Joy Smith made a name for herself with her creamy cheesecakes, but her new café offers plenty of savory treats, too.
Smith is the chef-owner of Sorelle Café, tucked into Homewood’s close-knit Edgewood neighborhood. She opened her café in August of 2021, and the cozy and comfortable storefront on Broadway (where Lag’s Eatery used to be) is a dream fully and deliciously realized. It’s also the natural progression of a multifaceted business Smith started in 2017 with a single space in the West Homewood Farmers Market.
She quickly built a name and a clientele and moved to the bigger, busier Saturday Market at Pepper Place. She found retail outlets in local Piggly Wiggly stores and at Smiley Brothers Specialty Foods in Pelham. She catered for friends and family.
Smith still has the catering company—offering everything from pick-up and delivery breakfast, lunches and dinners to full-service big events like weddings “with servers and all the bells and whistles”—as well as the retail business, but now she also has a place of her own.
We sat down with Smith for a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can see the entire store here and watch a cool video by my partner Brittany Faush.
“This whole thing has been a fantasy since I was seven,” she says. “When the space came open, I made the leap. It was a leap of faith, too. It’s definitely not lost on me that I’m on this side of the glass. … It’s a lot of work, but I’m fully aware of the blessings of it and I’m thankful.”
The café has been “very well received,” Smith says. “Walk in; look in the cooler; grab your breakfast, lunch or dinner; and leave happy.” Customers can eat at the café, inside or outside. “People can come and sit at my pie counter and enjoy a salad, sandwich or a slice of cheesecake. I’m working on a good cup of coffee and hopefully, eventually, a glass of wine.”
The café offers grab-and-go meals like grilled ginger-lime chicken with confetti rice and cilantro aioli, tenderloin medallions with creamy polenta and mustard-sage sauce, classic lasagna and a neighborhood favorite—meatloaf muffins and mashed potatoes. “They always say, ‘you can’t, please everyone,’ but I’m going to sure try,” Smith says.
Inventive dishes offer a variety of tastes and textures. Customers eat their fresh colors with a blue salad (baby spinach, blue cheese, blueberries, dried cherries and a cherry vinaigrette), a red salad (mixed greens, roasted red peppers, strawberries, goat cheese, sesame crunchies and sesame-red wine vinaigrette) an orange salad (romaine, carrots, oranges, grapefruit, toasted almonds and a ginger-citrus vinaigrette) and a green salad (baby spinach, cucumber, green grapes, goat cheese, currants, toasted almonds and a basil green goddess dressing).
Vegetarian options range from a veggie pot pie with rutabaga, russet potatoes and cannellini to mushroom enchiladas with spinach, peppers, onions and avocado cream to vegetable lasagna with spinach, squash and mushrooms.
Most meals are conveniently packaged for two, four or six people, so families have choices. “Another thing I think sets us apart is some of our dishes can be utilized in more than one way,” Smith says. “Like our roasted veggie pesto pasta is a little side dish that is great with our sliders for lunch. But also, you can heat that dish up. I’m the only one in my family that eats shrimp, so I’ll throw a handful of shrimp in, throw the pasta in, three minutes and you’ve got a beautiful dinner.”
Smith says she tries to buy from local purveyors as much as possible—fresh eggs from Bois d’ Arc Farm (aka BDA Farm) in Uniontown go into her quiches and frittatas. She’s working with Birmingham’s Red Bike Coffee, and she cooks with organic produce and grains.
Her cheesecake deserves a few words.
“It’s been in our family for a long time,” she says. “It’s not a New York-style cheesecake. It’s baked twice in two different layers. It has a sour cream layer and a cream cheese layer. Super light and creamy, not really sweet. It goes great with fresh fruit. It has a graham-cracker crust made with tons of butter and lots of love.”
The café space is inviting. Her pie counter is a beautiful, silky-smooth and huge live-edge piece of cherry wood. You might smell the aroma of homemade stock bubbling on the stove in the kitchen. Refrigerated cases (painted with flowers) hold grab-and-go cheesecakes, casseroles, entrees, sides and salads. Lush plants thrive among the upholstered wingback chairs and antique tables. “I kept saying, ‘I don’t want metal seats. I don’t want cement on the floor. I don’t want hard surfaces.’ … I wanted it to feel cozy—a place where you want to hang out.”
Be sure to take a look at the miniature kitchen diorama Smith’s sister created for her, and marvel at the tiny bowls and pans, the little dishes drying on a rack, the pies, the clock that looks like the clock Smith remembers from her childhood, the miniscule reading glasses scattered here and there.
It’s details like this that make Sorelle special. Even the name of her business is meaningful—Sorelle translates to “sister” in Italian. Smith says she relied upon the good advice of great friends when she was getting started. One friend, especially, would always encourage her to prioritize her goals.
“When I was trying to come up with a logo, I was like, okay, ‘What is the most important thing to me?’ And it’s relationships. It’s your tribe; it’s your sisterhood. It’s family and friends. So, that’s where Sorelle came from. I wanted to build a place where (we) could gather and eat a good meal and have fellowship together.”
She shares her café space with a sister of sorts. Both Smith and Fanolua Gulas are members of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, which offers mentoring and scholarships and grants to women pursuing culinary careers.
“I’m so excited,” Smith says about Gulas, who owns The Greek Kouzina, which lots of people know from Pepper Place. “She makes the best melt-in-your-mouth baklava and spanakopita—beautiful triangles of spanakopita.”
Smith says, “What matters most in this world is relationships. And I’m going to brag a little bit. Most people say that they’re honored to have one good friend in the world. I am beyond blessed, because I have handfuls of good friends and support. Meeting other women—and we bond so quickly—I love to support other people and other women. I’m so proud that I have a really good, big support system. That’s what it’s all about.”
Smith is self-trained with plenty of restaurant experience—back of the house and front, too.
“My mom was a single mom. … She was a nurse and worked all the time. But she cooked all of our meals—homemade bread, pies, all the good stuff. I just grew up next to her. She would often get dinner started and leave a note, you know, ‘the potatoes are in the water; just boil them and mash them.’ So I’ve been cooking forever.” She started sharing her love of food early, too, inviting friends over after school for a bite of whatever was left over from the night before.
Her first job was in a small-town bar. “I worked one night dishwashing and moved up so fast. They wanted me to be the manager in … three months at 16 years old. It was crazy.”
Until recently, Smith had been operating out of a commercial kitchen (which was hard for her customers to find); these days she makes new friends daily as she carves out her own place in the neighborhood. A water station out front draws runners who often return for lunch or dinner; there are dog biscuits and a water bowl there, too.
She says being in Homewood means a lot to her. “It’s my favorite, favorite thing. I’m so honored to be here and to serve this community. I’ve lived in Homewood for 23 years. … meeting the people walking in the door, and they say, ‘I live right up the street.’ Their kids come in; I have some games stuffed away for the kids. … I’ve had people come in on their lunch break and bring out their computer; a couple people that I know who are writers have used the space.”
When asked what she does best, Smith simply says: “Feed people. Yeah. Mind, body and soul. That’s what I hear. That’s what I feel.
“I love to take care of people. I love to feed people, so I don’t even have to make the beautiful … whatever, if I’m feeding you and you’re saying ‘ummm’ and we’re talking and you’re enjoying your experience, it fills me up.”
Smith says she wants people to know the care she takes preparing their food—whether they get it from a grocery shelf, during a catering event or at her café.
“I want everybody to love the food. I want them to know that it was thoughtfully prepared with intention and love. I hope it’s more than just food, though. I hope it’s a connection because that, to me, is what it’s all about.”
There’s ice cream, of course. Lots of it—scooped into cups, waffle cones, waffle cups and packed in larger containers to go. There’s a rainbow of homemade popsicles, too. But you’ll also find fresh fruit in a cup, spicy snacks in a bag, elote (Mexican street corn) on a stick as well as ice-cold juices, fresh chicharrones, and homemade potato chips.
And the flavors! Sweet, spicy, salty, sour, savory. Sometimes even all in a single treat! And, if you want more heat, there are bottles of Valentina hot sauce on the tables.
Juan Sanchez, the owner of La Nueva Michoacana and the person who makes the ice creams and popsicles and just about everything else here, says this combination of ice cream and snacks is typical of what you would find in a similar shop in Michoacán, a state in west-central Mexico where his family is from originally.
With Ady Lopez translating, Sanchez tells us that this kind of ice cream shop is very popular in Mexico but, of course, it’s not what you’d usually find in Alabama, so that makes his place different from other ice cream shops here. Also, he enjoys providing variety for his customers.
It should be noted, and Sanchez says, there are thousands of Michoacanas all over Mexico and throughout the United States. (It has become a generic term, although there are lawsuits pending about this.) Like the hot dog stands owned by the first Greeks who came to Birmingham, a “Michoacana” can be a path to economic mobility, a foothold in a local food community, a way to build an independent (usually family-owned) business without a lot of capital.
With a 4.5 rating on Google reviews and a line out the door on the weekends, the bright, colorful La Nueva Michoacana in Homewood, with its shiny silver tables, family-friendly booths and Mexican music, enjoys a loyal following. Sanchez, who has been in business for five years this month, says his “customers are a variety of people. Every culture. The main audience is Hispanics, but we have a variety.”
