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Los Tarascos Mexican Restaurant

Forget about a clever introduction. No need to bury the lede. Los Tarascos is the best Mexican-American restaurant in Tuscaloosa. I feel quite confident in this assessment. At bare minimum it satisfies my need for Mexican flavors, and it frequently goes beyond the minimum.

Los Tarascos is like every other Mexican-American or Tex-Mex place in so many ways: same faux roof shingles extending from the walls; same yellow & red & green & tan color scheme; same hardwood booths that feel like church pews; same simple beer selection of Bud & Miller & Corona & Dos Equis & Modelo; same chips; same salsa.

The menu, with over 100 numbered order options, initially seems like the same ol’ same ol’, until you read some of the more obscure sounding items. Los Tarascos makes a staggering variety of burritos, filled with all manner of peppers, vegetables, meats, sauces, cheeses. They make fresh takes on some staple items; the guacamole salad, for instance, contains carrots, onions, and pickled bell peppers.


The menu moves from pretty standard fajitas and burritos to Mexican City-style alambres dishes (lots of savory meats and stringy, melted Chihuahua cheese. Then you start to notice the fish and shrimp dishes, some in garlic-based sauces that don’t sound typically “Mexican,” that are reminiscent of Jalisco cuisine. Then you see the roast quail. Seriously.

If you are very hungry then order a burrito. They are the size of an entire plate, specifically the size of the giant novelty plates that Los Tarascos seems to prefer. And they are generously filled. They are basically Man vs Food style challenges. Take for example the Burrito Brava: steak, pablano peppers, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, chipotle ranchero sauce, optional sour cream. All of that is wrapped up in a giant flour tortilla and covered in cheese and enchilada sauce. It is a lot to handle, but it is really good. A spicy, earthy example of what Mexican-American food can be.

My favorite reason to come to Los Tarascos is for the dish that Tuscaloosa is in such short supply of ever since Taqueria Jaripeo got wiped out in the tornado: the humble taco. True authentic Tacos Mexicanos are some kind of meat served in a small tortilla (preferably corn tortillas), topped simply with onion and cilantro. That’s it. America took the taco and created this bastard child topped with tomatoes and lettuce and shredded cheddar and ugh. The traditional taco is one of Earth’s perfect dishes. All of that is to say that Los Tarascos serves authentic tacos! Before you get your hopes up too much, they only serve asada and pollo tacos. No cabeza or lengua or tripa or cachete to be found. But Los Tarascos excels at their skillet-cooked and grilled meats, so these standard tacos taste pretty good. They come with a roasted chile hot sauce (sometimes served on the side, sometimes added to the taco for you) that adds a lovely smoky character to the steak taco.

Los Tarascos dares to create interesting, complex flavor combinations in a restaurant genre where homogeneity is the norm. They excel at both the basic fare and the stranger, more region-specific dishes. If only El Rincon would take some cues from Los Tarascos. Quality matters, especially here.

[barry]

This Los Tarascos is located at 1759 Skyland Boulevard E, Tuscaloosa (right by America’s Thrift). They have a second location (pictured above) at 3380 Mcfarland Blvd Ste 18, Northport (in the stretch of storefronts between Popeye’s and the Northport Civic Center).

Mon – Thu:11:00 am-9:30 pm
Fri – Sat:11:00 am-10:00 pm
Sun:11:00 am-9:00 pm

Fernando’s Mexican Grill

My roommate recently had a discussion with a physician about where to eat Mexican food in this town now that Taqueria Jaripeo was totaled by the tornado. Two places came up in the positive: Jalapeno’s and Fernando’s Mexican Grill. Sure enough, Fernando’s is pretty solid.

Nothing about Fernando’s aesthetic gives me an indication that it is any different than the likes of an El Rincon. There are statues of Mariachi musicians standing out in front. The walls inside are a hodgepodge of light browns and yellows and reds and greens. Gimmick light fixtures and neon abound. It is over-the-top.

