Celebrating Women & Science at The Lumbar

Your first clue that The Lumbar is a bar like no other is the row of beers on tap. They are situated on what owner Rylie Hightower calls the Spinal Tap, and there are 26 of them—the same as the number of vertebrae in a human spine. Then there’s the giant (16-foot) microscope that’s actually a load-bearing wall. Colorful pop-art posters celebrate female scientists like trailblazing mathematicians Vivienne Malone-Mayes and Ada Lovelace, laser pioneer Donna Strickland and Claudia Alexander who specialized in geophysics and planetary science. Old medical textbooks, a LEGO racecar, a vintage oscilloscope and a Brownie Target Six-16 box camera line shelves above comfy velvet sofas.

This is the kind of thing that happens when a scientist walks into her own bar.

Hightower just (a couple weeks ago) earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she conducted research on Duchenne muscular dystrophy in the laboratory of Matthew Alexander, Ph.D., in the Department of Pediatrics and uncovered a key signaling pathway for Duchenne muscular dystrophy patients. 

This work, in a way, led to The Lumbar. 

My partner Brittany Dunn and I visited The Lumbar for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here and see Brittany’s fun video.

When Hightower started her graduate courses, she had a nursing degree, but most of her classmates had degrees in chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics. “I was not doing well in class,” she says, “so I traded help with school for drinks. That’s how I made all my friends, and I ended up passing my classes the second time I had to take them.” 

Knowing that lots of good can come from people gathering over cold drinks to talk about their passions, she wanted to make a place for that to happen.  

“I really wanted to create a space where people could … be inspired by those sorts of collaborative conversations that are happening around the world of science,” she says. “Or, it doesn’t have to be science, but if people leave here inspired to do something in the world, my goal has been met for the day.”  

So, she contacted her dad, Tim, a structural engineer who could build almost anything. He was in their hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, but he traveled to Birmingham to help his daughter build out The Lumbar space in the historic Pepper Place district. They opened for business on November 30, 2018.

“We are a science-centric bar that uses food and creative drinks to inspire the community to go out and change the world,” Hightower says. “But that is not enough to describe us at all. Probably the number one comment I have gotten is that people come back because they feel comfortable, welcome, accepted and they always leave happy. So, I think outside of trying to educate and inspire and catalyze community change, the only other thing that matters more is that people can come and be themselves and be comfortable and safe and happy. They may or may not learn something before they leave, and that’s great, too.”

The Lumbar has a diverse and loyal following, from “adjustment hour” regulars to Saturday morning Pepper Place marketgoers who line up for the tasty Bloody Marys.

“We do get a lot of scientists and physicians and nurses from UAB and a lot of respiratory therapists,” Hightower says. “We have a ton of people who actually come thinking that we are a chiropractic office and then they realize we can’t really do that, but we can adjust you with some liquor if you’re feeling like tequila today. And so, a lot of people come here for rehab and then they leave probably not getting the rehab they were thinking they were going to get, but hopefully we make them feel better anyway.”

If you’re into beer, they’ve got your back with brews ranging from a Guinness Nitro Stout to the Elysian Space Dust IPA, from Einstok Icelandic White to Blake’s Hard Cider—all lined up on the Spinal Tap that Tim spent weeks designing.

The cocktails at this cocktail bar are carefully crafted to pay homage to scientific principles and theories and the people behind them. They currently are celebrating Women’s History Month (and will continue that celebration into April because one month is not enough).

“One of the cocktails that I contributed to the (Women’s History Month) menu is Photo 51, and Photo 51 is actually the name of the picture—the first-ever picture—that was taken of DNA. That picture was taken in the lab of Rosalind Franklin. … Most people have heard of Watson and Crick being credited with the discovery of DNA. However, Rosalind Franklin’s lab was the first lab to actually image DNA. So, I am trying to give Rosalind Franklin credit for her discovery.” Photo 51 contains blanco tequila, orange curacao and Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic. It comes with a stick of crystal blue rock candy because Franklin was an x-ray crystallographer. 

The Adjustment Hour (Tuesday-Saturday from 2 to 5 and all day Sunday) features $2 off local craft beer cans and bottles and wines by the glass (including bubbles) from all over the world. There also are specially priced cocktails like Good Ol’ Fashioned Chemistry with bourbon, Rylie’s sugar and Angostura bitters; the Francis Collins (a riff on a Tom Collins that’s named for the director of the NIH); and a signature blue margarita called a Heisenmarg. 

You’ll see those New Mexico Hatch chiles incorporated into lots of the dishes, too—from snacks to burgers to colorful bowls. These menu items play on the science theme with clever names like Tetris Tots (Tetris-shaped tater tots) and crispy String Theory Fries both served with green chile ranch that is more savory than spicy.

The green chile cheeseburger was The Lumbar’s original signature dish, Hightower says. “When anybody asks me what they should get, I say green chile cheeseburger with Tetris Tots every time.” 

They started with seven items on the menu—now the burger lineup alone is bigger than that. There are ten different choices ranging from a jalapeno gochujang burger with homemade slaw to a Southwest veggie burger made with quinoa, brown rice and black beans and topped with American cheese and avocado to a Smash Burger with spicy, pulled barbacoa beef and green chile aioli. Other sandwiches include the LGBT sandwich, The Lumbar’s take on a classic BLT with the addition of green chiles and the house-made green chile aioli, and there’s a grilled cheese with homemade green chile pimento cheese and bacon.

