We’ve been making Paper Planes this summer after we enjoyed them at Desert Bistro in Moab while on a hiking vacation in Utah. We even went to a local liquor store there to get the Utah amaro they used—Toadstool Notom Amaro No. 1 from Waterpocket Distillery. #greatsouvenir
This light, fresh, summer-ready bourbon cocktail is a modern classic. Mixologist Sam Ross, who worked at Milk & Honey in NYC before launching Attaboy on the city’s Lower East Side, created the drink in 2008 for a friend at a Chicago bar called The Violet Hour.
Ross named the drink Paper Plane, after a song by M.I.A. (The song is actually “Paper Planes.”)
This cocktail (a perfect aperitivo) is straightforward with equal parts of four readily available ingredients. It’s easy to make and easy to drink.
Paper Plane (makes 2 drinks)
1.5 ounces amaro (the drink calls for Nonino but we’re using Toadstool Notom)
1.5 ounces Aperol
1.5 ounces bourbon (we use Makers Mark)
1.5 ounces fresh lemon juice, strained
Combine amaro, Aperol, bourbon, and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake vigorously until outside of shaker is frosty, about 20 seconds. Strain into 2 coupe glasses.
Several friends have asked for our itinerary, and I’m happy to share. We started in Moab, Utah, and made our way down the state and into Arizona. We set a fast pace (nearly 70 miles of hiking over 10 days), because I like to see “everything.”
I’ll organize this trip by area, and you decide how many days to spend in each place.
Canyonlands is huge! There are four districts—Island in the Sky (most popular), The Needles, The Maze and The Rivers. The Maze is the least accessible unless you have a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle (and are fully prepared for self-sufficiency). Next time we visit, we will hire a guide and a big vehicle to see the ancient, life-size pictographs (painted figures) and petroglyphs (figures etched in stone) in Horseshoe Canyon in the Maze district; this is some of the most significant rock art in North America.
On our visit this summer, we hiked the Island in the Sky district. We started with an easy, short walk to Mesa Arch, then hiked about 2 miles round trip to view the impressive Upheaval Dome (the crater is 3 miles wide and more than 1,000 feet deep and there are conflicting views about why it’s there) and finally, we hiked 2 miles out and back along the mesa’s edge to the Grand View Point Overlook (with amazing views the entire time). We arrived around 9 a.m. and spent an entire day at Canyonlands.
Arches is busy! Go early. Like 6 a.m. early. They were shutting down the entry gate mid-morning and again mid-afternoon, and it’s always busy until they do. So go early, take your breakfast, take your lunch, take your snacks and extra water and make a day of it.
We started with a three-mile out-and-back hike to Delicate Arch where we had a breakfast Clif Bar and then waited in a very civilized and organized line to have our photo taken under the arch. The way it works, everyone takes a turn, and you can get a good photo of the arch (with no people!) as one group leaves and the next comes up. Timing is everything at Arches!
There’s some cool Ute rock art near the beginning of the hike to Delicate Arch. Then we drove to Double Arch (just stunning!) where we parked once and saw a lot. We spent some time under the connected arches and then walked across the big parking lot where we hiked a primitive trail to see the North and South Windows and Turret Arch. Don’t miss Landscape Arch, the longest arch in the world; this hike is 2 to 7.2 miles, depending upon how you do it). We started at 5:45 a.m. and spent an entire day at Arches.
Dead Horse Point State Park is near Canyonlands and is especially pretty at sunset. Go early (before tour buses arrive) and get a spot on the terrace just below the lookout point so you’ll not have other people’s heads in your photos. Then look to the rocks as the setting sun makes them glow with vibrant reds and oranges and pinks. The Colorado River snakes through the canyon 2,000 feet below. It’s a magical way to end the day. This park, a Dark Sky Park, sometimes has ranger-led stargazing events.
Where to Stay:
We rented a VRBO condo on a quiet side street near the busy downtown area of Moab (with lots of off-road vehicles on the road, it’s kind of like a scene from Mad Max). Our little unit was beautifully decorated, (loved the nice linens and custom sinks!) ideally located (out of the fray) and perfect for two. Our host, Kimberley, offered an informative, insider’s guide to the area and helped us make the most of our time in Moab.
What to Eat:
Get street tacos and elote at Giliberto’s Mexican Taco Shop in Moab (there’s a drive-thru) and go to Dead Horse Point for a sunset picnic; for a fancy dinner go to Desert Bistro (reservations required); Moab Brewery has burgers and nachos, and Johnny’s American IPA, Juicy Johnny’s Hazy IPA and the Dead Horse Amber Ale all are delicious.
Sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, sunrise or sunset at Delicate Arch in Arches, sunset at Dead Horse Point, stargazing at any of these International Dark Sky Parks
On the way to Capitol Reef National Park, we stopped off at Little Wild Horse Canyon near Goblin Valley State Park. Little Wild Horse is a fun slot canyon that’s suitable for just about anyone (including kids). There’s a trailhead (with a toilet and a good map), and the slot is easy to find. It’s narrow enough to know you are in a slot, but it’s not so narrow that it’s uncomfortable. And the colors are amazing!
It widens into a larger canyon and you can continue to a longer loop or turn around and come back the way you came. Plan to spend 2-3 hours here. NOTE: Slot canyons are off-limits if there has been recent rain or if there is a chance of rain anywhere nearby; they are prone to deadly flash flooding.
We also visited Goblin Valley State Park, and although its hoodoos, like the iconic Three Sisters above, are significant and impressive, we didn’t stay long. The trails are not well marked at all; there were several frustrating moments when the trails just seemed to disappear. The one we did manage to stay on was like hiking through a sandcastle, and hiking through a sandcastle is not that much fun.
You can see much of beautiful Capitol Reef simply driving through it, but this park with its cliffs, canyons, domes and natural bridges in the Waterpocket Fold (a wrinkle on the earth extending almost 100 miles), is a hidden gem. An 8-mile scenic drive features breathtaking views, and there are 15 day-hiking trails here. Make sure to stop at the petroglyphs just off the main road near the visitor station. We did a moderate, 2-mile out-and-back hike to Hickman Bridge to get a feel for this lesser-known park, and we saw a golden eagle here.
You’ll want to be at Capitol Reef for sunset; it’s amazing. Then come back to anywhere in this International Dark Sky Park for some of the best stargazing you will ever experience. You can easily see this park in one day or even a half day.
Take the amazing, winding Scenic Byway 12 (UT-12) or just “Highway 12” to get from Torrey to Bryce Canyon. This All-American Road is more than 122 miles long, and it’s one of the most beautiful drives in the country. You travel through a diverse and beautiful and rugged landscape of arches, mountains, slickrock canyons, red rock cliffs, aspen and pine forests, mountain meadows, national parks, state parks, a national monument and quaint rural towns.
Part of Highway 12 crosses various parts of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which covers nearly 1 million acres of public lands. There are three distinct units here: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits and Escalante Canyon. It’s so remote and rugged that it was one of the last places in the continental United States to be mapped! We went there looking for a few specific slot canyons and we found them down Hole-in-the-Rock Road (BLM Road 200).
If you are adventurous and in fairly good shape with a relatively small frame and not claustrophobic(!), visit Dry Fork Narrows and Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch slot canyons in Grand Staircase-Escalante. This is a true adventure! The slots are down 26 miles of dirt road, but you can rent a Jeep in Escalante that can handle the trip.
Once at the trailhead, just getting to the slot canyons requires a two-mile hike along the rim and down some short cliffs and across desert dunes following well-spaced trail markers called cairns. Next time, we’ll take the Upper Dry Fork trail 1.5 miles through Dry Fork Narrows. But Peek-a-Boo and Spooky, with their tight and twisty, beautiful and wavy, red and purple walls, are your ultimate goals, and they are worth any trouble. (They require almost zero technical skill or know-how other than some rock-scrambling skills.)
Peek-a-Boo is a tight slot that corkscrews back on itself. Your photos will be fantastic! The hardest part was just getting into this slot; you climb about 10 (challenging) feet up a dry fall to the entrance using shallow hand and foot holds (go at it sideways and chimney up by bracing with your back and your legs or have your strong hiking partner haul you up). After that, it’s just awesome in the truest sense of that word, as you twist and turn through what feels like an adult playground. At the end of Peek-a-Boo, you’ll hike across about a half mile of desert to get to Spooky, which is an even tighter slot that narrows to about a foot wide in spots.
People with smaller builds do better here … just saying. If you take your backpack, you’ll need to take it off and carry it above your head at times. There are some tricky parts where you must work out how to navigate around boulders or short descents (wear clothes you don’t care about; they might get torn) and there’s a knotted rope you’ll use to get past a 6-foot drop. Other than that, it’s just thrillingly narrow and very beautiful. We spent about 4 (truly delightful) hours here. We hiked about 6 miles total.
