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

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.

Cajun Flavors in the Fountain City

You might have an ahnvee and not even know it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café

136 West Main Street

Prattville, AL 36067

www.unclemickscajun.com

(334) 361-1020

Hours

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

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

Closed Sunday

Save the Restaurants We Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is George’s message in his own words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U-Pick Lavender

The u-pick opportunities in Alabama abound—strawberries, blueberries, sunflowers, muscadines, tomatoes, pumpkins and even Christmas trees. 

Now add fragrant lavender to that fun list.

Lavender Wynde Farm in Harvest, located in the rolling foothills north of Huntsville, is inviting the public to the farm to pick their own lavender Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. (The 10 a.m. to noon timeframe is filling up. They suggest visiting after lunchtime.)

There’s a Zen sort of vibe in the sunny, manicured fields of what owners Lora and Mike Porter call their “farmlet.” Some folks sit in chairs scattered around under a few shade trees while dozens of others kneel or sit in the grass next to knee-high plants quietly snipping the fragrant stems. 

When you arrive, you’ll be handed a pair of sterilized garden scissors (but you are encouraged to bring you own, which they will sterilize for you). They give you a small plastic sleeve with rubber bands. These sleeves will hold 100 to 120 stems. You’ll pay $10 for each bundle. You’ll be instructed how to dry your bundles of food-grade lavender (upside down in a cool, dry place for a few weeks). My bunches are making my closets smell amazing right now.

Lora Porter says, “growing lavender in north Alabama was a learning process.” Lavender is a Mediterranean plant, she explains, and it loves rocky soil. Our Alabama clay was too dense, so they learned to augment the soil with gravel and mound the plants for drainage. The long, beautiful rows of full, healthy plants, each bristling with hundreds of stems, is proof they’ve figured it out.

In addition to the u-pick opportunity, there’s a pop-up shop selling soaps and other bath and beauty products like body butters, lotions and sugar scrubs; essential oils; teas; and lavender-filled sachets. While they specialize in lavender, the Porters raise a variety of herbs and botanicals. They distill, on-site, many of the hydrosols and essential oils that are used in their natural, handcrafted aromatherapy products.

During the u-pick events, they will be distilling mint and lavender throughout the day, and they’ll have lavender lemonade for sale, too. Visitors can buy their own mint, rosemary and lavender plants (and they’ll even sell you bags of gravel to get those lavender plants started properly). 

Lavender Wynde Farm is at 492 Robins Road, Harvest, Alabama 35749. For logistical purposes, you should go to the Facebook page to let them know you are coming for the u-pick days. Or call 256-714-4144 and leave a message. Otherwise, visits are by appointment only. 

A few things to know:  Use the farm’s gravel driveway to enter. Do not use the neighbor’s driveway or cut across their grass for ingress/egress. And bring your own garden clippers/scissors if you have them; several of the farm’s scissors were lost during the first u-pick weekend. They will sterilize yours as you enter and leave. Finally, feel free to share photos of your lavender-picking adventure. Lora says that “makes all the weeding worthwhile.” 

Fresh Air

I know we’re all pretty much staying home, and that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. But exercise is allowed and encourage and vital to both our physical and mental health.

Besides, “the mountain is calling.”

I’m talking about Ruffner Mountain, which has more than enough trails that you can practice social distancing while enjoying this beautiful day.

Image from Rick Swagler

Birmingham’s past, present and future come together in the most satisfying, family-friendly way on Ruffner Mountain. That’s been the case for more than 40 years.

Ruffner Mountain is, in fact, one of the largest urban forests in the entire country. And it’s right here in our own backyard—mere minutes from just about anywhere in our metro area.  

Right now there are limited hours of trail and parking access–8:00am – 6:00pm Tuesday through Sunday. And access is permitted for the following: Residents of the City of Birmingham, Members (there is a $3 trail use fee, or you can explore other membership levels here) and Employees of a Business Member.

The Visitors Center is not open currently. The lovely Pavillion is closed, too. But all those miles and miles of well-maintained trails and the interesting industrial ruins you’ll find along the way, are available to you right now. So are the paths strewn with trilliums and the incredible, panoramic views of the city.

Image from Rick Swagler

You can appreciate the shifting shafts of sunlight dappling the forest floor through the branches of oak and hickory and sycamore trees all along your journey; take a break at Turtle Rock; and literally walk through eons of earth’s history in the quarry with limestone boulders embedded with fossils of brachiopods, bryozoans and crinoids (marine invertebrates from when this area was part of a shallow inland sea). 

