La Nueva Michoacana: One More Reason to Love Green Springs Highway

There’s a cool, sweet spot on the global culinary crossroads that is Green Springs Highway. But there’s much more than homemade ice cream and other frozen sweet treats at La Nueva Michoacana.

I recently visited La Nueva Michoacana for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video.

There’s ice cream, of course. Lots of it—scooped into cups, waffle cones, waffle cups and packed in larger containers to go. There’s a rainbow of homemade popsicles, too. But you’ll also find fresh fruit in a cup, spicy snacks in a bag, elote (Mexican street corn) on a stick as well as ice-cold juices, fresh chicharrones, and homemade potato chips.

And the flavors! Sweet, spicy, salty, sour, savory. Sometimes even all in a single treat! And, if you want more heat, there are bottles of Valentina hot sauce on the tables.

Juan Sanchez, the owner of La Nueva Michoacana and the person who makes the ice creams and popsicles and just about everything else here, says this combination of ice cream and snacks is typical of what you would find in a similar shop in Michoacán, a state in west-central Mexico where his family is from originally. 

With Ady Lopez translating, Sanchez tells us that this kind of ice cream shop is very popular in Mexico but, of course, it’s not what you’d usually find in Alabama, so that makes his place different from other ice cream shops here. Also, he enjoys providing variety for his customers. 

It should be noted, and Sanchez says, there are thousands of Michoacanas all over Mexico and throughout the United States. (It has become a generic term, although there are lawsuits pending about this.) Like the hot dog stands owned by the first Greeks who came to Birmingham, a “Michoacana” can be a path to economic mobility, a foothold in a local food community, a way to build an independent (usually family-owned) business without a lot of capital.

With a 4.5 rating on Google reviews and a line out the door on the weekends, the bright, colorful La Nueva Michoacana in Homewood, with its shiny silver tables, family-friendly booths and Mexican music, enjoys a loyal following. Sanchez, who has been in business for five years this month, says his “customers are a variety of people. Every culture. The main audience is Hispanics, but we have a variety.” 

They seem to enjoy everything, but a quick glance at a Sunday afternoon crowd shows ice cream to be the main draw—especially for families.

There are some 28 different flavors of ice cream right now, but Sanchez says he’s planning to add 14 more in the next month or so. These flavors range from creamy white coconut with fresh coconut flakes to a vibrantly blue “cookie monster” ice cream filled with broken bits of cookies. There’s much more including mango; pistachio; chocolate; and an amazing caramel ice cream with cajeta, a goat’s milk caramel imported from Mexico. 

The treats are made in-house from natural ingredients (“es natural” is part of the store’s logo). Most of the recipes, Sanchez says, are family recipes. He learned some from his sister, and he also has friends in Mexico in the food industry who have shared their recipes with him. 

Gallons of icy fruit juices (aguas frescas) include mango, coconut, mixed fruit, cantaloupe, hibiscus, and more. The lime-and-cucumber version is especially refreshing.

A colorful variety of paletas (popsicles) offers familiar and exotic options. Some are made with cream; others are fruit based. There are a few versions of strawberries and cream; there are straight-up fruit paletas made with mango, coconut, lemon, avocado, strawberries and more. Many of the popsicles are loaded with big pieces of ripe fruit—as pretty as they are tasty. 

Sanchez says, “How they look brings the attention of the audience, and then the audience wants to buy the product.” He adds that when he makes them, he “puts a lot of thought and effort into it. It takes a lot of patience to do the small details.”

You’ll find popsicles here you’ll not find elsewhere. There’s a creamy fruit-studded, not-too-sweet paleta reminiscent of a traditional Mexican fruit salad. We loved the delightfully sweet-fiery mango-and-chamoy combination that is a popsicle version of “fruit in a cup.” 

Then there’s actual fruit in a cup—big chunks of fresh, mixed tropical fruits topped with chamoy sauce and chile powder. The mangonada is one of the most popular items here. Another fruit concoction is called gazpacho and features mixed fruit with cheese (and onions if you want). Also in a cup but savory:  Mexican street corn salad (esquites) topped with chile powder and lime.

A large rack holds dozens of flavors of chips offering countless options for easy, to-go snacks in colorful bags. You see Doritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, and Fritos in flavors you might not have seen before. There are bags of Sabritas, Rancheritos, Crujitos, and more. Pick a bag, and they will fill it with toppings like melted cheese, jalapenos, salsa, and corn sticks or cucumber, jicama, peanuts, and chamoy or corn, mayonnaise, jalapenos, and chile powder. Or any combination you’d like.

La Nueva Michoacana is only one of many Green Springs businesses offering global flavors. Sabor Latino serves up Peruvian dishes just steps away. There’s a small tienda (with imported Hispanic goods) in this shopping center, too. And the popular La Perla Nayarita Mexican Seafood & Grill is in an outparcel here. All along Green Springs, you’ll find a world of diverse dishes—Ethiopian, Korean, more Mexican, Salvadorian, Middle Eastern, Chinese and more—in restaurants and in a number of food trucks that come and go. 

Just down the street, Mi Pueblo Supermarket draws regional customers with its bounty of fresh produce and dried chiles; homemade tortillas and scores of pastries; meats and seafoods; Mexican soft drinks, snacks, and candies; and specialty housewares. There’s a daily buffet in the back, a snack station up front and mariachi music storewide. Mediterranean Food Market, known for its helpful, friendly service, is a popular place for halal meats; Middle Eastern foods; and specialty cheeses, breads, candies, and spices. The new Halal Supermarket International is a short drive away. Hometown Supermarket is one of the state’s largest Asian markets, and it also has impressive African and Indian and South American sections. Really, the place is huge, and Mr. Chen’s Authentic Chinese Restaurant is inside the store.

Green Springs Highway is one of the busiest business roadways in Homewood, and the City of Homewood sees it as an important gateway between Lakeshore and Oxmoor Road. Also recognizing the increasing regional draw of the diverse businesses located there—and Birmingham’s growing appetite for global flavors—the city is making access to these stores and restaurants easier with a $2.25M revitalization project that includes beautiful green medians with trees. New infrastructure will make Green Springs more bike and pedestrian friendly while better regulating traffic. Eventually a bike lane will travel all the way to UAB. 

It’s an investment in the city, its residents, its businesses, its many visitors, and in good taste. From a food standpoint, there is no other place quite like this in our area.

The changes will most certainly draw even more new customers to the businesses here, and places like La Nueva Michoacana will welcome them. 

Sanchez says he feels proud of what he’s built here in Alabama; he’s proud to own a Michoacana. “We’re bringing a part of Mexico here,” he says. 

La Nueva Michoacana 

104 Green Springs Highway 

Homewood, AL 35209

205-703-4604

Connect with @LaNuevaMichoacanaBhm  

https://www.facebook.com/LaNuevaMichoacanaBhm/

Hours

11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Sunday

Fox 6 Books: September

Local flavor, y’all! Reading close to home with books by Alabama writers and another about a worldwide, homegrown topic. Here are the books I brought to WBRC Fox 6 this month.

The Speckled Beauty (on sale September 21) by Rick Bragg

Rick Bragg has the amazing ability to tell stories that touch our hearts. He always has.  His books like All Over but the Shoutin’ and the more recent Best Cook in the World draw the reader in with just the right mix of tenderness and toughness and honest humor. He tempers sorrow with laughter, and somehow, we’re different and better when we put down his books. He’s back with a book about a dog, and it’s another winner. The Speckled Beauty:  A Dog and his People, Lost and Found goes on sale September 21. It’s a warm and laugh-out-loud funny story about how Bragg’s life was changed by a poorly behaved, half-blind stray dog “an illegitimate Australian shepherd” who wandered onto his rural property. He named the dog Speck. It seems Speck, who likes mayonnaise sandwiches and chasing all livestock, showed up exactly when Bragg needed … something. And so, this is the story of two damaged creatures who help each other heal.