Here’s a link that tells you how to find these slots. For current conditions on any of the slot canyons off Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Burr Trail, or other hiking opportunities in, or along the Escalante River and its side canyons, contact the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center at 435-826-5499.
This was my bucket-list location—really the reason I wanted to head West in the first place—and it was more spectacular than I ever imagined! There is nothing on earth quite like Bryce Canyon with its many thousands of colorful and ancient hoodoos and cliffs that range from white to pink to orange to deep red. Fun fact: Hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) exist on every continent, but Bryce has the largest concentration found anywhere on Earth.
We did the 8-mile Fairyland Loop (more than 1,700 feet of elevation change) that offers views you simply cannot get otherwise. There’s some climbing along uneven trails; boots are best. You’ll hike to the bottom of the amphitheater and then up again on the far side of the park above another valley of younger hoodoos. Go early in the day or late in the afternoon; the colors are best early and late. We also hiked the Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop (clockwise) and came up Wall Street, which is a short, yet awesome, slot canyon with terraced steps leading out of it at the end. So impressive! (It’s closed during the winter months.) We spent an entire long day at Bryce and logged 14 miles of hiking. I’d recommend at least a day, maybe two.
Rustler’s Restaurant in Tropic kept us nicely fed for two days straight and didn’t mind that we ran in about 30 minutes before closing both days. There’s a fantastic coffee shop—Bryce Canyon Coffee Company—at the Bryce Canyon Inn with great espresso drinks and fresh pastries.
Anywhere you look in Bryce is absolutely beautiful. Stop off at Fairyland Point near the park entrance when you first arrive for a preview of what’s to come. Do the full Fairyland Loop if you are up for an 8-mile hike (We did this counter-clockwise and took our time, and the entire hike with lots of picture taking took us about 5.5 hours); Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop trail (do this 3-mile loop clockwise so you come up Wall Street slot canyon), sunset at Sunset Point, the short Mossy Cave hike just outside the park proper, the scenic drive to Rainbow Point, which at 9,115 feet is one of highest points in the park. (Drive up and then stop at the overlooks on the way down to avoid cross traffic.) Make time for stargazing at this International Dark Sky Park. With the right timing and some luck, you can enter a lottery to go on a Full Moon Hike.
First of all, Zion is a zoo right now. Especially this summer when all of America wants to go somewhere and lots of them decided Zion is that place. Several of the popular trails were closed when we visited because of a big rockfall, so that meant even more people on the ones that were open. We could only access these trails inside the park via shuttle service, and that meant long lines and overcrowded shuttles. (The park opens the Scenic Drive to private vehicles January to mid-February only.) And unless you have good parking karma, you’ll need to take a different shuttle service in the town of Springdale just to get to the park entrance. (Also, the town shuttle stops running before the park shuttle ends, so plan accordingly.)
When we hiked The Narrows, there were always at least 50 people right around us; there were probably 500 on the watery trail that morning; it felt like walking out of a college football game – except mostly in knee-deep water. We skipped Angels Landing and opted for the less-traveled Canyon Overlook Trail, which was wonderful. This is the only trail within the park you can drive to via the Scenic Drive (which includes a mile-long tunnel), but parking is very, very limited; we went late in the day. The drive is awesome with lots of pullouts for photos of the monumental mountains and cliffs and a that long, scary tunnel through the mountain and we saw a family of bighorn sheep on the mountainside.
Even with the crowds, this park is breathtakingly beautiful. Just the the scale of it all! I understand why it’s so popular.
NOTE: If you hike The Narrows, rent some water shoes and a thick hiking stick from Zion Outfitter in Springdale just outside the pedestrian entry to Zion. You can do this online and pick up your gear the night before (after 4) or walk up after 4 the day before your hike to rent them or even walk up the morning you arrive if you’re not a planner. You’re welcome!
We skipped a second day at Zion in favor of some less-crowded destinations. Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail (Tempi’po’op), pronounced: tumpee poo oop, in Santa Clara was a great way to spend a few hours. This family-friendly hike winds through through the desert, past the ruins of an Anasazi farmstead (built about 1,000 years ago) to the top of a hill where we climbed amongst a tumble of boulders to see (up close!!) some incredibly well-preserved ancient petroglyphs.
These were carved into the desert varnish on the rocks by Ancestral Puebloans. Lots of the art—from small bear claw images to snakes to bighorn sheep and geometric shapes—is quite accessible without bouldering; you can just walk along the rim trail and see plenty, but climb down to find them everywhere! We spent about 2 hours on this 3.5-mile out and back.