Snacks include pepper jack mac bytes (mac and pepper jack cheese battered and fried) and smoked chicken wings with a sweet, spicy gochujang sauce served with cool green chile ranch. 

Hearty bowls include a Fiesta Bowl with sweet potato waffle fries topped with roasted street corn and a scoop of green chile pimento cheese and a Frito Pie bowl with corn chips, house-made beef chili and shredded cheese. 

There’s no phone number for The Lumbar, but you can place a to-go order on the website. Otherwise, you’ll order at the front window and find a seat inside or outside on the patio surrounded by Tim’s planters full of seasonal flowers and lit by the festive lights strung across 29th Street.

The Lumbar is known, as Hightower wanted it to be known, as much for what you can experience as what you drink and eat. 

The Lumbar offers spirited celebrations of scientific feats like the historic Apollo 11 mission and meaningful science-focused events like Earth Day (coming up April 22). These science-centric events are “part of the whole driving factor behind inspiring the community,” Hightower says.

The 2019 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing was an initial jumping-off point. 

“It was a huge deal,” Hightower says. “We had astronomy groups come and set up telescopes out here in the parking lot. And so, people could grab a beer and check out the planets and their moons.”

Last April, they were celebrating Earth Month when the pandemic shut everything down. So, Hightower and her team pivoted to take-home cocktail kits with drinks like Bee’s Knees and a Queen Bee cocktail. Each cocktail kit also had a bag of potting soil and some seeds for pollinator plants so you could enjoy a drink and do something nice for the planet, too. 

Photo from The Lumbar

This May and June will see The Lumbar become The Lost World:  Jurassic Bar with dinosaur-themed everything.  Shark Week is so popular here that it will be the focus of two months—July and August—because “one week of Shark Week is not enough,” Hightower says. Look for signature cocktail menus, special beers on tap and themed dishes. 

Hightower is quick to say that all this is possible because of the team she has in place—from the young, professional women who make the drinks to Tim who runs the kitchen and is the general manager. “None of this would be possible without everybody pitching in, working doubles, working for me when I have to be at school. … Everyone’s learning on their own when I can’t provide training … attending virtual cocktail conferences so that they can learn more. Just the amount of dedicated effort from everyone who works here and how that effort has turned us into a family that does not function without each other is probably what I’m most proud of about The Lumbar.”

She’s going to need this family moving forward. 

Hightower has been a standout at UAB where she was awarded a F99/K00 grant from the National Institutes of Health, becoming the fifth student from UAB to be named a recipient of this predoctoral to postdoctoral transition award. The five-year grant funded a year of her Duchenne muscular dystrophy research and will continue to fund her postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Matthew Might, a computer scientist, biologist, educator and public health administrator, who is the director of the Hugh Kaul Precision Medicine Institute

“The Precision Medicine Institute here at UAB is incredible,” Hightower says. “It’s new. It’s only a few years old, and they have a team of clinicians and scientists and computer engineers who come together to try to solve undiagnosed health cases. It’s kind of like real-life House but a lot less dramatic and with no music. It’s really important work, and they take patients from all over and try to provide a genetic or a molecular diagnosis for patients who are really, really sick but they’ve never had an answer for why. So, I’ll be joining their team.”

Hightower will continue her day job and her bar job because both are fulfilling in similar ways. 

She says conversations with The Lumbar staff have led some customers to grad school, helped others learn the steps to buying a house or encouraged them to do something entirely different with their lives. “We empower the people who come in to follow their dreams and to do the things that they’ve always wanted to do,” Hightower says. “That’s what I want people to say about The Lumbar—that because I went there, I tried something I’ve always wanted to try, or I did something I’ve always wanted to do, or I learned something I’ve always wanted to learn … or I started moving in the steps of my dreams.”

The Lumbar

212 29th Street South at Pepper Place in Birmingham

https://www.lumbarbham.com

No business phone; you can send an email through the website

Hours

Tuesday-Thursday noon to 7 p.m.

Friday and Saturday noon to 10 p.m.

Sunday noon to 7 p.m.

Closed Mondays

Feeding Body and Soul

Jake’s Soul Food Café was created to satisfy a personal longing for a certain kind of comfort food. For the past six years, the small restaurant has attracted a large, loyal fan base who apparently find the Southern soul food and Caribbean dishes comforting, too.

photo from Jake’s Soul Food Cafe

In 2014, newlyweds Dawn and Sean Simmons moved to Birmingham from New York and North Carolina. They missed the thriving Caribbean food scene in New York and also had an affinity for good Southern soul food. The Caribbean flavors they craved, in particular, were missing in the Magic City, so they decided to open their own restaurant.

My partner Brittany Dunn and I visited Jake’s for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the story here and see Brittany’s cool video, too.

Jake’s Soul Food Café started in Pelham and about a year later moved to its current location in Hoover near the Riverchase Galleria. It’s been a family-centered business from the very beginning.  

The café is named after Sean’s father, Jake Simmons; the Caribbean recipes come straight from Dawn’s father, Bayne Walter, who lives in Trinidad. Sean’s sister Teresa McLaughlin, who gained corporate food experience from 14 years with Chick-fil-A, is the executive chef. Known as “Ree Ree” to co-workers and customers alike, McLaughlin already knew her way around a Southern kitchen, and she quickly became proficient at the Caribbean dishes with their curry bases and jerk seasonings. General manager Sherrell Moore is McLaughlin’s son. And Moore’s daughters work here as well.