Then you might also consider getting your hands on Mark Kelly’s fantastic book that celebrates this special place. Back to Nature:  A History of Birmingham’s Ruffner Mountain is a beautiful book about the vital connection between that land and our city and its people. 

Kelly says the book was more than a decade in the making. But it was worth the effort because this place is important. He writes:  “Every aspect of Birmingham’s existence—geological, anthropological, social, economic, political, technological—is encapsulated in the Ruffner story.”

So get out there and explore the mountain. Simply go there and back, become a member or pay your trail use fee and be sure to observe the 6-foot rule.

You’ll be glad you did.

Fresh, Bright Flavors at the Wildflower Cafe

Over the years, Wildflower Café has become a dining destination in Mentone, which is, of course, its own awesome destination atop Lookout Mountain.

I traveled to Mentone recently for Alabama NewsCenter to spotlight this unique restaurant. You can read the entire story here.

Café owner Laura Catherine Moon (just “Moon” to everyone she knows and meets) is as much of a draw as the regionally famous tomato pie or the carefully curated small general store with handmade art and crafts or the eclectically furnished, hippy-chic dining rooms or the colorful, peaceful wildflower garden surrounding the 1800s log cabin that houses the café and store.

Moon has owned Wildflower Café for more than a decade, but she never really intended to go into the restaurant business.

“It’s true,” she says. “I didn’t mean to.” She had owned several shops in and around Mentone throughout the years. One of them was a natural health food store called Mountain Life. “I sold organic produce and natural foods,” she says. “I sold herbs and my herbal blends. It was a store for wellness. It was sort of a convenience health food store up on the mountain.” Whenever the produce would start to wilt, she would think to herself:  “Well, if I could just cook it, then people could know just how good this food is.”

About this time, the Wildflower Café became available for purchase after being open for about a year. Moon first wanted to team up with the café’s chef, thinking he could run the restaurant and she would run her store. When he left three months later, she stepped up.

“I never even worked in a restaurant before I owned this one,” she says. “So it was a huge challenge to learn the ins and outs and the ropes and how to do it. And it just turned out that I’m really good at it.”

People come up from Birmingham and Montgomery to visit the café; they drive down from Nashville and Chattanooga. They travel over from Douglasville and Atlanta.

They come to Wildflower Café for the grilled or blackened wild-caught salmon and trout; the gourmet chicken salad with grapes and almonds; the big Canyon Burger made with freshly ground sirloin and filet; grilled chicken smothered with sautéed onions, bell peppers, honey-mustard sauce and cheeses; the prime rib with its crust of cracked peppercorns and spices (all these meats are hormone-free); angel hair pasta with a flavorful strawberry-balsamic sauce (there’s a vegan version of this dish, too); and signature shrimp and grits made with polenta. They come for hummingbird cake and old-fashioned chess pie and homemade crepes filled with sweet cream cheese and topped with house-fresh strawberry puree. And a great many of them come for the savory, cheesy tomato pie, which is so popular that Moon also offers a tomato pie wrap, a tomato pie salad, a tomato pie burger and a loaded tomato pie entrée (vegetarian and not).

A few words about this famous tomato pie:  It is worth any drive. Ripe, roma tomatoes are cooked down to sweetness and marinated in balsamic vinaigrette. Some cheddar and mozzarella and a beautifully flaky crust make it completely delicious.

Moon relies on area farmers for lots of her fresh ingredients like the humanely raised pork and poultry from Mildred’s Meadows Farm or fresh tomatoes, squash, corn, herbs and lettuces from The Farm at Windy Hill, Mountain Sun Farm and Feel Good Farm. “Nena’s (Produce and General Store), in the valley down here, carries some of the local farmers’ stuff,” she says. “So I’ll go down and buy from her as well.”

She brings local musicians to Wildflower on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and sometimes Thursdays. The country store is a gallery of local and regional arts and crafts:  clothing, wood crafts, jewelry, soaps, pottery, paintings, candles, music, books, foods like honey and jams and organic chocolates and Moon’s own natural lip balms and skincare (when she has the time to harvest the ingredients).

Moon says she’d like for customers to tell other people that “they came here and had an amazing experience and that the staff was friendly, the food was great and they just felt good when they were here. That’s what I want them to say,” she says. “And that the Wildflower is a great complement to Mentone. That would be a huge compliment to me, because Mentone is one of my favorite places on the planet. No matter where I’ve ever traveled, Mentone is the best.”

