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Guest writer: Kim Nowakowski
When Josh wanted to go to Birmingham, I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly excited. What could there possibly be for me to enjoy in yet another southern city and a small one at that? However, the pull of my bucket list item to visit all 50 states was far too strong, so off to Birmingham we went (that marks my 40th state for those of you playing along at home).
I am, admittedly, not much for the Deep South. I have tried, oh have I tried, in cities like Savannah, Charleston, and Richmond. They’re not bad, per se, but this self-professed Yankee always feels a little like an outsider; there’s a feeling of “otherness” if you’re not a Southerner in those cities. Birmingham was different. It felt different, almost familiar – kind of like Naperville with a few tall buildings, which house the various banks that operate in the region.
Before I get started on my ratings, it should be noted that I am a serious foodie, and I travel all the time for work. I log 100+ nights in hotels and 100k+ miles in airplanes annually kind of all the time, so I am VERY picky when it comes to travel. I have a certain level of expectation because, honey, I’ve seen it, done it, skipped the t-shirt. I will say that I was pleasantly surprised overall with the places we visited in Birmingham.
Since this is a baseball blog, I’ll be using a straightforward rating scale, which I’ve detailed below:
- “Single” is OK. Can skip it next time.
- “Double” is good, would visit or eat again.
- “Triple” is excellent, add it to your list of things to visit or eat.
- “Home Run” is a must visit or eat.
Easy enough? Ducks on the pond? Let’s do this!
We stayed at the Sheraton (2101 Richard Arrington Jr Blvd N, Birmingham, AL 35203). The staff was amiable, the hotel common areas and our room were clean. If you are staying at this hotel, I will caution two things: 1) it could use a facelift, and 2) it houses a large conference center. We saw at least three conventions and a prom in the three nights we were there. There is a Westin right next door that was much quieter but will be more expensive. The area has things to do near the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center, the local SEC office, and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. The Uptown restaurant area is also a right across the street, which has some chain restaurants like Texas de Brazil, Cantina Laredo, and others. Overall, I’d stay there again if I went back to Birmingham.
Overall, breakfast in Birmingham was a little odd. It was hard to find a place outside of the hotel that was open for breakfast, even on a Friday. Be forewarned that you may have to hunt a little bit for early morning options.
If you love a good biscuit, check out Urban Standard (2320 2nd Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203), a place that would be packed at all hours if it were in Logan Square. I had the Biscuits with Red Eye Gravy and Josh had the Urban Breakfast Plate. When we showed up at 10 am, they were completely out of sausage and grits. I thought that should be illegal in the South, but I didn’t see any cops on the beat that I could notify of such a slight. That said, the biscuits were fantastic; they were light and fluffy with slightly crispy edges. For those that have not had a red-eye gravy, think sausage gravy, but made with coffee instead of milk. The red-eye gravy had good flavor, but I think there was too much of it overall as the coffee flavor was a little too heavy. Trying to stretch the gravy double into a solid biscuit triple could result in a TOOTBLAN for the rest of your day. Result: DOUBLE
If you like something a little sweet, head to Feast & Forest (212 24th St N, Birmingham, AL 35203), a yuppie coffee house/bakery/café. There may be a bit of a wait for all the moms with small children and hipsters, but the line moves quickly. You’ll find scones, muffins, bars, cookies, homemade pop-tarts and other goodies in the pastry case, which all looked delicious. Breakfasts are served on homemade bread or rolls. We split a homemade Nutella pop-tart, which was simple, but very tasty.
I had the avocado toast, which was on homemade Texas toast with roasted red peppers, chive cream cheese, avocado, a poached egg, and a sprinkle of seasoning with poppy and sunflower seeds. It was a little messy (knife and fork required) but well-balanced and flavorful. Josh had a breakfast sandwich on homemade brioche with fluffy scrambled eggs, cured ham, and Valentina sauce (a cheesy, spicy sauce). Again, the bread was great, and the eggs were well-made. I would ask if you could swap the ham for bacon to add a little crunch that the sandwich desperately needed. Since I was deprived of my grits the day before, we had sides of grits. The grits were buttery; the texture was just right. Get the grits if you go!
If you love big portions, stop by The Fish Market (612 22nd St S, Birmingham, AL 35233) for brunch. If you go, the front door is off the small parking lot, not the street like we thought. Lots of Sunday brunchers here after church services let out, so you should come early or late for brunch. Portions overall are huge, so come hungry. We had their special charbroiled Gulf oysters that were coated in parmesan, panko, olive oil, garlic, and red peppers. They were delicious – juicy, crispy, and not fishy at all. If you’re not a big shellfish eater, I’d recommend this dish as a gateway drug. Josh had the catfish with a side of Greek slaw (angel hair cabbage with feta, olives, tomatoes, and a Greek vinaigrette). The catfish was well-made and crispy.