While soul food is part of the restaurant’s name, the menu is divided pretty evenly between Southern soul food favorites and bright, spicy Caribbean cuisine. And Jake’s is a place where you can get both kinds of food on the same plate. 

This mix of familiar foods and exotic flavors makes for a tasty combination, Moore says. He’s right.  

We paired the Port of Spain’s curry chicken (which was falling-off-the-bone-tender) with a side of delicious collards slow-cooked with smoked turkey. We added a side of spicy “cabbage with soul” to our saucy jerk shrimp. You can get white or Caribbean rice with your fried catfish and enjoy salmon croquettes with a side of plantains.  If you stuff the Jamaican beef patty inside the coco bread (it’s like a dense Hawaiian sweet roll), Moore and his team will note that you know what you’re doing.  

The opportunity to mix and match also is part of the restaurant’s commitment to making customers happy. 

“Our menu is set up like that because sometimes people just want to taste a piece of this and they also want to be able to taste a piece of that,” Moore says, “and … it actually ends up going good together.”

The most popular dishes also reflect this duality, with customers’ preferences, like the menu, pretty much split down the middle. As far as a best-selling dish, “it’s probably going to be between the (Caribbean-style) oxtails and the (Southern-fried) pork chops,” Moore says, adding that the wings (available marinated in jerk seasonings and also fried Southern style) are popular, too. 

The oxtails happen to be a favorite of Charles Barkley (of Auburn and NBA basketball fame) who—pre-COVID—used to come in fairly regularly to sit at the café’s counter and quietly enjoy the dish. “What I’ve seen is there are not many places around here where you can get oxtails,” Moore says, “and a lot of people haven’t really had them Caribbean style.”  The oxtails, flavorful and tender from a 24-hour marinade, are truly a special dish, Moore says. “Some food, you know, you can go home, and you can cook it, and it’s easy. It takes a bit more for the oxtails to get them cooked just right to where they’re tender.” Also, he adds, they are expensive, and people are sometimes hesitant to experiment with such pricy ingredients. 

The pork chops at Jake’s deserve more than a mention. They serve two tender center-cut pork chops, smothered with homemade gravy and caramelized onions, with your choice of two sides. Moore says they sometimes sell more than 100 pork chop dishes in a single day. 

In addition to Sir Charles, the customers at Jake’s include people who followed the restaurant from Pelham, longtime customers from throughout the Birmingham metro area and, recently, more new people every day. Moore says, “As of lately, we’ve actually had a new influx of people who have never heard of us before.

“We have some Alabama (football) players that come through,” Moore says. “Some that have gone on to the NFL that will come back.” And quite a few comedians who come to perform at the StarDome Comedy Club stop by, too. 

They all come to Jake’s for scratch-made food that is made to order. 

“One thing I think people need to know about our restaurant is our food is prepared fresh,” Moore says. “The cooking process doesn’t start until you order it, and so you just have to give us time to get your food cooked properly. … Know that when you get it, it’s going to be fresh because it was just prepared.”

The folks at Jake’s closed in-person dining at the café last March, but they already had a brisk to-go business happening right next door at Jake’s Express. So, they pivoted immediately and successfully to Jake’s Express only where they continued operating with takeout, curbside and delivery. There’s an easy online ordering process that makes pick-up safe and as contactless as you’d like. And now they have a new Jake’s Soul Food Café app available for free in the App Store. “It really is very, very easy,” Moore says, “and that’s one of the things that we’ve tried to do through this whole COVID situation:  make things easier for the customers as well as for the employees.”

Moore says they will continue like this for a while longer. Even when it was operating at full capacity, the café only had 16 tables. Safe social distancing would take that count down to eight, and that’s too few to allow for profitable, distanced dining. “Our biggest concern is safety—safety of the customers, safety of the employees,” Moore says. “We really just didn’t want to take a chance with our customers or our employees, but, definitely, we would definitely love to get back to some normalcy.”

Meanwhile, they try to make the customer experience as positive and regular as possible. Friendly service, upbeat music and a Cheers-like welcome are the norm, Moore says. An interesting view straight into the bustling kitchen is always nice, too. 

Ultimately though, people come back to Jake’s for the food—food that’s good for body and soul. 

“For me, soul food is comfort food,” Moore says. “… it makes you feel good. A lot of people get a little dance on, you know, while they’re eating, and you know they’re happy. That’s what I think we do for a lot of people that come in. Some of our foods take them back to, ‘Hey, I remember my aunt or …. my grandmother … or my great-grandmother used to cook this.’ … So, I think we provide great food and a great experience.” 

Jake’s Soul Food Café

3075 John Hawkins Parkway, Hoover, AL 35244

205-438-6340

HOURS 

Monday—closed   

Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.   

Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

Cajun Flavors in the Fountain City

You might have an ahnvee and not even know it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café

136 West Main Street

Prattville, AL 36067

www.unclemickscajun.com

(334) 361-1020

Hours

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

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

Closed Sunday

Live Local, Eat Local

For Ryan Zargo, the chef-owner of Farmhouse of Springville, the idea of local is serious business. It’s personal, too. That’s exactly why he opened his fresh, new restaurant near where he lives. 

