Helen Pays Homage to Family

Helen is a food memory made real.

The contemporary Southern grill, led by the husband-and-wife team of Chef Rob McDaniel and Emily McDaniel, is a fresh, new take on classic dining, but the idea for this place has deep roots. It’s based on Rob’s fond memories of his maternal grandmother, Helen Frutiger, and the welcoming home she created in Oneonta when he was young.

“One day, it just kind of made sense that that would be the direction we wanted to go when we decided to open a restaurant,” Rob says. “I’ve always had that memory with me—of walking in the back door, through the carport … and her over on the grill cooking and my grandfather sitting in his chair and the way the table was set. … All those things are still so vivid.”  

These scents and sounds and sights of his childhood – especially memories of “Nanny” cooking for her family over hardwood coals on her indoor grill – have stayed with Rob over the years. They were there when he studied at the New England Culinary Institute and when he worked for Johnny Earles at Criolla’s in Grayton Beach, Florida, and for Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. They were there during his many years as executive chef at SpringHouse restaurant at Lake Martin. They were there as he collected five James Beard Foundation semifinalist nominations (2013-2017) for Best Chef South.

And they were there when he began to yearn for something different—something of his own.

“I was doing a devotional every day before I started my day, and I never really prayed to leave SpringHouse,” he says. “But I prayed for something to change, because I had gotten to a point where I really enjoyed my job but there was something missing. I didn’t know what it was. And then one day I went into work, opened my devotional and the Bible verse was Deuteronomy 1:6, which basically says ‘you’ve been on this mountain long enough.’ All of these things had kind of been placed in front of me to point me in the right direction, and then I read that and said, ‘Okay. It’s time to make this change.’  The Lord started opening doors, and we started walking through them.”  

Emily adds, “I’m so proud of Rob. I’m so proud that he took a leap of faith, that he decided you have one life to live … He said he wanted to do something, (and) he went and did it. It’s just exciting to see. It really is.” 

photo by Cary Norton

Helen opened in mid-August. 

I visited with Rob and Emily for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read it here and see some video, too.

The restaurant is in a two-story 1920s-era shotgun-style building in downtown Birmingham. The McDaniels teamed up with Gavin Prier of Prier Construction, Ivy Schuster of Hatcher Schuster Interiors and Eric Hendon of Hendon + Huckestein Architects to take advantage of the building’s good bones. The thick beams, a concrete floor with character and beautiful original brick walls are the foundation of a restaurant that is elegant and welcoming. of a restaurant that is simply elegant and warmly welcoming.  

In the long, narrow dining room downstairs, an art wall showcases a diverse collection—from tortoise shells and paintings and prints to turkey feathers and handmade baskets. An open-grill kitchen anchors the opposite side of the room, offering tantalizing glimpses of the grill and smoker and delicious aromas that cannot be ignored. 

The natural, earthy elements on display in the dining rooms and bar and the wood-scented atmosphere throughout Helen echo his philosophy of respecting the land and using it as inspiration in his kitchen. Chef Rob, who wears a belt with the subtly colored, speckled pattern of a brown trout, is passionate about Southern foods, foraging and sustainability. 

“My food has always been pretty simple,” he says. “I don’t try to manipulate it a lot. I don’t try to do a lot of things to it.” The key, he says, is “finding the best source for products and finding the best ingredients and let them kind of do what they need to do.”

photo by Cary Norton

The menu features items from the land, air and sea—prime meats and fowl and seafood. Things like a 45-day dry-aged Kansas City strip, smoked lamb shank, Manchester Farms quail stuffed with pine needles and finished with a pinecone syrup, grilled scamp with sauce gribiche.

Even with all that savory, smoky exuberance, a large portion of the menu is devoted to freshly picked ingredients from the soil. Okra pirlou, smashed cucumber and tomato salad, Romano beans with Carolina barbecue sauce, celery and blue cheese slaw, kale salad with parmesan cascabel chili dressing. 

“We really wanted to be able to highlight farmers and their vegetables in the peak of their season when they are most delicious,” Rob says. “It was always important to us to be able to … provide the same experience for anybody that were to walk in the door—whether you’re a vegan or vegetarian or meat eater. I want you to feel like you’re getting the same experience as anybody else.”  

For this, chef Rob relies on local purveyors like Trent Boyd of Boyd Harvest Farm and the folks at Ireland Farms and Belle Meadow Farm and BDA Farm for a menu driven by seasonality. In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, Betty Maddox has driven from Chilton County with some of the last heirloom tomatoes of the season. She’s been supplying Rob with fresh produce for years.

“We want to give you the best that we can give you when it’s the best,” Rob says, “and if it’s not, then we don’t want to do that.”

So the tomato pie, served with pimento cheese and herb salad, which has been one of the most popular dishes for the past several weeks, will soon leave this seasonal menu until next summer. Another guest favorite, the warm angel biscuits with whipped cane syrup butter and a bit of sea salt will probably always be there.

Rob’s partner in this restaurant and in life is no stranger to the food business. A Birmingham native, Emily began her career in hospitality as part of the marketing team at Jim ‘N Nick’s BBQ. She is Helen’s hospitality director working with general manager Daniel Goslin (who was with Rob at SpringHouse) to oversee the front of the house. She loves her job.

“I’ve always known Rob was so talented, but it’s so nice to see it firsthand,” she says. “Before, we weren’t working together, and I would just hear from other people (that) they had a great dining experience with him. … Now, I’m actually taking food to the tables and interacting with guests who are eating his food, and I think that’s been the most rewarding thing. … It’s exciting to see that.”