They seem to enjoy everything, but a quick glance at a Sunday afternoon crowd shows ice cream to be the main draw—especially for families.
There are some 28 different flavors of ice cream right now, but Sanchez says he’s planning to add 14 more in the next month or so. These flavors range from creamy white coconut with fresh coconut flakes to a vibrantly blue “cookie monster” ice cream filled with broken bits of cookies. There’s much more including mango; pistachio; chocolate; and an amazing caramel ice cream with cajeta, a goat’s milk caramel imported from Mexico.
The treats are made in-house from natural ingredients (“es natural” is part of the store’s logo). Most of the recipes, Sanchez says, are family recipes. He learned some from his sister, and he also has friends in Mexico in the food industry who have shared their recipes with him.
Gallons of icy fruit juices (aguas frescas) include mango, coconut, mixed fruit, cantaloupe, hibiscus, and more. The lime-and-cucumber version is especially refreshing.
A colorful variety of paletas (popsicles) offers familiar and exotic options. Some are made with cream; others are fruit based. There are a few versions of strawberries and cream; there are straight-up fruit paletas made with mango, coconut, lemon, avocado, strawberries and more. Many of the popsicles are loaded with big pieces of ripe fruit—as pretty as they are tasty.
Sanchez says, “How they look brings the attention of the audience, and then the audience wants to buy the product.” He adds that when he makes them, he “puts a lot of thought and effort into it. It takes a lot of patience to do the small details.”
You’ll find popsicles here you’ll not find elsewhere. There’s a creamy fruit-studded, not-too-sweet paleta reminiscent of a traditional Mexican fruit salad. We loved the delightfully sweet-fiery mango-and-chamoy combination that is a popsicle version of “fruit in a cup.”
Then there’s actual fruit in a cup—big chunks of fresh, mixed tropical fruits topped with chamoy sauce and chile powder. The mangonada is one of the most popular items here. Another fruit concoction is called gazpacho and features mixed fruit with cheese (and onions if you want). Also in a cup but savory: Mexican street corn salad (esquites) topped with chile powder and lime.
A large rack holds dozens of flavors of chips offering countless options for easy, to-go snacks in colorful bags. You see Doritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, and Fritos in flavors you might not have seen before. There are bags of Sabritas, Rancheritos, Crujitos, and more. Pick a bag, and they will fill it with toppings like melted cheese, jalapenos, salsa, and corn sticks or cucumber, jicama, peanuts, and chamoy or corn, mayonnaise, jalapenos, and chile powder. Or any combination you’d like.
La Nueva Michoacana is only one of many Green Springs businesses offering global flavors. Sabor Latino serves up Peruvian dishes just steps away. There’s a small tienda (with imported Hispanic goods) in this shopping center, too. And the popular La Perla Nayarita Mexican Seafood & Grill is in an outparcel here. All along Green Springs, you’ll find a world of diverse dishes—Ethiopian, Korean, more Mexican, Salvadorian, Middle Eastern, Chinese and more—in restaurants and in a number of food trucks that come and go.
Just down the street, Mi Pueblo Supermarket draws regional customers with its bounty of fresh produce and dried chiles; homemade tortillas and scores of pastries; meats and seafoods; Mexican soft drinks, snacks, and candies; and specialty housewares. There’s a daily buffet in the back, a snack station up front and mariachi music storewide. Mediterranean Food Market, known for its helpful, friendly service, is a popular place for halal meats; Middle Eastern foods; and specialty cheeses, breads, candies, and spices. The new Halal Supermarket International is a short drive away. Hometown Supermarket is one of the state’s largest Asian markets, and it also has impressive African and Indian and South American sections. Really, the place is huge, and Mr. Chen’s Authentic Chinese Restaurant is inside the store.
Green Springs Highway is one of the busiest business roadways in Homewood, and the City of Homewood sees it as an important gateway between Lakeshore and Oxmoor Road. Also recognizing the increasing regional draw of the diverse businesses located there—and Birmingham’s growing appetite for global flavors—the city is making access to these stores and restaurants easier with a $2.25M revitalization project that includes beautiful green medians with trees. New infrastructure will make Green Springs more bike and pedestrian friendly while better regulating traffic. Eventually a bike lane will travel all the way to UAB.
It’s an investment in the city, its residents, its businesses, its many visitors, and in good taste. From a food standpoint, there is no other place quite like this in our area.
The changes will most certainly draw even more new customers to the businesses here, and places like La Nueva Michoacana will welcome them.
Sanchez says he feels proud of what he’s built here in Alabama; he’s proud to own a Michoacana. “We’re bringing a part of Mexico here,” he says.
Rick Bragg has the amazing ability to tell stories that touch our hearts. He always has. His books like All Over but the Shoutin’ and the more recent Best Cook in the World draw the reader in with just the right mix of tenderness and toughness and honest humor. He tempers sorrow with laughter, and somehow, we’re different and better when we put down his books. He’s back with a book about a dog, and it’s another winner. The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and his People, Lost and Foundgoes on sale September 21. It’s a warm and laugh-out-loud funny story about how Bragg’s life was changed by a poorly behaved, half-blind stray dog “an illegitimate Australian shepherd” who wandered onto his rural property. He named the dog Speck. It seems Speck, who likes mayonnaise sandwiches and chasing all livestock, showed up exactly when Bragg needed … something. And so, this is the story of two damaged creatures who help each other heal.
Oh, the humble sweet potato! Is there nothing it can’t do? Apparently not, as Mary-Frances Heck, senior food editor at Food & Wine, shows us. Sweet Potato Ice Cream? Yes. Sweet Potato Galette with a just-cooked egg on top? Consider it done. Sweet Potato Leaf and Fava Bean Stew? Why not?
Some 60 bold and delicious recipes take us from appetizers to sides to dinner to dessert—and the flavors are from all over the world. Shrimp and Sweet Potato Kakiage is a Japanese dish; Huevos Rotos is Spanish; there’s Irish Fish Pie with a topping of sweet potato puree; Thai-Style Noodle Curry is an exotic way to up your sweet potato game. (A trip to the farmers’ market AND the fabulous markets on Green Springs Highway is in order; you’ll find everything you’ll need.) Some dishes will be more familiar. There are sweet potato fries here and sweet potato chips and sweet potato biscuits. There’s even a sweet potato “Big Mac.” What’s more, Mary-Frances guides cooks in a conversational way that is comforting even before you put your comfort food on the table.
I’ve followed Gin Phillips for years now. Her first novel, The Well and the Mine, remains one of my favorites. It won the 2009 Barnes & Nobel Discover Award. And once, in a train station in Germany, I saw a poster for her book Fierce Kingdom, and I was just so immensely proud of this Birmingham writer! Her latest novel, Family Law, is just as well written and compelling as the others. It’s set in Alabama in the 1980s and follows the career of a young lawyer named Lucia who is making a name for herself at a time when women were more likely to be the ones represented—not the ones doing the representing. Lucia spends her days helping women and children get free of troubling relationships, and her work is not without its perils; she receives plenty of threats. One day, a teenage girl named Rachel, whose mother is divorcing, comes into Lucia’s office. Rachel is captivated by Lucia and her ability to successfully move in what is essentially a man’s world. The young girl sees a path for herself in what Lucia is doing with her life. But then the violence of a threat made good puts Rachel in danger, and Lucia has to decide exactly how much her work means to her. (The novel is inspired by the real-life career of a highly successful woman attorney from Birmingham.)
I spoke to Ambassador Andrew Young a few months ago, and he told me a story. He said he had told Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the movement, “We probably will die before we are 40. But if we don’t, it’s up to us to change the world.” This book, published by the Montgomery-based NewSouth Books, looks at the global influences and lasting impact of the 1955-56 mass protest in Montgomery that many historians consider to be the start of the 20th-century civil rights movement. Cole Manley is a PhD student in History at the University of California, and he takes a world view of a movement that started here. He researches how the Black Montgomery boycotters thought about their movement as it relates to international struggles—from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the anti-color bar battles in the United Kingdom. Because what happened in Montgomery reverberated throughout the world. The Montgomery bus boycott was about much more than fair seating, of course. It remains an example of the power of protest and still inspires people in the ongoing struggles for racial and economic and social justice.
The celebrated chef-owner of Acre in the university town of Auburn opened a second restaurant concept called Bow & Arrow in 2018. The vibe at his newer place is Texas-smokehouse-meets-Alabama-potluck, which is a lot; but it’s really a lot more than that.
The restaurant is a life lesson about listening to customers, recognizing what they want, and doing what it takes to make them comfortable and happy. The Bow & Arrow that people visit today is not the Bow & Arrow that Bancroft and his wife, Christin, originally envisioned: They changed that vision to accommodate their visitors.
We sat down with Chef Bancroft for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video from my partner Britney Faush.
Bancroft, who was born in Alabama and grew up in San Antonio, wanted to create a South Texas-style smokehouse at Bow & Arrow. The kind of place where you walk right in and straight up to a meat counter where your brisket and other barbecue is cut to order, weighed on scales, and piled on butcher paper-lined trays with white bread or tortillas. You can grab a dessert from the cashier, a soda from the fountain, an icy beer from a portable cooler. You get homemade pickles and chow-chow from a condiments table, pick up some plates and silverware, and then find a seat (probably next to a stranger) at a communal table.