Sweet Potatoes:  Roasted, Loaded, Fried, and Made into Pie by Mary-Frances Heck

Oh, the humble sweet potato! Is there nothing it can’t do? Apparently not, as Mary-Frances Heck, senior food editor at Food & Wine, shows us. Sweet Potato Ice Cream? Yes. Sweet Potato Galette with a just-cooked egg on top? Consider it done. Sweet Potato Leaf and Fava Bean Stew? Why not?

Some 60 bold and delicious recipes take us from appetizers to sides to dinner to dessert—and the flavors are from all over the world. Shrimp and Sweet Potato Kakiage is a Japanese dish; Huevos Rotos is Spanish; there’s Irish Fish Pie with a topping of sweet potato puree; Thai-Style Noodle Curry is an exotic way to up your sweet potato game. (A trip to the farmers’ market AND the fabulous markets on Green Springs Highway is in order; you’ll find everything you’ll need.) Some dishes will be more familiar.  There are sweet potato fries here and sweet potato chips and sweet potato biscuits. There’s even a sweet potato “Big Mac.” What’s more, Mary-Frances guides cooks in a conversational way that is comforting even before you put your comfort food on the table. 

Family Law by Gin Phillips

I’ve followed Gin Phillips for years now. Her first novel, The Well and the Mine, remains one of my favorites. It won the 2009 Barnes & Nobel Discover Award. And once, in a train station in Germany, I saw a poster for her book Fierce Kingdom, and I was just so immensely proud of this Birmingham writer! Her latest novel, Family Law, is just as well written and compelling as the others. It’s set in Alabama in the 1980s and follows the career of a young lawyer named Lucia who is making a name for herself at a time when women were more likely to be the ones represented—not the ones doing the representing. Lucia spends her days helping women and children get free of troubling relationships, and her work is not without its perils; she receives plenty of threats. One day, a teenage girl named Rachel, whose mother is divorcing, comes into Lucia’s office. Rachel is captivated by Lucia and her ability to successfully move in what is essentially a man’s world. The young girl sees a path for herself in what Lucia is doing with her life. But then the violence of a threat made good puts Rachel in danger, and Lucia has to decide exactly how much her work means to her. (The novel is inspired by the real-life career of a highly successful woman attorney from Birmingham.)

The Unlikely World of the Montgomery Bus Boycott:  Solidarity Across Alabama, the United Kingdom, and South Africa By Cole S. Manley

I spoke to Ambassador Andrew Young a few months ago, and he told me a story. He said he had told Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the movement, “We probably will die before we are 40. But if we don’t, it’s up to us to change the world.” This book, published by the Montgomery-based NewSouth Books, looks at the global influences and lasting impact of the 1955-56 mass protest in Montgomery that many historians consider to be the start of the 20th-century civil rights movement. Cole Manley is a PhD student in History at the University of California, and he takes a world view of a movement that started here. He researches how the Black Montgomery boycotters thought about their movement as it relates to international struggles—from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the anti-color bar battles in the United Kingdom. Because what happened in Montgomery reverberated throughout the world. The Montgomery bus boycott was about much more than fair seating, of course. It remains an example of the power of protest and still inspires people in the ongoing struggles for racial and economic and social justice.

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

Bow & Arrow 2.0

David Bancroft is a quick study. 

The celebrated chef-owner of Acre in the university town of Auburn opened a second restaurant concept called Bow & Arrow in 2018. The vibe at his newer place is Texas-smokehouse-meets-Alabama-potluck, which is a lot; but it’s really a lot more than that. 

The restaurant is a life lesson about listening to customers, recognizing what they want, and doing what it takes to make them comfortable and happy. The Bow & Arrow that people visit today is not the Bow & Arrow that Bancroft and his wife, Christin, originally envisioned:  They changed that vision to accommodate their visitors.

We sat down with Chef Bancroft for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video from my partner Britney Faush.

Bancroft, who was born in Alabama and grew up in San Antonio, wanted to create a South Texas-style smokehouse at Bow & Arrow. The kind of place where you walk right in and straight up to a meat counter where your brisket and other barbecue is cut to order, weighed on scales, and piled on butcher paper-lined trays with white bread or tortillas. You can grab a dessert from the cashier, a soda from the fountain, an icy beer from a portable cooler. You get homemade pickles and chow-chow from a condiments table, pick up some plates and silverware, and then find a seat (probably next to a stranger) at a communal table. 

All the meats and some Southern sides photo from Bow & Arrow

No hostess. No wait staff. Just make a plate and make yourself at home.

But people didn’t really get that. The offerings were different from other barbecue joints. There was a brisket learning curve.

“All the families that were going through were just very stressed,” Bancroft says. “They would get up here … and would have what I call ‘line anxiety.’ There was a group of people that really loved what we were trying to execute at Bow & Arrow, but then, there were also the … families that were in a rush and hurrying back and forth and trying to get from gymnastics to the ball field to school to a meeting. The ordering style was a little stressful and it caused a lot of anxiety and people would get a little frustrated at the front of the line.” 

So, when the early days of the pandemic closed his restaurant to all but steady and profitable to-go orders, handed off at the drive-through window, Bancroft decided to make some changes.

“It was really an opportunity for us to either go big or go home,” he says. “If there was ever a time to make a change, it was going to be right then and there.” Bancroft prayed hard about it and then decided he “was sawing it all in half.”  

He drew plans on napkins and computer paper. He removed walls and built others. He took out the buck hunter video game (and sold it on Facebook Marketplace to a guy from Mississippi) and put in a server station. He built a hostess stand up front, a handsome bar in the back and cozy seating in the middle area that once was the meat counter line. He kept the bones of the place—the exposed beams, garage door walls, beautiful stonework, crisp whitewashed woodwork, chic lighting, and some of the leathered granite counters. He kept the sizable herd of trophy deer on the walls; each is labeled with the name of the hunter who contributed it—Bancroft, his friends and family, his dentist, his chiropractor, the guy who does pest control.  

But his entire business model changed:  He went from a handful of pit masters to a full-service wait and bar staff and today employs about 75 people at Bow & Arrow.

Elements of his original smokehouse remain. You’ll smell the smoke and hear the chop, chop of the butchers. You still can get slow-smoked ‘que by the pound served with white bread or tortillas. But the variety of dishes on the menu now allows this chef to show exactly what he can do and expand upon his Alabama roots and Texas upbringing.

Bancroft spent formative years on his family’s Alabama farm in Hartford hunting and fishing with his grandfather and learning how to smoke and grill what he caught. He watched his grandmothers Bebe and Mama Jean cook Sunday supper and learned to serve others with a gracious heart. Growing up in Texas, he remembers an abuela bringing tamales instead of orange slices for soccer game snacks. He and his baseball buddies, at age 16, would camp at the Medina River and cook cowboy breakfasts (tacos with chorizo and potatoes) over an open fire. 

That history and his homegrown love of food are interpreted here in various delicious ways that reflect Bancroft’s growth as a chef.

“You know, the beauty of this restaurant is that you can still see all of that influence of my Grandpa Kennedy who is the fish farmer, the cattle farmer, cotton, pines, peanuts, chickens in South Alabama, and everything that you would see at their table—at Mama Jean’s long farm table—with old Country Crock tubs and Cool Whip containers (filled with) zipper peas and collard greens. … Everybody had that grandma who literally recycled every plastic container she ever received.  … We’re still holding true to that style. 

“We’re still going as far into depth of technique as we can just to get to a very simple acceptable Southern product. We’re spending the time, the effort, the labor making these things from scratch.” 