Wildflower Café

6007 Alabama Highway 117

Mentone, AL 35984

256-634-0066

http://www.mentonewildflower.com

Reservations are highly suggested for dinner and must be made by phone at 256-634-0066 or in person.  The café does not take reservations for lunch or Sunday brunch.

Hours:  Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. General Store open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday
Lunch  11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner 4 to 8 p.m.
General Store open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday
Brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. General Store open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

(On holiday weekends, the restaurant closes at 6 p.m.; call and check before you visit.)

Charleston Charm

I took a quick trip to Charleston, South Carolina a few weeks ago—so quick, in fact, that I was very limited in what I could do. So it was two days of food and drinks and then some solitude in my very favorite place.

I usually spend some time shopping on King Street. I also love to take my running shoes and head to The Battery via the waterfront path by Rainbow Row. I walk through the French Quarter and go to the Market to buy souvenirs from the Historic Charleston Foundation store (silver rice seed bead bracelets, anyone?). I didn’t have time for that on this trip.

But even a short trip is enough to remind me how much I love this city. Charleston is beautiful this time of year (I couldn’t help but notice that they don’t trim their crepe myrtles downtown). It’s also fun and delicious and full of great energy. And folks in Charleston have Southern hospitality down pat. Of course.

No wonder it’s one of the top tourist destinations in the entire country.

Some of the highlights of my short trip included:

Raw oysters and royal reds at The Ordinary (544 King Street). This fancy oyster hall is in a beautiful historic building that used to house a bank. The restaurant belongs to James Beard Award-winning chef Mike Lata (Best Chef Southeast 2009) and business partner Adam Nemirow, the same team behind FIG (another personal favorite place). My daughter Allison knew I was going to The Ordinary that evening, and she called ahead and ordered an assortment of South Carolina raw oysters that included Roddy Rocks and Single Ladies and Sea Clouds and long, thin Capers Blades. I skipped the cocktail sauce in favor of the ginger mignonette. A glass of cold Les Gras Moutons Muscadet was perfect, too.  I loved my dish of charcoal-grilled royal red shrimp over polenta with shrimp nage.

The next day, I took a scenic two-mile walk through old neighborhoods to eat lunch at Nana’s Seafood & Soul with its classic Gullah-Geechie dishes and fresh seafood. Someone told me that the rapper 2 Chainz had eaten there the week before. That turned out not to be true, but Waka Flocka Flame had been in a few months earlier for the shrimp and lobster boats and fried crab legs. I enjoyed the crab mac and cheese and spicy garlic shrimp very much.

A late-night drink and snack at Babas on Cannon (11 Cannon Street) was the perfect way to end our day. This cozy, all-day, old-world café serves coffee and house-made pastries in the morning and sandwiches and salads in the afternoon. During the evenings, you’ll find apértivo service with carefully chosen wines, creative cocktails and delicious snacks (try the brioche grilled cheese with a giant cheese crisp on top). This cafe has a Birmingham connection, too:  It belongs to Frank Stitt’s daughter, Marie, and her husband, Edward Crouse.

Breakfast the next day was French press coffee and a fresh, warm flaky almond croissant from Christophe Artisan Chocolatier and Patissier.

I took my breakfast to one of my very favorite places—the garden cemetery at The Unitarian Church in Charleston (4 Archdale Street).  Founded in 1787, this is one of the oldest Unitarian Churches in the United States and the oldest one in the South.  There is a monument outside to honor the slaves who actually built this church—making even the very bricks that form the walls.

The cemetery is a beautifully wild place with plants—some 200 years old—growing from the plots. It’s incredibly peaceful. You can get to it off King Street; there’s a gate sort of hidden down near and across the street from the Billy Reid store.  Go down an alley and find yourself in another world. If the church is open, you’ll want to go in. The people there are so welcoming, and they love to share details of their beautiful church with visitors.

Finally, before we head home, we always go back to Christophe for a ham and Brie sandwich for the road. These are exactly like what you’ll find at little bakeries and corner stores all over France. And chocolates. We always get an assortment of Christophe’s extraordinary chocolates. No trip to Charleston is complete without these.

Summer Edit Part 2: More Food and Drink and Life

St. George Island never disappoints. Even on a cloudy day, and those have been few, it’s my favorite place to be.

Life is here simple:  hours and hours of reading books on the beach under a huge umbrella. We listen to Oyster Radio (100.5 WOYS) and don’t turn on the television. I’ve had oyster dates with my kids and husband at Lynn’s Quality Oysters on the bay side. We’ve spent hours in a sea kayak looking for turtles and dolphins (and finding them).