No hostess. No wait staff. Just make a plate and make yourself at home.
But people didn’t really get that. The offerings were different from other barbecue joints. There was a brisket learning curve.
“All the families that were going through were just very stressed,” Bancroft says. “They would get up here … and would have what I call ‘line anxiety.’ There was a group of people that really loved what we were trying to execute at Bow & Arrow, but then, there were also the … families that were in a rush and hurrying back and forth and trying to get from gymnastics to the ball field to school to a meeting. The ordering style was a little stressful and it caused a lot of anxiety and people would get a little frustrated at the front of the line.”
So, when the early days of the pandemic closed his restaurant to all but steady and profitable to-go orders, handed off at the drive-through window, Bancroft decided to make some changes.
“It was really an opportunity for us to either go big or go home,” he says. “If there was ever a time to make a change, it was going to be right then and there.” Bancroft prayed hard about it and then decided he “was sawing it all in half.”
He drew plans on napkins and computer paper. He removed walls and built others. He took out the buck hunter video game (and sold it on Facebook Marketplace to a guy from Mississippi) and put in a server station. He built a hostess stand up front, a handsome bar in the back and cozy seating in the middle area that once was the meat counter line. He kept the bones of the place—the exposed beams, garage door walls, beautiful stonework, crisp whitewashed woodwork, chic lighting, and some of the leathered granite counters. He kept the sizable herd of trophy deer on the walls; each is labeled with the name of the hunter who contributed it—Bancroft, his friends and family, his dentist, his chiropractor, the guy who does pest control.
But his entire business model changed: He went from a handful of pit masters to a full-service wait and bar staff and today employs about 75 people at Bow & Arrow.
Elements of his original smokehouse remain. You’ll smell the smoke and hear the chop, chop of the butchers. You still can get slow-smoked ‘que by the pound served with white bread or tortillas. But the variety of dishes on the menu now allows this chef to show exactly what he can do and expand upon his Alabama roots and Texas upbringing.
Bancroft spent formative years on his family’s Alabama farm in Hartford hunting and fishing with his grandfather and learning how to smoke and grill what he caught. He watched his grandmothers Bebe and Mama Jean cook Sunday supper and learned to serve others with a gracious heart. Growing up in Texas, he remembers an abuela bringing tamales instead of orange slices for soccer game snacks. He and his baseball buddies, at age 16, would camp at the Medina River and cook cowboy breakfasts (tacos with chorizo and potatoes) over an open fire.
That history and his homegrown love of food are interpreted here in various delicious ways that reflect Bancroft’s growth as a chef.
“You know, the beauty of this restaurant is that you can still see all of that influence of my Grandpa Kennedy who is the fish farmer, the cattle farmer, cotton, pines, peanuts, chickens in South Alabama, and everything that you would see at their table—at Mama Jean’s long farm table—with old Country Crock tubs and Cool Whip containers (filled with) zipper peas and collard greens. … Everybody had that grandma who literally recycled every plastic container she ever received. … We’re still holding true to that style.
“We’re still going as far into depth of technique as we can just to get to a very simple acceptable Southern product. We’re spending the time, the effort, the labor making these things from scratch.”
But what guests find at Bow & Arrow is “a little bit more refined and has a little bit more technique” coming from all the things he’s learned at Acre. “It now has much more French technique, Spanish technique, German technique,” he says. “I mean, you name it, Mexican, obviously. All of that literally is the South. So now we’re not just drawing from influences from just grandmothers … All of what is the South—that is blended together now—is something that we’re honoring here.”
At Bow & Arrow, there are barbecue plates with Texas brisket, St. Louis-style ribs, pulled pork, smoked turkey, and jalapeno-cheddar sausage. There are platos of Creole-fried Alabama catfish, “chicken fried” chicken with sawmill gravy, and wood-grilled skirt steak and Gulf shrimp brocheta with pineapple pico. Appetizers include goat cheese guacamole, chili-lime wings with poblano ranch, and chips and house-made salsa. Sides range from green beans and hash brown casserole to sweet corn rice and smoky borracho beans. There are salads and sandwiches and a variety of tacos made with fresh flour tortillas.
The popular “beef ‘n’ cheddar” soft tacos (shaved brisket, homemade queso blanco, cheddar, crispy onions, and sweet rib sauce) are Bancroft’s cheeky take on Arby’s classic sandwich.
Wood-grilled fajitas feature meats—skirt steak, chicken, and Gulf-fresh shrimp—basted with butter using rosemary branches. These come with sauteed poblanos and onions, guacamole salad, salsa de fuego, grill butter and flour tortillas alongside sweet corn rice and borracho beans.
Enchiladas are inventive. The 30A version features two cheesy blue crab enchiladas, lemon-chipotle crema, salsa cremosa, avocado and crushed tater tots. Christin’s enchiladas are two chicken enchiladas with queso blanco, salsa cremosa, radish, cilantro, goat cheese, and pico de gallo. The “King George” enchiladas (named for George Strait, not British royalty) are two cheesy carnitas enchiladas with sliced brisket, queso blanco, chili con carne, hill country hot sauce, and tortilla strips.
The bar that anchors the back of this restaurant serves a variety of specialty cocktails (a cucumber mojito, kombucha lemonade, any kind of mule you’d like) as well as local and regional craft beers and more than a dozen variations and versions of margaritas.
Four different barbecue sauces cater to just about any regional taste. There’s a Texas red sauce; a mustard sauce; a sweet rib sauce; and an Alabama white sauce that Bancroft made sure passed a taste test with his friend Chris Lilly, of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q fame.
It’s those personal touches that matter.
They make their own bacon at Bow & Arrow (curing the pork bellies, pressing them into shape, slow-smoking and then hanging them to air dry). That bacon makes the collard greens some of the best anywhere; it takes the cheeseburger to a different level. A tortilla press cranks out fresh bread daily. Memaw’s eclair is the perfect way to end a meal. Christin’s grandmother’s recipe is that time-honored combination of graham crackers, Cool Whip and French vanilla pudding layered and shingled and topped with homemade fudge. “The kind of fudge that you’ve got to crack with a spoon,” Bancroft says. “When people get that first bite … I’ve had famous chefs come and get that with a scoop of ice cream, and they’re like, ‘What was that?!’”
Bow & Arrow attracts a variety of customers—people in business suits, construction workers, teachers, moms, students, grandparents—and it’s family friendly. A thoughtful (and nicely priced) kids’ menu is printed on a page cleverly illustrated by Paulina Arroyo with a maze, a word search, a dog named Dolly, kids named Walker and Kennedy and lots of things to color.
Bancroft made a national name for himself and created an outlet for his self-taught skills as a farmer, forager, and chef when he and Christin opened Acre restaurant in 2013. That restaurant—with its modern interpretations of traditional Southern cuisine—is on an acre in downtown Auburn, and it’s landscaped with edible plants; Bancroft and his staff pull seasonal produce from this garden for their guests.
He has been a 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef: South” award, and he won Food Network’s Iron Chef Showdown competition in 2017. Bow & Arrow was named one of the “Best New Southern Barbecue Joints” by Garden & Gun magazine.
Accolades, no doubt, will continue. Clearly, Chef Bancroft is doing lots of smart things here, but he’s especially happy that he got Bow & Arrow right.
“We want everybody to feel welcome,” he says. “We want everybody to enjoy the ambiance, the energy, the flavors, the aroma, but we also want them to know how much effort we put into the food. … I think people can see it right when it hits the table … and when they taste it, and they go, ‘Oh, yeah. We get it.’ … Families get to really share now, with a little bit less stress of having to order at the counter. I think they’re leaving happy.”
He says the thing that makes him most proud of this 2.0 version of Bow & Arrow is the team that got him to this point. “Just the adversity that we had to go through, the challenges that we had changing from one model to another after the first year of business. … We all came out stronger,” he says.
“There’s always an opportunity to make a change. There’s always an opportunity to find improvement, and it’s hard to do, but this team did it,” he adds. “This team is successful now because they went through that. They will always know that they do have an option, that they do have a choice—to either sit there and suffer through things or find something that makes them passionate and happy.
“The number one thing that happened here is now we are truly connected to the … heartbeat of this business, and it’s so much more fun for us to share that story now having gone through all of that.”
The competition is set for Saturday, August 7 in New Orleans, and Chef Simpson is ready.
“I’m really competitive by nature, whether it’s sports or anything else,” he says. “I look at things quite strategically and do everything I can to give myself the best opportunity to perform well. I’m one of those people who believe that today’s preparation is tomorrow’s performance.”
In Gulf Shores, he wowed the crowd with pan-seared Gulf yellow edge grouper, and he’ll cook something similar in New Orleans.
“I’m doing a kind of remake, a new version of it, but the same ingredients, same procedure for each ingredient, just structured together a little bit differently,” he says. “I’m calling it ‘poblano-wrapped seared Gulf grouper,’ and that’s with a saffron Veracruz sauce. And it’s on a Gulf shrimp, Conecuh bacon, street corn risotto.”