“I’m local,” he says. “I grew up in Trussville; I live in Odenville. I’m very passionate about food, and … there’s just not a very big variety of food out in this area. … It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, just bring that variety of … fresh food to the people in this area. … Business has been good,” he says. “Reception from the community has been great. I’m just glad to be a part of the Springville community.”

The restaurant, just off Interstate 59, is the realization of a long-held dream for Zargo, but the chef took an interesting, detour-filled journey to get where he is today. 

I visited with Zargo for a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read it here and see a cool video, too.

Just out of high school, Zargo tried out for a semi-pro baseball team and spent time in south Florida playing ball until a shoulder injury cut short that career. After rehabbing that injury, he joined the Marine Corps and served his country for four years. It was after his time in the military when a television ad for classes at Culinard Culinary School caught his attention. So Zargo, who grew up with a hands-on appreciation for freshness that comes from a family garden and food made at home from scratch, decided on a new career track. “When I find something I enjoy doing,” he says, “I take it and I run with it.”

After finishing culinary school, he worked at The Fish Market on Southside, where he says owner George Sarris taught him general restaurant management and how to handle high volume. He also worked at The Club, where the chefs helped him hone his skills in French techniques and fine dining. Along the way, he also worked at barbecue and meat-and-three restaurants. He spent the past five years as Executive Chef at Bellinis Ristorante putting it all together, but he always wanted his own place.

So, after some 15 years in the food industry, Zargo opened his Southern-style Farmhouse, which he describes as “family owned and locally operated; we have a little bit of something for everybody—from barbecue to seafood to a good, old-fashioned burger to steak.”  

Farmhouse of Springville has only been open for about six months, but it already has a local following. It’s attracting customers from Birmingham and Gadsden, too. The restaurant, with its certified Angus 8-ounce filet and 16-ounce ribeye, was named “Best Steak Restaurant” by the Trussville Tribune

photo from Farmhouse of Springville

Those steaks are one good reason to visit; the chicken is another. That’s because they, like lots of things here, benefit from Zargo’s solid techniques with a smoker. The steaks are “cold smoked” before they grill them; so is the salmon. It’s a technique Zargo picked up at The Club. He even cold smokes the Gouda for his mac and cheese. The result is a layer of flavors including notes of the wood. The rich, mouthwatering scent of hardwood smoke surrounding these various ingredients in the small shed just out the restaurant’s back door is one of the first things visitors will notice. 

While simple salt and pepper will go a long way, Zargo isn’t afraid to mix things up in his kitchen. Even the breading for the fried homemade pickles is a subtly complex combination of about 20 or so different ingredients including celery seed, smoked paprika, salt, pepper, onion powder and a touch of confectioners sugar. This sort of mixture makes the fried okra and green tomatoes special, too. It’s the kind of thing that sets a restaurant apart; Zargo says he’s simply trying to bring something different to the area. “I like building layers of flavors.” 

Of course, this kind of detail takes time. Sometimes days. 

The restaurant’s award-winning pastrami is brined for three days with a variety of spices including cinnamon, ginger, bay leaves and a Marsala pickle spice. Then it’s dry rubbed with similar spices, rested for 24 hours and hot smoked for 12 more. The smoked chicken, which is one of the most popular items on the menu, also takes time. It is bathed in a simple brine of brown sugar and salt for a day, then dry rubbed to sit for another day before being smoked for three hours. 

Zargo uses this chicken for dishes like the popular “mid-night chicken Cuban” where he layers pulled smoked chicken with avocado, smoked provolone, chipotle-caramelized onions, spicy mayonnaise and homemade pickles. 

Burgers, made with certified Angus beef that’s ground in house, are another favorite here, and there are several options including a classic farmhouse burger, another with melted blue cheese and another with smoked Gouda sauce, honey-glazed onion rings, and sweet and spicy barbecue sauce.  

There are soups, salads, catfish, shrimp and grits and pan-seared grouper, too.

Farmhouse, as the name implies, also is about using the best of what’s fresh and locally grown, and sometimes that means produce straight from Zargo’s own 1,000-square-foot backyard vegetable garden where he grows cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and squash. 

What he doesn’t grow, he tries to source locally from producers like Allman Farms & Orchards in Oneonta. He gets extra tomatoes from nearby Sand Mountain. Zargo relies upon quality meats and Gulf-fresh seafood from Evans Meats & Seafood.  

We really have a passion for what we do, he says. “We try to provide a variety of things—very fresh and flavorful food—for everybody.” Word has gotten out, business is steady, and customers range from lunching ladies to date-night couples. 

“They’ve been great,” Zargo says about his customers. “And especially at the opening, they really came out and supported us. We’ve been real thankful for that. We still get a lot of regulars coming in. It’s been a real supportive community, and we’re trying to … get more involved … trying to get out and do things for the community to give back.” He says they’re starting small but doing what they can, donating to the nearby schools and to a local food pantry. “We donated to (the food pantry) for the holidays and are going to continue trying to donate and keep it stocked for the people in need through the holidays.”

Zargo figures that his entire career up to now has prepared him for owning his own restaurant. The dedication, commitment to hard work and a deeply instilled affinity for teamwork that gave Zargo the confidence to pursue a professional sports career and then led him to serve our country also are making him successful at Farmhouse. The teamwork, he says, is especially important.

