Druid City Eats will continue to be updated over the summer but more sporadically than usual. Be on the look out for upcoming reviews of City Cafe, Sitar, Rama Jama’s, and Tuscaloosa’s newest restaurant, Jim ‘N Nicks Bar-B-Q.
I want to begin this review by admitting that I do not eat Mediterranean food often. I cannot speak about this restaurant’s authenticity or how it compares with other Mediterranean restaurants in the area. I can say, however, that as someone who is not a huge fan of Mediterranean food, I really enjoyed my meal at Taziki’s.
Taziki’s is a chain restaurant with locations around the South including locations in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. The Tuscaloosa Taziki’s is located in Midtown Village which can be very convenient if you plan on shopping after eating (or vice versa). However, this location can pose problems if you are trying to find parking on the weekends (particularly Saturday around noon when I went for lunch). Upon entering, you see that the restaurant itself is pretty standard. It is very roomy with many tables and a few booths. There are also a few outdoor tables available. I was there on a busy Saturday at lunchtime and there were still many empty tables. If eating in, it’s an order-at-the-counter-and-take-a-number system. Someone brings your food, but you do not have a waitress. Instead, the staff is free to move around constantly throughout the restaurant and are regularly cleaning and checking on diners. If you don’t feel like dining in, they also offer larger “Dinner for Four” to-go meals after 2:00 p.m. including meals like a whole baked chicken and roasted pork loin.
The menu has a lot to offer including starters, soups/salads, desserts, beer and wine, gyros, deli choices, and Taziki’s “Feasts,” which feature various meat and fish options. They also have daily specials Monday-Friday ranging from pasta to roll-ups. In fact, I look forward to going back on a Monday for the Portobello mushroom sandwich (which Natalie loves along with the Friday Pasta). On my recent visit, I ordered the Village Veggie Gyro, which features tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, garden slaw, feta, and Greek dressing in a pita wrap. I opted for no Greek dressing and chose pasta salad as my side out of their many options which include fresh-cut fruit, tomato-cucumber salad, and jasmine rice. The gyro was fresh and the vegetables inside were crispy and flavorful. The vegetables were complimented and easy to taste in contrast with the surrounding pita bread. The pasta salad is some of the best I have had at the few restaurants around town that offer pasta salad. It has a tangy taste and the crumbled feta cheese adds extra tartness to counteract the olive oil. Also, the olive oil/vinegar combination, which can sometimes go awry in pasta salad, succeeds here with a good balance of the two.
Prices at Taziki’s are reasonable; for almost seven dollars I was given a large gyro, a plentiful helping of pasta salad, and a small side of chips. While Taziki’s may not be my favorite place to eat in Tuscaloosa (then again Mediterranean food is not my favorite), it is a good place to go if you want good food quickly. It is also a good place to go if you are looking for healthy alternatives to the typical Tuscaloosa fare of ribs and burgers. It is certainly worth checking out.
FIVE opened in the spring (I believe) of 2011 and remains one of Tuscaloosa’s newest restaurants. Its premise is simple enough: the menu gives you 5 appetizers, 5 entrees, 5 signature drinks, 5 white wines, and 5 red wines to choose from. This system is slightly complicated by their 5 brunch entrees on Sundays and a daily special each night.
I heard about FIVE a while back, but it’s pricier than my usual dinner spots, so it took me a while to finally make it there. To give you an idea of the menu’s options, the drinks include old fashioneds, strawberry lemonades (with rum), and a pineapple-jalapeño margarita that I really wish I’d tried. My strawberry lemonade was good but nothing too impressive. They also have a small selection of beer but only in bottles.
The appetizers—or “snacks,” as they’re listed on the menu—included baked avocado, Asian chicken, and gyoza. Our table ordered the avocado and Asian chicken, and despite being a dollar cheaper, the chicken was the larger and more filling, I think, of the two dishes. The chicken was fried popcorn-style and drizzled with a ginger sauce that struck a nice balance between tangy and sweet. I don’t like avocado (I know, I’m missing out), so I didn’t try the other appetizer on the table, but it was stuffed with bacon and topped with a spicy sauce that by all reports was appropriately named.
