Magic City eats: A culinary tour of Birmingham combines history, world cultures

Magic City eats: A culinary tour of Birmingham combines history, world cultures
Amanshwa Takele is the owner of Ghion Cultural Hall in downtown Birmingham. Takele, who also owns a Ghion location in Atlanta, said Ethiopian food is prepared healthier than many types of cuisine. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Generations of African-Americans and other minorities have passed down recipes and dishes from decades ago that still are relished today. And many examples of such food can be tasted in restaurants throughout the Birmingham metro area.

Some are renowned for their award-winning delicacies and top-notch service. Others are favorites among celebrity customers. At a few, the owners personally serve customers.

Over the past month, the Birmingham Times visited nearly two dozen minority-owned restaurants, cafés and other establishments. They all had a few things in common: family atmosphere, a loyal customer base and good food.

“I know most of my customers’ names,” said Otha Nichols, owner of Kat’s Kreations in Center Point. “We keep getting new customers, but about 70 percent are repeat customers.”

For the owner of this recently opened restaurant — which offers menu items like chicken dressing, pork chops, chicken broccoli casserole and oxtails — it is encouraging to see people coming back.

“That means we have a good thing going,” Nichols said.

Selecting fresh options is important, too.

“I try to cook seriously. I don’t fool around with it,” said Delores Banks, owner of North Birmingham’s Eagle’s Restaurant, renowned for its oxtails and chitterlings. “I get the best ingredients. …  Nothing is canned here. I buy fresh greens, and wash them and boil them before I cook them. I go the extra mile for my food. That’s why it’s so good.”

Often, black-owned restaurants are continuing a legacy. Take Nelson Brothers Café in downtown Birmingham, for instance. Owner Jessie Nelson hasn’t changed the menu or the recipes his father used when the café opened in the 1940s.

“I still use his sweet potato pie recipe,” said Nelson, 76.

He sticks with original recipes — such as the one for egg custard pie, a customer favorite — not only because of their taste and popularity but also because many of his customers are generational.

“We have customers who date back three generations,” Nelson said. “Their grandparents came in here back in the day, and now they come in here.”

Not all popular eateries have brick-and-mortar locations. Travis Chicago Style, Birmingham’s first food truck, is popular with customers across the area. Owner Travis Holmes, who has been in business for 40 years, has traveled all over the nation selling his famous beef burgers (the truck doesn’t serve any pork), which are smothered in homemade barbecue sauce and piled high with onions, peppers and mustard. His best-seller: the five-pound Chicago Bear Burger with Polish sausage, grilled onions and peppers, cheese and Travis’ special sauce.

A new spin

Many new restaurant owners put a spin on traditional dishes by offering vegan, pork-free, gluten-free and paleo options.

Post Office Pies owner John Hall returned to the Magic City after stints at New York’s Gramercy Tavern and Per Se. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Ensley’s Sumthin Good is a pork-free establishment that will start offering vegan fare this month.

“When our people try to eat healthy, many think the food tastes bad … so we’re trying to serve food that is healthier and good,” said Jehudijah Woods, who owns the restaurant with his father, Eddie Yerby.

Sumthin Good is known for its turkey meatballs and turkey necks.

“We care about what we put in your food,” said Woods. “We’re trying to teach people that they can eat well, and it can still taste good.”

Z’s Restaurant in downtown Birmingham is also known for its pork-free fare.

“[A lot of] vegetarians eat with us, so we don’t put any meat in our vegetables,” said owner Ezekiel “Zeke” Hameen. “Some people say, ‘If you don’t have any pork, I don’t want it … but I guess I will eat that turkey.’”

Hameen’s restaurant, nationally recognized for its vanilla bean pie, is styled to resemble a living room and dining room.

“We try to create an at-home atmosphere,” he said. “Some people want to hear soft music, so we have albums of gospel music. We want you to feel at home.”

Something different for the city

Philadelphia, Pa., native Anthony Crawford said he started T-Bone’s Authentic Philly Style Cheesesteaks and Hoagies in Five Points South because he couldn’t find a cheesesteak in the city.

The recently opened Pizitz Food Hall features several minority-owned businesses. (BIG Communications)

“We fill that niche,” said Crawford, 51, who has the bread for his sandwiches shipped from the City of Brotherly Love. “The opportunity was there. A good sandwich is something you can’t deny.”