Service at Fernando’s is quick and efficient. You are seated, with drink orders taken, in a flash. Those last two sentences are very restaurant-review-cliché, aren’t they? Well, there’s a lot about Fernando’s that is cliché. But cliché works sometimes. It is something of a cliché to the idea that if a server keeps your water glass filled without your having to ask then the service must be good. But there’s truth there, and Fernando’s keeps those glasses full.

I was hoping to find some authenticity on the menu, but Fernando’s only offers the core essentials that you find in seemingly every family-owned-and-operated Mexican-American restaurant all across the country. Chips and salsa that isn’t so much spicy as it is a tastier, more robust alternative to ketchup. Combo plates and quesadillas and $11 fajita dishes served in a sizzling, personal-sized skillet. Rice and refried beans and guacamole salads on the side. Not a real taco or torta to be found.

But this classic sort of menu is just fine when well-executed, and Fernando’s executes. The quesadillas here – filling and balanced and seasoned — are a far cry from El Rincon’s sad lumps (El Rincon, being on The Strip, is always my point of reference for these kinds of restaurants). There was an inlet menu with what appeared to be specials, and the carnitas were calling my name. These pork tips were served no-frills: meaty cubes of pig with plenty of moderately-cooked onions. The pork was cooked through to well-done, which isn’t ideal, but the earthy seasoning blend made up for it. The small, quite round steamed tortillas were durable enough to hold plenty of pork for the impromptu tacos I made. Everything that I saw on other tables that came from the grill looked and smelled tasty.

As far as sides go, Fernando’s rice sticks out amongst Tuscaloosa competition for being somewhat Spanish-influenced. A Spanish-Mexican hybrid rice (that could have used some saffron) that matched up nicely with the earthy flavor of my carnitas. The refried beans, by comparison, were very standard-issue.

If you live in Northport, give Fernando’s a chance. It is leagues ahead of the likes of Pepitos and El Rincon. What I had there was quite solid, and I feel that their menu warrants further exploration.

[barry]

Fernando’s Mexican Grill is located at 824 McFarland Blvd W in Northport, across the street from Cici’s Pizza.

Mon – Thu:11:00 am-9:00 pm
Fri – Sat:11:00 am-10:00 pm
Sun:11:00 am-9:00 pm

Big Bad Wolves Barbecue

If you’ve been on the Strip during a gameday, you’ve seen Big Bad Wolves stationed on the porch of the Houndstooth. If you haven’t stopped to check them out and try their barbecue nachos, you’re seriously missing out. Big Bad Wolves only sets up shop from Friday lunch to Saturday night on gameday weekends. Over the summer when everyone begins their “Countdown to Kickoff”, several of my friends “Countdown to Barbecue Nachos” instead. And for good reason.

First, you should know that the barbecue nachos are the only thing to order. I mean, they have other menu options (pork sandwiches and stuff), but I don’t recommend them, as you can get better pulled pork at a number of other Tuscaloosa restaurants. It’s the nachos that make Big Bad Wolves special.

Next, I must warn you not to be tempted by the Dreamland barbecue nachos sold in the stadium (I’m not sure if they’re available throughout the stadium, but they’re definitely sold in the student section). The Dreamland nachos are equally overpriced (they’re being sold at a concession stand–duh!), and the flavors just don’t compliment one another like the chips, cheese, pork, sauce, and (optional) jalapenos of Big Bad Wolves’ nachos do.

Here’s how BBW BBQ nachos break down. The chips are salty but not overly. They’re just standard yellow corn nacho chips. Round and think enough to hold up to the weight of the other ingredients. Next comes the cheese, which has a milder color (less yellow, though not queso-white either) and taste than most (Taco Bell) nacho cheese. The mildness of the cheese makes it a nice complement taste-wise to the meat and sauce but also adds a nice texture to what might seem like a strange combination of ingredients. Chips and meat, even with sauce, would be a little dry–the cheese smooths things out and helps the meat stick to the chip.