FIVE’s 5 entrees are a cheeseburger, panéed chicken, a bone-in pork chop, a ribeye, and fried shrimp. Each entrée comes with a small salad (mixed greens with a little feta, slivered almonds, dried cranberries, and a vinaigrette dressing) and is paired with a particular side. Our waitress intimated, however, that switching out the sides wasn’t a big deal, so don’t make your decision based on which side you want.
My pork chop was, honestly, pretty average. It wasn’t close to being bad, but it was perhaps a bit dry and just too plain. When your menu is limited to 5 specially-crafted entrees (and you’re charging an average of $18 for each one), I expect each one of them to be something special—something I can’t get anywhere else. I’ve had better pork chops for a few bucks cheaper down the road at Carmelo. On the plus side, the pork chop came with Bahamian mac & cheese, which was probably the best thing about dinner. I don’t know that I’ve ever had Bahamian mac & cheese before so I don’t know what it’s usually like, but this was baked and served as a carefully-cut square from a casserole dish. The baked consistency was perfect, and the layers of flavors—I’m guessing a combination of sweet and hot peppers—came through and mixed with the cheese and noodles beautifully. (I forgot to take pictures of the entrees, so you’re just getting ones of the appetizers. Sorry!)
My fellow diners ordered the fried shrimp and ribeye entrees, both of which came with fries (the cheeseburger does as well). They had been to the restaurant before and both seemed to enjoy their food thoroughly, but I’m a little thrown still by the lack of side options (and french fries, although I’m sure they’re good, strike me again as being too basic for the premise of the restaurant and its prices). Since you can apparently exchange them for the mac & cheese or the garlic mash that comes with the panéed chicken, I guess it’s not that big of a deal, but a few more side options (maybe two more—you know, to make 5?) would be a nice addition. The nightly specials I mentioned earlier include red beans and rice on Monday nights, and at $12, it’s the cheapest entrée they have (the nightly cheeseburger is $13). Lobster ravioli is available for $20 on Wednesday, while Saturday offers a surf and turf (filet and crab) combination for $30.
Our service was good. We showed up at 6:30 on a Saturday night and were seated immediately and were well taken care of for the rest of the evening. Our waitress was friendly, especially when one member of our party randomly asked her what her favorite movie was (I’m not sure I trust her taste in films though). When she brought our checks, she also brought a plate of (delicious) sugar cookies—one for each of us. I didn’t realize until then that the menu includes no desserts, which seemed strange. Given that the night was already a bit of a splurge, I would have probably shelled out a little more money for a nice cheesecake or some bread pudding.
Overall, my first experience at FIVE was enjoyable but not one that I’m dying to repeat (and if I do, I’m trying that panéed chicken). I’m glad Tuscaloosa has another nice restaurant option downtown, and a lot of people seem to really love it. For my taste and pocketbook, however, I can get a nice atmosphere and food that I like better for the same price or cheaper at a few other places in town (Carmelo and DePalma’s immediately spring to mind, and I’ll also be trying Epiphany soon).
Sunday: 11am-3pm (brunch) & 5pm-9pm (dinner)
So, there’s one thing I should make clear before I start this review: I am not Barry Grass. This fact is significant for a number of reasons, but for the purposes of this review, it is worth noting because I, Natalie Hopper, am venturing into his territory: barbecue restaurants. I usually leave those reviews to Barry, the Kansas City native and barbecue aficionado, but since Bama Bar-B-Q and Grill is a whopping two minutes from my house, I decided to check it out for myself.
Bama Bar-B-Q occupies a small space in a strip mall that’s easy to overlook. When reviewer Amanda Shields told me where it was located, I couldn’t believe I didn’t already know about it since I’ve driven past that area at least twice a day for almost three years (I don’t actually know how long Bama BBQ has been in business, but I know they aren’t new). Once I got there, I was even more surprised, as there’s a sizeable sign over the front door. The rest of that strip mall is filled with a tobacco store, a gift shop, a Spanish-speaking church, Swen’s (yes, there’s another one), and Los Tarascos. I don’t smoke, buy many gifts, or speak Spanish, so I don’t frequent it’s parking lot or apparently pay much attention when I drive by. (Plus, I’ve never been terribly impressed by Swen’s and have a habit of going to Jalapeno’s when I want Mexican food.)