But what guests find at Bow & Arrow is “a little bit more refined and has a little bit more technique” coming from all the things he’s learned at Acre. “It now has much more French technique, Spanish technique, German technique,” he says. “I mean, you name it, Mexican, obviously. All of that literally is the South. So now we’re not just drawing from influences from just grandmothers … All of what is the South—that is blended together now—is something that we’re honoring here.”

At Bow & Arrow, there are barbecue plates with Texas brisket, St. Louis-style ribs, pulled pork, smoked turkey, and jalapeno-cheddar sausage. There are platos of Creole-fried Alabama catfish, “chicken fried” chicken with sawmill gravy, and wood-grilled skirt steak and Gulf shrimp brocheta with pineapple pico. Appetizers include goat cheese guacamole, chili-lime wings with poblano ranch, and chips and house-made salsa. Sides range from green beans and hash brown casserole to sweet corn rice and smoky borracho beans. There are salads and sandwiches and a variety of tacos made with fresh flour tortillas.

The popular “beef ‘n’ cheddar” soft tacos (shaved brisket, homemade queso blanco, cheddar, crispy onions, and sweet rib sauce) are Bancroft’s cheeky take on Arby’s classic sandwich. 

Wood-grilled fajitas feature meats—skirt steak, chicken, and Gulf-fresh shrimp—basted with butter using rosemary branches. These come with sauteed poblanos and onions, guacamole salad, salsa de fuego, grill butter and flour tortillas alongside sweet corn rice and borracho beans. 

Enchiladas are inventive. The 30A version features two cheesy blue crab enchiladas, lemon-chipotle crema, salsa cremosa, avocado and crushed tater tots. Christin’s enchiladas are two chicken enchiladas with queso blanco, salsa cremosa, radish, cilantro, goat cheese, and pico de gallo. The “King George” enchiladas (named for George Strait, not British royalty) are two cheesy carnitas enchiladas with sliced brisket, queso blanco, chili con carne, hill country hot sauce, and tortilla strips.

The bar that anchors the back of this restaurant serves a variety of specialty cocktails (a cucumber mojito, kombucha lemonade, any kind of mule you’d like) as well as local and regional craft beers and more than a dozen variations and versions of margaritas. 

Four different barbecue sauces cater to just about any regional taste. There’s a Texas red sauce; a mustard sauce; a sweet rib sauce; and an Alabama white sauce that Bancroft made sure passed a taste test with his friend Chris Lilly, of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q fame.

It’s those personal touches that matter. 

They make their own bacon at Bow & Arrow (curing the pork bellies, pressing them into shape, slow-smoking and then hanging them to air dry). That bacon makes the collard greens some of the best anywhere; it takes the cheeseburger to a different level. A tortilla press cranks out fresh bread daily. Memaw’s eclair is the perfect way to end a meal. Christin’s grandmother’s recipe is that time-honored combination of graham crackers, Cool Whip and French vanilla pudding layered and shingled and topped with homemade fudge. “The kind of fudge that you’ve got to crack with a spoon,” Bancroft says. “When people get that first bite … I’ve had famous chefs come and get that with a scoop of ice cream, and they’re like, ‘What was that?!’” 

Memaw’s Eclair photo from Bow & Arrow

Bow & Arrow attracts a variety of customers—people in business suits, construction workers, teachers, moms, students, grandparents—and it’s family friendly. A thoughtful (and nicely priced) kids’ menu is printed on a page cleverly illustrated by Paulina Arroyo with a maze, a word search, a dog named Dolly, kids named Walker and Kennedy and lots of things to color. 

Bancroft made a national name for himself and created an outlet for his self-taught skills as a farmer, forager, and chef when he and Christin opened Acre restaurant in 2013. That restaurant—with its modern interpretations of traditional Southern cuisine—is on an acre in downtown Auburn, and it’s landscaped with edible plants; Bancroft and his staff pull seasonal produce from this garden for their guests. 

He has been a 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef: South” award, and he won Food Network’s Iron Chef Showdown competition in 2017. Bow & Arrow was named one of the “Best New Southern Barbecue Joints” by Garden & Gun magazine. 

Accolades, no doubt, will continue. Clearly, Chef Bancroft is doing lots of smart things here, but he’s especially happy that he got Bow & Arrow right.

“We want everybody to feel welcome,” he says. “We want everybody to enjoy the ambiance, the energy, the flavors, the aroma, but we also want them to know how much effort we put into the food. … I think people can see it right when it hits the table … and when they taste it, and they go, ‘Oh, yeah. We get it.’ … Families get to really share now, with a little bit less stress of having to order at the counter. I think they’re leaving happy.” 

He says the thing that makes him most proud of this 2.0 version of Bow & Arrow is the team that got him to this point. “Just the adversity that we had to go through, the challenges that we had changing from one model to another after the first year of business. … We all came out stronger,” he says. 

“There’s always an opportunity to make a change. There’s always an opportunity to find improvement, and it’s hard to do, but this team did it,” he adds. “This team is successful now because they went through that. They will always know that they do have an option, that they do have a choice—to either sit there and suffer through things or find something that makes them passionate and happy.

“The number one thing that happened here is now we are truly connected to the … heartbeat of this business, and it’s so much more fun for us to share that story now having gone through all of that.” 

Bow & Arrow

1977 East Samford Ave.

Auburn, AL 36830  

Phone: (334) 246-2546

www.bowandarrowbbq.com

Hours

Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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

To-Go Window/Online Ordering

Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Sunday 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Alabama Chef Competes on National Stage

Chef Scott Simpson, who brings a global approach to dishes at The Depot in Auburn, will be representing our state at the 17th Annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off. The winner of this event will hold the title of King or Queen of American Seafood.

The competition is set for Saturday, August 7 in New Orleans, and Chef Simpson is ready.

“I’m really competitive by nature, whether it’s sports or anything else,” he says. “I look at things quite strategically and do everything I can to give myself the best opportunity to perform well. I’m one of those people who believe that today’s preparation is tomorrow’s performance.”

I spoke to Chef Scott for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the complete story here.

In 2018, Simpson placed second at the 4th Annual Alabama Seafood Cook-Off. This past June, he took first place at the state competition, which led him to New Orleans where he will compete against 12 other chefs from around the country.

In Gulf Shores, he wowed the crowd with pan-seared Gulf yellow edge grouper, and he’ll cook something similar in New Orleans. 

“I’m doing a kind of remake, a new version of it, but the same ingredients, same procedure for each ingredient, just structured together a little bit differently,” he says. “I’m calling it ‘poblano-wrapped seared Gulf grouper,’ and that’s with a saffron Veracruz sauce. And it’s on a Gulf shrimp, Conecuh bacon, street corn risotto.”

This is a perfect example of the bold, creative mix of flavors and cuisines this executive chef offers his guests when they come to the restaurant he co-owns with Matt and Jana Poirier in the historic train depot in downtown Auburn. The Depot is a place where Chef Simpson tops wood-fired grilled oysters with a garlic chipotle butter, mixes Mexican-style chorizo sausage into his blue crab dip, and pairs McEwan & Sons organic blue corn grits with a gochujang BBQ sauce on a sweet tea-brined Beeler’s porkchop.

His global inspiration comes from a childhood spent enjoying the foods of an Italian grandmother on one side and a Hispanic grandmother on the other. Surrounded by good cooks and good food from a young age, Simpson says he’s always known he’d make his way in the world through food. And he’s done exactly that. 

Simpson grew up in California, and his formal food education and background include training in Florence, Italy, at the Giuliano Bugialli Professional Culinary School, (the first English language cooking school in Italy) and at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, CA, where he trained under such prestigious chefs as Rick Bayless, Roberto Donna, Michael Chiarello, Terri Sanderson and Karen McNeil.  