Helen, they both say, is a reflection of how they live and how they entertain their friends at home. Emily’s focus is on creating a comfortable and celebratory atmosphere to complement the foods her husband cooks. “I want people to …  have a cozy, warm, inviting and loving feeling when they come here,” she says. “We just, all the time, want people to feel comfortable.”

The McDaniels partnered with several local and regional artisans to create their engaging space. Small succulents adorn each of the richly grained wooden tables made by Magic City Woodworks, a nonprofit based in Birmingham that offers meaningful work through paid apprenticeships for unemployed young men. The metalwork is by John Howell of Madwind Studio on Lake Martin. He helped create the stunning glass-enclosed wine room upstairs. Each of the hundreds of bottles in the jewel-like, temperature-controlled room rests on meticulously placed iron rods.

The couple also pulled artful details from their own home—a collection of Southern Living plates from Rob’s mom, vintage rugs, an antique icebox that serves as storage near the front door, eclectic artwork they have collected over the years. Upstairs, a couple of antique French Champagne riddling racks are mounted on the textured brick walls. Two colorful paintings by guitarist Browan Lollar of St. Paul and the Broken Bones are behind the stunning stone-topped bar. A handsome trophy deer, from one of Rob’s hunting trips, hangs between them. Elsewhere, there’s a pheasant and a fox. There are duck decoys, a vintage fishing creel and watercolor paintings of colorful fishing flies.

And in the middle of it all, a large, beautiful painting of Helen, by Charleston, SC, artist Hannah Hurt, has a place of honor here. It was a gift to Rob from his sisters.

Since it opened on August 25, Helen has enjoyed a steady stream of customers and a buzzy social media following. But launching a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic has not been easy. “I think anytime that you do something like this, to say that you’re not scared would be a little arrogant,” Rob says.

Health and safety protocols are part of every guest interaction. 

They didn’t take out any seating or put signs on any tables, but guests are spaced six feet apart. “I just want people to come and have a good time—especially right now,” Rob says. “To be able to come in and take their minds off of all that’s going on. I’ve had people say, ‘Thank you for the small bit of normalcy.’”

Guests are asked to wear masks unless they are seated at their tables. There are temperature checks, hand sanitizer and contactless payment. Making sure his staff stay safe is a huge priority, Rob says. “If they feel safe, then everybody else will as well.”

Opening Helen has been a “big test of faith,” he adds. “But we’ve continued on that path. … There are definitely times when we kind of—I don’t want to say we question it, because that would not be practicing good faith. We go at it every day, and I think that probably the best way to sum it up is:  If I wake up in the morning and I’m discouraged, I also have a voice in my head that says, ‘I’m here with you. Let’s do this.’” 

When asked what he’s most proud of, Rob simply says, “my family.” He chokes up a little when he answers and so stops for a moment as he thinks about what to say next. 

Turns out that was enough. The word family clearly encompasses so much—from the family matriarch who helped set Rob on his culinary journey to the guests he and Emily welcome as family each night to their restaurant family of employees and trusted purveyors to the couple’s own young family and what the future holds for them all. 

Helen

2013 2nd Avenue North 

Birmingham, AL  35203

205-438-7000

www.helenbham.com

So Sweet

The spotlight is on some of Birmingham’s top women in food, beverage and hospitality again this Saturday at Pepper Place Market! From chefs and bakers and mixologists to dietitians and restauranteurs and food writers, more women than ever are helping to keep our food community vibrant and fun and delicious! 

Many of these women are members of the Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a professional organization that supports women in food-related industries. Our mission is philanthropy, education, mentoring and outreach.

This was last week at Pepper Place Market! Cristina Almanza is the cutest taco ever!

Come see me and my fellow Dames at Pepper Place Market on Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon at our tent near Homewood Gourmet’s popular space. This week, we’re sharing sweets of all kinds from some of Birmingham’s culinary superstars and a few of our favorite restaurants.

Our tables will be full. Here’s some of what you can expect to find:

Creamy vanilla cheesecake by Dame Joy Smith of Sorelle 

Emily’s Heirloom Pound Cakes bite cups from Dame April McClung

Dame Brooke Bell’s apple butter Bundt Cakes

Dame Pam Lolley’s Brown butter Chocolate chip cookies

Dame Telia Johnson’s regionally famous classic chocolate cake

Brownies, giant cookies and Ashley Mac’s signature strawberry cake from Dame Ashley McMakin

Crestline Bagel Co. granola from Dame Jennifer Yarbrough

Pizzelle cookies from me (one of the only pretty desserts I can make!)

Big Spoon Creamery ice cream sandwiches from Dame Geri-Martha O’Hara

Dame Maureen Holt’s Kentucky Butter Cake with Bourbon glaze

Dame Cheryl Slocum’s ginger-white chocolate cookies

Dame Sonthe Burge’s homemade baklava

Best-Ever Oatmeal Raisin Cookies from Dame Stefanie Maloney

Rosemary shortbread from Kristen Farmer Hall of The Essential and Bandit Patisserie

When you’re done visiting with us, turn around and grab a breakfast burrito with pico de gallo to go from Homewood Gourmet and Dame Laura Zapalowski.  

We’ll be at our tent all morning Saturday, selling these homemade goodies, telling you about our upcoming (very fun!) fundraiser and celebrating what’s sweet about Birmingham’s food scene. 

That fundraiser deserves another mention. 

Each year, we have a big party to raise money for our scholarship and grant giving. Since we were organized in 2013, we have awarded nearly $60,000 to women of all ages all across our state who are pursuing their culinary dreams.  