This is a perfect example of the bold, creative mix of flavors and cuisines this executive chef offers his guests when they come to the restaurant he co-owns with Matt and Jana Poirier in the historic train depot in downtown Auburn. The Depot is a place where Chef Simpson tops wood-fired grilled oysters with a garlic chipotle butter, mixes Mexican-style chorizo sausage into his blue crab dip, and pairs McEwan & Sons organic blue corn grits with a gochujang BBQ sauce on a sweet tea-brined Beeler’s porkchop.
His global inspiration comes from a childhood spent enjoying the foods of an Italian grandmother on one side and a Hispanic grandmother on the other. Surrounded by good cooks and good food from a young age, Simpson says he’s always known he’d make his way in the world through food. And he’s done exactly that.
Simpson grew up in California, and his formal food education and background include training in Florence, Italy, at the Giuliano Bugialli Professional Culinary School, (the first English language cooking school in Italy) and at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, CA, where he trained under such prestigious chefs as Rick Bayless, Roberto Donna, Michael Chiarello, Terri Sanderson and Karen McNeil.
Then he ventured even farther afield.
With a career spanning 30 years, he has trained other chefs and opened ultra-luxury properties around the world— from across the U.S. to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Jamacia and back home again. He came to Auburn in 2014 to become Executive Chef & Culinary Educator for The Hotel at Auburn University and a culinary instructor for Auburn’s Hospitality Management Program. After spending some time in Auburn, he met the Poiriers (founders and owners of The Hound in downtown Auburn), and, together with general manager Richard Tomasello, they opened a Gulf seafood brasserie at the Auburn Train Depot.
Focusing on sustainable and responsibly harvested seafood, Chef Simpson, the son of a marine biologist, became the first fully qualified and certified James Beard Smart Catch chef in the state of Alabama. So, he comes to this national seafood cook-off, which promotes the quality and variety of domestic seafood, with a depth of knowledge.
During the Great American Seafood Cook-Off competition, each chef will prepare a dish highlighting the use of domestic seafood while interacting with the audience and celebrity hosts Chef Cory Bahr (Food Network Star finalist, Food Network Chopped Champion and former King of Louisiana Seafood) KLFY TV10’s Gerald Gruenig and “Chef Ref” Chef Michael Brewer, also a former King of Louisiana Seafood. A panel of nationally renowned judges will score each dish based on presentation, creativity, composition, craftsmanship and flavor.
Decerning diners look for much the same, and so excellence is always the goal—on a stage or in the dining room.
“For competition, it’s different because you really have a lot of eyes on you,” Simpson says. “There’s a stopwatch that’s constantly on the far front of your mind, and you have other people who are beside you—quickly moving—that are competing against you. When I’m in the restaurant, we are 100% team, we are 100% family.
“In the restaurant, we certainly take the mentality that we’re going to create a winning dish. We’re going to fine-tune it, and then we’re going to present it to our service staff, let them taste it, talk through it. And then we run that night with high expectations that … we’re going to see nothing but clean plates coming back, and guests are going to tell us that’s the best whatever they’ve ever had. That’s what we go for.”
Simpson says this upcoming competition and the opportunity to represent Alabama is “an amazing validation of all we’ve been trying to do since we opened the doors, almost six years ago. We’ve been trying to showcase Alabama, to be comparable to the best in other foodie cities around our country. And we felt very confident that we could do that.”
Perhaps a teacher at heart—and most certainly a lifelong learner—Chef Simpson says, “I’m taking a chef de partie. Her name’s Morgan McWaters. She came from a small operation. … so, she’s really earned most of her, if not all of her, cooking skills here, and she’s the one that helped me (in Gulf Shores). … And so, I’m looking forward to her now going to this next level and getting that experience. Of course, I get the chance to show her what other chefs are doing … I mean, the kinds of presentations that everyone’s attempting in this hour timeframe are very aggressive, and I would say they’re on the edge. … I’m excited to see what everyone else puts out, to maybe have some takeaway ideas from this, to have the camaraderie of meeting some other great chefs from across the country.
“I hope to perform to our best possible ability and to leave everything there in New Orleans that we can possibly put forth and to feel—because of a lot of preparation—no regrets,” he says. “And to know that we gave ourselves every possible chance to showcase Alabama and The Depot restaurant and the whole culinary team—front and back of the house—who’ve done such a great job to develop us.
“This is right in our wheelhouse,” he adds, “it’s like a slow pitch to what we aspire to do each and every night. So, I think that it would be great validation and confirmation of everything we’ve been doing and striving for in this restaurant ever since we opened.”
For more than 60 years—through some of Birmingham’s most significant social and economic history—Green Acres Café has been a constant in the city’s downtown. This iconic eatery is a popular draw in the middle of Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue Historic District, which grew out of the city’s segregationist past and remains a promising—and proud—part of its future.
“Green Acres is a family business that is family-orientated,” says owner Greg Gratton. “All my family is involved in it. Even the ones … I have living out of town. When they come home, they want to pitch in and help. … There’s a nice, friendly atmosphere,” he says, adding that some of his employees have been with him for 15 or 20 years.
The customers are loyal, too.
“When I’m up there in the front,” Gratton says, “people will come to me and say … ‘My father brought me up on this. I’ve been eating it. Now look: I’m bringing my children.’ It’s just generation after generation,” he says, “and I have people coming in town and this is the first stop they make.”
On any given day—at just about any time of day—there’s a line to (or even out) the door at Green Acres for its take-out-only offerings. The place serves hamburgers and fries, catfish sandwiches and plates, pork chop sandwiches and plates, chicken gizzards and chicken livers, fried green tomatoes and fried okra and more.
But most of the customers are there for one thing: “They want chicken wings!” Gratton says. “All the way! That’s ketchup and hot sauce, salt and pepper.”
Specifically, “all the way” will get you wings served on a bed of fries, drizzled with that sweet-spicy sauce and topped with a piece of white bread. Those who know often order the “Managers Special,” which is five wings and fries plus fried green tomatoes for $8.40. This food comes on a cardboard tray in a brown paper bag, and that bag will sport a small grease spot. That’s on purpose; it’s part of the presentation.
“The greasy bag is just something that my father got on,” Gratton says. “He said, ‘That greasy spot just makes a presentation; it just sticks with people.’ So, I’ve never tried to change that.
“If you see anybody anywhere in this area with a brown, greasy bag,” Gratton says, “you know, they’ve been to Green Acres.” He says he was at UAB Hospital recently visiting a friend who had asked for some wings. He walked in with the signature bag of wings, and all the way down the hall he heard, “Why didn’t you bring me some? Why didn’t you bring me some of that Green Acres?”
Green Acres is the place for wings because they were doing wings before wings were a thing.
Gratton says it was his father, Charles, who came up with the idea. People were buying fried chicken by the half or the quarter, he says, and those buying the white meat didn’t want the wings. “So, my daddy said, ‘Let’s put two wings together, a few French fries and a slice of white bread for 25 cents.’ And that’s how the chicken wing business got started, and it’s just been off the chain ever since. We can’t keep up with the chicken.”
To this day, you’ll get the whole wing at Green Acres. “In a lot of the wing places,” Gratton says, “they come and cut the wing up. Well, when you get a six-piece from them, you’re only getting three wings. When you get a six-piece from us, you’re getting six whole pieces of wings.”
People associate the eatery with Birmingham, but Green Acres actually started in Chicago. William Gratton opened his first café there in 1946. A few years later, after expanding the chain to six locations, he moved to Birmingham and brought the concept with him.
The first Birmingham location was opened in North Birmingham in 1950. In 1958, William’s brother Charles used his life’s savings to open a second location across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “It was a struggle back in 1958 for Black men to own a business, I can tell you that,” Gratton says, “but my father fought through it and he struggled and we survived.”
Gratton remembers his father working in the background with Civil Rights leaders to make sure they had places to safely meet and strategize. The late Charles Gratton shared his memories of that time and growing up in Birmingham in an interview conducted by Duke University. It’s part of the Behind the Veil collection of oral histories recounting African-American life during the years of legal segregation in the South. You can hear it here.
Charles Gratton relocated his café a few times before opening the current downtown location at 1705 Fourth Avenue North in 1990. He was encouraged by local revitalization efforts.
After his election in 1979, Birmingham’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington, Jr., helped create the Fourth Avenue Land Bank, a nonprofit that would buy real estate in the area from white owners (most of whom had let the buildings fall into disrepair) and sell the buildings to Black investors and business owners. Many of the new owners got rebates when they made improvements to their storefronts.
“My father bought this whole building,” Gratton says, “and it was just brick walls on the side, didn’t have a roof, and just a shell on the front. He renovated, and we opened it up.” In 2004, the Birmingham City Council named a stretch of Fourth Avenue in honor of Charles Gratton.
In 1993, Greg Gratton returned home to Birmingham from Los Angeles, where he had raised his own family. Once home, he not only continued, but also expanded the generational business into a local chain through franchising. Greg’s father was considering investing in a major, national fast-food franchise. Greg, understanding the value of Green Acres—in terms of food and history—convinced his father to invest further in his own business.
Growing the business was the goal; Greg didn’t make any changes. “It’s always just like what my father started,” he says. “I kept the same concept. I didn’t try to add anything, and I don’t try to take nothing away because he had it—it was working for him. So, you know, why try to fix something that ain’t broken? I just made it more available for the different communities in the area.”
