Just got back from a weekend in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Apart from watching my Gators absolutely get their tails handed to them, we had a fun time and enjoyed some great chow.
After arriving in Birmingham Friday afternoon, we managed to hit Pete's Famous Hot Dogs right before they closed. I had two grilled Ziegler dogs (a local specialty) with mustard and onions, one of which I had topped with their red sauce and one with their special meat sauce (similar to a spicy but not hot chilli sauce), all chased down with a cold Grapico cola (which I believe to also be a local product). Very tasty and since the lunch crowd was long gone we had a chance to chat with the owner, Gus, who has been in buisness at the same location (a tiny place about seven feet wide and 30 feet deep) since the late 1940s - quite a character!
Friday night we ate at Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham. It's everything it's cracked up to be. We started with a fried seafood and okra platter appetizer which was excellent - lightly fried with absolutely no greasy texture, almost like tempura. For her main dish my wife had an Ahi tuna dish served with a bourguignon sauce and really loved it - I didn't even get a bite! I truly enjoyed my choice as well, a venison dish served atop creamy stone ground grits with slivers of country ham and a peppery wine reduction sauce. The other members of our party each got a halibut special which seemed to please them as well. I should add that the bread we were served was also excellent, particularly the corn sticks and mini muffins. We also enjoyed a nice Australian chardonay (the name of which I can't recall since I didn't order it) and I had a tasty glass of the house pinot noir from Au Bon Climat with my venison. Sadly we passed on dessert but only to eat another day! Highlands is a lovely place with a lively bar, excellent service both attentive and unrushed, and we look forward to returning.
Saturday we travelled to Tuscaloosa and, believe it or not, had "breakfast" at the legendary Dreamland Bar-B-Que. Even though we got there at 9:30 AM the parking lot was already filling up and there was a line out the door. The crowd seemed fairly devided between those eating in and those taking out, all keeping the staff hopping at a frenetic pace. The menu is limited to say the least - pork spare ribs, Sunbeam white bread, beer / soft drinks / iced tea - but what they do, they do right! Truthfully, some of the ribs were a bit fatty (as spare ribs can be) but the meat itself was delicious, as was the vinegary and peppery tomato-based sauce. As for atmosphere, it's pure rib joint all the way with the aroma of the smoky ribs pleasantly permeating the interior from the pit and an impressive collection of Bama memorabilia on the walls everywhere you looked (unfortunately a harbinger of things to come). Quite the experience!
As for the gameday experience at Alabama, all of the Crimson Tide fans were quite pleasant to us both before and after the game, and the atmosphere on UA's beautiful campus is wonderful, particularly on The Quad, a two-block grass area where the landmark carillon chimes are located, fans tailgate, vendors set up, friends visit and throw footballs, and The Million Dollar Band assembles and plays before marching to Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Bear Bryant Museum is also worth visiting. Those who have not experienced big-time Southern football SEC style have truly missed something special - the tradition and pageantry are unbeatable.
The game itself was unfortunately a disaster for my Gators - we'll just leave it at that!
Afterwards, we limped back to Birmingham where my wife and the rest of the party opted for dinner at our hotel, the venerable Tutwiler, built in 1914 as I understand it. The meal, though not great, was probably as enjoyable as it could have been under the circumstances. My wife and I split a shrimp and fried green tomato appetizer, after which she had a halibut special while I enjoyed cornmeal-dusted fried catfish over garlic fried grits cakes with a medly of green beans, peppers, and tomatoes; the others in our party opted for filets which they reported were tasty. We finished with two pieces of pecan pie shared by four forks, and began to realize our lot in life could certainly be worse.
Sunday morning we enjoyed a traditional Southern breakfast (no more "barbecue for breakfast" for my wife) at Bogue's, a long-standing Birmingham favorite. Eggs, grits, country ham, sausage, and wonderful biscuits were consumed in varying combinations to the satisafaction of all, then it was off to the airport.
All in all, a great trip, the game notwithstanding, and I'm happy to report that both Southern hospitality and Southern cooking are alive and well in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.