial place dating back 8,000 years.

The Seven Springs Lodge came first. For years, Danny Foster worked this land, which has been in his family since 1916, before creating the lodge.

People come here to hike, hunt, camp, craft, attend concerts, and ride four-wheelers, side-by-side vehicles, ATVs, dirt bikes and horses on the woodland trails. Schoolchildren show up for nature adventures and motorcycle enthusiasts gather for bike rallies. SHiFT Design (a community of builders, makers, designers and creators) has a summer camp here. Resident artists Gabriel and Robin Sellers carve and paint one-of-a-kind wood and stone sculptures. This also is a place for racking horse races, frontier days with chuckwagon races, bonfires, rodeos with bull riding and simply sitting on a porch.

Danny and his younger son, William, realized that every lodge needs a saloon, and the cavern was the perfect place. During construction, workers found a nest of rattlesnakes under a piece of tin, and the place got a name.

The Sidewinder’s Trading Post was the final element of this family enterprise. Danny’s wife, Momma Faye, runs this (sometimes with her beloved granddaughter, Willow, nearby), and her genuine hospitality is as much of a draw as the camping supplies, souvenirs, tack, postcards, handcrafted jewelry and unique T-shirts.

The popularity of all this, and perhaps the restaurant in particular, comes down to “curiosity,” says Danny. “They always say, ‘If you build something unusual …’ and another thing, we make it hard to get to.” (The restaurant is open three days a week seasonally.) He says, “If it’s easy, people will put it off. You only have certain hours, so people have to make arrangements to get to it; it’s a challenge. … They have to be deliberate about it.

“It really, really took off,” he says of the restaurant, “more than I expected.”

The cavern that houses Rattlesnake Saloon was a hog pen several decades ago. Today, an air-conditioned kitchen, bar and dining room is built right alongside the rock walls. This is an atmosphere like none other, with swinging saloon doors, antlers, a pressed-tin ceiling, chandeliers and some shockingly large rattlesnake skins (we counted eight that are stretched down rough-hewn columns in the middle of the dining area). There’s a stuffed rattler and an unfortunate rabbit in a dramatic Southern woodland diorama. The bar is colorful, with beer taps and a wall of cans on display. But to really experience Rattlesnake Saloon, you’ll want to eat outside at one of dozens of tables in the cavern, which is cool even in the summer. It is decorated with neon beer signs and offers a nice view of the woods and the small stage where, at night, there’s karaoke on Thursdays and live music on Fridays and Saturdays.

The saloon is accessible via “taxi.” You ride down and back up a steep hill in the back of an extended cab pickup truck. That taxi runs pretty much constantly, so you can come and go as you please. Of course, you can ride your horse to the saloon, too, if you brought one.

Momma Faye says she knows Rattlesnake Saloon has fans everywhere because she’s seen her T-shirts all over the world. “It’s nothing to see them in the Bahamas … and Cancun,” she says. “But we went to Wales with my son on a teaching trip, and we were walking down the street … and there were two people with our rattlesnake T-shirts on … in Wales!”

They come for a fun, themed menu that starts with “skunk rings” (good, crispy and sweet onion rings), “cowboy buttons” (fried mushrooms) and “snake eyes & tails” (fried jalapeno slices and green beans that are a must-have). That Duke Burger ($11) is the most popular item, though. This award-winning hamburger features a thick, half-pound Black Angus patty topped with applewood-smoked bacon and fried snake eyes (again, jalapeno slices) and served on an onion roll.

Since Rattlesnake Saloon opened in 2009, busloads of people visited for lunch and dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, making it a popular tourist draw for remote Colbert County. But in 2015, when Food Network featured the place on “Craziest Restaurants in America,” Rattlesnake Saloon really took off.

The Saturday after the show aired, Momma Faye says, “We had 4,500 people here. Then we quit counting.”

The place is special, she says, because of the landscape. “But the other special thing about this place is the people who come.”

Momma Faye talks about hosting children who are blind and deaf and watching them experience nature in their own ways. She talks about the design-based adventure-learning opportunities led by her older son, Owen. (He is a professor of industrial design, and, each summer, his SHiFT Design Camp draws high school and college students from all over the world.) She talks about a young man from China who learned to drive in Danny’s truck.