Our Southern Soiree in-person event is not possible this year, so we’ve pivoted to a Champagne and Fried Chicken drive-through pick-up picnic on Sunday, Oct. 18. (There will also be a vegetarian option.) Each basket will serve two people and will come complete—naturally—with a bottle of Champagne.

Additionally, we will have a virtual store with gift certificates, books, art, virtual cooking classes, a virtual wine tasting, a year of dinner playlists on Spotify, Southern Living’s Christmas Big White Cake and lots more. 

And we’ll have TWO different raffles each with TWELVE $100 gift certificates/cards to some of Birmingham’s best restaurants including Hot and Hot Fish Club, Highlands Bar & Grill, Blueprint on 3rd, Helen, Bay Leaf Indian Cuisine & Bar, The Bright Star, The Essential, Chez Fonfon, OvenBird, Sol y Luna, Satterfield’s, Ashley Mac’s, Urban Cookhouse, Iz Cafe, The Garden’s Cafe by Kathy G, Village Tavern, Troup’s Pizza and much more!

Go to www.ldeibirmingham.org/fundraiser/ for details.

Tickets for the basket and raffle as well as our online storefront will go live on Saturday, September 26, at 7 a.m.

Latin Week with the Dames

Every Saturday in September, Pepper Place Market is spotlighting top Birmingham women in food, beverage and hospitality. From chefs and mixologists to dietitians and food writers, more women than ever are helping to keep our food community vibrant and fun and delicious! 

Many of these women are members of the Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a professional organization that supports women in food, beverage and hospitality. Our mission is philanthropy, education, mentoring and outreach.

Come see me and my fellow Dames at Pepper Place Market on Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon at our tent on 29th Street (near the chef demo area). This week, we’re sharing Latin flavors from some of Birmingham’s culinary superstars and a few of our favorite restaurants. (And we’ll be talking about our upcoming fundraiser, Champagne & Fried Chicken, set for Sunday, October 18.)

Our Latin food favorites are all freshly made and authentic and a great way to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, Fiesta Birmingham and Taco Fest! 

Here’s some of what you can expect to find:

Restaurateur Dame Becky Satterfield will offer two fresh house-made salsas – Salsa Veracruzana and Salsa Verde – and bags of fresh tortilla chips from El ZunZun in Cahaba Heights (did y’all know they’re open for brunch?). 

Dame Aimee Castro will have fresh guacamole, and margarita mix kits from beloved dining spot Sol y Luna, which reopened earlier this year in Mountain Brook Village. 

Samford University culinary professor Dame Pat Terry will bring slices of Pan de Jamon, a traditional festival ham bread from Venezuela.

Village Tavern Corporate Chef Dame Mary Grace Viado will share caramel flan; she makes it according to her mother’s recipe! 

Dame Cristina Almanza of Buffalo Rock, a longtime Market sponsor, will keep folks hydrated with chilled bottles of Jarritos, (PRO TIP: That’s the key ingredient in a refreshing cocktail called a “Paloma,” and I believe Cristina will have the recipe available.) Cristina and her friends from Fiesta Birmingham will also be introducing and selling the brand-new Fiesta Boxes, filled with crafts and games to benefit this year’s festival.

Another TIP:  When you finish visiting with us, walk around and find a  breakfast burrito with pico de gallo to go from Homewood Gourmet and Dame Laura Zapalowski.  

We’ll be at our tent all morning Saturday, answering questions, telling you about our upcoming (very fun!) fundraiser and celebrating Birmingham’s international food scene. 

The market is full of late-summer deliciousness! Be sure to bring your market bag/basket like these smart (properly masked!) women pictured below!

Celebrate Mediterranean food with Birmingham Les Dames d’Escoffier

The Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international organization that supports professional women in food & hospitality, is coming to Pepper Place Market every week in September to spotlight some of Birmingham’s female culinary superstars.

This week, we’re celebrating women food leaders who keep us connected to our culinary roots in the Mediterranean.

Quite a few members of Les Dames do this, and they’ll be at a tent in the Walk-Thru Market on Saturday, September 12 from 7 a.m. to noon.

Here’s some of what you can expect to find: Dame Kathy Mezrano (Kathy G. & Co.) will be bringing her stuffed grape leaves. Dame Sherron Goldstein of Fresh Fields Cooking School will have veggie couscous to go, along with her cookbook. Dame Stacey Craig will bring cheesecake baklava from The Bright Star, and copies of The Bright Star cookbook, too. Dame Sonthe Burge will bring Greek salads, tapenade, taziki and koulourakia (those addictive Greek butter cookies).

You can pre-order Italian dishes of all sorts from Dame Linda Croley (Bare Naked Noodles) in the Drive-Thru Market, or pick up some of her dried homemade pasta at the Dames’ tent. Also in the Drive-Thru, you can pre-order an array of authentic savory and sweet Greek specialties from The Greek Kouzina. Wow!

Meanwhile, my fellow Dames and I will be at our tent all morning Saturday, answering questions and celebrating how truly international our cooking heritage is–right here in Birmingham, Alabama.

Turning Over a New Leaf

When most restaurants right now are tweaking their business models to simply remain viable during a pandemic, one Indian restaurant in Birmingham is off to a fresh, new start. 

The new Bay Leaf, rebranded and reimagined, used to be Bayleaf Authentic Indian Cuisine. The Highway 280 location opened in 2014; they expanded to Five Points South in 2019. Now it’s Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar. It’s still plenty authentic, but there’s a European-trained Indian chef running these kitchens, and he’s pretty inventive and not at all shy about putting his own spin on traditional dishes. 

