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Little Italy Pizzeria

Every once in a while something comes along that changes what you know about yourself. These somethings aren’t usually restaurants, but who am I judge? I, for example, have never lived outside the deep south and knew myself to be a fan of thick crust pizza—that is, until Little Italy set up shop in Tuscaloosa and I discovered that I’m not nearly woman enough to handle a real thick crust.

Little Italy’s thick crust is, as I imagine all Napolitan crust is, immense. I’ve only ordered it once—a slice, to-go—and it completely filled the meal-sized Styrofoam box it had been stuffed into. It’s certainly filling, but the thick crust proved to be too much bread for my taste. Little Italy is one of the only restaurants where I order thin crust. I despise Pizza Hut’s cracker-like thin crust, but LI’s thin, Sicilian variety is much more flavorful and (strange as it sounds) crust-like. Ideally, I guess I’d prefer some middle-ground between the two types of crust, but for less than $2 a slice, I’m not going to complain.

That’s right. TWO dollars per humongous slice. $1.80 for Sicilian and $1.90 for Napolitan to be precise. Each topping (and there’s 27 to choose from) is an additional 40 cents. With their prices and portions, Little Italy is easily the best value on the Strip. It’s the only place I have to worry about hitting the $3 credit card minimum. They have 2 lunch specials: A) 1 slice with a side salad and a drink or B) 2 slices with a drink. Both are $5. The salad that comes with the first special is reasonably sized—it’s fairly small, but not disappointingly considering it’s only a side salad—and is quite good. The inclusion of cucumbers, cheese, and a few slices of pepperoni made for a nice touch. My slice, for the record, was pepperoni and banana peppers. Mmmm.

I would like to emphasize that the pizza is resting on a dinner-sized paper plate.

Since Little Italy is an order-and-pickup-at-the-counter joint, there isn’t much to say about their service, but what experience I’ve had with the staff has always been pleasant. The cashiers are friendly and willing to offer suggestions if you’re unsure of which crust or toppings to get. The dining area is spacious (though the lunch crowd on the Strip can still overwhelm the place) and clean. There’s a bit of a wait time, but it’s not unreasonable by any means—simply a consequence of made-to-order slices.

The only time I choose another pizza place over Little Italy is when I’m ordering in bulk on my own dime. Their whole pies run between $9.50 and $16.50 depending on size and crust (the Napolitan crust only comes in slices and 16” pies, by the way), and extra toppings run from $1.25-2.00 each. This can get pricey when you’re ordering for a large group, and even though the manager on duty will give you a discount if you let him know you’re going to be buying in bulk, the discount they offered me on eight large pizzas was still over twice as much as Hungry Howie’s $5.55 carry-out special on large pizzas across the street (Hungry Howie’s isn’t as good as Little Italy but still beats the pants off Little Ceasars’ $5 deals if you’re looking for cheap pies). In addition to pizza, Little Italy also has hot subs, cold sandwiches, calzones, Stromboli, and a variety of pasta dishes (mostly variations of spaghettii from what I can tell).

Update: I am now slightly obsessed with their Eggplant Parmesan Pasta, which is advertised on one of their exteriors signs as a $5.95 special. The spaghetti and massive amount of breaded eggplant smothered in cheese is enough food to satisfy even the heartiest of eaters. I’m fairly certain that I’d be sick if I ate that much food in one sitting, so I always make two smaller meals out of it (and considering I only paid $6 for it, that’s a cheap two meals!). I usually order chicken dishes and I’m not sure what led me try the eggplant instead, but I’m very glad I did.

I remember how excited people were a few years ago when word of Little Italy’s imminent arrival began to spread. The pizzeria has not disappointed those native Tuscaloosans looking for a good, cheap, and filling lunch or the displaced northerners who had been deprived for so long of proper pizza by the slice.

[natalie]

Little Italy is located on the Strip at 1130 University Blvd, Suite 6, between Swen and Firehouse Subs.