Next comes the meat. As I mentioned earlier, there’s nothing particularly great about the pork itself, but it’s certainly not bad either. You can order your nachos with or without jalapenos. I usually get mine on the side. And the best part–the icing on the cake, so to speak–is the sauce. This part you do yourself. Squirt bottles of sauce are assembled on tables near where you order and receive your food, so you can cover this beautiful creation in as much or as little sauce as you want. The sauce is what I would call Memphis-style (though Barry, our barbecue expert, might disagree with me). It’s tomato-based, fairly thin (not runny at all–just not KC Masterpiece thick), slightly spicy, but mostly sweet. One of the sweeter barbecue sauces I’ve had, in fact. I think it’s really great, personally, and I suspect that its sweetness is what pulls all the tastes together and makes these nachos work in a way that Dreamland’s don’t.

And to complete your experience at Big Bad Wolves, you should be prepared to pay $9 (in cash) for them. Yes, that’s a lot of money for some nachos, but they’re a novelty and they’re delicious. Trust me (and the good portion of Tuscaloosa that flocks to this place on gameday) on this.

[natalie]

Catfish Heaven

Heaven isn’t too far away. If you travel on Greensboro Avenue, you get closer to it every day. It’s something of a dive and it isn’t in the glossiest part of town, but no matter what your friends might say we’ll find our way.

The late Jani Lane of Warrant penned much of the preceding paragraph for their song “Heaven.” It isn’t all that much of a stretch to think he was writing about Catfish Heaven, Tuscaloosa’s premier catfish shack. I want to say that it is located in an inconspicuous beige building in Tuscaloosa’s West End neighborhood, nearly underneath I-359. But it isn’t inconspicuous; it stands out for having the only fresh coat of paint in a block full of dilapidated housing, rusting train tracks, and abandoned service stations. There’s always a sort of charm to a business that succeeds despite adverse conditions, despite its own community politically privileging the other side of 15th Street. And Catfish Heaven does nothing but succeed.

You open the heavy metal door to find yourself already out of room to stand. People are in line ahead of you or waiting for their order at one of 5 or so tables. And it isn’t like there’d be any room if those people weren’t there. You walk into Catfish Heaven with the front counter immediately in your face. It’s a large glass-and-wire separating wall with two windows, the one on the right for ordering and the one on the left for picking up your order. You can see the kitchen staff through the glass, affixing breading to bird, applying fish to fryer. Industrial-sized buckets of house-made teas and lemonades balance precariously behind the cashier. Beside the register hang little packages of pork rinds and little plastic to-go boxes of homemade cakes.

The menu at Catfish Heaven is pretty straightforward: catfish filets and pan trout (aka whiting) filets, either in a combo plate, a 10-piece order, or a 20-piece order. You can order whole catfish as well. Sometimes they have tilapia. Sometimes they cook up some pork chops. And they sell a whole lot of hot wings, which you can order in increments of 10. But this ain’t Hot Wing Heaven. It’s Catfish Heaven, and the primary reason to come here is for the fish.

Each batch is fried up to-order. Catfish Heaven’s fry cooks don’t believe in making up a bunch of fish at once, letting them get cool and soggy, their flavors diminishing every minute. They don’t take the cost-effective approach. That’s for mere Earthlings. In Heaven, you will have to wait 15 or 20 minutes, but the personal care that each batch is fried with makes the time worth it.

Some filets come out straight and flat. Some are wound up on themselves in a curly loop. Others are like hunks of meat, like a baby’s fist. No matter the size or density, each piece of catfish is prepared the same way: fried in a cornmeal “batter” seasoned with salt, black pepper, and some other secret spices (I detect white pepper and a trace of singed brown sugar). These things are given individual attention so that no piece is overcooked. These are the least greasy catfish filets in town. No grease + tons of flavor = why eat anywhere else? Though these filets are smallish in size, they catch up to you in a hurry. No matter how hungry you are, a 10 piece order of catfish is going to fully satiate you.