Executive Chef Pritam Zarapkar (known as Chef Z) says, “I love to play with food! I experiment a lot and sometimes come up with a new product—trying to get myself better every time. … I don’t want to call myself the best. I’m just a learner. I like to call myself a learner, because life is a learning phase which is … going to go on and go on. And the more you learn, the more knowledgeable you get.” 

Chef Z is a graduate of the Business and Hotel Management School in Luzerne, Switzerland, where he studied Culinary Sciences. With more than 15 years of executive chef experience, he has launched more than a dozen restaurants across Europe and in the United States.  For Bay Leaf, he has teamed up with some local investors and Kiran Chavan, a former owner turned general manager. 

“At Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine, we have given a twist to traditional Indian food,” he says. And because Chef Z has a global view and likes to serve his guests foods he enjoys eating, there are some fusions on the menu, too. “It used to be a regular Indian restaurant, but as I came to Birmingham, I came to know that people here are foodies and they like to spend money on food. They are ready for change … people are adventurous over here.”  

I toured the kitchen with Chef Z for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire piece and listen to an interview with Chef Z here.

Chef Z draws inspiration from across the Indian subcontinent, from the northern plains to the southern coast, reflecting India’s varied geography, flavors and culture. He relies upon his knowledge of Indian, French and American cuisines to make foods that are fresh and exciting, offering dishes that feature pure, bright flavors with an emphasis on technique and quality ingredients like halal meats and heady spices imported from India. 

This is Indian fine dining in the neighborhood of Highlands Bar & Grill. In fact, Highlands was one of several places Chef Z’s partners took him to show how much people in Birmingham value delicious authenticity. They also spent time at Chez Fonfon, Automatic Seafood and Oysters and a few other places where Chef Z quickly realized people here appreciate good food and they support their local restaurants. 

He says he’s pleased with the warm welcome he’s gotten in Birmingham. “I am getting good support from all the locals, from all my guests. Everyone around here, they are making … the entire Bay Leaf team feel special, and … that makes me proud. That’s really a nice and positive encouragement for us.”

Inside the comfortably fancy Five Points location, which reopened mid-June, a chic, mirrored bar sparkles across the room from an original textured wall that indicates this building has some history. Soft lighting illuminates a large, colorful mural that depicts the diversity of India—the regions, religion, culture, art, clothes and people. It’s a fitting backdrop for a fragrant and spicy curated trip across the subcontinent.

There are traditional Indian favorites such as tikka masalas; tangy kababs; and smoky, clay oven-cooked tandoori chicken as well as modern, signature dishes like raspberry paneer tikka and tangy, slow-cooked, tamarind-glazed beef short ribs. There’s also a desi burger made with lamb cooked in the clay oven and served on a naan bun. You might want to start with some street food-style “chaats” (small snacks). The gol gappa shots, semolina puffs filled with black garbanzo, potato and mint-cilantro water, can be spiked with vodka if you want. The samosa duo is a traditional Indian snack with a savory filling of potatoes, onions and peas. The street dosa—rice and lentil crepes stuffed with vegetables—comes with a coconut chutney and lentil curry. 

The main menu features a variety of traditional Indian curries:  a rich and creamy tomato-based tikka masala; korma with a mild mix of spices, cashews and yogurt; and a spicy, slow-braised vindaloo, which is a Goan curry of lamb, goat or beef with potatoes. There’s also a saag curry made with baby spinach, fenugreek and other Indian greens. Soak up every bit of gravy with pillowy rounds of butter-drenched naan.

Chef Z’s training and global experience shine in some of his favorite recipes. The aromatic, coconut milk-based shrimp moilee is a curry from southern India. The lamb lal maas, from the deserts of Rajasthan, features savory, tender braised lamb in a fragrant, deeply red sauce that gets all its color from dried chilies. 

Even the cocktails are lovely and exciting.

Birmingham native Kayla Goodall is the lead bartender, mixing signature cocktails like the Paan Old Fashioned with Indian gulkand sugars muddled with rye whiskey and bitters, garnished with a twist of citrus rind, a maraschino cherry and a large betel leaf. There’s a chai-tini that combines Indian chai tea with vodka, a splash of ginger liqueurs and a garnish of nutmeg. The Cardamom French 75 is a tasty, spice-forward drink made with cardamom, cognac, champagne and lime juice. 

Because Chef Z’s partners are doctors, there are careful COVID-19 protections in place here, and extra attention has gone into the in-person, dining room experience. There’s no-touch digital ordering with QR code scanning (disposable menus are available for diners who prefer those). Tables are purposefully spaced apart for social distancing. The staff members (wearing protective gear, of course) are trained in proper preventive techniques by healthcare professionals. The space is regularly cleaned and sanitized throughout the day—morning, afternoon and evening. And there’s lots of hand sanitizer—in fact, there’s a big bottle on every table. All that’s reassuring, allowing diners to come back to a dining room and experience some semblance of normality.

Chef Z says, “We need to give something good to people because a lot of people are still wanting to go out.” And he’s proud of his team for helping make that possible.

“My team is making everything successful,” he says. “They’re doing that. They’re doing a lot of hard work—my kitchen team, my servers, my bartenders—everybody who’s associated with Bay Leaf. I’m proud of all of them … because they are my roots at this point, and they are making us successful.”

Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar

bayleaf@thespicelibrary.com

https://www.bayleafbham.com

Five Points South location

1024 20th St. S. Unit 101

Birmingham, AL 35205

205-777-3070

Lunch served daily 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner served Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.

Valet parking available

Highway 280 location

5426 Highway 280, Suite 14

Birmingham, AL 35242

 205-518-0208

Lunch served Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner served 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday and weeknights and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.

Reservations strongly suggested.

