Alabama's Food Scene: So Much More Than Just Barbecue
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because food can be a driver for diversity.
By Nick Fouriezos
“It tastes just like in Miami,” says Jenny Layton, a local biology professor. Her mother, Lisa Estes, agrees and raves about the marinated steak, part of the Puerto Rican plantain dish mofongo, the most traditional meal at Miami Fusion Cafe. “Just delicious,” Estes says.
Of course, they aren’t in Miami… or New York or Los Angeles or some other hub known as a culinary mosaic. No, this 5-month-old restaurant is in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, the heart of the Old South. To cope with increased demand, hours have expanded at the café, where Luis Delgado, its Puerto Rican chef and owner, serves up Cuban sandwiches next to Dominican-, Jamaican- and Nicaraguan-inspired dishes. “We give flavors of all the islands. We’re not a Puerto Rican restaurant — we’re a Caribbean restaurant.”
Diversity is on the menu in B-ham, from award-winning chef Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill – a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s top restaurant award each of the past eight years — to the Pizitz Food Hall, a multicultural mall for foodies with cuisines hailing from Ethiopia and Mexico to Nepal and Vietnam. Some must-tries: shawarma pockets from Eli’s Jerusalem Grill and Mexican (eggless) ice cream at Lichita’s.
Thirty years ago, there was no cultural diversity here. Food was the leader in bringing all these great cultures to bear.
Chris Hastings, chef
“People are leaving big cities because they want to find a place where they can settle. We’ve seen an incredible fusion of young talent,” says Chris Hastings, whose Hot and Hot Fish Club serves farm-to-table fare. His newest restaurant, Ovenbird, combines Southern sentimentality with traditions from Spain, Portugal, Uruguay and Argentina. The twist? Cooking only on fires started by hand. Hastings is just one of many chefs who see food as a way to break through racial barriers that have existed for decades in this state. “Sit down with people and have a meal,” he says. “Thirty years ago, there was no cultural diversity here. Food was the leader in bringing all these great cultures to bear.”
In 2015, national restaurant guide Zagat ranked Birmingham as the top choice on its list of Next Hot Food Cities. This past June, Food & Wine magazine announced it would be relocating from the Big Apple to Birmingham, joining sister Time Inc. publications, including Southern Living and Cooking Light, in a studio the media company has used the past two years.
What’s finally firing up the Birmingham culinary scene? Locals cite the early influence of trailblazers such as Stitt, who emphasized locally sourced foods in the ’80s, preluding today’s “shop local” crazes. “Frank was the big bang moment, when nuclear-fission happened and Birmingham became a food town,” Hastings says. The creation of Railroad Park, a 19-acre downtown hub created at the height of the recession in 2010, was another turning point in the city’s cultural renaissance.
The transition hasn’t always been without hiccups. When Delgado first arrived almost a decade ago, the Miami-born Puerto Rican felt like he had to chaperone restaurantgoers out of their comfort zone. “When we came into the scene, people didn’t know what an empanada or tostada was,” he explains. That’s changed drastically. But rapid growth in the restaurant scene could also present problems. Delgado worries that too much choice too quickly could scare off casual diners, leading them to retreat back to the familiar.
For Layton, it’s hard to keep up: Her list of restaurants to check out just keeps growing as her friends make more suggestions. “It’s just a really cool time in Birmingham,” she says. The table is set here — and nowadays, all are welcome.