At one point, there were nearly a dozen locations across the Birmingham metro area. Today four survive and thrive. Gratton owns two—the downtown location and another in Ensley, which his wife runs. There are two franchise locations—one in Center Point and another in East Lake.
Gratton personally trained the franchisees to make sure his brand stayed true. That matters, he says. “Green Acres has lasted so long because it’s got family love. And we enjoy what we’re doing. We enjoy pleasing the customers. And when you take an interest in something, you do the best of it.”
The walls at Green Acres downtown are decorated with business awards, vintage photos, recognition from the NAACP and Birmingham’s city council, an autographed photo of Martha Reeves, certificates and plaques commemorating community service and several photos with a succession of Birmingham mayors.
In 2007, Green Acres was honored with a Steve Harvey Morning Show Hoodie Award for Best Fried Chicken. For that, Gratton traveled to Las Vegas. When his name was called and he went up front, he says he realized he didn’t have an acceptance speech prepared. “I’m very good. You can’t really catch me off guard. My father told me all the time, “Son, you stay prepared, because you never know when somebody might call on you.’ … So, I just grabbed the award and I told Steve Harvey and I told the audience, I said, ‘Thank God for making chickens, because I wouldn’t be where I’m at now.’ I think that just did it.”
All that reflects decades of history, but Green Acres downtown is surrounded by much more.
The landmark café is part of the Fourth Avenue Historic District. Located just north and west of Birmingham’s central business district, it includes a three-block stretch of Fourth Avenue North and the adjacent half-blocks south of Fourth along 17th and 18th Streets.
This is one of the largest commercial sectors for Black-owned businesses not only in Alabama, but also in the Southeast. Green Acres is just steps away from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel and other landmarks.
Formally added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the Fourth Avenue Historic District serves as both a physical reminder of the Jim Crow era (and Birmingham’s racial history) and a retail and entertainment district catering to locals and visitors. It is an important part of Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, which is now a National Monument.
The historic commercial district dates to the early part of the 1900s when Black businessmen, forced from other parts of the city by Jim Crow segregation laws, established their own retail, social and cultural center.
The Civil Rights-centered parts of our city draw more than 350,000 annual visitors already (many going on tours like this one). And the future is looking promising for the Fourth Avenue Historic District, which is grounded in legacy and propelled forward by the vision of its minority-owned businesses.
The Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival, which has showcased nationally recognized and home-grown artists since 2003, is set to return in 2022 after a COVID-19 interruption.
And Green Acres will be ready to serve all who come here.
“The role of Green Acres,” Gratton says, “is to be where it needs to be to assist in the continuing development of the Fourth Avenue District. And not just the Fourth Avenue District, but the other areas around the city. So, I don’t just limit it to the downtown Birmingham location. My wife is very involved in the Ensley location out there, and I try to get the other two franchises to get involved in their cities, too.”
Regardless of the location, Green Acres will continue to follow the recipe for success that Gratton says sets his restaurant apart: “My love for my customers, the love for the food that I serve, and that we try to do it right each and every time.”
We’ve been making Paper Planes this summer after we enjoyed them at Desert Bistro in Moab while on a hiking vacation in Utah. We even went to a local liquor store there to get the Utah amaro they used—Toadstool Notom Amaro No. 1 from Waterpocket Distillery. #greatsouvenir
This light, fresh, summer-ready bourbon cocktail is a modern classic. Mixologist Sam Ross, who worked at Milk & Honey in NYC before launching Attaboy on the city’s Lower East Side, created the drink in 2008 for a friend at a Chicago bar called The Violet Hour.
Ross named the drink Paper Plane, after a song by M.I.A. (The song is actually “Paper Planes.”)
This cocktail (a perfect aperitivo) is straightforward with equal parts of four readily available ingredients. It’s easy to make and easy to drink.
Paper Plane (makes 2 drinks)
1.5 ounces amaro (the drink calls for Nonino but we’re using Toadstool Notom)
1.5 ounces Aperol
1.5 ounces bourbon (we use Makers Mark)
1.5 ounces fresh lemon juice, strained
Combine amaro, Aperol, bourbon, and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake vigorously until outside of shaker is frosty, about 20 seconds. Strain into 2 coupe glasses.
Several friends have asked for our itinerary, and I’m happy to share. We started in Moab, Utah, and made our way down the state and into Arizona. We set a fast pace (nearly 70 miles of hiking over 10 days), because I like to see “everything.”
I’ll organize this trip by area, and you decide how many days to spend in each place.
Canyonlands is huge! There are four districts—Island in the Sky (most popular), The Needles, The Maze and The Rivers. The Maze is the least accessible unless you have a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle (and are fully prepared for self-sufficiency). Next time we visit, we will hire a guide and a big vehicle to see the ancient, life-size pictographs (painted figures) and petroglyphs (figures etched in stone) in Horseshoe Canyon in the Maze district; this is some of the most significant rock art in North America.
On our visit this summer, we hiked the Island in the Sky district. We started with an easy, short walk to Mesa Arch, then hiked about 2 miles round trip to view the impressive Upheaval Dome (the crater is 3 miles wide and more than 1,000 feet deep and there are conflicting views about why it’s there) and finally, we hiked 2 miles out and back along the mesa’s edge to the Grand View Point Overlook (with amazing views the entire time). We arrived around 9 a.m. and spent an entire day at Canyonlands.
Arches is busy! Go early. Like 6 a.m. early. They were shutting down the entry gate mid-morning and again mid-afternoon, and it’s always busy until they do. So go early, take your breakfast, take your lunch, take your snacks and extra water and make a day of it.
We started with a three-mile out-and-back hike to Delicate Arch where we had a breakfast Clif Bar and then waited in a very civilized and organized line to have our photo taken under the arch. The way it works, everyone takes a turn, and you can get a good photo of the arch (with no people!) as one group leaves and the next comes up. Timing is everything at Arches!
There’s some cool Ute rock art near the beginning of the hike to Delicate Arch. Then we drove to Double Arch (just stunning!) where we parked once and saw a lot. We spent some time under the connected arches and then walked across the big parking lot where we hiked a primitive trail to see the North and South Windows and Turret Arch. Don’t miss Landscape Arch, the longest arch in the world; this hike is 2 to 7.2 miles, depending upon how you do it). We started at 5:45 a.m. and spent an entire day at Arches.
Dead Horse Point State Park is near Canyonlands and is especially pretty at sunset. Go early (before tour buses arrive) and get a spot on the terrace just below the lookout point so you’ll not have other people’s heads in your photos. Then look to the rocks as the setting sun makes them glow with vibrant reds and oranges and pinks. The Colorado River snakes through the canyon 2,000 feet below. It’s a magical way to end the day. This park, a Dark Sky Park, sometimes has ranger-led stargazing events.
Where to Stay:
We rented a VRBO condo on a quiet side street near the busy downtown area of Moab (with lots of off-road vehicles on the road, it’s kind of like a scene from Mad Max). Our little unit was beautifully decorated, (loved the nice linens and custom sinks!) ideally located (out of the fray) and perfect for two. Our host, Kimberley, offered an informative, insider’s guide to the area and helped us make the most of our time in Moab.
What to Eat:
Get street tacos and elote at Giliberto’s Mexican Taco Shop in Moab (there’s a drive-thru) and go to Dead Horse Point for a sunset picnic; for a fancy dinner go to Desert Bistro (reservations required); Moab Brewery has burgers and nachos, and Johnny’s American IPA, Juicy Johnny’s Hazy IPA and the Dead Horse Amber Ale all are delicious.
Sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, sunrise or sunset at Delicate Arch in Arches, sunset at Dead Horse Point, stargazing at any of these International Dark Sky Parks
On the way to Capitol Reef National Park, we stopped off at Little Wild Horse Canyon near Goblin Valley State Park. Little Wild Horse is a fun slot canyon that’s suitable for just about anyone (including kids). There’s a trailhead (with a toilet and a good map), and the slot is easy to find. It’s narrow enough to know you are in a slot, but it’s not so narrow that it’s uncomfortable. And the colors are amazing!
It widens into a larger canyon and you can continue to a longer loop or turn around and come back the way you came. Plan to spend 2-3 hours here. NOTE: Slot canyons are off-limits if there has been recent rain or if there is a chance of rain anywhere nearby; they are prone to deadly flash flooding.
We also visited Goblin Valley State Park, and although its hoodoos, like the iconic Three Sisters above, are significant and impressive, we didn’t stay long. The trails are not well marked at all; there were several frustrating moments when the trails just seemed to disappear. The one we did manage to stay on was like hiking through a sandcastle, and hiking through a sandcastle is not that much fun.
You can see much of beautiful Capitol Reef simply driving through it, but this park with its cliffs, canyons, domes and natural bridges in the Waterpocket Fold (a wrinkle on the earth extending almost 100 miles), is a hidden gem. An 8-mile scenic drive features breathtaking views, and there are 15 day-hiking trails here. Make sure to stop at the petroglyphs just off the main road near the visitor station. We did a moderate, 2-mile out-and-back hike to Hickman Bridge to get a feel for this lesser-known park, and we saw a golden eagle here.