Moving Forward: Chef Raquel Ervin Pivots to a Food Truck

On a Sunday in March of 2019, chef Raquel Ervin gathered together nearly 100 friends and family at the Hoover Randle Home & Gardens knowing full well, at some point that evening, they would be disappointed.

They were there for a watch party—to see Ervin and her sister Regina and niece Alexandria compete on Food Network’s “Family Food Showdown” against two brothers and their dad. 

Team Raquel did not win. 

A brief moment of shocked dismay at the outcome ultimately did not spoil this party. In fact, the consensus in the room that night was if those brothers hadn’t started crying—well, then, things would have turned out differently. 

Ervin certainly didn’t cry. 

Chef Raquel’s ribbon-cutting for her new food truck drew a few hundred people.

This is a young woman who is more apt to raise up her church choir-trained voice in gratitude for her opportunities. This is a young woman who knows there’s always another challenge, and even if that challenge is a pandemic, she’s going to meet it head-on.

Ervin was just days away from signing a lease on a restaurant space when the state began to shut down businesses. She had two weddings scheduled that weekend, with another two prepped for the following week. She had a catering contract with the Southwestern Athletic Conference to feed players, coaches, officials and others during the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. 

Then everything stopped.

“My plan was to do the brick and mortar first, which would allow me to have a steady clientele,” she says. “Then I was adding the truck the next year. So, I basically just flipped it and said, ‘Let’s do the truck now because this is what makes the most sense. This is where the demand is. People are at home, take it to them.’” 

And with that Ervin rebranded her business and kept it moving forward. Literally. 

I wrote about Chef Raquel for Alabama NewsCenter. You can see the entire story and a cool video here.

For days before this executive chef and owner took her Eat at Panoptic truck on the road, she teased her fans with mouthwatering, close-up photos of her gourmet sliders.

The PB&J burger features smooth peanut butter and blackberry-habanero jam.

One day it was the PB&J burger with smoked bacon, creamy peanut butter and a house-made blackberry-habanero jam. Another day, she showcased the 2 a.m. burger topped with hash browns and a fried egg. 

Then it was the Porky Pig with layers of smoked bacon, country ham and Conecuh sausage. Her crab cake sliders are pan-seared to order and topped with a house remoulade. There’s a barbecue chicken slider with a savory Alabama white sauce and another chicken option with homemade pesto aioli. 

The 12-hour brisket slider is one of the most popular menu items on the truck.

By the time she debuted her 12-hour beef brisket, artfully layered onto a Martin’s potato roll and topped with melted American cheese and a tangy-sweet horseradish and brown sugar glaze, people were making plans to attend the July 3rd ribbon-cutting.

People came for the food and found a block party, too.

They gathered in an Avondale parking lot for her food and an impromptu block party. They held umbrellas against the hot sun as they stood in a long, socially distant line. They watched the news crews. They did The Dougie and The Wobble to music from the DJ set up in a parking space. At noon, Ervin welcomed the crowd, suddenly singing a few lines from “Way Maker” because she felt moved to do so. Then she cut the ribbon and got to work.

She and her team served 584 meals that day—there were nearly 140 orders in the first hour.

Ervin, 34, started Panoptic Catering in 2014. Today, her full-service catering company handles corporate conferences, weddings, baby showers and more. 

Ervin’s food, “Southern soul with Cajun flair,” is influenced by the dishes her grandmother and mother cooked for her family when she was growing up in Mobile.  “I had a lot of exposure at a young age to cooking,” she says. “My roots are Southern soul food.” Her catering menu features pulled chicken and pork barbecue, sautéed Cajun corn on the cob, seasoned collard greens, and shrimp and grits. But she also offers Tuscan pesto pasta salad, homemade Swedish meatballs, wonton spinach dip cups, Buffalo smoked wings, grilled chicken with an Italian cream sauce, Philly steak and cheese sliders, and mini Nashville-style chicken and Belgian waffles. 

She credits working in her sister’s restaurants with pointing her toward a career in food. She says she did everything there “including quit several times.” She was 12 when she started there.

“My sister let us do anything we said we could do. If we said we wanted to try it, she’d let us do it. I learned ‘back of the house,’ how to prepare big quantities of cornbread and chicken, whatever she had on the menu. Then she would send me up front. Tell me, ‘You’ve got to fix the plate, ring the customer up.’ We were taught money, how to handle a customer, things like that. She’d send me out there to bus a table. … We literally could open the store, as teenagers, me and my niece, without her. I had to be no more than 16, and she was letting me run it.” 

The crab cake slider is delicious, and the homemade chips are a must-have.

Ervin has an innate sense of practicality. She knew that soul food was not feasible on a food truck, so she looked for a niche that was missing in the Birmingham market and decided upon specialty sliders topped with lots of things. She based the variety on what has proven popular with her regular catering clients during the past six years. Two of those items are the 12-hour brisket and the crab cakes, and those are the most popular sliders on her truck.

“One of the things that would set my food apart is everything’s scratch—homemade,” she says. “All of my sauces, even on the truck, I make all of the sauces from scratch. Everything on the catering side, my recipes are all scratch. I don’t have anything processed.”

Steering her business hasn’t always been easy, and she’s proud of overcoming obstacles. “Just being able to do that … having the tools and the skills and the willpower to just keep pushing,” she says. “It may be the competitive spirit, but I think it’s just drive. It’s my nature. My whole family’s wired like that. We’re a bunch of push-forward, maximum-drive individuals.”

She believes if you “stick to a plan, execute your plan, and don’t give up along the way, no matter what comes in the middle of it, you’ll find the light if you just stay the path. A lot of times we give up because it’s not easy. If you really want to see things go a certain way, and you have that passion for it, you’ve got to stick to it.”