Monday-Thursday: 11am-2am
Friday-Saturday: 11am-3am
Sunday: 11am-10pm

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]

Bento Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar

You know that old saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover?” While true, it isn’t an expression that should be applied metaphorically. For instance: restaurants can oftentimes be judged accurately by the image that they present before you even walk in the door. I’ve been known to avoid certain restaurants because of their “cover.” A good example of this behavior is Bento. Despite passing this popular Japanese restaurant twice a day, nearly every day, I never gave serious consideration to stopping in. Part of this is their schedule; they close for three hours between lunch and dinner service. But I mostly avoided it because of the crowd that it tends to attract: fraternity brodogs and the Tempo shorts throng. Every time the door opened it seemed like Dave Matthews Band or Owl City or some musical dreck leaked out. I finally decided to eat at Bento a couple of times over the past week. The pertinent question then is does that old saying about books and covers hold metaphorical weight for Bento? The answer: no, the cover was entirely representative of the restaurant at large.

The interior of Bento is two cramped dining rooms, everything clean and white and sandalwood colored. I am reminded more of a dentist’s office than a Japanese restaurant, but that’s fine. Bento takes their small space and makes the most of it, with a surprisingly large amount of tables and flexibility. The wait staff, at least during the lunch hours in which I visited, was completely young twentysomethings. They are nice and efficient, if a little aloof and ill prepared to fully describe the menu.

A personal marker for quality that I have for Japanese-American restaurants is their execution of soup. Many Japanese soups are miracle balancing acts of texture and flavor. I walked into Bento craving ramen, but certainly not expecting to be able to order any. But the menu did have an Udon noodle soup, so I didn’t hesitate to order it. My waiter brought over a large bowl of steaming-hot clear broth. Inside were lots of thick udon and plenty of sliced scallions and carrots. A particularly unflavorful stick of tempura prawn (or something intended to resemble prawn) was jutting up out of the bowl, but I chose to eat around it. It was a pretty average bowl of udon, at best. The udon themselves were somewhat underdone, not chewy or toothsome but doughy and hard to negotiate. The broth was very light, which worked well on a summer’s day, but it was missing some complexity (read: flavor). While bland, this bowl of soup was too big to finish. It represents a pretty good value for $8, especially if you’re nursing a cold.

I noticed that most everyone in the dining room was opting for Bento’s namesake bento box lunch specials, so I opted for one of my own the next time I came in. The boxes range from $7-$9, and contain a hibachi-grilled meat, your choice of salad or soup, your choice of steamed or fried rice, a handful of edemame and some orange slices. I went with something called the “Bento chicken,” implying a house specialty. The little bites of chicken actually taste considerably like the chicken nuggets at Chick-Fil-A – an initial savory character losing the war of attrition to sweetness – only not fried. I opted for the fried rice, only because it seemed like a novelty (the Japanese don’t traditionally serve fried rice; it’s a Chinese thing). As far as fried rice goes, it might just be the best in Tuscaloosa. The edamame was the best part of the plate; I wish that I had two servings of the slightly briny soybeans to munch on. Bento misses again on the lunch soup; a flavorless broth with spongy sliced mushrooms, diced scallions, and what appears to be egg white somehow lending nothing to the broth apart from a nicely delicate aroma.

Bento has a nice array of sushi choices. The list favors maki (which makes sense, given the clientele), but has a respectable list of nigiri options as well. While there are maki specials for lunch, I did not opt for any sushi, and I didn’t notice any other patrons ordering sushi either. Based on my average-at-best meals at Bento thus far, I don’t think I’m going to shell out for their sushi anytime soon. It’s tough to come back from “meh.”

Bento is a fine-enough lunch option on the Strip, that is if you can tolerate the clientele and the annoying music playing in the dining room. It’s reasonably fast and well-portioned for the price. For me, the food is too uninspired to warrant eating there. Japanese food is subtle, but complex. Bento’s food is not complex, and is about as authentically Japanese as Pita Pit is authentically Greek. If you’re the kind of person who really enjoys Americanized Cantonese places, like Swen for instance, then you should probably check out Bento; I think you’ll enjoy the change-of-pace and find plenty of options agreeable to your palate.

[barry]

Bento is located at 1306 University Blvd, on The Strip, right above Tut’s.

Lunch: Monday-Friday 11am-2pm.
Dinner: Every night 5pm-9pm.