If you’ve ever been to a proper Southern or Midwestern fish shack before then you know how critical hot sauce is to the whole enterprise. Catfish Heaven’s hot sauce, presumably made in-house, is one of Tuscaloosa’s absolute best condiments. The vinegar is not subtle in this sauce, but there’s a fairly robust tomato sweetness there too, which balances out the immensely piquant vinegar tartness. To say that this hot sauce compliments the fish would be underselling it.

Catfish Heaven likes tartness in their drinks, too. Their house-made pink lemonade, served from a tap attached to a giant white bucket, is seriously one of the top 10 beverages in Tuscaloosa. It’s fabulous. It fully embraces a cutting tartness, with a slightly-sweet finish. It has a thick mouthfeel relative to the Lipton or Minute Maid pink lemonades that come from soda fountains. I have to restrain myself from ordering multiple large cups full of the stuff.

It’s an unfortunate truth concerning Catfish Heaven that many UA students will likely never once eat there. It’s on the wrong side of 15th Street for them. It’s a place whose clientele is nearly exclusively black. Sadly, these things keep many undergrads from even hearing about Catfish Heaven’s existence, let alone actually eating there. I’m telling you to eat at Catfish Heaven. I’m telling you that you need to tell your friends to eat at Catfish Heaven. We’ve got a treasure of a fish shack here and it should be our civic duty to let people know about it.

[barry]

Catfish Heaven is located at 2502 21st Street, right off of Greensboro Avenue.

Monday-Saturday  11am-7pm

Hooligan’s

If there’s one thing Tuscaloosa has a surplus of, it’s restaurants claiming to be “Greek” or “Mediterranean-inspired.” Fig, Zoe’s Kitchen, Tazikis, Tut’s, Big Daddy’s, and Hooligan’s are the ones that immediately come to mind. The first three are stylish “Mediterranean-inspired” cafes with good food, which I take to mean “we use feta cheese.” Tut’s Place is a solid pizza/sub/calzone/gyro joint that serves “Greek and Italian foods,” while Big Daddy’s strikes me as the most authentically Greek restaurant in town. But nevermind all that. This review is about Hooligan’s.

Hooligan’s boasts an “American and Mediterranean” menu ranging from hummus, falafel, gyros, and baba ghannouj to burgers, spuds, BLTs, and chicken fingers. My personal favorites are the cheeseburger and the chicken gyro. Hooligan’s, in my opinion, has some of the best burgers in town (along with Rama Jama’s and Oasis). They’re nothing fancy, just simple, juicy and flavorful. I order the chicken gyro when I want something a little lighter, but I don’t mean to suggest that it’s anything less than filling. Again, it’s fairly basic (chicken, lettuce, tomato, and plenty of tzatziki wrapped up in a pita), but it never fails to hit the spot. I also hear good things about their spuds. Whatever you order at Hooligan’s, get the combo. Their seasoned crinkle-cut fries are always hot and always delicious.

The only thing that disappoints me at Hooligan’s is something that most people love. The only variation of sweet tea they brew is one flavored with mint. It’s a nice twist that I’ve not seen offered anywhere else (and I’m told it’s quite good), but I’m not a fan of mint so I tend to abandon my usual sweet tea order for Coke instead. If you’re weird and prefer unsweetened tea, they have an unsweetened mint tea as well.

While I love the food at Hooligan’s, the main reason I frequent it has more to do with its convenience. It’s near campus but far enough away from the Strip to allow a little peace. A couple of TVs are usually set to sports channels, and the outdoor patio is great once temperatures dip below the 90s. I chose to go to Hooligan’s for this particular meal for a combination of several reasons. I wanted good food (obviously); I needed it quickly (I had thirty minutes to eat and get to the Bama theater for a show I was attending); and I wanted to eat somewhere that wouldn’t make me feel like the most awkward person on the planet for sitting down to eat alone. Although I’d rather endure said awkwardness that settle for drive-thru. Hooligan’s atmosphere (unless they’re super busy, which doesn’t happen too often) is just chill enough that I knew I’d be able to get my food and get downtown quickly and enjoyably.