You’ll want to be at Capitol Reef for sunset; it’s amazing. Then come back to anywhere in this International Dark Sky Park for some of the best stargazing you will ever experience. You can easily see this park in one day or even a half day.
Take the amazing, winding Scenic Byway 12 (UT-12) or just “Highway 12” to get from Torrey to Bryce Canyon. This All-American Road is more than 122 miles long, and it’s one of the most beautiful drives in the country. You travel through a diverse and beautiful and rugged landscape of arches, mountains, slickrock canyons, red rock cliffs, aspen and pine forests, mountain meadows, national parks, state parks, a national monument and quaint rural towns.
Part of Highway 12 crosses various parts of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which covers nearly 1 million acres of public lands. There are three distinct units here: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits and Escalante Canyon. It’s so remote and rugged that it was one of the last places in the continental United States to be mapped! We went there looking for a few specific slot canyons and we found them down Hole-in-the-Rock Road (BLM Road 200).
If you are adventurous and in fairly good shape with a relatively small frame and not claustrophobic(!), visit Dry Fork Narrows and Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch slot canyons in Grand Staircase-Escalante. This is a true adventure! The slots are down 26 miles of dirt road, but you can rent a Jeep in Escalante that can handle the trip.
Once at the trailhead, just getting to the slot canyons requires a two-mile hike along the rim and down some short cliffs and across desert dunes following well-spaced trail markers called cairns. Next time, we’ll take the Upper Dry Fork trail 1.5 miles through Dry Fork Narrows. But Peek-a-Boo and Spooky, with their tight and twisty, beautiful and wavy, red and purple walls, are your ultimate goals, and they are worth any trouble. (They require almost zero technical skill or know-how other than some rock-scrambling skills.)
Peek-a-Boo is a tight slot that corkscrews back on itself. Your photos will be fantastic! The hardest part was just getting into this slot; you climb about 10 (challenging) feet up a dry fall to the entrance using shallow hand and foot holds (go at it sideways and chimney up by bracing with your back and your legs or have your strong hiking partner haul you up). After that, it’s just awesome in the truest sense of that word, as you twist and turn through what feels like an adult playground. At the end of Peek-a-Boo, you’ll hike across about a half mile of desert to get to Spooky, which is an even tighter slot that narrows to about a foot wide in spots.
People with smaller builds do better here … just saying. If you take your backpack, you’ll need to take it off and carry it above your head at times. There are some tricky parts where you must work out how to navigate around boulders or short descents (wear clothes you don’t care about; they might get torn) and there’s a knotted rope you’ll use to get past a 6-foot drop. Other than that, it’s just thrillingly narrow and very beautiful. We spent about 4 (truly delightful) hours here. We hiked about 6 miles total.
Here’s a link that tells you how to find these slots. For current conditions on any of the slot canyons off Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Burr Trail, or other hiking opportunities in, or along the Escalante River and its side canyons, contact the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center at 435-826-5499.
This was my bucket-list location—really the reason I wanted to head West in the first place—and it was more spectacular than I ever imagined! There is nothing on earth quite like Bryce Canyon with its many thousands of colorful and ancient hoodoos and cliffs that range from white to pink to orange to deep red. Fun fact: Hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) exist on every continent, but Bryce has the largest concentration found anywhere on Earth.
We did the 8-mile Fairyland Loop (more than 1,700 feet of elevation change) that offers views you simply cannot get otherwise. There’s some climbing along uneven trails; boots are best. You’ll hike to the bottom of the amphitheater and then up again on the far side of the park above another valley of younger hoodoos. Go early in the day or late in the afternoon; the colors are best early and late. We also hiked the Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop (clockwise) and came up Wall Street, which is a short, yet awesome, slot canyon with terraced steps leading out of it at the end. So impressive! (It’s closed during the winter months.) We spent an entire long day at Bryce and logged 14 miles of hiking. I’d recommend at least a day, maybe two.
Rustler’s Restaurant in Tropic kept us nicely fed for two days straight and didn’t mind that we ran in about 30 minutes before closing both days. There’s a fantastic coffee shop—Bryce Canyon Coffee Company—at the Bryce Canyon Inn with great espresso drinks and fresh pastries.
Anywhere you look in Bryce is absolutely beautiful. Stop off at Fairyland Point near the park entrance when you first arrive for a preview of what’s to come. Do the full Fairyland Loop if you are up for an 8-mile hike (We did this counter-clockwise and took our time, and the entire hike with lots of picture taking took us about 5.5 hours); Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop trail (do this 3-mile loop clockwise so you come up Wall Street slot canyon), sunset at Sunset Point, the short Mossy Cave hike just outside the park proper, the scenic drive to Rainbow Point, which at 9,115 feet is one of highest points in the park. (Drive up and then stop at the overlooks on the way down to avoid cross traffic.) Make time for stargazing at this International Dark Sky Park. With the right timing and some luck, you can enter a lottery to go on a Full Moon Hike.
First of all, Zion is a zoo right now. Especially this summer when all of America wants to go somewhere and lots of them decided Zion is that place. Several of the popular trails were closed when we visited because of a big rockfall, so that meant even more people on the ones that were open. We could only access these trails inside the park via shuttle service, and that meant long lines and overcrowded shuttles. (The park opens the Scenic Drive to private vehicles January to mid-February only.) And unless you have good parking karma, you’ll need to take a different shuttle service in the town of Springdale just to get to the park entrance. (Also, the town shuttle stops running before the park shuttle ends, so plan accordingly.)
When we hiked The Narrows, there were always at least 50 people right around us; there were probably 500 on the watery trail that morning; it felt like walking out of a college football game – except mostly in knee-deep water. We skipped Angels Landing and opted for the less-traveled Canyon Overlook Trail, which was wonderful. This is the only trail within the park you can drive to via the Scenic Drive (which includes a mile-long tunnel), but parking is very, very limited; we went late in the day. The drive is awesome with lots of pullouts for photos of the monumental mountains and cliffs and a that long, scary tunnel through the mountain and we saw a family of bighorn sheep on the mountainside.
Even with the crowds, this park is breathtakingly beautiful. Just the the scale of it all! I understand why it’s so popular.
NOTE: If you hike The Narrows, rent some water shoes and a thick hiking stick from Zion Outfitter in Springdale just outside the pedestrian entry to Zion. You can do this online and pick up your gear the night before (after 4) or walk up after 4 the day before your hike to rent them or even walk up the morning you arrive if you’re not a planner. You’re welcome!
We skipped a second day at Zion in favor of some less-crowded destinations. Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail (Tempi’po’op), pronounced: tumpee poo oop, in Santa Clara was a great way to spend a few hours. This family-friendly hike winds through through the desert, past the ruins of an Anasazi farmstead (built about 1,000 years ago) to the top of a hill where we climbed amongst a tumble of boulders to see (up close!!) some incredibly well-preserved ancient petroglyphs.
These were carved into the desert varnish on the rocks by Ancestral Puebloans. Lots of the art—from small bear claw images to snakes to bighorn sheep and geometric shapes—is quite accessible without bouldering; you can just walk along the rim trail and see plenty, but climb down to find them everywhere! We spent about 2 hours on this 3.5-mile out and back.
Snow Canyon State Park is awesome! We spent most of the day (with a break for lunch) at this colorful park with its red petrified dunes and red and white Navajo sandstone cliffs and black lava flows. The park is located in the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, established to protect the federally listed desert tortoise and its habitat.
The trails are well-marked with signs and cairns, and you’ll line up a series of shiny silver metal markers attached to the dunes to navigate those huge formations. So smart!
There’s a short slot canyon here, and you can climb into lava tubes from an extinct volcano. The landscape at Snow Canyon is so interesting, and a hike though the sagebrush-scented desert dotted with wildflowers and surrounded by soaring red cliffs is lovely in so many ways. There were times, we were the only hikers as far as we could see.
Where to Stay:
It’s more convenient to stay in Springdale just outside Zion or at Zion Lodge inside Zion if this park is your main/only destination But if you want to explore more of this part of southern Utah, Washington/St. George would be a good central location. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Washington.
What to Eat:
We had our first In-N-Out Burger in Washington, and we loved Mixed Greens in a Chevron station in Santa Clara. There’s every kind of food you could want in the town of Springdale outside Zion.
At Zion, The Narrows and Angels Landing are the iconic hikes; the Canyon Overlook Trail is less traveled than Angels Landing and offers spectacular long views. Make sure to rent those water shoes if you do The Narrows. And take time for the Scenic Drive at Zion. Venture down into the fallen boulders at Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail. At Snow Canyon, walk through Jenny’s Canyon (the slot canyon) and hike those petrified dunes. Do seek out a lava tube or two and climb in, because why not?
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon was closer and less crowded (only 10% of Grand Canyon visitors go here) and the views are still spectacular. We spent a day here, starting with the short walk to Bright Angel Point and doing a 4-mile round-trip hike along the partially shaded Transept Trail, which winds up and down along the canyon rim and through the forest. We drove up to Point Imperial, which at 8,803 feet is the highest point in the park.