“We have some of the best people in the world to come,” she says.

Rattlesnake Saloon

1292 Mount Mills Road

Tuscumbia, Alabama 35674

256-370-7220

https://www.rattlesnakesaloon.net

Hours: Thursday, Friday and Saturday (February-November) 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (April-September). (Near the beginning or end of the season, you might want to call before you go. Also, check the online calendar for special events.)

Beer and wine are served at the Rattlesnake Saloon after 5 p.m. only.

Tables are first-come, first-served. Only three available slots for group reservations (25 people or more) are allowed per night. For reservations, call before 4:45 p.m. (256-370-7218) and ask for Ms. Tee Tee.

Johnny’s Greek-and-Three and Much More

Johnny’s restaurant in Homewood is more than a meat-and-three. It’s more than a Greek-and-three, too. It is, in fact, one of the best places in the entire country to get this type of homegrown cuisine, and chef-owner Timothy Hontzas has three consecutive James Beard Foundation nominations to back that up.

The restaurant specializes in local Southern ingredients with Greek influences, and it just celebrated its seventh anniversary. Hontzas’s fresh, inventive approach to familiar foods is one reason for the lines out the door every day.

I sat down with Tim Hontzas recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.

The menu at Johnny’s is written in chalk for a reason. It changes seasonally, of course, but it also changes weekly and even daily, depending upon what’s absolutely fresh. There are two of these chalk menus, and you’ll want to make note of both. The first one you’ll see on the wall that faces the door is “Tim’s menu.” It’s the one that lets this classically trained chef shine with dishes like fried chicken thighs drizzled with chipotle- and coriander-spiked Eastaboga honey.

The menu above the registers showcases typical Southern favorites like squash casserole, lady peas, turnips, fried catfish, the ever-popular chicken potpie and the Parmesan grit cake. (Do not pass up that grit cake.) There’s usually a daily special, too, and it is always special:  This chef’s take on a tuna stack features sashimi-grade ahi tuna marinated in Creole spices and served with seaweed salad, chipotle sticky rice (from the Mississippi Delta), pickled shrimp from Bayou La Batre and a smoked sungold tomato compote with a ponzu-Dijon vinaigrette.

The vegetables Hontzas serves come from his farm partner, Dwight Hamm, who has farms in Cullman and Hanceville. “He dictates the chalkboard for us,” Hontzas says. Sometimes Hamm brings in ingredients Hontzas didn’t order (like those sungold tomatoes), and Hontzas says, “That pushes me to be better and to create.”

Hontzas has been loyal to Hamm since the beginning.

“He’s old school,” Hontzas says. “He’s not (growing) micro arugula and horseradish frisee; he’s growing collards, turnips, cantaloupes and okra and watermelons. I had one of his watermelons last week, and it was one of the sweetest watermelons I’ve ever eaten. No irrigation system, (he) depends upon God for the rain, and he just does an unbelievable job.”

Johnny’s is named for Hontzas’s grandfather Johnny Hontzopolous,who, at age 19, traveled to the U.S. on a cattle boat in 1921 with $17 in his pocket. Hontzopolous(the family’s last name was shortened to Hontzas in the 1950s), like many of the immigrants from the tiny Greek village of Tsitalia in the Peloponnese, found a job in the restaurant industry.  He worked hard and made a name for himself and a living for his family with a series of successful eateries in Mississippi, the last one being a 325-seat restaurant in Jackson called Johnny’s. Interestingly, this same Hontzopolousfamily made their mark on Greek-influenced meat-and-threes in Birmingham, too, with Niki’s West being one of the most famous and beloved.

And so Tim Hontzas cooks what he grew up eating:  spanakopita, souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb), and tzatziki and cheesecake made with homemade yiaourti (Greek yogurt). Born and raised in Mississippi, he also grew up eating Southern foods like field peas (which they grew and shelled themselves), cornbread and turnips, so he cooks that, too, but in ways that are healthy and fresh. “We just treat that product with respect,” he says, “and try to let the product itself shine.” Instead of relying upon ham hocks for flavoring his peas, Hontzas uses bay leaves he grows in his backyard from a tree that originated in his Papou’s village. Instead of adding sugar to temper the bitterness of turnips, he caramelizes onions to sweeten them naturally. The okra, available only during its season in the summer, is never any bigger than your pinky and it’s fried whole in a light and crispy panko breading. There is a 15-hour pot roast.