“I’m real team-oriented,” he says. “You know, … I don’t look at certain positions in my kitchen … a lot of people say, ‘Here’s your grill cook, your fry cook.’ We have those, but we’re all a team; we all have got to help each other. That’s what I relate to a lot. That teamwork. That feeling of camaraderie.”

Farmhouse of Springville

85 Purple Heart Blvd. 
Springville, AL 35146

205-839-9901

Hours

Tuesday through Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Closed on Monday

Tre Luna Bar & Kitchen: a Date-Night Destination in Hoover

Tre Luna Bar & Kitchen is a family-owned business, but it’s the family that owners Brian and Erin Mooney have gathered together that is key to its success. From the partners who helped make the restaurant happen to the staff and the regular customers who keep it going, Tre Luna is a delicious destination. 

Seven years ago, the husband-and-wife team bought an established catering company and rebranded it Tre Luna.  Tre Luna, meaning “three moons” in Italian, is a nod to Erin’s heritage, the very early days of Brian’s restaurant career, a play on their last name Mooney and a reference to their three children. 

The full-service catering business, which they run with manager Sara Walker, has been a successful part of Birmingham’s exciting food scene ever since. Tre Luna Catering does large events like weddings as well as smaller gatherings like business breakfast meetings. The company also offers gourmet, chef-prepared, single-serving meals delivered to your home—something that has been especially apropos and welcome right now. 

But Brian, who started in the food business when he was 14 years old working at an Italian restaurant within biking distance of his home, longed for his own establishment.

“I wanted a home base,” he says. The challenge with catering is “you’re making this delicious food, but sometimes you’ve got to pack it up and carry it out to the middle of a field somewhere with no running water. You learn to adapt. But here, I’m making it in the back, we’re bringing it out and serving it 50 feet away. This is something I’ve always wanted to do. This is where my heart is.” 

The Mooneys partnered with longtime friends and supporters Rick and Christine Botthof to open Tre Luna Bar & Kitchen in May 2019. 

I went there for Alabama NewsCenter recently. You can read the entire story and see a cool video here.

Christine’s eye for design created a space that is sophisticated and comfortable, upscale and fun, transforming part of the recently constructed Village at Brock’s Gap shopping center in Hoover into a delightful culinary destination for the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond. 

Walk in and find yourself somewhere else.

A striking chandelier (the first thing she and Erin picked out for the space) is likely the first thing you’ll notice, too. A handsome marble bar anchors one wall, and a beautiful, handmade Acunto Mario pizza oven commands the back corner. This serves as a second bar and an entertaining chef’s table, too, and adds a spot of color to the restaurant’s stylish neutral palette. 

“I wanted it to look like a bistro,” Christine says. “When we were discussing the restaurant, we wanted something completely different from everything that exists here in the city of Hoover. We wanted to be a date night spot, and we did win Hoover’s Best Date Night Spot last year.” 

Christine’s design also proved to be incredibly practical.

When the restaurant had to shut down indoor dining at the beginning of the pandemic, a passthrough that served an outside bar on the patio became a convenient, socially distanced, walk-up window for to-go orders. 

“After a while,” Christine says, “we had people who just sat out on the patio with their to-go food and felt like they were having a night out. People socially distanced themselves. We even had people bring their own tablecloths and come for their standing Friday-night date and eat their takeout outside and bring their own wine glasses. We really have had a tremendous amount of support.”

The patio remains popular; heaters and a centralized fire pit will extend the season of full-service dining out there. Inside, tables are spaced out and there’s room between diners on the comfortable banquettes with their shimmering fabric and fun throw pillows. Both options feel good. And the restaurant does a brisk takeout and delivery business, too.

The food at Tre Luna is “Italian-inspired.” 

“(Brian) is very talented with Italian food, but we didn’t want to stick ourselves into a box with just that,” Erin says, “because we like to experiment. We wanted to have raw oysters, which are my favorite. We wanted to have fish specials and experiment with appetizers.” 

“Everything’s from scratch,” Brian says. “We hand make our own pastas, our own doughs for pizza and focaccia.” They grind the beef themselves for the bistro’s popular burger, and serve steaks, Italian-American comfort foods, seafood fresh from the Gulf and daily specials.  

The restaurant is a variety of different things, Brian says. “It’s a place especially for the community that we’re in. You could come here one day and grab a burger or pizza and come the next night … and have something like a great seafood risotto or a filet.”

Some of the most popular starters are bestselling favorites from the catering company—things like the cheesy spinach and artichoke dip, citrus-herb Gulf shrimp, slow-braised boneless beef short rib sliders on house-made buns with horseradish cream. “We knew it would be a home run,” Erin says. “We had fed … hundreds of people braised beef short ribs, and everyone seemed happy.” 

Pizza making, using a dough recipe that Brian spent weeks perfecting, becomes performance art as the cooks stretch the dough, artfully top it and then cook the pies in the wood-fired Acunto Mario pizza oven. These pizzas range from a simple Margherita with fresh mozzarella, basil and San Marzano tomatoes to a shrimp scampi version with Gulf-fresh shrimp, roasted garlic, spinach, cherry tomatoes, Grana Padano and mozzarella. The pie with house-made Italian sausage; ricotta; whole, fiery Calabrian chile peppers; spinach and mozzarella is popular, too.