Then he ventured even farther afield. 

With a career spanning 30 years, he has trained other chefs and opened ultra-luxury properties around the world— from across the U.S. to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Jamacia and back home again. He came to Auburn in 2014 to become Executive Chef & Culinary Educator for The Hotel at Auburn University and a culinary instructor for Auburn’s Hospitality Management Program. After spending some time in Auburn, he met the Poiriers (founders and owners of The Hound in downtown Auburn), and, together with general manager Richard Tomasello, they opened a Gulf seafood brasserie at the Auburn Train Depot. 

Focusing on sustainable and responsibly harvested seafood, Chef Simpson, the son of a marine biologist, became the first fully qualified and certified James Beard Smart Catch chef in the state of Alabama. So, he comes to this national seafood cook-off, which promotes the quality and variety of domestic seafood, with a depth of knowledge.

During the Great American Seafood Cook-Off competition, each chef will prepare a dish highlighting the use of domestic seafood while interacting with the audience and celebrity hosts Chef Cory Bahr (Food Network Star finalist, Food Network Chopped Champion and former King of Louisiana Seafood) KLFY TV10’s Gerald Gruenig and “Chef Ref” Chef Michael Brewer, also a former King of Louisiana Seafood. A panel of nationally renowned judges will score each dish based on presentation, creativity, composition, craftsmanship and flavor.

Decerning diners look for much the same, and so excellence is always the goal—on a stage or in the dining room. 

“For competition, it’s different because you really have a lot of eyes on you,” Simpson says. “There’s a stopwatch that’s constantly on the far front of your mind, and you have other people who are beside you—quickly moving—that are competing against you. When I’m in the restaurant, we are 100% team, we are 100% family.

“In the restaurant, we certainly take the mentality that we’re going to create a winning dish. We’re going to fine-tune it, and then we’re going to present it to our service staff, let them taste it, talk through it. And then we run that night with high expectations that … we’re going to see nothing but clean plates coming back, and guests are going to tell us that’s the best whatever they’ve ever had. That’s what we go for.”

Photo by Tristen Cairns

Simpson says this upcoming competition and the opportunity to represent Alabama is “an amazing validation of all we’ve been trying to do since we opened the doors, almost six years ago. We’ve been trying to showcase Alabama, to be comparable to the best in other foodie cities around our country. And we felt very confident that we could do that.”

Perhaps a teacher at heart—and most certainly a lifelong learner—Chef Simpson says, “I’m taking a chef de partie. Her name’s Morgan McWaters. She came from a small operation. … so, she’s really earned most of her, if not all of her, cooking skills here, and she’s the one that helped me (in Gulf Shores).  … And so, I’m looking forward to her now going to this next level and getting that experience. Of course, I get the chance to show her what other chefs are doing … I mean, the kinds of presentations that everyone’s attempting in this hour timeframe are very aggressive, and I would say they’re on the edge. … I’m excited to see what everyone else puts out, to maybe have some takeaway ideas from this, to have the camaraderie of meeting some other great chefs from across the country.  

“I hope to perform to our best possible ability and to leave everything there in New Orleans that we can possibly put forth and to feel—because of a lot of preparation—no regrets,” he says. “And to know that we gave ourselves every possible chance to showcase Alabama and The Depot restaurant and the whole culinary team—front and back of the house—who’ve done such a great job to develop us. 

“This is right in our wheelhouse,” he adds, “it’s like a slow pitch to what we aspire to do each and every night. So, I think that it would be great validation and confirmation of everything we’ve been doing and striving for in this restaurant ever since we opened.”

Ready for Takeoff

We’ve been making Paper Planes this summer after we enjoyed them at Desert Bistro in Moab while on a hiking vacation in Utah. We even went to a local liquor store there to get the Utah amaro they used—Toadstool Notom Amaro No. 1 from Waterpocket Distillery. #greatsouvenir

This light, fresh, summer-ready bourbon cocktail is a modern classic. Mixologist Sam Ross, who worked at Milk & Honey in NYC before launching Attaboy on the city’s Lower East Side, created the drink in 2008 for a friend at a Chicago bar called The Violet Hour. 

Ross named the drink Paper Plane, after a song by M.I.A. (The song is actually “Paper Planes.”)

This cocktail (a perfect aperitivo) is straightforward with equal parts of four readily available ingredients. It’s easy to make and easy to drink. 

Paper Plane (makes 2 drinks)

1.5 ounces amaro (the drink calls for Nonino but we’re using Toadstool Notom)

1.5 ounces Aperol

1.5 ounces bourbon (we use Makers Mark)

1.5 ounces fresh lemon juice, strained

Combine amaro, Aperol, bourbon, and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake vigorously until outside of shaker is frosty, about 20 seconds. Strain into 2 coupe glasses.

An Epic Road Trip in the American West

In early June, after vaccinations and a year of no traveling, my husband, Rick, and I hit the road and headed out West to visit the five big national parks in Utah—Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion. We also found some state park gems like Dead Horse Point near Moab and Snow Canyon near St. George. And we visited some amazing BLM locations like Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail and others where we hiked through colorful slot canyons—Little Wild Horse Canyon and Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch. We added the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the end of our trip, because why not?

Several friends have asked for our itinerary, and I’m happy to share. We started in Moab, Utah, and made our way down the state and into Arizona. We set a fast pace (nearly 70 miles of hiking over 10 days), because I like to see “everything.” 

I’ll organize this trip by area, and you decide how many days to spend in each place. 

Here’s how to do what we did:

Moab—Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park with a side trip to Little Wild Horse Canyon

Canyonlands is huge! There are four districts—Island in the Sky (most popular), The Needles, The Maze and The Rivers. The Maze is the least accessible unless you have a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle (and are fully prepared for self-sufficiency). Next time we visit, we will hire a guide and a big vehicle to see the ancient, life-size pictographs (painted figures) and petroglyphs (figures etched in stone) in Horseshoe Canyon in the Maze district; this is some of the most significant rock art in North America.

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands is easily accessible and especially beautiful early in the morning.

On our visit this summer, we hiked the Island in the Sky district. We started with an easy, short walk to Mesa Arch, then hiked about 2 miles round trip to view the impressive Upheaval Dome (the crater is 3 miles wide and more than 1,000 feet deep and there are conflicting views about why it’s there) and finally, we hiked 2 miles out and back along the mesa’s edge to the Grand View Point Overlook (with amazing views the entire time). We arrived around 9 a.m. and spent an entire day at Canyonlands.

Arches is busy! Go early. Like 6 a.m. early. They were shutting down the entry gate mid-morning and again mid-afternoon, and it’s always busy until they do. So go early, take your breakfast, take your lunch, take your snacks and extra water and make a day of it.

We started with a three-mile out-and-back hike to Delicate Arch where we had a breakfast Clif Bar and then waited in a very civilized and organized line to have our photo taken under the arch. The way it works, everyone takes a turn, and you can get a good photo of the arch (with no people!) as one group leaves and the next comes up. Timing is everything at Arches!

There’s some cool Ute rock art near the beginning of the hike to Delicate Arch. Then we drove to Double Arch (just stunning!) where we parked once and saw a lot. We spent some time under the connected arches and then walked across the big parking lot where we hiked a primitive trail to see the North and South Windows and Turret Arch.   Don’t miss Landscape Arch, the longest arch in the world; this hike is 2 to 7.2 miles, depending upon how you do it). We started at 5:45 a.m. and spent an entire day at Arches.