I had the Greek style shrimp and grits. The grits had lots of parmesan, which gave them a grassy, salty flavor. The shrimp was perfectly cooked, and the gravy was different than the usual but very good. I also had sides of greens and fried okra. The sides were ok, but the real stars were the hushpuppies. They’re served with every entrée, and they’re perfect – soft on the inside, crispy on the outside. If you don’t love seafood, you won’t find much on the menu, but if you’re a fish fiend, you’ll enjoy.
If you’re looking for a fine dining option, we had dinner at Ovenbird (2810 3rd Ave S #200, Birmingham, AL 35233). Chef Chris Hastings is a two-time finalist for James Beard Best Chef South, and this restaurant shows it. You could plop Ovenbird in any city in America, and it would be successful. The restaurant concept is using fresh, Southern ingredients and preparing them over live fire (the restaurant has two ovens) in the traditions of Spain, Argentina, and the like. Everything we had was incredible, but some highlights include the empanadas (the filling changes daily depending on what’s fresh and available), the beef shoulder with chimichurri, seafood fideos, and seven-layer chocolate cake.
Not to be missed is the beef fat candle. It’s a candle…made of beef fat…that melts into your food…and then you eat everything coated in tasty, tasty beef fat. Happy Birthday to you.
Result: HOME RUN
If chunks of meat are more your speed, take a Lyft to the suburbs to visit Saw’s BBQ (1008 Oxmoor Rd, Homewood, AL 35209), a restaurant that’s made lists on Eater, Thrillist, the NY Times, and others as among the best barbecue in America. When you walk in, it’s exactly what you want from a barbecue restaurant – it’s filled with locals, and the walls are chock full of memorabilia from football teams, accolades from various newspapers, and old metal advertisements from 50+ years ago. Walk up to the counter and order. Just like the magic of the Hot Doug’s of old, a table will magically free up when you’ve finished paying. Josh ordered the pulled pork with a vinegar sauce, a slightly thicker version of the East Carolina tradition. The pork was tender and juicy, but the real star is the chicken.
The chicken is rubbed and smoked, then coated with Alabama white barbecue sauce, a mayo-based concoction that’s unique to the area. The chicken was super flavorful, super moist, and not to be missed. As far as sides, the greens were solid – tender but not overcooked. The mac and cheese were flavorful, but the noodles were a little overdone. The potato salad was a decent offering, but skip the vinegar-based coleslaw.
For dessert, grab a banana pudding. Order a size larger than you think you need. It is a transcendent, religious experience, and I will never forgive you if you don’t eat this banana pudding.
Things to Do
Visit Regions Field (1401 1st Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35233) because why else are you a White Sox fan in Birmingham? Like all minor league teams, tickets are cheap. I sat front row just past the Baron’s dugout for $10. Unlike all minor league teams, the stadium is gorgeous. There are lots of places to eat (though admittedly we didn’t partake since we had just come from Ovenbird). The team shop is clean, well-organized, and has a great selection. UnderArmour Baron’s t-shirt for $33? Umm…yes, please. Between every inning is some sort of fun activity like kids’ races or a couple’s gender reveal (it’s a girl, btw). Every Friday is fireworks night, and the team makes sure they shoot them off so they’re visible from the nearby children’s hospital.
Result: HOME RUN
If you enjoy a frosty brew with your baseball (who doesn’t?), check out Good People Brewery (114 14th St S, Birmingham, AL 35233) across from the stadium. They have a solid list of 5-6 core beers that are always available in addition to more seasonals and special brews. They don’t have a kitchen, but Tortuga’s Pizza, which supposedly makes Chicago-style pies, will walk you a slice over from their ovens next door. We visited on a warm, sunny day, and I made a ton of new dog friends out on the patio. Dog-friendly local businesses should always be supported.
Take in some fine art at the Birmingham Museum of Art (2000 Reverend Abraham Woods Jr Boulevard, Birmingham, AL 35203). Admission is free, and the docents are very helpful. You could easily spend hours in the museum, or you could follow the map to highlights such as Japanese samurai armor, the largest collection of Wedgewood china outside of England, or Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley.
Lastly, learn about the civil rights movement at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 16th St N, Birmingham, AL 35203), the Negro Southern League Museum (120 16th St S, Birmingham, AL 35233), or Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail (locations vary). The team does quite a bit to support the institute. For example, the Barons wore uniforms to honor MLK’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” which they auctioned off to benefit the institute.
That’s about all I’ve got, folks. Hopefully, my research and experience make your upcoming trip to Birmingham a little bit easier. If you find something that’s not on my list that you really enjoyed, please let me know. We’ll definitely be back.