We were lucky to be at the Grand Canyon for a star party. A star party! It was actually held at the Kaibab Lodge outside the park. Three amateur astronomers set up huge telescopes (20- and 22-inch mirrors) and we just rotated from one to the other in the pitch-black dark looking at deep-space objects like globular star clusters and distant galaxies. Our own Milky Way stretched all the way across the sky and the occasional meteor kept us entertained along with a small band (2 or 3 or 4 people; hard to say—it was dark) playing mysterious desert music/sounds. So. Much. Fun. Check with each park for night-sky programs.
There’s a lovely restaurant at the park Lodge, you’ll also find a deli, coffee shop and a saloon with cocktails and lots of local beer. Kaibab Lodge offered a buffet of homestyle foods, and we especially loved the wings that they smoke for hours. Go across the street to the convenience store to get beer or wine and bring it with you to dinner.
Just sitting in an Adirondack chair on the Grand Canyon Lodge verandah with a local brew and enjoying the views, the Transept Trail, the amazingly dark skies (with or without an actual star party), animal sightings (the bison are right on the side of the road)
One final thing: We ended our adventure at Hotel Luna Mystica, a vintage Airstream trailer hotel and starlight campground in Taos, New Mexico. We stayed in a cozy 1962 Airstream named Ralphie. All the trailers have their own fire pits and porches. It was the perfect way to finish our two-week trip of a lifetime.
Before you go:
Create an account at recreation.gov so you can reserve lodging and campsites, buy passes and gain access to ticketed events.
If possible, stay in the park where sunrises and sunsets and starry skies are just steps away.
Follow the parks you’ll be visiting on Instagram for updates and news.
Buy a US Park Pass. It’s $80 and provides free entry to all National Parks and other federal recreational lands for a year and allows you to bring three other adults. (Children under 16 are always free.) If you’re going to see more than two parks, it’s likely it will pay for itself.
Download the NPS app and find the parks you’ll visit. You can download your favorites to access offline (that’s important, as cell service is spotty at best!).
Make sure you get the park’s “newspaper” in addition to the glossy guide when you enter (or go to the visitor center and get it when they open if you enter before the gate is staffed; the national parks are open 24 hours a day). The newspaper is your key to the best experience, allowing you to make the most of your time there. You also can access this newspaper for some of the parks on the NPS app.
Most of these are certified International Dark Sky Parks; plan your visit around a new moon if you like stargazing (sometimes there are ranger-led programs with telescopes) or go during a full moon for ranger-led night hikes (if possible, register ahead of time for these at recreation.gov).
Load up on sunscreen and water. Always have a gallon of water in your car.
Hiking boots are best (especially in Bryce); mid height is fine. In any case, make sure you have shoes with excellent traction; Utah is covered in what they call “slickrock” that’s often sandy, too. For some of the ranger-led programs, you have to actually show that you have proper shoes.
Food brings people together. No question about that. And creating a gathering place for conversation and fellowship, as well as good food, was one of the reasons behind Hubbard’s Off Main in Historic Main Street Oxford. That’s because the restaurant’s owner, Charlotte Hubbard, is one of her city’s most steadfast champions.
Hubbard has served on Oxford’s City Council since 2012, but she’s been involved in her community for most of her life. She’s a retired educator from Oxford City Schools, and before she was a restaurant owner, she owned an antiques store. Hubbard has been instrumental in Oxford’s 3-million-dollar revitalization and preservation of its historic downtown. Oxford became a Designated Main Street community in 2014. She proudly touts the popular Saturday Main Street Market—with music and makers and food trucks and growers—that draws people from in town and beyond.
Lots of these people also come to Oxford to eat at Hubbard’s Off Main.
I recently was one of them. I visited to write a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read it here and see a cool video from my partner Brittany Faush.
The restaurant grew to be more than Hubbard originally envisioned. “I just wanted to do soup and salads, and we ended up doing more Southern country-type foods,” she says. “We found out, you have to find out, who your customers are going to be, who’s going to come. … You have to find out what those customers want and start doing that.”
What they wanted were familiar foods, and the food at Hubbard’s is that; it’s also delicious and made with locally sourced ingredients. Produce comes from Watts Farms down the road in Munford, Hubbard says. They buy from Forestwood Farm and Evans Meats & Seafood in Birmingham. They get pecans from a farmer with an orchard on County Line Road and honey from Eastaboga Bee Company. Their coffee vendor, Southern Girl Coffee Co., is across the street, and they get olive oil and gourmet ingredients from The Main Olive around the corner. “We buy locally as much as we can,” Hubbard says.
In the kitchen, chef Jordan Smith uses these fresh, local finds to create a varied and savory menu for restaurant dining and a thriving catering business. Smith is young—26—but she creates dishes with the knowledge and confidence of a cook with decades more experience.
“The biggest compliment I think I’ve ever gotten is when people tell me that I cook like their grandma,” Smith says. “That really gets you because everybody loves their grandma’s cooking and that just really brings you back home. That’s what I like to do for people … give them that experience that they may not get from their grandma anymore.”
That translates to homemade pimento cheese, crab cakes with a house remoulade, and their own take on shrimp and grits made with a Cajun cream sauce and polenta. There’s a burger and catfish or shrimp po’ boys; fish and chips made with fresh grouper; an Oxfordian salad with feta, berries and roasted pecans atop fresh greens; a hand-cut 12-ounce rib eye and an 8-ounce filet, and chicken Marsala. You’ll also find country cooking like chopped steak, fried chicken and catfish as well as meatloaf. Do not miss the award-winning collards.
One of the most popular dishes at Hubbard’s, the Low Country Chicken, garnered the restaurant regional fame when it made the state tourism department’s list of 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. In this dish, a tender chicken breast is topped with a Carolina-inspired sauce of sweet corn, bacon, fresh tomatoes, and cream. It is delicious.
All these dishes are simply, yet thoughtfully, made to order. “It’s Southern comfort food,” says Smith who especially loves to cook vegetables. “I like to taste the food. I like to keep it simple. So, you add just a little herbs and garlic to something, and you can really taste the freshness of, say, a simple squash … I don’t like to overpower the food, for sure. … I want people to know they’re getting something really fresh.”
Hubbard’s also features a full-service bar with craft cocktails like Main Street Lemonade spiked with Jim Beam bourbon and fizzy with ginger ale and an Alabama Slammer made with Tito’s vodka, amaretto, and Southern Comfort. There’s a nice selection of wines and local and regional craft beers, too.
The restaurant itself, with its textured, century-old brick walls and glossy heart pine floors, is nearly as much of a draw as the food.
It’s a beautiful and unique space with character. It invites you to linger. “I think people are looking for places to gather,” Hubbard says. “It’s hard to gather at a chain or a place that’s not really inviting because they’re … turning a lot of tables.”
The main dining room at Hubbard’s Off Main used to be a clothing store. The historic building was originally a wood-frame structure built in 1885. In 1901, the wooden building was replaced with a brick masonry building by Thad M. Gwin, who owned and operated the clothing store. Hubbard renovated the interior and exterior in 2015.
Today, the large storefront windows shine lots of light into a main dining room decorated with vintage photos and furnished with an eclectic assortment of beautiful antiques including small and communal dining tables, pianos, a sofa in a cozy waiting area, copper and wooden bowls on the tables and various other interesting pieces. Many of these things came from the antiques store Hubbard used to own. Her favorite piece is an old ice box that she bought more than a decade ago when she was campaigning for her first term on Oxford’s City Council. It was sitting under a woman’s carport. Now it’s tucked into a short hallway that leads to two private dining spaces—one a small jewel-box of a room with glass windows that offer airy privacy and the other, a long, narrow room, anchored by a beautiful carved wooden bar, where Hubbard started her restaurant some eight years ago.
The current main dining space was once home to her brother-in-law’s music store and a performing arts center. Oxford is a place where history matters, so there’s music here still. Local bands perform on a small stage near the front door on Friday and Saturday nights. On Thursdays, there’s music in the round, with local musicians performing their own work, Hubbard says.
She and her staff recently added an outdoor seating area—Hubbard’s Out Back—to offer more options for socially distanced dining. She says she used money from the CARES Act to make this happen and help keep her business busy and moving forward.
Hubbard’s has become a hub in this tightly knit town. During the early days of the pandemic, her community helped Hubbard keep her business going with curbside pick-up and to-go orders. “Luckily, we were … six years open, and so we had established that customer base that … came every week—or two or three times a week.” Hubbard’s, in turn, helped its community by providing meals for the city’s elderly residents and for some of the homeless people who, at the time, couldn’t get into shelters where they usually would go for food.
There’s a feeling of community inside the restaurant, too.
Smith says: “Although I may be known as the chef and the leader here, you can’t do this without a really awesome team backing you up and willing to work hard and be dependable. And we have a really good team here—from front of house to the small crew in the back. And I just, I couldn’t do it without them. And Charlotte, too. … I look up to her so much. She’s the hardest working person I’ve ever seen. She really cares about this place.”
Smith means the restaurant, of course, but the town, too.
Hubbard, ever the advocate for Oxford, says she sees new signs of progress every day and welcomes all of it. She lives in a loft above her restaurant and so has a perfect view of what’s happening downtown. “I think the downtown area is going to be really popular,” she says. “We have a couple of people who are working on buildings now to come downtown with restaurants.” There soon will be another restaurant next door to Hubbard’s Off Main, and in the meantime, she welcomes the food trucks that come for the nearby Saturday market.
