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2 Very Different Experiences in Birmingham AL

iko.iko | May 14, 2008 11:42 AM

I had two very different experiences last week at relatively new restaurants in Birmingham.

On Thursday, a friend and I went to lunch at New Orleans Food and Spirits in Vestavia Hills. I was excited to try the place out because, according to their website ( ), it is run by the third generation of a family from Houma, LA who also have 3 restaurants in the New Orleans area, one of which was only about a mile and a-half from my house when I lived there.

The menu appears to be the same as what I remember from the New Orleans operations, and the food we had measured up wonderfully also. Their New Orleans restaurants are not elegant gourmet palaces, but more neighborhood places to get red beans and rice, a muffaletta or po’ boy, a bowl of gumbo, shrimp and sausage jambalaya, etc. They are open for lunch and dinner, and every weekday they have a lunch special, which is generally priced at $8 or $9, and includes a nice salad with a choice of homemade dressings.

The Thursday lunch special is white beans and rice with your choice of catfish, a pork chop or smothered rabbit. My friend opted for the pork chop, which was immense, and he said it was almost as good as a steak. I really wanted the rabbit, since it was a favorite of mine in New Orleans, but I just wasn’t hungry enough (it runs a coupe of dollars more, but is a full half-rabbit), so I chose the catfish. It was very fresh and flavorful, with only a light breading. For dessert, we split a plate of beignets, which were very tasty, but not quite airy enough when compared to those at Café du Monde.

Service was friendly and efficient. We spoke briefly with one of the managers as we were finishing our meal (he was hustling just as much as the wait-staff to see that things moved along smoothly and no diner was in jeopardy of running over his/her allotted lunch hour). He had previously worked for a number of years at one of the New Orleans area locations, and told us that many of the ingredients they use (for example, the French bread from Gambino’s) was brought in from New Orleans.

The place had a very comfortable vibe, with Cajun music playing on the sound system. It was also surprisingly busy for having been open only a short while. It was heartening to see that offering good food and service at a fair price seems to work as well for them here as it does in New Orleans. Certainly, my friend and I agreed that this was a place we needed to return to at our next opportunity.

One other thing – as we were leaving, we noted that, on the back side of the restaurant, there was a large covered patio, that looks like it would be a very pleasant place to dine when the weather is right.

Now on a completely different note, let me tell you about a place I won’t be returning to. The name is Crustasian Bistro and Bar. It’s on Helena Rd. just a few hundred feet off of U.S. 31. My wife and I stopped in there for dinner last Friday about 6:45 PM.

Although they serve food, this is apparently really more of a bar. In fact, the entire time we were there, not a single person came in to eat a meal – only a few guys to sit at the bar and drink a beer. The ambiance is about nil in restaurant terms, but there is a dance floor, a place for a DJ, a karaoke machine and several pool tables at the back of the place.

The menu came in the form of two laminated sheets of paper. One was primarily bar snacks, like buffalo wings. The other had a couple dozen entries, all at the same price of $7.95. Each entry consisted of the name of the dish above a photograph of it; there were no other descriptions on the menu, so you had better know what Mongolian beef, for example, was. Most of the entries were Asian in nature, but there were also a hamburger and fries, two hot dogs and fries, and spaghetti with meat sauce.

We had been given a $25 credit to the place from a local radio station, so we decided to order a serving of pot-stickers, an order of Mongolian beef and an order of General Tso’s chicken. None of the food was bad, although the chicken was not the least bit spicy. I would rate it all as solidly mediocre.

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