Classic Italian pasta dishes include penne with wild mushrooms, spinach, roasted tomatoes and white-wine cream sauce; braised pork shoulder orecchiette with mushrooms, spinach and bechamel; lasagna Bolognese; and linguini shrimp with pesto cream, oven-dried tomatoes and spinach.

It all reflects a simple approach to cooking honed by classical training and years in kitchens, including Frank Stitt’s Bottega Restaurant. “I like to let the food speak for itself,” Brian says. “My job as a chef is just to … let the product be what it is. So, you source great products (from local purveyors like Evans Meats, Greg Abrams Seafood and Ireland Farms), and then it’s just really letting the food speak for itself and not overcomplicating it.”  

Brian trained at Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, and he and Erin met working together at Dancing Bear in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—he was a line cook and she was a server. 

Erin says she plays a support role at Tre Luna, but, really, she is the friendly face of the place, as she makes her way around the dining room, bar and patio, refilling glasses, greeting old friends and making new ones, too. 

“We live down the street,” Erin says. “This is our neighborhood. So sometimes I walk in the back door after I drop off at cheer or karate and then walk around the restaurant for 45 minutes with water and greet everyone and ask them how they are. Then I’m out the back door.” 

Her graciousness, even between carpool duty, is genuine. “I would say I have a servant’s heart. There’s nothing that makes me happier than for someone to be … fulfilled …  with food and also just with joy,” she says. “I love that feeling of knowing that we’ve done a good job and that we’re bringing happiness to someone’s life.”

Tre Luna, the restaurant, had hardly gotten started when the pandemic hit, but the Mooneys lost little ground.

“I think Brian and I both have an entrepreneurial spirit about us and always have. We have big dreams,” Erin says. “Brian and I are both dreamers; we’re both very hard workers. We like to do what we do. I feel like we’re on the right path, and I feel like we’re survivors. … You know, I’m proud that we stuck to that dream and didn’t give up, because we easily could have given up a bunch of times.”

“We really wanted to work for ourselves,” Brian says, “because we wanted to be able to do this for our children. We wanted to give them something, a better life, give them the life we’ve wanted for them. 

“They’re getting to see that the hard work has paid off,” he adds. “My oldest daughter, who’s 16, has really seen the transitions from, ‘OK, Dad’s working at this job to this job’ and now, ‘I’m watching Dad build this business.’

“I think that the proudest thing is for our children to be part of it,” Brian says. “They know all of the staff here; the staff … has become family. Especially through the Covid part, we’ve really become a tight-knit family. We take care of each other. This isn’t just a restaurant to me. This is a family of people, and it’s been really beautiful to experience it.”

Tre Luna Bar & Kitchen

1021 Brocks Gap Parkway
Suite 145
Hoover, AL 35244

205-538-5866

Closed Sunday and Monday
4-9 Tuesday-Thursday
4-10 Friday-Saturday
Happy Hour Tuesday through Friday from 4 to 5 p.m.

Conversation is on the menu for Southern Foodways Alliance Fall Symposium

Here’s a clever pandemic-year pivot: Instead of having your annual symposium in one place, have it everywhere. Then make sure everyone has something special and delicious to eat so you can continue – and expand – the conversations you started.

The 2020 Fall Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Symposium: Future of the South has been happening throughout October, and lots of the related articles and presentations are published online at the SFA website. But SFA wants to keep the meaningful conversation going – and make it personal and involve tasty food.

Because food is such a vital ingredient of what SFA does, on Saturday, Nov. 7 for dinner and Sunday, Nov. 8 for lunch, folks in the Birmingham area can pick up some gourmet grab-and-go Community Meals prepared by chef-owner Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood and Oysters and Timothy Hontzas, chef-owner of Johnny’s in Homewood. Both men are James Beard-nominated chefs who are shaping the future of food in our part of the country.

Each year, the symposium features a boxed lunch by a chef who has an important voice in regional food. (Last year, it was Maneet Chauhan’s “Working Woman’s Lunch,” with sweet potato chaat and collard green curry.) This year, it’s different everywhere with the Community Meals prepared by chefs in celebrated restaurants all over the country – from JuneBaby in Seattle to Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin to The Second Line in Memphis to Miller Union in Atlanta to here at home.

“This moment,” according to SFA, “when in-person dining is unpredictable but takeout options have never been better, feels like the perfect opportunity to carry on that tradition with new purpose.”

“We all look forward to sharing meals each October,” said Olivia Terenzio, marketing and communications strategist for SFA. “Obviously, we can’t do that this year because of safety concerns, but we still wanted to foster a sense of community and engage people around the questions and ideas posed during the symposium this year – that is, what are our hopes and visions for the future of the South. We really hope to encourage people to pick up meals that build on these questions and gather in ways that feel safe to them to continue the conversation.”

The meals might, themselves, be conversation starters.

“I want to serve a box that uses as much of the whole fish as possible,” Evans said. He’s known for his creativity and commitment to sustainability. So, on Nov. 7, he will offer a “whole fish box” featuring smoked fish dip with fish-eye crackers; braised fish cheeks with farm pickles; fried fish collar with chili butter; grilled, dry-aged fish ribs with lemon and olive oil; sweet potatoes with XO sauce; shaved kale salad with fish-belly bacon and farm vegetables; and fish scale and tapioca coconut pudding. This gill-to-tail feast is $50 per box and serves two people.