Dead Horse Point State Park is near Canyonlands and is especially pretty at sunset. Go early (before tour buses arrive) and get a spot on the terrace just below the lookout point so you’ll not have other people’s heads in your photos. Then look to the rocks as the setting sun makes them glow with vibrant reds and oranges and pinks. The Colorado River snakes through the canyon 2,000 feet below. It’s a magical way to end the day. This park, a Dark Sky Park, sometimes has ranger-led stargazing events.

Where to Stay:

We rented a VRBO condo on a quiet side street near the busy downtown area of Moab (with lots of off-road vehicles on the road, it’s kind of like a scene from Mad Max). Our little unit was beautifully decorated, (loved the nice linens and custom sinks!) ideally located (out of the fray) and perfect for two.  Our host, Kimberley, offered an informative, insider’s guide to the area and helped us make the most of our time in Moab.

What to Eat:  

Y’all know I love a street taco picnic!

Get street tacos and elote at Giliberto’s Mexican Taco Shop in Moab (there’s a drive-thru) and go to Dead Horse Point for a sunset picnic; for a fancy dinner go to Desert Bistro (reservations required); Moab Brewery has burgers and nachos, and Johnny’s American IPA, Juicy Johnny’s Hazy IPA and the Dead Horse Amber Ale all are delicious.

Don’t Miss:  

Sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, sunrise or sunset at Delicate Arch in Arches, sunset at Dead Horse Point, stargazing at any of these International Dark Sky Parks

Little Wild Horse Canyon started our obsession with slot canyons. This one is suitable for all ages.

On the way to Capitol Reef National Park, we stopped off at Little Wild Horse Canyon near Goblin Valley State Park. Little Wild Horse is a fun slot canyon that’s suitable for just about anyone (including kids). There’s a trailhead (with a toilet and a good map), and the slot is easy to find. It’s narrow enough to know you are in a slot, but it’s not so narrow that it’s uncomfortable. And the colors are amazing!

It widens into a larger canyon and you can continue to a longer loop or turn around and come back the way you came.  Plan to spend 2-3 hours here.  NOTE:  Slot canyons are off-limits if there has been recent rain or if there is a chance of rain anywhere nearby; they are prone to deadly flash flooding.

We also visited Goblin Valley State Park, and although its hoodoos, like the iconic Three Sisters above, are significant and impressive, we didn’t stay long. The trails are not well marked at all; there were several frustrating moments when the trails just seemed to disappear. The one we did manage to stay on was like hiking through a sandcastle, and hiking through a sandcastle is not that much fun.

Torrey—Capitol Reef National Park with a side trip through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

You can see much of beautiful Capitol Reef simply driving through it, but this park with its cliffs, canyons, domes and natural bridges in the Waterpocket Fold (a wrinkle on the earth extending almost 100 miles), is a hidden gem. An 8-mile scenic drive features breathtaking views, and there are 15 day-hiking trails here. Make sure to stop at the petroglyphs just off the main road near the visitor station. We did a moderate, 2-mile out-and-back hike to Hickman Bridge to get a feel for this lesser-known park, and we saw a golden eagle here.

You’ll want to be at Capitol Reef for sunset; it’s amazing. Then come back to anywhere in this International Dark Sky Park for some of the best stargazing you will ever experience. You can easily see this park in one day or even a half day.

Where to Stay:  

Red Sands Hotel and Spa in Torrey

What to Eat:  

Wingstrands for farm-fresh food; we got takeout to eat during sunset

Don’t Miss:  

Sunset at Sunset Point, stargazing anywhere in the park, the petroglyphs just east of the visitor center

Highway 12 and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Take the amazing, winding Scenic Byway 12 (UT-12) or just “Highway 12” to get from Torrey to Bryce Canyon. This All-American Road is more than 122 miles long, and it’s one of the most beautiful drives in the country. You travel through a diverse and beautiful and rugged landscape of arches, mountains, slickrock canyons, red rock cliffs, aspen and pine forests, mountain meadows, national parks, state parks, a national monument and quaint rural towns.

Part of Highway 12 crosses various parts of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which covers nearly 1 million acres of public lands. There are three distinct units here: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits and Escalante Canyon. It’s so remote and rugged that it was one of the last places in the continental United States to be mapped! We went there looking for a few specific slot canyons and we found them down Hole-in-the-Rock Road (BLM Road 200).

If you are adventurous and in fairly good shape with a relatively small frame and not claustrophobic(!), visit Dry Fork Narrows and Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch slot canyons in Grand Staircase-Escalante. This is a true adventure! The slots are down 26 miles of dirt road, but you can rent a Jeep in Escalante that can handle the trip. 

Once at the trailhead, just getting to the slot canyons requires a two-mile hike along the rim and down some short cliffs and across desert dunes following well-spaced trail markers called cairns. Next time, we’ll take the Upper Dry Fork trail 1.5 miles through Dry Fork Narrows. But Peek-a-Boo and Spooky, with their tight and twisty, beautiful and wavy, red and purple walls, are your ultimate goals, and they are worth any trouble. (They require almost zero technical skill or know-how other than some rock-scrambling skills.)

I call this a “Dugas pass” after my favorite shoulder surgeon. #grateful

Peek-a-Boo is a tight slot that corkscrews back on itself. Your photos will be fantastic! The hardest part was just getting into this slot; you climb about 10 (challenging) feet up a dry fall to the entrance using shallow hand and foot holds (go at it sideways and chimney up by bracing with your back and your legs or have your strong hiking partner haul you up). After that, it’s just awesome in the truest sense of that word, as you twist and turn through what feels like an adult playground. At the end of Peek-a-Boo, you’ll hike across about a half mile of desert to get to Spooky, which is an even tighter slot that narrows to about a foot wide in spots.

People with smaller builds do better here … just saying. If you take your backpack, you’ll need to take it off and carry it above your head at times. There are some tricky parts where you must work out how to navigate around boulders or short descents (wear clothes you don’t care about; they might get torn) and there’s a knotted rope you’ll use to get past a 6-foot drop. Other than that, it’s just thrillingly narrow and very beautiful. We spent about 4 (truly delightful) hours here. We hiked about 6 miles total.

Here’s a link that tells you how to find these slots. For current conditions on any of the slot canyons off Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Burr Trail, or other hiking opportunities in, or along the Escalante River and its side canyons, contact the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center at 435-826-5499.

Tropic—Bryce Canyon National Park

This was my bucket-list location—really the reason I wanted to head West in the first place—and it was more spectacular than I ever imagined! There is nothing on earth quite like Bryce Canyon with its many thousands of colorful and ancient hoodoos and cliffs that range from white to pink to orange to deep red. Fun fact: Hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) exist on every continent, but Bryce has the largest concentration found anywhere on Earth.

We did the 8-mile Fairyland Loop (more than 1,700 feet of elevation change) that offers views you simply cannot get otherwise. There’s some climbing along uneven trails; boots are best. You’ll hike to the bottom of the amphitheater and then up again on the far side of the park above another valley of younger hoodoos. Go early in the day or late in the afternoon; the colors are best early and late. We also hiked the Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop (clockwise) and came up Wall Street, which is a short, yet awesome, slot canyon with terraced steps leading out of it at the end. So impressive! (It’s closed during the winter months.) We spent an entire long day at Bryce and logged 14 miles of hiking. I’d recommend at least a day, maybe two.

Where to Stay:

We stayed in a little log cabin at Bryce Canyon Inn in Tropic (this is about 10 miles outside the park). You can stay in Bryce Canyon City just outside the park or, with luck and advance planning, at The Lodge at Bryce Canyon (reservations are limited).

What to Eat:

Rustler’s Restaurant in Tropic kept us nicely fed for two days straight and didn’t mind that we ran in about 30 minutes before closing both days. There’s a fantastic coffee shop—Bryce Canyon Coffee Company—at the Bryce Canyon Inn with great espresso drinks and fresh pastries.