Ruan Thai

Anyone who’s been stuck on campus at meal time knows how convenient the Strip is. Just a short walk from Morgan Hall has saved me many-a-time from the chaos of the Ferg food court and the disaster of Bidgood Bistro’s sandwiches and sushi. And while the Strip has many food options that will get you in and out in a hurry (Jimmy Johns, Pita Pit, etc.), these chains aren’t what makes that stretch of University Blvd special. Just past the BP station, however, is a pink cottage that stands out among the sandwich shops and pizza joints.

Ruan Thai is situated almost directly across from another Thai restaurant, Surin (formerly Kenny Stabler’s 12 Steakhouse), and both have remained in business for some time—I suspect because of their very different appeals. Without going into too much detail about Surin in this review, it’s a fancier joint, while Ruan Thai is more casual and seems (although I’ll admit to being a Thai novice) more authentic. I personally prefer Ruan Thai. The only thing Ruan doesn’t have, despite the numerous neon beer signs in the windows, is a decent drink menu. They have a few beers available in bottles, but if you’re in the mood for serious beveraging, Surin’s extensive bar might suit you better.

Ruan Thai has a great, causal feel. On this particular day, the sun was shining in the bay window onto the small yellow followers that adorned each table. If you’re there when they’re busy the service can be slow, but there were only a few people there this time, and the service was stellar. Update: I’ve been back to Ruan Thai a few times since posting this review, and it seems as though the service is getting worse. The last time I was there, it wasn’t busy at all and the service was still downright bad. The waiter took forever to take my order, forgot to bring me my tea, didn’t remember that I’d ordered it when I had to ask for it again, and the kitchen screwed up my curry and had to remake it. I was there for over an hour when I should have been in and out in no more than 30 minutes.

I’ve been to Ruan Thai many times and ordered several different dishes, but I’ve never strayed too far from the standards (novice, remember). On this particular visit, I ordered the spicy fried wontons (appetizer) and yellow curry, although I’ve had and enjoyed the crab wonton appetizer, the Pad Thai, and fried rice on previous visits. The pineapple fried rice is particularly beautiful (served in a half pineapple shell) and delicious. The appetizers I’ve tried are fine and will hold you over if you’re starving, but they are far inferior to any of the entrees I’ve had. The dinner portions tend to be large enough to make appetizers unnecessary anyway. The only thing I’ve had I didn’t enjoy at Ruan Thai was some sushi, which they serve at lunch. The rice was strangely crunchy and the overall combination of tastes was generally disappointing.

The last few times I’ve been to Ruan Thai, I’ve ordered the yellow curry, which is superb. It and the cashew noodles used to be daily specials but are available every day now due to popular demand. The yellow curry isn’t very hot—it’s buttery and a little tangy with potatoes, onions, and your choice of meat. I’m a wuss when it comes to spice and usually order the yellow curry medium, but even at medium it’s quite mild. I’ll probably bump it up to hot next time, though I’m not brave enough to try hot with a red or green curry dish. The staff has also been really helpful when it comes to deciding on a dish, even if you’re unfamiliar with Thai cuisine. If you tell your server what you like and what level of spice you prefer, he or she can help you settle on something you’ll be sure to like.

Update: Since posting this review, I tried the Kang Masamun, which is superb. You can get either the potato and peanuts or the avocado and cashew variety. I’m not a big fan of avocados (I’m weird, I know), so I went with the first, but I imagine the latter is quite good as well.

The next time you’re on the Strip trying to decide where to eat, consider walking past your usual spots to try something deliciously different. Compared to many other cities, Tuscaloosa’s range of ethnic restaurants is rather sparse, but Ruan Thai is a way better than I expected. When I get a craving for Pad Thai, Ruan’s the place, but once I’m there, I’m always torn between the Pad Thai I came for and the yellow curry I can’t bring myself to pass up. No matter which one I decide on, I’m certain when it arrives that I made the right choice.

[natalie]

Ruan Thai is located beside the BP on the Tuscaloosa Strip at 1407 University Blvd. (205) 391-9973

Lunch: Monday-Friday 11am-2pm
Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5-9pm; Friday & Saturday 5-10pm; CLOSED Sunday

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