We timed our visit to coincide with the Perseid meteor showers and thrilled to a couple of long, slow, colorful earthgrazers most nights. On Sunday (the peak night), we sipped Buffalo Trace bourbon and watched into the wee hours seeing dozens of shooting stars, some with spectacular tails. Orange. Green. Blue. A few evenings we’ve woken to incredible thunderstorms just outside our window, lightning striking the water turning night into day. Another kind of light show.

We’ve eaten lots of tomatoes, just old-fashioned slicing ones from Chandler Mountain in Steele, Alabama, shipped all the way down here to the Piggly Wiggly in Apalachicola, Florida (imagine!). We’ve made salads by adding fresh peaches or watermelon to them–whatever my hand grabs first. Brother caught a redfish on his fly rod the other day, and we ate it a few hours later baked on the half shell with just salt and pepper and a little olive oil.

Best. Fish. Ever.

We spend our days in swimsuits here, very rarely dressing more than that. Even then it’s shorts and t-shirts. A sundress, maybe. In fact, we’ve not gotten much fancier than dinner for two at The Owl Cafe in Apalachicola one night. If you’re here, you should go. The food is delicious and the service so quietly friendly.

I can’t show you the turtles we’ve seen. Green turtles? Loggerheads? We only get a glimpse of a yellow-spotted head and they are gone. Likewise, a red fox crossing the road on our way home from dinner that one night was as fleeting as a thought. I saw this kingfisher cozying up to a guy fishing from the shore one day. I think he knew the guy had a bite before the guy knew.

Rick rode his bike on the island and off. And then off some more. While cycling on the logging roads in Tate’s Hell State Forest, he saw bear tracks but, thankfully, no bear. He also saw a deer and a sizable black snake. I told him if he wasn’t back by noon, I would come looking, so when he was done, he texted me:  “I’m out of Hell. Headed back … all good.”

All that is Gulf-coast specific, but what we enjoyed on our dining table is not necessarily so. Most of these things don’t require a beach to enjoy, but of course, they might taste better down there.

Shrimp a Different Way

Before we left for vacation, I made a batch of harissa with shrimp in mind. I had come across a recipe for Quick Broiled Shrimp with Harissa and Beer and felt it was absolutely necessary. Turns out it was.

I mostly followed the recipe from Serious Eats. Mostly. Here’s what I did to serve four:

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 pound 16/20 shrimp, shell-on, deveined
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 bottle (12 ounces) beer, whatever kind you’re drinking
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) butter, room temperature, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup homemade harissa paste (see recipe below)
  • crusty bread and more beer to serve

PREPARATION

Place a sheet tray lined with foil or a large cast iron skillet under the broiler to preheat. Toss the cleaned shrimp with salt. Set aside.

Add the beer and garlic to a small, 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce until it is sticky and only about 3 tablespoons in volume, about 10 minutes. The beer will foam up while boiling. Set the pot askew on the burner to prevent it from boiling over.

Add the butter to the beer one tablespoon at a time while constantly swirling until incorporated and thick, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the harissas.

Pour the butter sauce over the shrimp and toss to combine. Pour the shrimp and all the sauce on the preheated sheet tray or skillet. It will hiss and sputter. Make sure the shrimp is in one even layer and place the tray or the skillet under the broiler (but not too close; make sure they don’t burn) until shrimp are opaque and cooked through, about 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

Homemade Harissa Paste from Bon Appetit:

Harissa is a key ingredient in North African cuisine. This batch will last up to a month in the fridge, and you can put it on everything from scrambled eggs to rice. It makes a lovely rub for grilled meats, too.

INGREDIENTS

  • 15 dried chiles de árbol
  • 2 dried guajillo chiles
  • 1 dried ancho chile
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1½ teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1½ teaspoons hot smoked Spanish paprika
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup olive oil, divided

PREPARATION

Place árbol, guajillo, and ancho chiles in a large heatproof measuring glass. Pour boiling water over to submerge, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit until chiles are very pliable and cool enough to handle, 15–20 minutes. Drain; remove stems and seeds and discard (wear gloves for this part if you have them).

Toast cumin and coriander in a dry small skillet over medium-low heat, tossing constantly, until very fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a food processor, add garlic, and pulse until spices are broken up and garlic forms a paste.

Add chiles and pulse until chiles form a coarse paste. Add lemon juice, vinegar, tomato paste, paprika, and salt and process until mostly smooth but mixture still has a little texture. With the motor running, stream in ½ cup oil. Process until oil is incorporated.