There are plenty of places I can go in this town when I want good food or a relaxed atmosphere or quick service. There are significantly fewer places that meet all of these requirements. Whether I want a quick bite by myself or a place to relax and catch up with friends, Hooligan’s menu, prices, location, and atmosphere make it a consistent contender when I’m trying to decide where to eat.

Hooligan’s is located at 1915 University Blvd (between downtown and the Strip), next to Innisfree.

7 days a week: 10am-midnight

The Front Porch Restaurant

Apologies for adding yet another southern/meat-and-three style restaurant review, but we are talking about Tuscaloosa here. Barry’s recent trip to Mr. Bill’s inspired me to try another restaurant I’ve driven past every day for two years and never tried. Just a mile (or less) up Highway 43 north in Northport (out of the way for many, but on the way home for me) sits The Front Porch Restaurant.

I found a brief review a while back of The Front Porch on Well That’s Cool, an awesome website dedicated spreading the word about good things in Tuscaloosa. The review of complimentary of the restaurant’s preparation of their steak, and it mentioned a meat-and-three option. I decided to try the latter on my visit.

They keep a standard set of veggies/sides available every day (fries, green beans, mac and cheese, etc.) and rotate a few more in depending on the day of the week. Apparently Thursdays are broccoli casserole and creamed corn day. The meats change every day as well. I was left deliberating between the fried pork chop and chicken and dumplings, both of which I am particularly fond. At the waitress’ recommendation, I went with the dumplings, and I ordered the corn, mac and cheese, and broccoli casserole to go with it. The meal also includes sweet tea and either cornbread or a roll for $7.00.

First of all, I didn’t intend for my meal to be entirely white and yellow. I never did like greens very much, though some green beans would have probably been a good choice. The chicken and dumplings were delicious—the closest anyone has ever gotten to my dad’s specialty. The dumplings were super thin and the chicken was finely shredded—not like the big chunks of both you get if go somewhere like Cracker Barrel. The sauce was also spot on. Not too thick or thin. The broccoli casserole was good. A pretty standard combination of rice, broccoli, cream of mushroom soup, and cheese, but well executed. The mac and cheese was equally good with large elbow noodles that were baked without being dry. My least favorite part of the meal was the creamed corn. The corn itself was yellow and sweet, but the cream part wasn’t quite right. It was more pasty than creamy (which wasn’t as bad as it sounds), and I was only able to finish about half of the rather large bowl I was given.

As you would expect from a place who includes sweet tea in their meals but charges you extra for soda, the tea is wonderfully sweet, and the staff is friendly. The waitresses appeared to be mostly high-school aged girls, who were a lot better at their jobs than I was when I was eighteen. My food was out of the kitchen in what seemed like only a minute, and my server was quick to offer my check and take my card (and refill my tea) as well. My favorite part of the meal was the man and his grandson that sat down near me. The boy, who must have been about four, made a bee line at one point for the kitchen door with his granddad chasing after him. The servers looked at one another in a moment of panic, but the man emerged, looking exasperated but carrying the boy on his hip, and everyone had a good laugh.

The Front Porch doesn’t try to be fancy. They just do the things you love right, and that’s just fine with me. Oh, and the post-church crowd there is massive, so you might want to avoid that.

[natalie]

The Front Porch is located at 4421 Hwy 43N in Northport. It’s in the Dollar General shopping center, just north of Hick’s BBQ (and where Archibald and Woodrow’s used to be).

Monday-Thursday: 10:30am-8pm
Friday: 10:30am-9pm
Saturday: CLOSED
Sunday: 10:30am-2pm

Mr. Bill’s Kountry Kookin

Tuscaloosa/Northport is a community of Meat & Three restaurants, and everyone knows that the venerable City Café sits pretty at the top spot in the civic totem pole. City Café was one of my first Tuscaloosa meals, and I’m pretty sure that just about everyone can say the same. It’s an icon. But part of what I want to do for you, Dear Reader, is to expose you to unconventional thinking, to opinions that differ from the city council mainstream. So, for you, I take the risks inherent in speaking the following heresy: City Café is not the best Meat & Three in town. Mr. Bill’s is better.