Even during a pandemic.

“In my life, I’ve noticed that everything that has happened to me or through me … I always see things come full circle. It never fails,” she says. “No matter how ugly stuff looks, it always comes back some kind of way. It may be a different way, but it’s the best way. … I live by that. This is clearly where I’m supposed to be.” 

Eat at Panoptic

www.eatatpanoptic.com 

205-319-1611

info@eatatpanoptic.com

Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the Eat at Panoptic food truck will be parked at 2627 Crestwood Blvd. in Birmingham. Locations for dinners from 4-8 and Saturday lunches will vary. Follow the truck on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for specific location information.

You can access the food truck menu here.

Save the Restaurants We Love

I just got a text from my friend George Sarris who owns The Fish Market Restaurant on Birmingham’s Southside. George’s restaurant has a special place in my heart.

When our kids were young, Rick and I had a weekly date night there. That was at the old place–the one that looked like a big styrofoam box. We’d crowd around a table with friends and strangers. It was not unusual for people visiting Birmingham from around the world to realize they knew someone at that table.

When George moved across the parking lot to his current location in a wonderful old warehouse with a custom bar and centuries-old timbers, my friend Lisa DeCarlo and I went with him and a small group to Greece (and then Lisa and I went to Turkey) to gather furnishings and decor (including genuine Greek fishing boats) for the place.

Our oldest child got her first job at The Fish Market and worked there as a cashier for years through high school and during summers home from college. To say she learned a lot about life there is a huge understatement.

Freshly shucked oysters and ice-cold local beer at The Fish Market bar are two of my favorite things in this world.

So, yes, this restaurant means something to me. And I’m not alone in this. So I want you to read what George sent me. Then do whatever you can to save the independent restaurants we love.

Here is George’s message in his own words:

Restaurants are the common ground of life in the United States. During my 50 years as a restaurant operator, I have watched customers grow up, get married, have kids, pass away – and now their kids are regular customers. If someone dies, gets married, has children, or a birthday party – we go to  a restaurant. In my home country of Greece, we have the coffee shop – the roundtable of the community – but here, it is restaurants. Not everyone likes to drink at bars, or dance in clubs, or even go to church, but everyone eats. If something happens to restaurants in the United States, then the way of life that we have come to cherish is at risk of changing irrevocably.

Without substantial help, I do not see 80% of independent restaurants surviving into 2021. 

My Name is George Sarris and I have lived in Birmingham, Alabama, for the past 50 years. I immigrated through New York on April 1, 1969 from Tsitalia, a small village in the Greek Peloponnese. Our voyage was with the 2nd-to-last passenger ship that ferried immigrants to the United States from Europe.

My village consisted of mostly subsistence farming, and our 9-person household family struggled to make ends meet, with  5 kids, 2 parents and 2 grandparents. We had a “modest” house: 2 rooms reserved for the grandparents, parents, children, a bedroom for the goats and sheep, and the last bedroom was for our donkey and Truman, a Missouri Mule. 

Our mule was given to us under the Marshall Plan, a $700 million aid package provided by the United States to assist Europeans in the wake of World War II. There were 28 Missouri mules given to families in Tsitalia, and we named ours Truman. Most everyone in the village gave their mules American names. 

At the age of 12, the children left the mountainous village to begin high school in the plains down below. Our parents stayed above, tending to the small groves in the terraced rocky hills, while we lived amongst ourselves. By necessity, we were self-sufficient: cleaning, washing clothes, cooking,  all handled by kids no older than 15 . We were taught to take care of ourselves from a young age–as long as you can work, everything else will fall into place.  

At the age of 18, I started working in restaurants. I paid my dues in every position of the business. I worked a stint in New York to learn a little bit about delis, so I went with what I knew.  I opened a “Kosher Style” deli in downtown Birmingham. Of course back then in Birmingham, “Kosher  Style” might even include a little pork.  I have owned  restaurants for the last 48 years and have always applied the same model that I learned back then: work hard, keep cost low, and appeal to blue and white collar clientele alike. 80 hour work weeks are the rule, not the exception, and that remains true to this day. 

For the last 37 years I have owned The Fish Market Restaurant on the Southside of Birmingham. When we opened in 1983, there were 8 seats in the dining room; today there are 375. I have been fortunate to have a long-lasting restaurant, and it all goes back to what I learned in the beginning of my career: work hard, save your money, and be fair to customers. If you can do those three things, then you can make a living. 

For the first time in my life, that is no longer true. My business’ future is no longer in my hands. 

My son Dino has worked with me from the age of 9 years old. He is 32 and now, I don’t even know if the restaurant business will be for him over the next four decades as it was for me.   

The US employs over 11.5 million people via the restaurant industry, with countless others whose jobs are directly tied to the industry via farming, manufacturing, importing, shipping, transporting, etc. At the Fish Market, we employ some of the most marginalized in our community: those who have been afforded minimal education;  persons who have been previously incarcerated (and, in some cases, currently incarcerated), and those experiencing homelessness. These Birmingham residents can find a career at our restaurant.  And, more importantly, they can grow from that position. The restaurant industry thrives on giving people chances, and sometimes second (or third) chances. 

Additionally, independent restaurants are behind community events, fundraisers, helping local schools and churches, and any worthwhile cause. Because we are a big part of everyday life and we live among our customers. We stake our future in our communities. 