And because this is his place and he can do what he wants, Hontzas also cooks with the fine-dining methods he learned while working with James Beard Award-winner John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi.

For the past three years, Hontzas has been a James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef South. He says the recognition never gets old, and it’s also not all about him.

“I was proud for myself, but I was proud for my staff. They deserve just as much of the recognition.”

These James Beard nods, stories in Food & Wine and Garden & Gun and a Southern Foodways Alliance video have brought Johnny’s national recognition, but what happens here every day at lunch is much more personal. The restaurant’s mantra— written on the wall for all to see—was Hontzas’s Papou’s mantra, too:  “We prepare food for the body, but good food to feed the soul.”

“Our food has a story to tell,” Hontzas says. “I want you to taste that. I want you to taste our history. I want you to taste our past, our culture because it’s very similar to Southern hospitality. Greek-Southern cuisine,” he says, “it’s family. It’s breaking bread together. It’s community.” There are very few differences, he adds, that can’t be put aside for collard greens and cornbread.

Johnny’s

2902 18thStreet South, Suite 200

Homewood, AL 35209

205-802-2711

http://www.johnnyshomewood.com

Lunch Hours:  Sunday through Friday 10:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Private parties available in the evenings.
Closed on Saturday.

Lady Pea Hummus by Dinner.

Carey Thommason of Dinner. in Crestline Village did the chef demo today at The Market at Pepper Place. Carey made Lady Pea Hummus, which I missed tasting because I was sweating next door at Ignite Cycle. However, I know Carey’s food is great, and I couldn’t resist making a batch for my family’s Sunday dinner. I used pink-eyed peas that I got from Knights Farm.

Here’s how you can do it, too.

Lady Pea Hummus by Dinner.

Ingredients

4 cups lady peas

15 basil leaves

4 cloves garlic

1 tsp slat

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

¾ cup olive oil

Instructions

Pick over lady peas. Rinse the peas in fresh cold water and drain. Fill a large pot with cold water and add the peas. Bring to a boil. Lower temperature and cook for about 45 minutes or until very tender. Drain and cool completely.

In a food processor, add the cooked peas, basil, garlic and salt. Puree, and, with the motor running, slowly add lemon juice and olive oil.

Serve with raw vegetables and pretzels.

Fresh, Bright Flavors at the Wildflower Cafe

Over the years, Wildflower Café has become a dining destination in Mentone, which is, of course, its own awesome destination atop Lookout Mountain.

I traveled to Mentone recently for Alabama NewsCenter to spotlight this unique restaurant. You can read the entire story here.

Café owner Laura Catherine Moon (just “Moon” to everyone she knows and meets) is as much of a draw as the regionally famous tomato pie or the carefully curated small general store with handmade art and crafts or the eclectically furnished, hippy-chic dining rooms or the colorful, peaceful wildflower garden surrounding the 1800s log cabin that houses the café and store.

Moon has owned Wildflower Café for more than a decade, but she never really intended to go into the restaurant business.

“It’s true,” she says. “I didn’t mean to.” She had owned several shops in and around Mentone throughout the years. One of them was a natural health food store called Mountain Life. “I sold organic produce and natural foods,” she says. “I sold herbs and my herbal blends. It was a store for wellness. It was sort of a convenience health food store up on the mountain.” Whenever the produce would start to wilt, she would think to herself:  “Well, if I could just cook it, then people could know just how good this food is.”

About this time, the Wildflower Café became available for purchase after being open for about a year. Moon first wanted to team up with the café’s chef, thinking he could run the restaurant and she would run her store. When he left three months later, she stepped up.

“I never even worked in a restaurant before I owned this one,” she says. “So it was a huge challenge to learn the ins and outs and the ropes and how to do it. And it just turned out that I’m really good at it.”

People come up from Birmingham and Montgomery to visit the café; they drive down from Nashville and Chattanooga. They travel over from Douglasville and Atlanta.