Hubbard sees all this as an opportunity for cooperation rather than competition. A cluster of restaurants will draw business for everybody. This kind of progress, she says, is exciting—and great for her city.
Hubbard’s Off Main
16 Choccolocco St.
Oxford, AL 36203
Lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day except Monday.
Dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Bizarre: The Coffee Bar is a coffee bar by day and a bar bar at night, but this unusual place also is an all-day incubator for several minority-owned local businesses. The café, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner (most nights), has become a hub in Birmingham’s Black business community, offering space for multiple vendors to attract attention and, in turn, build their own businesses.
I visited Bizarre for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video by my partner Brittany Dunn.
Bizarre was started in 2018 by two women, Jennifer Butler and Mia Perryman, friends who met 15 years earlier at Jefferson State Community College. In October of 2019, they partnered with Will Harvill who has since become the face of the business as well as “the general manager, head bartender, custodian, party promoter, DJ, and everything else involved with Bizarre: The Coffee Bar.”
How Harvill pivoted during the pandemic made Bizarre what it is today.
“When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves as a coffee bar in the middle of a city where people weren’t drinking coffee, where people weren’t going to work, where nobody was out,” Harvill says. “We choose not to shut down … Bizarre has never been closed one day since the pandemic started. … Pretty much, I ran the place by myself for almost four or five months.
“Because we sold food, that made us essential; because we sold alcohol, that made us popular. We were probably one of the only bars open in downtown Birmingham for almost four or five months. … We literally, overnight, became a coffee bar that sold a little bit of liquor to a bar bar that sells a little bit of coffee.”
But that’s only a piece of it.
To increase foot traffic—and get people back downtown—Harvill partnered with other Black-owned businesses to expand the offerings at Bizarre.
“We weren’t a major destination place, so we started reaching out to local brands—people I knew on Facebook who had products that I just thought were awesome,” he says. “My Sweetheart Bakery is a cake company that we reached out to, and, oh my God, between their cake and chicken salad—some of the best you could ever get—we sold a ton of it. I mean, we pushed both our brands to higher heights just by partnering together.” That translates to a lot of money. “Last year,” Harvill says, “we sold $72,000 worth of cake and chicken salad.”
There’s a turmeric lemonade with burdock and ginger root made by a local company called Lively & Fit. “We sell 20 gallons a week of this stuff,” he says. “It’s crazy.” It’s also delicious. In the morning, the juicy drink is a healthy way to start the day; at night, Harvill mixes it with Dickel No. 8 and a house-made sour mix for The Roots, the bar’s most popular cocktail.
“We’ve got special ingredients you can’t buy anywhere else,” he says. One of these is a lavender syrup made by local businesswoman Amie Scott Ceo. Harvill mixes that concoction into cocktails, too. “We have a Black-owned coffee brand (Beanali Coffee). These are Kenyon and Somalian beans that we get shipped from Africa. They’re roasted here in Alabama, and we grind the beans fresh.”
Lee, a frequent customer, is an entrepreneur and motivational speaker behind the financial literacy company Never Go Broke, Inc. She test-marketed her Game of Fortune at Bizarre during a game night.
Even the art on the walls illustrates a partnership.
Executive Art, with its canvas prints of famous and local people (or whatever you want), started when some friends of Harvill’s said, “‘Hey, you need some paintings. Here’s a couple of them. If you sell them, great. If you don’t, they’ll just hang on your wall.’ That grew to us selling almost four or five pieces a week of this wonderful artwork,” he says.
“None of this was planned. We woke up one day, and we had almost eight or nine different vendors that make up the entire Bizarre culture that we sell every day. We make each other better, definitely.”
Harvill says, “My customers are lots of local people who knew me, lots of entrepreneurs who just love the vibe. Any day you come to Bizarre, you can run into a networking situation … anything from running into the mayor (more on Mayor Randall Woodfin in a moment) and his cabinet to running into entrepreneurs who are in fields that people aspire to be in. And you can share a cup of coffee or a drink with them, and they will freely give you their advice. They love this place because it’s just real chill. … Nothing fancy. Nothing extra. Just really, really comfortable.”
So, you’ll see students with their laptops and cups of coffee, people who work nearby coming in for lunch, folks winding down the end of the day with a cocktail or a glass of wine or a beer.
They come for café au lait and espresso drinks; classic breakfast plates with smoked sausage, grits, and eggs; hot dogs with chow chow; fajita (chicken or steak) nachos made to order; fresh cucumber salad or fruit bowls; and they come to eat that chicken salad, which when made into a sandwich becomes a delightfully messy fork-and-knife situation.
Most evenings, Harvill shares Bizarre with local food trucks and chefs—folks who have their own kitchens (mobile or incubator space) but don’t own a restaurant. So, businesses like Simone’s Kitchen ATL, Anthony Redeaux of Redeaux’s Bistreaux (check his Instagram @redeauxbistreaux for info), Big Red Smoked BBQ and others step in. “We close our kitchen down, and they make all the money off of food revenue. It gives them exposure. It brings their crowd to intermingle with my crowd, and we both win. The level of exposure that it brings, the people who come for their food who otherwise would not come to Bizarre makes it all a win for everybody.”
At Bizarre, happy hours last pretty much all day and there are always specials like Taco and Tequila Tuesdays, Old Fashioned / Waffle Wednesdays (the karaoke starts around 8-ish), Samosas and Mimosas, and an exciting take on wine tasting with Wine Shots and Adult Lunchables. Check the Facebook page for details.
And on the last Sunday of the month, there’s a T-shirt brunch with local vendors like B!Moe Apparel setting up in the parking lot with a food truck and a DJ. Harvill sells plenty of his own T-shirts but says, “It’s just something so cool about taking the competition out of it. Because what happens is … people don’t just buy one T-shirt, they buy one from every one of the vendors and again, we all win. … It’s a party. Everybody’s eating and drinking and buying shirts.”
These sorts of opportunities not only allow all these businesses to have a brick-and-mortar presence—a place to sell regularly and connect with new customers—but they also keep Bizarre interesting.
“You’re never going to get the same experience twice here,” Harvill says. “You meet the dopest people in the city at Bizarre. And if support is anything that you’re interested in, as far as small businesses, you’re not going to find a place that harvests that type of atmosphere and environment more so than Bizarre.
“Our motto is, ‘we don’t compete, we complement,’ which is why we open up our doors to other businesses that sell the same things we do. … Some people say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But we always say we’ve never lost money helping other people. Ever.”
The past year has seen Bizarre—and Harvill—take a leadership role in these few blocks of downtown, which are mostly home to Black-owned businesses.
A few weeks ago, one of the vaccination sites had some shots left over at the end of the day. “For whatever reason,” Harvill says, “they called me.” So he jumped in his car and accompanied healthcare workers “to every bar that was open and we were able to get all the staff vaccinated. … Now, when I walk into a bar, everybody wants to buy me a drink,” he says. “We’re trying to normalize this type of stuff, not glorify it. If everybody does it, it’s not a special thing. It’s just a way of life. It’s just doing your part. It’s really a small part when you think about it. All it is is taking a platform that someone else gave you and utilizing it.”
When windows were broken at a nearby business during protests last summer, Harvill started an effort with a Facebook post and his own money to help the owner replace them. “Not only did we raise three grand in two hours to fix his windows, but people kept putting money into it,” he says. “So, I turned it into a nonprofit.” The organization is called Bizarre Blessings.
“Literally, every Friday since the riots have hit, I go out at nighttime … find a minority-owned business—be you a food truck, be you somebody flipping burgers on the grill outside a club or a convenience store—and I give you $150. We don’t take pictures of it. We don’t put it on Facebook. We just bless you.”
Bizarre got some national attention when Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin wore a Bizarre mask for an interview on MSNBC.
Harvill had given the mayor a mask months earlier. The two had met years ago when they were interning for Congressman Earl Hilliard, Sr. “We were both freshmen in college, just bright-eyed and wanting to take over the world,” Harvill says. “We became friends, and we’ve been friends ever since.
“My phone blew up early, early that morning” with text messages, emails, Facebook posts, he says. “I looked … and it was a picture of the mayor and he had my Bizarre mask on. … It went viral. Next thing I know, I’ve got people from Texas, California, DC calling me, asking, ‘Hey, can I order that mask? Can you ship me that mask?’ And we started really, really mass producing them and sending them out. The cool part about our masks and our T-shirts is $10 from the sale of every one of them goes to our nonprofit … Bizarre Blessings.”
Bizarre: The Coffee Bar also was featured on The Kelly Clarkson Show in December of 2020 when Clarkson spotlighted Harvill’s partnerships with other local businesses.
Harvill welcomes this attention from elsewhere because his community-minded model is something he’d like to grow and share.
“Our ultimate goal is to create this micro version of an incubator in neighborhoods and cities all over the country,” Harvill says. “Go to Huntsville, there’s a (version of) My Sweetheart Bakery … a minority-owned cake company that’s one of the best in the city. Nashville has a version,” he says, adding that every city does. “If we can put a Bizarre or some version of Bizarre in all these cities to highlight all these people who don’t have brick and mortar, then eventually they will.”