My first-ever visit to Birmingham was during the summer of 2004. On that inaugural trip down South, The Astronomer introduced me to pulled pork with all the fixings at Jim N’ Nicks and the best ribs in town at Dreamland.
We’ve explored much of Birmingham’s barbecue scene since then, but one place has always eluded us due to its out-of-the-way location: Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q. The Astronomer and I, along with the entire Chaplin clan, made the long drive to Bessemer on a cold and cloudy December day for lunch. Barbecue warms the soul and spirit.
Opened in 1957 by Bob and Maxine Sykes, Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q is considered by many to be one of the best barbecue establishments in town. These days, the restaurant is run by the couple’s son Van, who is one of the founding members of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
We caught a glimpse of piggy parts being cooked slow and low as we walked up to the ordering counter. Mmm…
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The Astronomer has become quite the foodist these days and I gotta say, I could not be prouder. He points his barber to the best Thai spots in Hollywood and his fellow physicists to the choicest food finds near campus. In addition to mastering the local food scene here in L.A., The Astronomer has become an expert on the culinary developments in his adopted hometown of Birmingham. During our trip down South for the holidays, Saw’s Soul Kitchen was high on his list of new spots to try.
Mike Wilson, a Johnson & Wales grad and former Cooking Light test kitchen cook, opened Saw’s Soul Kitchen last May following the success of his first restaurant Saw’s BBQ. Brandon Cain, the former chef de cuisine at swanky seafood joint Ocean, is Soul Kitchen’s executive chef and part-owner. The vibe here is similar to its sister restaurant—laid back, lived in, and full of piggy paraphernalia.
The Astronomer and I arrived during the peak of the lunchtime rush and took our place in the long line snaking through the dining room. Once we reached the cash register, orders were finalized, placed, and paid for. A table opened up as soon as the food was ready—I love it when that happens.
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The Astronomer and I couldn’t escape the smell of grilled seafood the morning after our banquet at Koreatown’s Jae Bu Do. The distinct nose of burning embers, meshed with a hint of gochujang, seemed to follow us around the apartment, even though we had both showered and tossed last night’s clothes in the wash.
After searching every corner for the culprit, we finally discovered that the smell was emanating from my cell phone. The evening’s flavors had soaked into its plastic screen, so every time I sent a text or made a call for the next couple of days, the delicious memories from Jae Bu Do came wafting back. It was glorious and maybe even a little gross.
Jae Bu Do has been on my friend Ben‘s list of restaurants to try ever since Jonathan Gold wrote about its slimy hagfish back in 2010. While the awful-sounding fish is no longer on the menu, Jae Bu Do continues to grill up a plethora of fabulously fresh fruits of the sea tableside.
The wait for a table was nearly 40 minutes when our party of three arrived at 7 PM on a Friday night. With plenty of time to weigh and debate the three menu options at hand, we were ready to order as soon as a table opened up. We chose option B ($74.99), which included all sorts of good stuff like oysters, shrimp, and “ork” shell, and was ideal for groups of three to four according to our waiter.
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For the nominal price of $17.99 per person, Hae Jang Chon provided my cousins, The Astronomer, and me with an all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue feast that was so stupendous that it left our clothes and pores imbued with smoke and meat for days.
What set this barbecue emporium apart from others that I have visited in Koreatown [See: Don Day, Don Dae Gam, Tahoe Galbi] was the smooth stone grill used in place of the more common metal grates.
According to the restaurant’s website, the stone grill is ”nature’s best cooking surface.” It “produces various healthy minerals,” “absorbs and decomposes heavy metal ions,” and best of all, “absorbs excessive oil to bring out the exquisite taste of pork.” I don’t know if any of these claims are actually true, but I am sold nevertheless.
Another one of the restaurant’s notable touches was the homey tablescape that was neatly set before we were seated. Each place setting included an array of condiments in addition to silverware and plates. I went through two dishes of the fermented bean paste during the meal because meat just tastes better with a hit of salty funk.
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Years ago when I first visited Birmingham, The Astronomer treated me to lunch at Dreamland Bar-B-Que. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich, while he had a half slab of ribs. There was also a side of macaroni and cheese and a tall stack of white bread, if memory serves me right. It was one hell of an introduction to ‘Bama style ‘cue; one that inspired me to seek out something smokey and saucy on my visits thereafter.
Our barbecue explorations thus far have taken us to Miss Myra’s for its intriguing white sauce, to Full Moon for its famously tangy chow chow, to Saw’s for its vinegar-based mop sauce, and to Jim ‘N Nick’s for just about everything. Even with our consistent efforts, we’ve barely made a dent in Birmingham’s ever-growing barbecue scene.
On our most recent trip to the city, I insisted on lunch at Dreamland even though there are dozens of barbecue shacks left to try. It’s always been one of my favorites and sometimes, it’s plain nice to dine somewhere familiar.
John “Big Daddy” Bishop opened the first Dreamland in 1958 in the town of Tuscaloosa. According to barbecue lore, he was torn between setting up a mortuary or opening a restaurant to support his family. He prayed to God for a sign and received one in the form of a dream. While he was sleeping, God told Big Daddy to build a restaurant next to his home. And thus, Dreamland was born.
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