Don’t Miss:

Anywhere you look in Bryce is absolutely beautiful. Stop off at Fairyland Point near the park entrance when you first arrive for a preview of what’s to come. Do the full Fairyland Loop if you are up for an 8-mile hike (We did this counter-clockwise and took our time, and the entire hike with lots of picture taking took us about 5.5 hours); Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop trail (do this 3-mile loop clockwise so you come up Wall Street slot canyon), sunset at Sunset Point, the short Mossy Cave hike just outside the park proper, the scenic drive to Rainbow Point, which at 9,115 feet is one of highest points in the park. (Drive up and then stop at the overlooks on the way down to avoid cross traffic.) Make time for stargazing at this International Dark Sky Park. With the right timing and some luck, you can enter a lottery to go on a Full Moon Hike.

St. George—Zion National Park and Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail (Tempi’po’op) and Snow Canyon State Park

First of all, Zion is a zoo right now. Especially this summer when all of America wants to go somewhere and lots of them decided Zion is that place. Several of the popular trails were closed when we visited because of a big rockfall, so that meant even more people on the ones that were open. We could only access these trails inside the park via shuttle service, and that meant long lines and overcrowded shuttles. (The park opens the Scenic Drive to private vehicles January to mid-February only.) And unless you have good parking karma, you’ll need to take a different shuttle service in the town of Springdale just to get to the park entrance. (Also, the town shuttle stops running before the park shuttle ends, so plan accordingly.)

When we hiked The Narrows, there were always at least 50 people right around us; there were probably 500 on the watery trail that morning; it felt like walking out of a college football game – except mostly in knee-deep water. We skipped Angels Landing and opted for the less-traveled Canyon Overlook Trail, which was wonderful. This is the only trail within the park you can drive to via the Scenic Drive (which includes a mile-long tunnel), but parking is very, very limited; we went late in the day. The drive is awesome with lots of pullouts for photos of the monumental mountains and cliffs and a that long, scary tunnel through the mountain and we saw a family of bighorn sheep on the mountainside. 

Even with the crowds, this park is breathtakingly beautiful. Just the the scale of it all! I understand why it’s so popular.

NOTE: If you hike The Narrows, rent some water shoes and a thick hiking stick from Zion Outfitter in Springdale just outside the pedestrian entry to Zion. You can do this online and pick up your gear the night before (after 4) or walk up after 4 the day before your hike to rent them or even walk up the morning you arrive if you’re not a planner. You’re welcome!

We skipped a second day at Zion in favor of some less-crowded destinations. Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail (Tempi’po’op), pronounced: tumpee poo oop, in Santa Clara was a great way to spend a few hours. This family-friendly hike winds through through the desert, past the ruins of an Anasazi farmstead (built about 1,000 years ago) to the top of a hill where we climbed amongst a tumble of boulders to see (up close!!) some incredibly well-preserved ancient petroglyphs.

These were carved into the desert varnish on the rocks by Ancestral Puebloans. Lots of the art—from small bear claw images to snakes to bighorn sheep and geometric shapes—is quite accessible without bouldering; you can just walk along the rim trail and see plenty, but climb down to find them everywhere! We spent about 2 hours on this 3.5-mile out and back.

Snow Canyon State Park is awesome! We spent most of the day (with a break for lunch) at this colorful park with its red petrified dunes and red and white Navajo sandstone cliffs and black lava flows. The park is located in the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, established to protect the federally listed desert tortoise and its habitat.

The trails are well-marked with signs and cairns, and you’ll line up a series of shiny silver metal markers attached to the dunes to navigate those huge formations. So smart!

There’s a short slot canyon here, and you can climb into lava tubes from an extinct volcano. The landscape at Snow Canyon is so interesting, and a hike though the sagebrush-scented desert dotted with wildflowers and surrounded by soaring red cliffs is lovely in so many ways. There were times, we were the only hikers as far as we could see.

Where to Stay:

It’s more convenient to stay in Springdale just outside Zion or at Zion Lodge inside Zion if this park is your main/only destination But if you want to explore more of this part of southern Utah, Washington/St. George would be a good central location. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Washington.

What to Eat:  

We had our first In-N-Out Burger in Washington, and we loved Mixed Greens in a Chevron station in Santa Clara. There’s every kind of food you could want in the town of Springdale outside Zion.

Don’t Miss:

At Zion, The Narrows and Angels Landing are the iconic hikes; the Canyon Overlook Trail is less traveled than Angels Landing and offers spectacular long views. Make sure to rent those water shoes if you do The Narrows. And take time for the Scenic Drive at Zion. Venture down into the fallen boulders at Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail. At Snow Canyon, walk through Jenny’s Canyon (the slot canyon) and hike those petrified dunes. Do seek out a lava tube or two and climb in, because why not? 

North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon was closer and less crowded (only 10% of Grand Canyon visitors go here) and the views are still spectacular. We spent a day here, starting with the short walk to Bright Angel Point and doing a 4-mile round-trip hike along the partially shaded Transept Trail, which winds up and down along the canyon rim and through the forest. We drove up to Point Imperial, which at 8,803 feet is the highest point in the park. 

We were lucky to be at the Grand Canyon for a star party. A star party! It was actually held at the Kaibab Lodge outside the park. Three amateur astronomers set up huge telescopes (20- and 22-inch mirrors) and we just rotated from one to the other in the pitch-black dark looking at deep-space objects like globular star clusters and distant galaxies. Our own Milky Way stretched all the way across the sky and the occasional meteor kept us entertained along with a small band (2 or 3 or 4 people; hard to say—it was dark) playing mysterious desert music/sounds. So. Much. Fun. Check with each park for night-sky programs.

Where to Stay:

Kaibab Lodge is just outside the park and we stayed in a small cabin. There’s lots of lodging inside the park, including cabins and the beautiful Grand Canyon Lodge, but reservations are somewhat hard to get; there’s a booking schedule; start planning now.)

Where to Eat:  

There’s a lovely restaurant at the park Lodge, you’ll also find a deli, coffee shop and a saloon with cocktails and lots of local beer. Kaibab Lodge offered a buffet of homestyle foods, and we especially loved the wings that they smoke for hours. Go across the street to the convenience store to get beer or wine and bring it with you to dinner.

Don’t Miss:

Just sitting in an Adirondack chair on the Grand Canyon Lodge verandah with a local brew and enjoying the views, the Transept Trail, the amazingly dark skies (with or without an actual star party), animal sightings (the bison are right on the side of the road)

One final thing: We ended our adventure at Hotel Luna Mystica, a vintage Airstream trailer hotel and starlight campground in Taos, New Mexico. We stayed in a cozy 1962 Airstream named Ralphie. All the trailers have their own fire pits and porches. It was the perfect way to finish our two-week trip of a lifetime.

Before you go:

  • Create an account at recreation.gov so you can reserve lodging and campsites, buy passes and gain access to ticketed events.
  • If possible, stay in the park where sunrises and sunsets and starry skies are just steps away. 
  • Follow the parks you’ll be visiting on Instagram for updates and news.
  • Buy a US Park Pass. It’s $80 and provides free entry to all National Parks and other federal recreational lands for a year and allows you to bring three other adults. (Children under 16 are always free.) If you’re going to see more than two parks, it’s likely it will pay for itself.
  • Download the NPS app and find the parks you’ll visit. You can download your favorites to access offline (that’s important, as cell service is spotty at best!).
  • Make sure you get the park’s “newspaper” in addition to the glossy guide when you enter (or go to the visitor center and get it when they open if you enter before the gate is staffed; the national parks are open 24 hours a day). The newspaper is your key to the best experience, allowing you to make the most of your time there. You also can access this newspaper for some of the parks on the NPS app.
  • Most of these are certified International Dark Sky Parks; plan your visit around a new moon if you like stargazing (sometimes there are ranger-led programs with telescopes) or go during a full moon for ranger-led night hikes (if possible, register ahead of time for these at recreation.gov).
  • Load up on sunscreen and water. Always have a gallon of water in your car.
  • Hiking boots are best (especially in Bryce); mid height is fine. In any case, make sure you have shoes with excellent traction; Utah is covered in what they call “slickrock” that’s often sandy, too. For some of the ranger-led programs, you have to actually show that you have proper shoes.
  • Hiking poles made many of these trails easier. I used Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking poles
  • I carried an Osprey Daylite backpack with a 1.5 liter water reservoir nearly all the time.