On Nov. 8, during lunch, Hontzas of Johnny’s will showcase his fine-dining skills and Southern-Greek heritage with Mavrodaphne-braised lamb tips drizzled with a Tsitalia olive oil and citrus vinaigrette, toasted cumin tahini grits, cucumber-mint tabouleh stack, sumac-marinated feta, and cayenne and garlic Tabasco cornbread. It’s $14.95 per box and available for pick up during Sunday lunch hours of 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Famous for his popular “Greek and three,” Hontzas said, “It’s my twist on beef tips and rice but with lamb and tahini grits. I just love taking something Southern and making it Greek; we’re so similar in cultures.” (Fun fact: Mavrodaphne, a sweet, fortified wine made with dark-skinned grapes from the Greek Peloponnese, is what they use for communion wine in the Greek churches in that part of the world.)

For ordering and pick-up information, visit each restaurant’s website: https://www.automaticseafood.com and http://www.johnnyshomewood.com.

The Community Meals are open to everyone, not just people who attended the fall symposium. If you fill out the RSVP form by 5 p.m. on Nov. 4, they will put you in touch with other respondents in Birmingham on Nov. 5.

Then, make plans to gather safely (or remotely), enjoy your meal together (or online and apart) and talk about things like journalist José Ralat’s exploration of Sur-Mex, the integrated cuisines of the American South and Mexico, or cookbook author Chandra Ram’s ideas about how a celebration of Indian and Southern food connections might lead to social action.

“We wanted to create a way for them to organize where they want to meet and how. So, it’s about giving people the tools to figure that out amongst themselves,” Terenzio said. “We have printed postcards that I just mailed out yesterday for the chefs to include with their meals. The postcards have some conversation starters on the back that relate to the future of the South and the programming that we shared during October.”

The Oxford, Mississippi-based SFA is known for hosting workshops; sponsoring internships; and contributing to the academic study of regional foodways of the changing South through films, articles, literature, art and podcasts. Birmingham has had its fair share of attention from the organization.

“We reached out to Automatic Seafood and Johnny’s because Adam and Tim are both SFA members and they’ve worked our events in the past, including the symposium,” Terenzio said. “We knew their restaurants are open and that they would be able to offer an exciting and insightful boxed option that speaks to their visions for the future of the region.

“Everyone at SFA has just a tremendous admiration for Birmingham,” she added. “We’ve done a ton of work exploring the different food histories.” A few examples are “The Birmingham Greeks” and “Birmingham at Work,” a series of portraits and vignettes about restaurant labor in our city, and a profile in memory of Constantine “Gus” Koutroulakis of Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs.”

SFA produced a short film by Ava Lowrey on Hontzas and some of Birmingham’s Greek-Southern dining traditions.

“This goes back to (Birmingham’s) inspiring history,” Terenzio said, “but also the people who are doing the work now to recreate and continue creating the city’s food culture.”

For more information on the Community Meals and SFA, visit the site.

This story originally appeared on Alabama NewsCenter.

Greek Soul

Ted’s Restaurant has been a fixture on Birmingham’s Southside for nearly 50 years, serving Southern classics and Greek favorites to generations of customers. It’s one of those restaurants that has shaped the city’s culinary history. For the past 20 years, Tasos and Beba Touloupis have owned Ted’s, keeping an important—and tasty—tradition going and looking to the future. 

We sat down with Beba and Tasos for a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read it here and see a cool video by Dennis Washington.

The restaurant was started in 1973 by Ted Sarris (Mr. Ted), who was one of several Greek immigrants who came to Birmingham from the tiny Peloponnesian village of Tsitalia to work in the city’s restaurant industry. In early 2000, Mr. Ted started thinking about retiring. While planning his 70th birthday party at the Hoover Country Club, Mr. Ted met Tasos Touloupis, who was working as the club manager. Mr. Ted made Tasos an offer he couldn’t easily refuse.

He also included a stipulation, insisting that Beba be a part of running the restaurant much like his own wife had done. As Beba recalls: “He said, ‘Litsa and I worked together; we built this restaurant. You need to work with Tasos.’’’

The Touloupises had no previous restaurant experience, but they liked the idea of working together. And because the restaurant was only open during the daytime on weekdays, they figured it would afford them quality time with their growing family. 

It was a big and life-changing decision in lots of ways. Both Beba and Tasos quickly realized, “We didn’t buy a restaurant, we bought a clientele.”

But actually, what they bought into was bigger than this hardworking couple, larger even than a successful restaurant with generations of loyal customers. The Touloupis family bought into a longstanding, beloved tradition of Greek-owned restaurants in the Magic City. It’s a food history that dates back to Birmingham’s earliest days. 

There’s some pressure in that, Beba admits. “It’s our responsibility to honor and to be able to carry on that tradition. And that’s what we felt even just taking over from Mr. Ted. It was about a couple years into it, because when we first started, we were like, ‘Oh, we can do this!’ And we just kind of immersed ourselves in it for two years. Then, after a while, we’re saying, ‘Wait a minute.’ We didn’t understand the depth of the responsibility that we had and the tradition and the longstanding community … presence. We’re (saying), ‘Wow! We have a responsibility here.’ So, it took us into another level of appreciating what we’re doing.”  