The interior of the restaurant looks like your standard, no frills Alabama sandwich shop. The dining area is fairly small with five booths lining the walls on either side and a row of tables down the middle. At the end of the room is the counter with a giant menu hanging above it—you know, the kind with the horizontal grooves that the removable red and black letters stick into. And, of course, the walls are covered in (neatly arranged) Alabama football paraphernalia ranging from the sixties to the present.
Bama Bar-B-Q bills itself a barbecue (obviously), burger, and smoked wings joint, but their menu also offers chicken (fried and grilled) plates and sandwiches, ribeye sandwiches, hamburger steak, and catfish with a standard array of sides: baked beans, potato salad, cole slaw, fries, and (for a little extra) onion rings. Their barbecue options include a pork plate, a rib plate, and a pork sandwich.
I ordered a pork sandwich with baked beans and fries (I didn’t see the onion ring option until after I’d already ordered). My meal was certainly enjoyable, but nothing about it knocked my knickers off. The pork was plenty tender and tasty, and the sauce was good, but something about it reminded me of the barbecue you buy in the tub at the grocery store (Lloyds, I think it is)—maybe tomato paste-based? Again, it was good—just nothing special. The beans and fries followed suit and were just a little better than what I make (or what I would make if I cooked) at home. The potato salad and cole slaw would have probably both served as better indicators of the kitchen, but my distaste for both of them (along with okra) defy my Southern upbringing.
On the whole, my experience at Bama Bar-B-Q was a pleasant one. The place was beyond clean (and boasted a health rating of 100) and pretty empty when I arrived around 5:30 on a weeknight. The lady who took my order and brought me my food was perfectly friendly. I can’t say they have the best barbecue around, but that’s a tough award to win in this town. Personally, I’m thrilled to know that I can get a legitimate meal quickly and cheaply (I was in and out in 30 minutes for under $7) on my way home from campus (as opposed to the smattering of fast food options that litter my commute and, unlike Bama Bar-B-Q, are impossible to miss). I’m glad Amanda made me take notice of this place, and I’m certain I’ll be back to try the rest of their menu soon enough.
Those of you who have read my reviews of other bars in town know that I prefer my drinking holes a little off the beaten path. I’ll take a few drinks with friends in a quiet bar with a ballgame on over a crowded joint with a crappy band any day. The only problem is that quiet bars can be hard to find in Tuscaloosa, especially on a Thursday-Saturday night. Solution: The Alcove (which was recently named to Men’s Health’s “Best College Beer Bars in America” list).
First, when I say the Alcove is “quiet,” I mean “quiet compared to other bars in college towns.” On afternoons and weeknights, the place is usually pretty empty (which I find refreshing, of course), but the place fills up nicely on the usual going-out nights. There are two distinct differences however between a crowded Alcove and almost any other crowded bar in Tuscaloosa: 1) It’s a 21+ only bar and is a little out of the way, so the patrons tend to be a little older, a little more sober, and a little less rowdy; 2) It’s Tuscaloosa’s only non-smoking bar (smoking IS allowed on the front and back patios though), so non-smokers like myself don’t have to worry about watching our clothes and sheets the next morning.
The more mature crowd is complemented by a fairly roomy interior—it used to be rather small, but they bought the vacant suite next door and expanded what was a shotgun-style layout into a broader two-room space. The Alcove has four TVs (if I remember correctly): two decent-sized flat screens over the bar, one huge TV in the second room, and another flat screen on the back patio—all of which tend to be on sports, especially if there’s any kind of UA Athletics event going on that day. The back patio is enclosed and also has some tower heaters to keep things comfortable even on chilly nights.
The bar itself is impressively stocked in both the beer and wine department. Perhaps the best thing about the alcove is its twelve ever-changing beer taps. Personally, I think beer tastes funny out of the bottle, so I love the Alcove’s variety of draught beer. Some are local (I see Birmingham’s own brewery, Good People, on tap there a lot), some are imports, and some I’ve never heard of (the bartenders are excellent about making recommendations and letting you try samples if you want to try something new). The season, of course, affects which kinds of beers they keep the most of, but they do a good job of keeping a little bit of everything available. Even in the middle of winter, for example, when there are more porter/stout taps than anything, I can always find a wheat or an ale for myself. The taps rotate fairly regularly, and they use their facebook page to let people know what’s getting phased in and out.