Crawford believes Birmingham is experiencing a renaissance of black-owned businesses, many of which want to give the city something different.

Birmingham native John Hall, owner of Post Office Pies, lived in New York City for a while and ran a late-night pizza-delivery business from his apartment. He took the orders, made the pies and delivered them on his bicycle. When he returned home in 2013, he decided to open his restaurant the following year in a former Avondale post office — hence the name.

Ghion Cultural Hall brings authentic Ethiopian food to the Magic City. The restaurant, part of the downtown Pizitz Food Hall, serves food in the traditional Ethiopian style — on injera, an East African sourdough flatbread. Instead of using utensils, diners use one hand (traditionally only the right one) to tear off pieces of injera, which is used to grasp and eat the flavorful stews and salads.

“It’s something most people here have never had,” said owner Amanshwa Takele. “We do everything different: the seasoning, the taste, how we eat it. It’s very different.”

Takele, who also owns a Ghion location in Atlanta, said Ethiopian food is prepared healthier: “We have vegetarian and vegan choices, but we also give you a lot of food.”

With Ghion now in Birmingham, residents have another dining option.

“People have driven to Atlanta for the food, and now it’s right here,” said Takele. “[Ghion] is a good place for the city of Birmingham.”

Juan Beras, left, and Luis Delgado are opening Miami Fusion Café in May. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Another different option: Puerto Rican fare at Tropicaleo in the Pizitz Food Hall

Tropicaleo offers authentic Puerto Rican dishes, such as mofongo — fried plantains that are mashed and stuffed with meat — and Puerto Rican sweet bread.

“We stick to traditional recipes, but we make a point of using local ingredients,” said owner Isabel Medina, 27. “There are a lot of parallels in Puerto Rican and Southern cuisine, which has made it easier. Everything except the plantains are local. We make our own bread and everything here.”

Miami Fusion Café, expected to open in May, fuses two popular types of cuisine: Caribbean and sushi.

“We’re bringing something new here,” said Luis Delgado, part owner of Miami Fusion. “Not everybody eats seafood, but we have a sushi chef. We’re coming back with new flavors to give to Birmingham.”

Pillars of the community

In addition to serving up a variety of food, black-owned restaurants also serve as pillars in the community and models for young adults, particularly those interested in starting their own businesses.

“I came from Bessemer,” said Rodricus Hunter, owner of Bessemer’s Kaylyn’s Food for the Soul, which is known for its oxtails. “I was 25 when I started. I did it young. If could do it, then (others) can do it, too. I know a lot of people who have opened their own businesses.”

Good food does more than just inspire and nourish. It can serve as common ground.

“People are going to always eat,” said Walter Thomas, owner of East of the Mississippi Diner (customer favorite: baked chicken) in Five Points West Ensley. “People will always gather where there is food. There are always good times when food is around.”

This story originally appeared on The Birmingham Times’ website.


THE MOST POPULAR DISHES AT SOME OF THE AREA’S MINORITY-OWNED RESTAURANTS

 

CLORAY’S CAFÉ

Cloray’s Cafe fish plate with cabbage, broccoli and cheese, candied yams and cornbread. (Ariel Worthy/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 2530 Ninth Ave. N., Bessemer.

Hours: Monday through Friday, 6:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Saturday.

Phone: 205-424-4366

Online:facebook.com/CloraysCafe

Owner: Renea Porter.

In business: Since 2013.

Most popular dishes: Oxtails; yams.

 

EAGLE’S RESTAURANT

Eagle’s Restaurant has been praised by “Bizarre Eats” host Andrew Zimmern as serving some of the best soul food. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 2610 16th St. N., Birmingham.

Hours: Sunday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m.; closed Saturday.

Phone: 205-320-0099

Online:eaglesrestaurant.com; Facebook: facebook.com/eagles2610

Owners: Delores Banks, Ahmad Jamal Rucker.

In business: Since 1993.

Most popular dishes: Oxtails; chitterlings.

 

EAST OF THE MISSISSIPPI DINER

East of the Mississippi has a variety of desserts, including sweet potato pie and chocolate cake. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 3103 Ensley Ave., Birmingham.

Hours: Monday through Friday, 6 a.m.to 3 p.m.; Saturday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., breakfast served all day.

Phone: 205-781-7837

Online:eastofthemississippidiner.com

Owner: Walter Thomas

In business: Since 2008.