When the Touloupises took over Ted’s they didn’t change much. The restaurant is a classic Southern meat and three with a Greek twist. The recipes mostly date back to Mr. Ted’s time. “We were farm-to-table before farm-to-table was a thing,” Beba says. They still shop at the local farmers’ markets for fresh vegetables like squash, okra, tomatoes, pinto beans, black eyed peas and collard greens.

The steamtable changes daily and includes favorites like fried grouper, beef tips and rice, chopped steak, fried chicken and mac and cheese. But people also come here for the baked Greek chicken; tender, tangy souvlakia; and savory pastitsio (Greek-style lasagna).  

There’s a framed photograph of Mr. Ted and his wife, Litsa, near the front door; there’s one of Tasos and Beba, too, and you can trace the Touloupis children’s childhoods in the family photos behind the cash register. But Ted’s has a bigger place in the heart of Birmingham, and Ted’s customers come from all walks of life.

“We have white-collar customers, blue-collar customers. We have UAB supporting us tremendously and Children’s Hospital,” Tasos says. “There are students, a lot of professors, and a lot of politicians and judges. It’s kind of funny when the judges come here, all the attorneys go to the table and pay respect.

“We love our customers, and the customers love us … They know my story. They know my family. I know their story, and that’s the kind of environment that we have built up. So, everybody knows everybody here. Often I make the joke: ‘It’s not a meat and three. It’s a meet and greet.’ … The people make the restaurant.”

 A few years ago, Tasos and Beba restored the vintage Ted’s Restaurant sign out front and asked Birmingham artist Bonard Hughins to paint murals on the outside of the building, making it even more of a local landmark. 

“Ted’s has been in the heart of Birmingham since 1973,” Beba says, “literally in the city and in the hearts of Birmingham’s people since 1973.” The murals, she says, are a tribute to the city. “We just wanted to highlight our city and how much we love it—how much we appreciate what they’ve given to us.”

One mural features a stylized rendition of nearly every beloved aspect of Birmingham’s skyline—from Vulcan to Sloss Furnaces, from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral, from Railroad Park to Regions Field and Children’s of Alabama, and it reads: “… Where Friendly Gets Downright Fresh!” Those who visit Ted’s even one time will know that phrase is a play on Tasos’s outgoing and engaging personality. A self-described “hot mess,” Tasos delights in making customers feel like individuals. Everyone who visits—from weekly regulars to folks who Google “food near me” while traveling on Interstate 65—receives the same warm, friendly (and sometimes cheeky) welcome. 

“I think we do a great job with the food,” Beba says, “but I also think what we do best is make people feel at home. And when they come in, they know Tasos is going to mess with them. The girls are going to know they’re there and what they’re drinking.” 

While 2020 has been difficult, Beba and Tasos recognize and appreciate the bright spots.   More and more, they’re seeing regulars become regulars again. They are back to serving on real plates rather than to-go containers. And in response to Birmingham’s growing downtown housing market, Tasos and Beba will begin a Saturday brunch service in mid-November. 

Early in the pandemic, Yellowhammer Creative made limited edition “local series” t-shirts featuring some of Birmingham’s hippest places, and so Ted’s joined The Atomic Lounge and Battle Republic and Queen’s Park and Mom’s Basement for a short run of cool shirts that quickly sold out and also gave money back to the local businesses. 

Lately, Ted’s has branched out into serving the state’s film industry. In spring of 2019, they catered for the crew of the film Inheritance. They quickly made a name for themselves—accommodating the changeable schedules of a film set. 

Like so many Greek restaurant owners before them, the Touloupises came to Birmingham from elsewhere and made the place their own. 

“Our Greek-Southern hospitality is the combination of both,” Beba says. “It’s a good combination—the Southern hospitality and the Greek is a perfect mix. I think that’s why our restaurants do so well, because it’s very similar—the love and the support and the warmth of walking into a place. You don’t find that often.”  

She calls it “philoxenia,” which translates as “friend to a stranger.” 

“It’s bringing people in and taking care of them and nourishing them,” she says. “That’s what we do. I think that’s why Greeks gravitate towards the restaurant business, because it’s in our nature to take care of people and feed them.” 

And Tasos can’t resist adding: “The Southern hospitality is the child of the Greek hospitality, because we’ve been in existence for three thousand years. Without the Greeks, we wouldn’t have the Southern hospitality. Well, I’m sorry. I’m a little proud, you know, to be where I’m from, but we invented that.”

All teasing aside, the two take their ownership of Ted’s seriously.

Beba says, “Before Covid, I was most proud of the fact that we were able to honor Mr. Ted and Litsa for 20 years, and we survived. But I think now we’re so proud of the fact that we were able to keep our doors open and we were able to keep some employees with us. We just wanted to hang on … we understood what Ted’s means to the community. We’re not just a restaurant. Our little corner on 12th Street means something to people. We love this place. So, we’re proud of the fact that we’re working really, really hard to keep this place going.  That’s our 100 percent commitment. It’s for Ted’s to be here another 50 years.” 

Ted’s Restaurant

328 12th Street South

Birmingham, AL 35233

http://www.tedsbirmingham.com

205-324-2911

Serving lunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday

Saturday brunch service begins in mid-November.

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!