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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While visiting Birmingham this past winter, The Astronomer and I were tipped off to a sweets shop specializing in gourmet Mexican paletas (popsicles). I’ve come to expect really terrific soul food, fine dining, and of course, barbecue in this town, but never considered anything like Steel City Pops.
Inspired by Nashville’s Las Paletas, Jim Watkins opened Steel City Pops last May in a Homewood strip mall that fittingly includes a gourmet taqueria. Steel City Pops recently opened a second location at The Summit (a magnificent and enormous suburban shopping complex) and have a third location planned in Tuscaloosa. I love that paletas are taking over ‘Bama.
Since we visited the shop during the Christmas holiday, many of the flavors were inspired by the season. Steel City Pops makes paletas de aguas (water-and-juice-based pops), as well as paletas de crema (milk- or cream-based pops). We selected one of each on our first visit.
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Fast food chains generally make me queasy, but I couldn’t help feeling warm and fuzzy inside when I spotted the bright yellow sign for Bojangles‘ in the distance. I read about this storied southern chain years ago and have been curious to taste their signature Chicken ‘n Biscuits and Bo-Berry Biscuits ever since. Sometimes, my soft spot for regional specialties overpowers my disdain for everything fast food.
The Astronomer and his awesomely adventurous sister Rosalind joined me at Bojangles’ even though neither quite understood my fascination with the place.
Launched in 1977 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bojangles’ currently has over 500 outlets across ten states and Washington, D.C. There are even two international locations in Honduras. For those residing here on the west coast, the closest Bojangles’ is somewhere down in Mississippi.
We began with an order of Bojangles’ “famous” Chicken ‘n Biscuits, which was comprised of a seasoned breast filet served on a buttermilk biscuit. Pounded thin and heavily battered, the chicken tickled our tongues with its blend of Cajun spices. The biscuit, which the restaurant claimed was “made-from-scratch,” was buttery, doughy, and on par with other fast food biscuits I’ve come across.
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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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