Yo’ Mama’s only Alabama restaurant to receive James Beard Foundation grant

Yo’ Mama’s, a homegrown lunch and brunch place in downtown Birmingham, has long enjoyed a loyal local (and regional) following. Now the eatery has attracted some welcome, timely national attention, too.

Yo’ Mama’s is one of about three dozen restaurants around the country – and the only one in Alabama – to receive a James Beard Foundation (JBF) grant through the organization’s Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans.

Crystal Peterson, co-owner and the general manager of Yo’ Mama’s, says they are thrilled with the grant. “It’s really cool to be included in something that is considered so prestigious in the food industry.”

These grants are part of JBF’s efforts to recognize and provide financial resources for food and beverage businesses that are majority-owned by Black or Indigenous people.

The foundation notes: “Black and Indigenous people often have portions of their cuisines and cultures appropriated, their hand in creating major American food and beverage items and dishes erased, and their images exploited and racialized to the benefit of their white counterparts. We recognize these facts and seek to highlight the merits and contributions of Black and Indigenous people.”

Fish tacos—grilled or fried—are served with Yo’ Mama’s signature POE sauce, salsa fresca and slaw. There’s a gluten-free corn tortilla option, too. Photo by Tan Crowder.

Peterson says one of the many contacts she’s made through the years forwarded an email to her about the grants. “I sent it to my sister, and I was like, ‘Hey, let’s just try out for it. You never know, but the fact that we are Black, and we are women-owned, we’re pretty much a double minority, and we may be able to get this thing. The least we could do is just try.’”

She says the grant money – $15,000 – will help cover payroll, but it’s more impactful than that. The additional money will help them help others.

“It’s gonna alleviate pressure on us on the financial side, sure. But it also frees you up to be creative. As a business owner when you’re stressed about the income and cash flow, it takes you away from other things. … By having that financial freedom, it helps us stay … involved in the community.”

Yo’ Mama’s employs women from Jessie’s Place as well as people with autism. They feed families at the Ronald McDonald House. They feed Birmingham’s homeless. “Street homeless,” Peterson says, “not just the homeless who stay in the shelters. We’ll go to the people who are actually street homeless.”

They also work with community-focused nonprofits. “It’s hard enough for the 501(c)(3)s in the area already,” Peterson says, “because so many businesses are seeing losses, they’re not spending money on the giving side. Because they already have so much loss, they don’t have it to give. So, we still try to stay active in those things because we know that they need the money now more than ever.

“We firmly believe in ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ Every time we are given something, we definitely give back.”

The grants are part of the JBF commitment to be more inclusive overall, and “to recognize, celebrate and support the efforts of all types of food and beverage businesses, not just those that have been acknowledged for decades at the James Beard Awards.” This includes lunch places like Yo’ Mama’s as well as pop-up supper clubs, food trucks and brewpubs. “In speaking with the foundation,” Peterson says, “they’re saying that they’re about to change how they award the James Beards; it doesn’t have to be fancy food anymore. They’re going to try to actually include all genres of food that are just good food.”

Yo’ Mama’s has been in business since 2014, when Crystal, along with her father (who does the finances) and her sister (who handles the website, digital media and online interface) helped her mom, Denise Peterson, realize a longtime dream of owning a restaurant. The place was popular from the get-go. They specialize in homestyle cooking with Southern roots and are perhaps best known for their fried chicken and waffles and the daily specials that, Peterson says, are dishes her mom cooked for the family when she was growing up. With the exception of a few Meals of the Day, everything is gluten-free or has a gluten-free option.

But there’s more than that at Yo’ Mama’s.

One of the most popular dishes at Yo’ Mama’s is the fried chicken wings with Belgian waffles. The waffles are topped with homemade syrup and fresh fruit or not. Photo by Tan Crowder.

“We have a lot of people who think that all we sell are soul foods,” Peterson says, “because most of the time, when it comes to Black people, we only are referred to as ‘soul food.’ But I always tell people, ‘It depends on where your soul goes.’ Because, if you want tacos, we’ve got it. If you want shrimp and grits, we’ll take you to a little bit of New Orleans. We got it. Where’s your soul going? We can take you there.”

Yo’ Mama’s is currently open for curbside pickup and takeout, with some seating outside. Peterson says during the pandemic, they did research and started using vented to-go boxes so the food travels well whether you pick it up yourself or use a delivery service.

According to JBF, the fund uses the most recent census data to help disburse grants equally across Black and Indigenous populations throughout the United States. The foundation identified six regions of the country, each containing 16% to 17% of the total Black and Indigenous population in the U.S. Yo’ Mama’s received its grant in the second round of funding; other recipients in the region that includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma were Fify’s Caribbean Cuisine and Food Friends Catering, both in Florida.

The grants are part of the JBF Open for Good campaign, launched in April “to rebuild an independent restaurant industry that is stronger, more equitable, more sustainable and more resilient when it re-opens post-COVID-19.”

The aim is to lift up Black and Indigenous business owners within the food and beverage industries during these difficult pandemic times and keep supporting them moving forward so they can survive – and thrive – into the future. To that end, JBF is enlisting other organizations and industry experts to provide guidance on professional skills like marketing, structuring business plans and negotiating contracts.

“What James Beard found out is that money is not the biggest problem; sometimes it’s education,” Peterson says. If you can educate and finance at the same time, you can really help people cope with something like going from 200 customers one day to 20 customers the next, she adds.

Peterson says her family has been thinking about franchising Yo’ Mama’s and expects that the various Zoom meetings, forums and expert advice offered by JBF can help make that dream a reality.

“It helps when you know that information,” she says, “when you’re trying to make a deal versus letting a lawyer talk you to your deal.” Peterson is looking for guidance on a business model that best suits their homestyle, gluten-free niche. “Between all the contacts they have and the mentorship I can gain from them, they also connect you with other business owners who are chefs or people that are in the business areas – not necessarily the food side. And they also have help with the food side … recipes, calorie counts … all the kinds of things you are required to have as a franchise.

“We’re ready to get all the information, because I’m ready to start negotiating contracts to franchise.”

The JBF grant Yo’ Mama’s received is a kind of personal affirmation, too, Peterson says.

“To me – to us – it’s really just a blessing. And we know that we’re running our business right simply because we keep getting blessings. … It’s just awesome.”

For more info about the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans, go to https://www.jamesbeard.org/investment-fund.


Savory shrimp and grits is a mixture of cheesy grits (cheddar, Asiago and cream cheese), fresh shrimp and spicy sausage. Photo by Tan Crowder.

Yo’ Mama’s
2328 2nd Ave. N.
Birmingham, AL 35203
205-957-6545

Open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Twice-monthly brunch (the second and last weekends each month) will resume in June.

Yo’ Mama’s is on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest and Yelp.

This story originally appeared on Alabama NewsCenter.