Snow Canyon State Park is awesome! We spent most of the day (with a break for lunch) at this colorful park with its red petrified dunes and red and white Navajo sandstone cliffs and black lava flows. The park is located in the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, established to protect the federally listed desert tortoise and its habitat.
The trails are well-marked with signs and cairns, and you’ll line up a series of shiny silver metal markers attached to the dunes to navigate those huge formations. So smart!
There’s a short slot canyon here, and you can climb into lava tubes from an extinct volcano. The landscape at Snow Canyon is so interesting, and a hike though the sagebrush-scented desert dotted with wildflowers and surrounded by soaring red cliffs is lovely in so many ways. There were times, we were the only hikers as far as we could see.
Where to Stay:
It’s more convenient to stay in Springdale just outside Zion or at Zion Lodge inside Zion if this park is your main/only destination But if you want to explore more of this part of southern Utah, Washington/St. George would be a good central location. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Washington.
What to Eat:
We had our first In-N-Out Burger in Washington, and we loved Mixed Greens in a Chevron station in Santa Clara. There’s every kind of food you could want in the town of Springdale outside Zion.
At Zion, The Narrows and Angels Landing are the iconic hikes; the Canyon Overlook Trail is less traveled than Angels Landing and offers spectacular long views. Make sure to rent those water shoes if you do The Narrows. And take time for the Scenic Drive at Zion. Venture down into the fallen boulders at Anasazi Valley Petroglyph Trail. At Snow Canyon, walk through Jenny’s Canyon (the slot canyon) and hike those petrified dunes. Do seek out a lava tube or two and climb in, because why not?
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon was closer and less crowded (only 10% of Grand Canyon visitors go here) and the views are still spectacular. We spent a day here, starting with the short walk to Bright Angel Point and doing a 4-mile round-trip hike along the partially shaded Transept Trail, which winds up and down along the canyon rim and through the forest. We drove up to Point Imperial, which at 8,803 feet is the highest point in the park.
We were lucky to be at the Grand Canyon for a star party. A star party! It was actually held at the Kaibab Lodge outside the park. Three amateur astronomers set up huge telescopes (20- and 22-inch mirrors) and we just rotated from one to the other in the pitch-black dark looking at deep-space objects like globular star clusters and distant galaxies. Our own Milky Way stretched all the way across the sky and the occasional meteor kept us entertained along with a small band (2 or 3 or 4 people; hard to say—it was dark) playing mysterious desert music/sounds. So. Much. Fun. Check with each park for night-sky programs.
There’s a lovely restaurant at the park Lodge, you’ll also find a deli, coffee shop and a saloon with cocktails and lots of local beer. Kaibab Lodge offered a buffet of homestyle foods, and we especially loved the wings that they smoke for hours. Go across the street to the convenience store to get beer or wine and bring it with you to dinner.
Just sitting in an Adirondack chair on the Grand Canyon Lodge verandah with a local brew and enjoying the views, the Transept Trail, the amazingly dark skies (with or without an actual star party), animal sightings (the bison are right on the side of the road)
One final thing: We ended our adventure at Hotel Luna Mystica, a vintage Airstream trailer hotel and starlight campground in Taos, New Mexico. We stayed in a cozy 1962 Airstream named Ralphie. All the trailers have their own fire pits and porches. It was the perfect way to finish our two-week trip of a lifetime.
Before you go:
Create an account at recreation.gov so you can reserve lodging and campsites, buy passes and gain access to ticketed events.
If possible, stay in the park where sunrises and sunsets and starry skies are just steps away.
Follow the parks you’ll be visiting on Instagram for updates and news.
Buy a US Park Pass. It’s $80 and provides free entry to all National Parks and other federal recreational lands for a year and allows you to bring three other adults. (Children under 16 are always free.) If you’re going to see more than two parks, it’s likely it will pay for itself.
Download the NPS app and find the parks you’ll visit. You can download your favorites to access offline (that’s important, as cell service is spotty at best!).
Make sure you get the park’s “newspaper” in addition to the glossy guide when you enter (or go to the visitor center and get it when they open if you enter before the gate is staffed; the national parks are open 24 hours a day). The newspaper is your key to the best experience, allowing you to make the most of your time there. You also can access this newspaper for some of the parks on the NPS app.
Most of these are certified International Dark Sky Parks; plan your visit around a new moon if you like stargazing (sometimes there are ranger-led programs with telescopes) or go during a full moon for ranger-led night hikes (if possible, register ahead of time for these at recreation.gov).