“Mr. Bill’s? What is that?” you may be asking yourself right now. I sure did after I was told about it for the first time. The name itself registers as hilarious, and it’s located on McFarland in Northport, in that mysterious strip of commerce between state highway 69 and U.S. 43. It’s located in an innocuous brick building with crimson awnings, but all I really had to do was look for the parking lot. Mr. Bill’s was absolutely packed on this Sunday afternoon; apparently it’s a popular place to be post-church.

Mr. Bill’s has one of the stranger interiors in a town that’s full of ‘em. For one thing, it’s a very long restaurant, with dozens upon dozens of Formica tables split across three clearly delineated sections. One third of the restaurant is covered in blonde wood paneling, the middle third is very open, with a beeline to the kitchen; the final third features a gigantic painted mural of wooden buildings and horses and carriages and, presumably, this is supposed to be old timey Northport or something. Very quickly you are directed to one of the many tables (and on this Sunday there were only two that weren’t occupied) and handed menus.

Mr. Bill’s Meat & Three menu (a single sheet of paper printed on one side) appears to change regularly, perhaps weekly. Meals cost between $7 and $8 depending on what meat you order, that price inclusive of sweet tea or coffee & your choice of cornbread, Mexican cornbread, or roll. The cornbread comes out in muffin form – a fluffy yet firm interior, singed and tangy on the caramelized bottom.

The side dishes are just straight-up, well-executed versions of Southern staples: green beans, purple hull peas, creamed potatoes & gravy, macaroni & cheese, baked beans, coleslaw, fried okra. Mr. Bill’s prides themselves on their made-from-scratch apple cobbler and banana pudding, and these desserts are available as one of your three sides. I can’t speak to the desserts, but the green beans were classically seasoned with just the right amount of vinegar tang, and the mac & cheese looked quite cheesy. The creamed potatoes are very rich, and they cram a lot of them into the unexpectedly deep plastic serving bowls. My only complaint with these potatoes is that the ratio of brown gravy to potato was slanted too far in favor of the potatoes; the potatoes are certainly enjoyable without any gravy, but this is solid gravy, y’all. Each of the sides I tried at Mr. Bill’s is slightly better than their counterparts at City Café. It is useful to note that the green beans weren’t cooked with ham or other meat, and the hull peas likely aren’t either. It’s hard for vegetarians to find sides at meat & threes that don’t have of animal in them, so Mr. Bill’s $6-for-four-sides deal might be an attractive option.

Where Mr. Bill’s really separates themselves from City Café is in the meats. Mr. Bill’s focuses on chicken, with fried chicken strips and smoked chicken strips, and a delicious chicken & dressing w/ giblet gravy being staples of the menu. There’s a rotating slot that will change from week to week, usually occupied by traditional comfort foods like meatloaf or pot roast & carrots. Some days will feature actual, legitimate barbecue.

I’ll one day go to Mr. Bill’s specifically to try their pulled pork, but I could not resist ordering their catfish. If there’s a better fried catfish in town then I’d be surprised. You get two large, meaty filets per order. Two sounds like you’re getting ripped off, but there is no comparison between these beauties and the three frail, over-fried, skimpy strips you get at City Café. A batter composed of nearly entirely cornmeal, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, coats each filet and coaxes out their essential flavor. These are not overcooked one bit. The flesh has a slightly flaky texture without being at all dry. While uniformly moist and tender, the only thing that could make these better would be if Mr. Bill’s could cook up wild catfish. These farmed ones acquit themselves nicely, though.

Mr. Bill’s is precisely the sort of place that Druid City Eats wants to introduce people to. I’ve lived in Tuscaloosa for more than a year and I’d never heard of it. This community is full of hidden gems. I strongly recommend that the southern cooking fans out there find Mr. Bill’s and make it a little bit less hidden.

[barry]

Mr. Bill’s is located at 2715 McFarland Boulevard, Northport, AL, near the Buford Plaza Shopping Center.

Monday-Friday: 10:30am-8:00pm
Sunday: 10:30am-2:30pm

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