Most popular dish: Baked chicken.

 

EUGENE’S HOT CHICKEN

Eugene’s signature hot chicken with a side of collard greens and corn. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 2268 Ninth Ave. N., Birmingham.

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; food truck available by request.

Phone: 205-322-7555

Online:eugeneshotchicken.com; Facebook: facebook.com/EugenesHotChicken; Instagram: eugeneshotchicken; Twitter: @ChickenEugene

Owner: Zebbie Carney.

In business: Since 2017 (storefront); food truck since 2015.

Most popular dishes: Chicken tenders and fries (food truck); Quarter Plate (store).

 

GHION CULTURAL HALL

Ghion’s meals are served on injera, an East African sourdough bread. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 1821 Second Ave. N., Birmingham (in Pizitz Food Hall).

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Phone: 205-730-9177

Online:facebook.com/takele111

Owner: Amanshwa Takele.

In business: Since 2017.

Most popular dish: Ye-Beg Tibs (lamb cooked with onions, garlic, rosemary and jalapeno peppers).

 

KAT’S KREATIONS SOUL FOOD AND CATERING

Kat’s Kreations serves a wide variety of desserts, including three flavors of fresh-baked cakes. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 1204 Center Point Parkway, Birmingham.

Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; closed Monday.

Phone: 205-920-7047, 205-887-7299

Online:thesiteexpo.com/KatKreations/about.html; Facebook: facebook.com/katskreationssoulfood

Owners: Katrice Evans-Nichols, Otha Nichols.

In business: Since 2016.

Most popular dishes: Chicken dressing; pork chops; chicken broccoli casserole; oxtails.

 

KAYLYN’S FOOD FOR THE SOUL

Baked chicken, candied yams, greens and a pancake made to order at Kaylyn’s in Bessemer. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 306 18th St. N, Bessemer.

Hours: Sunday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Saturday.

Phone: 205-426-2993

Online:kaylynsfoodforthesoul.com; Facebook: facebook.com/Kaylyns.soulfood; Twitter: @Kaylyns09

Owner: Rodricus Hunter.

In business: Since 2009.

Most popular dish: Oxtails.

 

MAGIC CITY GRILLE

Fried chicken, greens, candied yams, macaroni and cheese and cornbread from Magic City Grille. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr./The Birmingham Times)

Location: 2201 Third Ave. N., Birmingham.

Hours: Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Phone: 205-251-6500

Online:facebook.com/pages/Magic-City-Grill/117282301625058

Owners: Reginald White, Josephine White.

In business: Since 2005.

Most popular dishes: Fried chicken; meatloaf; chicken and broccoli casserole; chicken tetrazzini.

 

MIAMI FUSION CAFÉ

The Cubano, a Puerto Rican sandwich made with pulled pork, at Miami Fusion Café. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 2015 Fifth Ave. N., Birmingham.

Hours: Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday extended hours to be determined.

Phone: 205-730-9003

Online:facebook.com/pages/Miami-FUSION-Cafe/180381519035518

Owners: Louis Delgado, Juan Beras, Bruce Hammer.

In business: Opening in May.

Most popular dish: Domi CariMaki Roll (a combination of traditional Caribbean dishes and sushi).

 

MICHAEL’S STEAKS AND SEAFOOD

Chef’s Feature at Michael’s Steaks and Seafood, filet kabobs with shrimp. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr./The Birmingham Times)

Location: 1903 29th Ave. S., Homewood (at Aloft Birmingham Soho Square).

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; closed Sunday, except by special request.

Phone: 205-871-9525

Online:michaelssteakandseafood.com

Owner: Bernadine Birdsong (purchased in 2016)

In business: Since 2009.

Most popular dish: Michael’s Signature steer butt (on Alabama Department of Tourism’s list of 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die).

 

NELSON BROTHERS CAFÉ

Fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and green beans at Nelson Brothers Cafe. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 312 17th St. N., Birmingham.

Hours: Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Sunday.

Phone: 205-254-9098

Online:facebook.com/pages/Nelson-Brothers-Cafe/122944781095267

Owner: Jessie Nelson.

In business: Since 1960.

Most popular dishes: Sweet potato pie, egg custard pie.

 

POST OFFICE PIES

Pizza at Post Office Pies in Birmingham is designed to give patrons the New York style experience. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 209 41st St. S., Birmingham.

Hours: Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.