A Fresh Approach to Every Day

Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy in downtown Tuscaloosa is a lot of things to a lot of people. That’s because the offerings and the ambiance change from hour to hour—all day, every day.  

Photo by Jen Brown.

The place starts early each morning as a juice bar and transitions to a bar bar at night. It seems seamless; it’s certainly clever, with some of the same healthy ingredients morphing into different dishes and even drinks. For instance, the fresh-pressed juices that fuel an easy, quick breakfast or provide a mid-afternoon pick-me-up are mixed with compatible spirits for a healthy happy hour to wind down the day. And in between, there’s a full-on lunch with wraps, grain bowls and paninis. 

I visited Sage for Alabama NewsCenter recently. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video, too!

Ken Cupp, who owns Sage with his wife, Cheyenne, says, “For me, Sage is a lifestyle.” The multi-concept juice bar, lunch spot and cocktail lounge offers a lot of fun options, he adds. “My wife and I are both passionate about healthy foods, and that’s something that started this journey. But we also like to have a good time.”

Photo by Jen Brown.

The two built out their space in Tuscaloosa’s Temerson Square to be a changeable place.  

As breakfast segues into lunch, it’s a light and airy cafe where sunlight from the big front windows illuminates the exposed brick walls, comfortable counter seating, the colorful fruits at the juice bar. When afternoon slides into evening, they turn the lights down, change the music and the soft sofa seating begins filling up. While you can get a cocktail whenever you want (Ken says he’s not judging), at night the juice bar becomes an intimate speakeasy where signature cocktails, a variety of gin drinks and several martinis are made with house bitters and syrups and other fresh ingredients and served alongside wines by the glass and bottle and local and regional craft beers in bottles, cans and on tap. There are non-alcoholic drinks available, too, including kombucha on draft and Sage’s signature lavender lemonade.

The entire menu at Sage—the fresh juices, smoothies, paninis, wraps, grain bowls and signature cocktails—reflects the couple’s personal experience. Ken, an Alabama native who went to the University of Alabama, is a mixologist as well as restauranteur. In upstate New York, he had an Italian restaurant with his father-in-law, who is an Italian executive chef. Cheyenne, who studied marketing and graphic design at the University of Buffalo, went to yoga school and was inspired to start juicing. So, they opened a juice bar on the side. 

They moved to Tuscaloosa in 2019 and opened their new place in June 2020 and called it Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy. You don’t have to surreptitiously knock on a door three times to get in, even with the Prohibition-themed name. “We liked the way the word sounded,” Ken says, “and it just flowed a little bit better to me than ‘Sage Juice Bar & Bar.’”  

Even so, they opened during a trying time. 

“It definitely was a journey,” Ken says, “but we made it through all the obstacles and we’re still afloat. I’m proud of that and confident that we’ve been able to be a stable point for Tuscaloosa and a rising star in a market where I’ve seen a lot has changed since I went to school down here over a decade ago.”

Besides, Ken says, “The time is always right to be healthy.” And at Sage, that time is all day long and long into the night.

During juice bar hours, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., they serve a variety of bright, good-for-you combinations like Immunity (romaine, spinach, kale, cucumber, apple, lemon, pineapple and ginger) and Saving Grace (pineapple, apple, mint, coconut water and cayenne) and Sage Punch (watermelon, apple, pineapple and orange). These juices also are blended with frozen fruit into nutrient-dense “hybrids”—a cross between a juice and a smoothie. 

The traditional smoothies, blended with frozen fruit instead of ice, are popular, too, especially the Cabana-Berry with banana, strawberry, pineapple and coconut water and the Heavy Metal Detox with wild blueberries, banana, cilantro, orange juice, barley grass powder, spirulina and Atlantic dulse.

These same smoothies become more of a meal when made into smoothie bowls with the addition of crunchy, colorful toppings. “Our smoothie bowls are works of art,” Ken says.

Photo by Jen Brown

He named the beautifully composed smoothie bowls after the Bowl Championship Series. The Fiesta Bowl is especially popular with its rolled oats, blue spirulina, vanilla and almond milk topped with granola, banana, blueberries, kiwi, coconut flakes, local honey, chia seeds and almond butter. The Rose Bowl has an açai berry base with granola, strawberries, raspberries, mint, coconut flakes, local honey and chia seeds. 

For lunch, there are toasts like classic avocado amped up a bit with chili flakes, black pepper and sea salt. The Botanical Boost salad is a mix of kale, spinach and arugula with feta, strawberries and candied pecans. 

Heartier lunch options include paninis like The Heart of Dixie with sliced turkey, garlic aioli, roasted red peppers, gouda and arugula on ciabatta. The grilled cheese is a popular combination of gouda, American cheese and cheddar on sourdough bread with dill pickles and homemade garlic aioli. 

In fact, all the sauces and drizzles are made in-house, Ken says. The sweet-savory homemade peanut sauce is what makes the Thai chicken wrap, with its cashews and kale and cilantro, so popular. A chipotle aioli complements the Carnivore wrap, which features salami, pepperoni, ham, provolone, evoo and oregano.

The pretty grain bowls all start with a base of brown rice and quinoa, but toppings range from sweet potatoes to lentils to chicken to black beans and more with sweet ginger, creamy Italian or cilantro-lime drizzles. You also can create your own grain bowl by choosing a protein, two vegetables, a cheese and a drizzle. 

A “boosted brunch” on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. features a breakfast panini; powered-up classic toast with avocado spread, lots of pepper and scrambled egg; and a Sunrise grain bowl with feta and scrambled eggs and Italian drizzle.

Ken sources his fresh ingredients locally whenever possible; he gets free-range eggs and more from Jason Waits of Black Sheep Farms out of Coker.  “Jason and I sit down once a season, and he’ll ask me, ‘Hey, what are you looking for?’  He’ll pull out his notepad … and I’ll say, ‘I can use this or that,’ and he’ll plant rows and bring it to me.” It doesn’t get much fresher than that, he adds.  

And that’s important, because even the 4-7 happy hour is healthy at Sage when fresh juices are spiked with liquors to create vitamin-rich signature cocktails. You’ll get things like the Intoxicated Immunity made with Tito’s and the Immunity juice combination or the Blurred Optics with pineapple vodka and the Optic Boost juice of carrots, apple, kale and ginger. During Sunday’s brunch, the Saving Grace and Sage Punch juice combinations become mimosas with the addition of prosecco.

Open seven days a week, Ken employees between 15 and 20 people who are as important to his success as the food and drinks. All are well versed in the ingredients of the healthy lifestyle they fuel each day. Ken says everyone at Sage can explain the benefits of the products “in a way that’s not intimidating; they can go as in-depth as you’d like.”  

When asked what Sages does best, Ken says it’s a combination of things:  an inviting ambiance; a consistent product; and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. “As an entrepreneur, I call it the ‘trifecta of the restaurant industry,’” he says.

“I tell that to my staff all the time. ‘Those are the three controllables.’ You can go to a lot of places that maybe have one or two out of the three. I’m like, hey, why not strive for all three? I’m passionate that we do do all three of those.” The restaurant business can be a tough industry with its high moments of intensity, so it’s important to be passionate about what you do, Ken adds. “If we can control that, and the customers are happy because of those three intangibles, then, ultimately, my day-to-day is going to be happier and I’m going to have staff that’s happy. I hear it all the time from my staff. They love coming to work, and that’s just a really cool thing to create in the restaurant industry.”

Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy

2324 4TH Street
Tuscaloosa, AL 35401

(205) 737-7663

https://www.sagejuicebar.com

Hours

Juice Bar:  Monday—Saturday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Lunch:   Monday—Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Cocktail Lounge:  Monday—Wednesday open to 10 p.m.

Thursday—Saturday open to 12 a.m. 

Sunday Hours:   7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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.