As an independent operator, I wear many hats with my staff: preacher, therapist, policeman, social worker, banker, and, above all, a friend. Personally, I see restaurants as a way to teach those of us, like myself, who grew up without some of the basics – personal hygiene, social etiquette, promptness, self control, and stress management. There is a learned art to keep smiling in the face of a customer who is having a bad day. It seems to me that if you learn these basic principles then you can handle most of life’s difficulties. 

So now, more than ever, our country’s independent restaurants need help. After Fish Market’s initial closure on March 17, we received the Payroll Protection Plan/CARES Act (PPP) money to cover 8 weeks of operational costs. We were able to pay all critical expenses:  rent, staff salaries, utilities, interest on existing loans, etc.. But, once that all was paid, we were back to square one. There was nothing left to keep the business going beyond those 8 weeks. The CARES Act did not address the actual problem that business owners were facing: the pandemic (and restrictions placed on businesses) were not going away anytime soon. 

The newly proposed “Prioritized Paycheck Protection Program (P4) Act”, seems, on its face, to have improved from the previous bailout. Businesses will have to show, through financial records, that their business is still being negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  In the spring, numerous businesses receive grants who were thriving yet still remained eligible for huge amounts of money that could have helped those of us who are genuinely in a crisis. The P4 Act could provide funds to those who truly need it, and will allow us to keep our industry afloat through the end of the year. 

Truman, along with 28 other mules, was instrumental in the survival of our small mountain village in Greece. 70 years later, the community is still there, preserving the way of life that they hold dear. If the airlines, farmers, hospitals, bankers, carmakers, insurance companies, Wall Street, and multinational corporations can get a caravan of mules, when will the independent restaurant industry get theirs?

The restaurant business has never in the history of this country needed help from the government. We were able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps in order to make it. This time, all we need from the government is a mule, and we can take it from there.

Farm Market Easy Dinner

What to do with our beautiful abundance of farm-fresh peppers and tomatoes? Add some potatoes and fragrant green curry broth to them. Then put an egg on it.

After doing the fantastically easy drive-thru farmers’ market at Pepper Place, I was looking to make something special with my plump, beautiful cherry tomatoes from Penton Farms in Verbena. I wanted to cook them just a bit so I could still really taste how fresh they are.

This recipe for Fried Eggs with Tomatoes, Peppers and Potatoes in Green Curry Broth sounded perfect. It’s from Chris Weber, the chef at a restaurant called The Herbfarm just outside of Seattle. You should know that Chef Weber is the youngest chef overseeing any of America’s 47 5-Diamond restaurants.

We found Chef Weber’s recipe and story in the Wall Street Journal–in that paper’s Slow Food Fast series.

During the past few months, this fine-dining chef has had to pivot and then pivot again. When The Herbfarm closed, Chef Weber provided free three-course dinners for area front-line workers, sending out more than 44,000 boxes to these heroes. When that funding dried up, he turned to a nearby hotel and started cooking high-end dishes for the guests there. He says he’ll restart the free meal program if the need arises.

Chef Weber says this dish is a “good late-night. When you’re tired and need something really good and fast but not too heavy.”

I think it’s a great (and quick and easy) summer weeknight dinner that takes full advantage of our wonderful, fresh local produce. I also think you’ll enjoy it.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic,thinly sliced

1½ tablespoons green curry paste

3 cups chicken stock

10 baby or fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise

Kosher salt

4 eggs

1 cup shishito peppers

1 cup Sungold tomatoes

3 tablespoons butter

½ cup roughly chopped basil


Directions

In a large, high-walled pan, heat olive oil and garlic over medium-high heat. Add curry paste and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in stock, potatoes and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook potatoes until fork-tender, 15-20 minutes.

Once potatoes are halfway through cooking, set a large sauté pan over high heat. Once very hot, lower heat to medium-high and add half the butter. Crack half the eggs into pan. Once whites begin to set, arrange half the peppers and half the tomatoes around eggs. Salt yolks and vegetables. Roll vegetables around and once they blister in spots, after about 2 minutes, transfer eggs and vegetables to a plate. Repeat with remaining butter, eggs, tomatoes and peppers.

Distribute potatoes and some broth among four shallow bowls. Spoon in tomatoes and peppers, and top each serving with a fried egg. Scatter basil over the top.

Total time: 20 minutes

Serves 4

Full Moon Shines Across Our State

During times of unimaginable uncertainty in the restaurant industry, Full Moon Bar-B-Que continues to cook. Low and slow, of course. But steady, too. Even during a pandemic, it seems, people still want their ‘que. 

In the 23 years since the Maluff brothers—David and Joe—purchased Full Moon Bar-B-Que from Pat James, they have grown the business from a single store on Birmingham’s Southside to 15 locations all across the state. The Birmingham metro area has eight locations, including one in the Hill Student Center at UAB (it is scheduled to reopen in the fall). The brothers are even moving ahead with plans for a new store in Huntsville by the end of 2020.

James, a former football coach who spent a dozen years as Paul “Bear” Bryant’s assistant, started the business in 1986 with his wife, Eloise. They called it Pat James’ Full Moon Bar-B-Que. David and Joe, sons of Lebanese immigrants, purchased the original Birmingham location in 1997.

I talked to the brothers for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire story here.

The brothers have stayed true to the initial vision with colorful, sports-centric décor celebrating favorite regional teams; made-from-scratch dishes; and hands-on involvement in the business. Perhaps most importantly, they have always used hickory wood-fired pits to cook the meats. They even have five big, portable pits, allowing them to cook Full Moon barbecue anywhere—feeding groups of 10 to (once restrictions are lifted) 10,000.

These wood-fired pits make a world of difference, David says. “We have a passion to do barbecue right.  That’s why all of our stores still have wood-burning pits in them. And we do it the old-fashioned way—fresh, from scratch, every day. We cook our meat low and slow right in front of our customers, and they see it, smell it, taste it. And that’s what’s kept us thriving through the years.”  