Phone: 205-582-9808

Online:postofficepies.com; Facebook: facebook.com/PostOfficePies; Twitter: @PostOfficePies; Instagram: postofficepies

Owner: John Hall.

In business: Since 2014.

Most popular dish: Swine Pizza (the Post Office Pies version of a meat lover’s pizza).

 

SUMTHIN GOOD

Sumthin Good’s beef tip ribs, greens, fresh-cut yams, macaroni and cheese and cornbread. (Ariel Worthy/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 2017 Ave. F Ensley, Birmingham.

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Phone: 205-243-2369, 205-821-2598

Online:facebook.com/Sumthin-Good-1029945160392093

Owners: Eddie Yerby and Jehudijah Woods.

In business: Since 2016.

Most popular dishes: Turkey meatballs, turkey necks.

 

T-BONE’S AUTHENTIC PHILLY STYLE CHEESESTEAKS AND HOAGIES

T-Bone’s sandwiches, including the cheesesteak hoagie and a side of fries, have Philadelphia roots. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 1017 20th St. S., Birmingham.

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; closed Sunday.

Phone: 205-582-9993

Online:facebook.com/T-Bones-Authentic-Philly-Style-Cheesesteaks-and-Hoagies-114964740762

Owner: Anthony Crawford.

In business: Since 2002.

Most popular dish: The Philly cheesesteak.

 

TRAVIS CHICAGO STYLE FOOD TRUCK

The Grizzly Polar Bear Burger stands as one of Travis Chicago Style’s most requested menu items. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Locations: Jefferson Avenue Plaza; Thursday and Friday (day), west of I-65 on Lakeshore, near Regions Bank office; Friday and Saturday (night), 821 Second Ave. N., Birmingham (outside Platinum of Birmingham), starting around 10 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 1013 Eighth Ave. N, Bessemer (Bessemer Flea Market), around 2 p.m.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.

Phone: 205-529-5232

Online: None.

Owner: Travis Holmes.

In business: Since 1990.

Most popular dishes: Chicago Style Polish; Bear Burger.

 

TROPICALEO

The Cubano, a traditional Puerto Rican sandwich, is a favorite among Tropicaleo’s customers. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 1821 Second Ave. N., Birmingham (in Pizitz Food Hall); will open Avondale location in summer 2017.

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Phone: 205-643-5956

Online:tropicaleo.com; Facebook: facebook.com/tropicaleobham; Twitter: @tropicaleobham; Instagram: tropicaleobham

Owner: Isabel Medina.

In business: Since 2017.

Most popular dishes: Cuban sandwich; chicken mofongo (plantain bowl filled with shredded chicken).

 

WAFFLEWORKS

A popular breakfast dish at Waffle Works is the shrimp and grits waffle. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 1821 Second Ave. N., Birmingham (in Pizitz Food Hall).

Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.; Friday, 7 a.m. to midnight; Saturday, 8 a.m. to midnight. Breakfast is served until 10:30 daily; lunch and dinner are served after 11.

Phone: 205-730-1922

Online:waffleworks.co; Facebook: facebook.com/WaffleWorksBHM; Twitter: @WaffleWorksBHM

Owners: Audrey Roberts, Daniel Roberts.

In business: Since 2017.

Most popular dishes: Chicken and waffles; collard greens; shrimp and grits.

 

YO MAMA’S

Chicken and waffles from Yo Mama’s. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 2328 Second Ave. N., Birmingham.

Hours: Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Second Saturday of every month, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Phone: 205-957-6545

Online:yomamasrestaurant.com; Facebook: facebook.com/YoMamasMeals; Twitter: @YoMamasMeals; Instagram: yomamasmeals

Owners: Denise Peterson and Crystal Peterson.

In business: Since 2014.

Most popular dishes: Chicken and waffles; shrimp and grits.

 

Z’S RESTAURANT

Baked chicken, greens, macaroni and cheese and candied yams at Z’s. (Reginald Allen/The Birmingham Times)

Location: 104 17th St. N., Birmingham.

Hours: Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Phone: 205-250-6288

Online:zs-restaurant.weebly.com; Facebook: facebook.com/pages/Zs-Take-OUT-Restaurant/108198725888176

Owners: Ezekiel “Zeke” Hameen, Carolyn Hameen.

In business: Since 2008.

Most popular dish: Vanilla bean pie.

Related Stories