They come to Wildflower Café for the grilled or blackened wild-caught salmon and trout; the gourmet chicken salad with grapes and almonds; the big Canyon Burger made with freshly ground sirloin and filet; grilled chicken smothered with sautéed onions, bell peppers, honey-mustard sauce and cheeses; the prime rib with its crust of cracked peppercorns and spices (all these meats are hormone-free); angel hair pasta with a flavorful strawberry-balsamic sauce (there’s a vegan version of this dish, too); and signature shrimp and grits made with polenta. They come for hummingbird cake and old-fashioned chess pie and homemade crepes filled with sweet cream cheese and topped with house-fresh strawberry puree. And a great many of them come for the savory, cheesy tomato pie, which is so popular that Moon also offers a tomato pie wrap, a tomato pie salad, a tomato pie burger and a loaded tomato pie entrée (vegetarian and not).

A few words about this famous tomato pie:  It is worth any drive. Ripe, roma tomatoes are cooked down to sweetness and marinated in balsamic vinaigrette. Some cheddar and mozzarella and a beautifully flaky crust make it completely delicious.

Moon relies on area farmers for lots of her fresh ingredients like the humanely raised pork and poultry from Mildred’s Meadows Farm or fresh tomatoes, squash, corn, herbs and lettuces from The Farm at Windy Hill, Mountain Sun Farm and Feel Good Farm. “Nena’s (Produce and General Store), in the valley down here, carries some of the local farmers’ stuff,” she says. “So I’ll go down and buy from her as well.”

She brings local musicians to Wildflower on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and sometimes Thursdays. The country store is a gallery of local and regional arts and crafts:  clothing, wood crafts, jewelry, soaps, pottery, paintings, candles, music, books, foods like honey and jams and organic chocolates and Moon’s own natural lip balms and skincare (when she has the time to harvest the ingredients).

Moon says she’d like for customers to tell other people that “they came here and had an amazing experience and that the staff was friendly, the food was great and they just felt good when they were here. That’s what I want them to say,” she says. “And that the Wildflower is a great complement to Mentone. That would be a huge compliment to me, because Mentone is one of my favorite places on the planet. No matter where I’ve ever traveled, Mentone is the best.”

Wildflower Café

6007 Alabama Highway 117

Mentone, AL 35984

256-634-0066

http://www.mentonewildflower.com

Reservations are highly suggested for dinner and must be made by phone at 256-634-0066 or in person.  The café does not take reservations for lunch or Sunday brunch.

Hours:  Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. General Store open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday
Lunch  11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner 4 to 8 p.m.
General Store open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday
Brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. General Store open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

(On holiday weekends, the restaurant closes at 6 p.m.; call and check before you visit.)

Soul Food Saturdays and Tasty Thursdays

I went to Soul Food Saturday at Arlington House this past Saturday and loved every delicious minute of it. Pork wings and braised collards and perfect mac and cheese. Sweet tea and some chocolate cake made the visit complete.

Here’s some info from the home’s website:

Arlington is a fine example of Greek Revival architecture dating from the 1840s. Originally called “The Grove,” the house was built by Judge William S. Mudd, one of the ten founders of Birmingham, and is the only remaining antebellum mansion remaining in Birmingham.

Shortly before the end of the Civil War, General James Wilson arrived with over 13,000 troops and, using Arlington as his headquarters, planned the destruction of the Confederate iron furnaces and the military school at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The property went through several owners and in 1902 became the home of Robert S. Munger (who also had one of the first “motor cars” in Birmingham). Mr. Munger did many renovations including plumbing and electric lights. He had another structure moved behind the main house, and that was used for a kitchen, dining room, sun parlor and sleeping quarters.

Located on six acres in the heart of Old Elyton, Arlington is a center for historical, cultural, and civic activities.

And Soul Food on Saturdays … on August 10, 17 and 31. It’s $10 for a plate with $3 for dessert. This lunch is served from 11:30 to 3. So make plans now.

You also can get lunch (not necessarily soul food and by reservation only) at Arlington on Thursdays during August and beyond. During “Thursdays at Arlington,” guests will receive a salad, entrée, dessert and beverage for $20. The price of lunch also includes a tour of Arlington House. See the schedule here.

And the beautifully appointed historic home is available for weddings and other events.

Arlington House and Museum

331 Cotton Avenue, Southwest
Birmingham, Alabama 35211
Phone: 205-780-5656

Admission:
$5.00 per adult
$3.00 per student 6 to 18 years
special rates available for groups