Transfer harissa to a bowl. Pour remaining ¼ cup oil over top and keep in the refrigerator.

I’ve made Alton Brown‘s Gazpacho recipe so many times, I can do it by heart (and feel OK taking my lazy-girl shortcuts). It’s a great way to enjoy summer’s bounty of tomatoes, and you can make it your own by adding things you love like a hotter pepper or things you have on hand at a beach house or lake place like a little bit of Old Bay.
Brown’s recipe proper (which involves removing the skin of the tomatoes) is in the link above. Here’s my take on it:

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 pounds really ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped and sort of seeded
  • 1 small container of tomato juice or V8
  • 1 large cucumber, some skin removed, seeded and roughly chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 cup (or more if you want) finely chopped red onion
  • 1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
  • dash of Old Bay (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • fresh basil leaves to garnish
PREPARATION
Put the tomatoes and tomato juice into a large mixing bowl. Add the cucumber, bell pepper, red onion, jalapeno, garlic, olive oil, lime juice, balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire, cumin, Old Bay if you want, salt and pepper, and stir to combine.
You can leave it as is, with lots of crunchy bits in the soup or use an immersion blender to make it smoother. Stir to combine.
Cover and chill for 2 hours and up to overnight.
Serve with a chiffonade of basil.

Because Pimento Cheese is Good (and It Opens Doors)

This is true:  I have managed to get an invite (more than once!) to a fabulous beach house in return for bringing the world’s best pimento cheese.

I really have Frank Stitt and Miss Verba to thank for it. You’ll find the recipe in Frank Stitt’s Southern Table:  Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill. And I never ever go to the beach without it.

It makes a big batch, and we enjoy it for days with saltines. We save the last few servings for grilled pimento cheese and bacon sandwiches on a day when I just cannot leave the beach before 7 p.m.

We serve these sandwiches with whatever salad we care to pull together, (I show it with a fresh, juicy mix of watermelon, tomato and fresh basil with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil and a little salt and pepper.)

These sandwiches are great with the gazpacho mentioned above.

Here’s Miss Verba’s recipe. Prepare to be addicted.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound sharp yellow cheddar
  • 1/4 pound cream cheese, softened
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
  • 3 large red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • 1/2 cup homemade mayonnaise or best-quality commercial mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Splash of hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Cholulu
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

PREPARATION

Grind the cheddar in a food processor fitted with the grating disk, or grate it on the small-holed side of a hand grater.

Transfer the grated cheese to a bowl, add the cream cheese, white pepper, bell peppers, mayonnaise, sugar, hot sauce, and cayenne, if using, and blend all together thoroughly. I also add a splash  of Worchestershire.

Refrigerate and serve chilled. (The spread will keep for several days in the refrigerator, but it usually disappears long before then.)

Easiest Daquiri Ever!

photo by Melinda Hammer for The New York Times

Here’s a simple yet absolutely delicious Santiago-Style Daiquiri recipe from The New York Times Cooking website. It’s based on Eduardo Corona’s recipe at El Traguito in Santiago de Cuba. You can read the entire story here.

There’s no blender involved. It makes one really great drink.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon or lime juice
  • 1 1/2 ounces white or three-year-old light rum
  • 5 drops maraschino liqueur (optional)
  • Lemon or lime slice for garnish

PREPARATION

In a cocktail shaker filled with 1 cup crushed ice, combine the sugar, lemon or lime juice, rum, and maraschino, if using. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds.

Pour into a chilled martini glass.

Garnish with lemon or lime slice.

Odette is Destination Dining in Florence

For nearly five years, Odette owner Celeste Pillow and executive chef Josh Quick and their team have helped downtown Florence, Alabama flourish–one delicious dish at a time. The casual, upscale restaurant is one of a growing number of locally owned, small businesses drawing people back to this exciting town’s downtown.

Read more about Odette here in my Alabama NewsCenter story.

Here are a few things you should know:

Odette serves elevated American fare in a comfortable, inviting setting (decades ago the space housed Kaye’s shoe store).

The food, Southern in nature with international influences, is made with locally and sustainably sourced ingredients.

Cocktails here range from traditional favorites like an old-fashioned to more modern concoctions (a watermelon mule), and sometimes things that are both (the “George & Tonic” gin-and-tonic slushy).

And Odette has one of the largest (if not the largest) bourbon collections in our state. Monday through Thursday, most of these bourbons are half price during happy hour.