Load up on sunscreen and water. Always have a gallon of water in your car.
Hiking boots are best (especially in Bryce); mid height is fine. In any case, make sure you have shoes with excellent traction; Utah is covered in what they call “slickrock” that’s often sandy, too. For some of the ranger-led programs, you have to actually show that you have proper shoes.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.”
212 29th Street South at Pepper Place in Birmingham
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.
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.”
Let’s celebrate Black History Month! These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. There’s something significant and timely in these pages for readers of all ages and all backgrounds. Also, one of these books is by a Birmingham writer.
Birmingham author Randi Pink (who wrote Into White) brings us Angel of Greenwood, a young adult historical novel (for ages 12-17) that takes place during the Greenwood Massacre of 1921 in the area of Tulsa, OK, known as “Black Wall Street.” (This has been called the single worst incident of racial violence in U.S. history.) The book is about 17-year-old Isaiah Wilson, a young man who hides his poetic side behind a tough-guy façade and believes Black people need to rise up and take their place as equals, and 16-year-old Angel Hill, a studious young woman who follows the teachings of Booker T. Washington, who advocated education and nonviolent means toward equality. They hardly know each other when their English teacher offers them a job on the mobile library (a three-wheel, two-seater bike). When an angry, violent white mob storms the Greenwood community on May 31, 1921—leaving the town destroyed, dozens dead and hundreds injured—their lives are forever changed.
NewSouth Books, based in Montgomery, collaborated with the Vivian family and the C. T. Vivian Library to publish It’s In the Action, the memoir of legendary, late civil rights activist C.T. Vivian, whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the greatest preacher to ever live.”
(The book will be released on March 9.) Vivian’s nine decades of service and wisdom inform this book about his life and time in the movement. Vivian helped John Lewis and others integrate Nashville in the 1960s. He was imprisoned and beaten during the Freedom Rides. He helped lead the integration and voting rights campaigns in Birmingham, St. Augustine and Selma. Over the next half century, he became internationally known for his work for education and civil and human rights and against racism, hatred, and economic inequality. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Vivian passed away peacefully in Atlanta last July. The late civil rights leader’s inspiring stories from a lifetime of nonviolent activism come just in time for a new generation of activists who are responding to systems of injustice, violence and oppression. The memoir is an important addition to civil rights history and to the understanding of movement principles and strategies.
This book is a lovely lesson in diversity and inclusion for very young readers ages 4-8.
In our classroom safe and sound. Fears are lost and hope is found.
Discover a school where all young children have a place, have a space, and are loved and appreciated. Readers will follow a group of children through a day in their school—a place where everyone is welcomed with open arms. In this school, where all young children from various backgrounds enjoy a safe space, they learn from each other and celebrate each other’s traditions. It’s a fictional school, yes, but also perhaps a microcosm of the world as we’d want it to be.
What is racism? Why does it exist? What can you do to disrupt it? In this practical how-to for ages 10-17, author Tiffany Jewell, an anti-bias, anti-racist educator and activist, offers a book that empowers young readers to thoughtful action. (The book is a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and recommended by Oprah.) The chapters invite introspection as Jewell presents the history of racism and anti-racist movements, teaches about social identities, and shares inspiring stories of strength and hope. Jewell also offers real-world solutions to difficult situations young people face in today’s society such as what to say to a racist adult and how to speak up for yourself and others. There’s also a companion This Book is Anit-Racist Journal, which offers more than 50 guided activities to support your anti-racism journey.
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.”
I am on the host committee of GirlSpring’s Winter Party. GirlSpring was founded by my friend Jane Stephens Comer in 2010, and its mission is to empower girls by giving them access to accurate information, inspiring events, and positive female role models.
Their largest program is https://www.girlspring.com, an online magazine run and managed by GirlSpring’s teen leadership group, the Springboarders. Girls use the digital platform to create content and express themselves via blog-style articles, videos, poetry, and artwork on the topics they feel most passionate about, and as a way to connect with peers in Alabama and across the globe!
On average, 15,000 girls per month visit the website and now, with a newly launched app, we anticipate even more girls will be reached! Their website and app have been a wonderful space for girls to stay connected, even when schools were closed and in-person contact wasn’t possible.
Instead of GirlSpring’s annual Winter Party, in the spirit of safety, this year will be a “grazing box and wine delivery” direct to your door! Each grazing box and wine package feeds 2 people and comes with a specially created music playlist!
I hope you’ll consider supporting GirlSpring this year by clicking here!
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.
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.)
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.