During its flavorful 35-year history, Full Moon Bar-B-Que has gathered fans from across the country. It’s cheekily called the “Best Little Pork House in Alabama,” but Full Moon offers a comfortable, family-friendly atmosphere that has served generations and appeals to all nationalities, David says. “We’re real big on making the customer feel good. That’s our job. When you come into our house, we make you feel warm and welcome. We’re here to make you happy.”

Full Moon was named one of the top 10 barbecue restaurants in the U.S. by Huffington Post. The restaurant’s red and white sauces are on grocery store shelves along with the signature chow-chow, which is served on every sandwich.

Full Moon boasts two items on Alabama’s list of 100 Dishes to Eat Before You Die:  the crisp vinaigrette slaw and the baked-fresh-daily Half Moon chocolate chip and pecan cookies (half dipped into glossy, dark chocolate). Both these items are made according to Eloise James’ original recipes. 

There really wasn’t much of a pivot, David says, besides shutting down the dining rooms. “We were already set up for drive-thru, catering (and) curbside. That’s our model. We got stronger in that sense, but we’ve been doing it forever. You know, we’re one of the few restaurants that can have a full menu like we have on the drive-thru menu. So, it’s automatic for us to thrive in a situation like this, because we do it every day.” Besides, he adds, barbecue travels well.

What has changed, though, are the expanded health and safety precautions at each restaurant, Joe says. Things like maintaining social distancing between tables, hanging plexiglass between the booths, regular temperature checks for employees, masks and gloves for everyone who works there, extra attention given to sanitizing surfaces and washing things in the kitchen. 

“We have to take these measures every day to keep our employees safe, to keep our guests safe,” Joe says. “That’s the most important thing at this point.” 

“I’m proud of our people,” David says. “Being in the restaurant business is tough enough. Then adding all these measures on top of their jobs. You have to remember:  These guys are wearing a mask in the kitchen! It’s hard for them. It’s hard for us to manage because we’ve never been through anything like this before, right? That’s our duty … we’ve got to keep everyone safe. We’re going to do whatever it takes to keep our business thriving and our employees safe. Whatever it takes.”

Full Moon has long been known for scratch-made Southern sides like collard greens, baked beans, fried green tomatoes, potato salad, fried okra and mac & cheese.  But over the years, the brothers have expanded the offerings to suit a variety of tastes and lifestyles adding freshly made salads topped with a meat of your choice, hand-breaded chicken tenders, and gigantic baked potatoes overstuffed with meat and fixings. They put wings (Buffalo and smoked) on the menu several years ago, and the fried catfish (farm-raised in Mississippi) is extremely popular. 

But it’s the savory, smoky barbecue that is most famous here, especially the pork. Whether you get it chopped or request it sliced, you’ll want to order it like the regulars do—with “a little of the outside meat” mixed in. There are classic spareribs as well as baby back ribs. The brisket is from Black Angus cattle. Smoked chicken, turkey and spicy pork links are other options.

All this food is made using decades-old recipes and time-honored techniques; it’s comforting and familiar. And it makes people happy.

Back in March, the brothers started a “Feed a Friend” campaign, and they’ve extended it through June. It’s not something they talk about much. For years, David and Joe have quietly worked behind the scenes with churches, schools and nonprofits, but they had to enlist the help of people on the restaurants’ email lists to find families in need. 

When the pandemic hit, David says, “we saw a lot of people unemployed, not working, hungry. It broke my heart; it broke my brother’s heart.”

Each week, they get 300 to 400 responses to their Feed a Friend query. They go through these messages every day, identifying families in need and then sending food to their homes.  “I’ll tell you,” David says, “the reactions we get … will bring tears to your eyes. When they hear they are getting fed today … they are overwhelmed with joy. … It’s anonymous, who suggested that they need food. We bring it to their front door. We don’t say a word to them except, ‘Enjoy.’ 

“We’ve gotten a huge response,” David says. “A lot of this we don’t advertise, and we don’t want to advertise. This is from our hearts to the community. And I don’t care who it is, whether they’ve been a customer of ours or not. That doesn’t matter. We need to feed the kids and the families in our community and support them when we can.” 

The brothers do this every day, and sometimes they’re feeding two or three families a day. But that’s not all.

“It’s a wonderful feeling in your heart, doing something for others,” Joe says. “Feeding the first responders, feeding the nurses for nurses’ week, feeding the firemen. We’re not doing it just in Birmingham, we’re doing it in Tuscaloosa, we’re doing it in Auburn, we’re doing it in Montgomery. We’re just … trying to help our community out when they need it.”

Full Moon Bar-B-Que

Locations in Alabaster, Dothan, Fultondale, Homewood, Hoover, Inverness, Jasper, McCalla, Montgomery, Opelika, Pelham, Southside in Birmingham, Trussville, Tuscaloosa and UAB’s Hill Student Center. 

Check individual locations for current hours.

fullmoonbbq.com

Pizza

Thank you, Birmingham Breadworks, for getting me out of my house. At an acceptable distance, of course.

Because I ate a full half of one of your pizzas, I felt compelled (really compelled and fueled) to walk five miles in my hilly neighborhood today.

I really am grateful. That pizza with its savory bacon and thick, chewy Gouda on your delicious airy crust was amazing.

And it’s available for pick-up only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m. Options include pepperoni, three cheese, Margherita, sausage and cheddar, onion and arugula, chicken bacon ranch.

You order online. Designate a pick-up time and you’re golden. And full.