The Alcove’s cooler of bottled beers is also rather extensive. Their website includes an extensive menu of their bottled beers, liquors, and mixed drinks (they have a special listing of unique “Island Drinks” made with fruit juices and liquors, lemonades, lemon-lime soda). Tuesday nights are Jazz Night with a little ensemble that sets up by the front door. They used to do a Gourmet Monday night as well featuring fruit drinks made/garnished with fresh fruit from Snow’s Bend Farm in Coker. I hope Gourmet Mondays return now that spring is here.
One thing worth noting about the liquor/mixed drinks at The Alcove is that they’re the biggest pour in town. Most bars serve drinks with 1 ¼ ounces, and I’ve seen a few with 1 ½. There’s a full 2 ounces in the drinks at The Alcove, and I remember having to ask for a little more coke in my rum on at least one occasion. The prices on beer and liquor tend to be a little high, but when you’re getting the quality and quantity that the Alcove is dishing out, it’s hard (for me, at least) to complain. It’s also worth noting that it’s worth carrying some cash when you go to the Alcove, as they add $1 to all credit/debit charges. If you’re having several rounds, you probably won’t even miss it, but if you just want a beer and are already disappointed about having to pay $5 or $6 bucks for it (plus tip), that extra dollar on your tab might sting a bit.
Yes, I can drink for cheaper at a couple of my other favorite spots in town (The Downtown Pub and Egan’s, namely), but the quality of the atmosphere and the drinks at the Alcove often allow me to overlook the few extra bucks I’m going to spend there. I’m thrilled that they received some national recognition from Men’s Health because the Alcove has been trying hard for several years now to give Tuscaloosans something they can’t get anywhere else: a relaxing, smoke-free place to drink that’s invested in promoting local talent and businesses.
The Alcove is located at 730 22nd Ave, which is at the intersection of 22nd Ave and 8th St. It’s 2 blocks behind Tuscaloosa City Hall and directly behind the courtyard/clock tower/fountain of what’s apparently called Government Plaza.
If you live in Tuscaloosa, chances are you’ve at least seen Tuscaloosa’s version of an Irish Pub, Innisfree. Until a few years ago, it was nestled right in the middle of downtown (where the Grey Lady is now) between The Shirt Shop and Epiphany Café. Now, it resides in a new home on University between Hooligan’s and the new federal building. The move from Greensboro Ave gave Innisfree two things: more than double the space they had before and closer proximity to campus (and student drinking). If you’ve driven by on a Thursday-Saturday night, you’ve probably noticed the throngs of students (and limo cabs) covering the parking lot and outdoor patio area. While I certainly understand and appreciate that the move was a profitable one, as a crotchety graduate student who’d rather drink alone than with (or near) a rowdy group, I miss the smaller, older, quieter crowd from the pub’s downtown days. That’s just me though.
I’ve never been in an actual Irish pub and can’t offer comparisons between Innisfree and the real thing. From what I can tell, proper Irish pubs are looking more and more like our re-creations of them as they attempt to conform to the expectations of the tourists they want to draw in, so perhaps comparisons are a moot point anyway. Based on my experience with “Irish” pubs stateside, the process of naming them appears to be pretty simple. You either name it after a stereotypically Irish-sounding name (preferably one that starts with a “Mc” or an “O”—McGuire’s, Pat O’Brien’s, and Silky O’Sullivan’s come to mind) OR name it Innisfree (which the resident Irishman of the English department tells me is pronounced “Inn-ish-free”—now you know; spread the word).
Although I swear I’ve seen an Innisfree (say it with me: “Inn-ish-free”) in just about every city I’ve been to, Birmingham and Tuscaloosa are the only locations for this particular joint. Innisfree refers both to a fictional Irish village made famous by the 1952 John Wayne Film “The Quiet Man” and to an actual but uninhabited island in a large lake. The pub appears to have had the latter in mind, as W.B. Yeats’ “Walden”-esque poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is printed on the back of the menu.
The menu, sticking to the literary theme, offers a variety of burgers named after 20th-century Irish authors: the aforementioned W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and George (Bernard) Shaw. There’s also a TS burger, which I can only assume is named for a contemporary of these authors, T.S. Eliot, but as Eliot was born in St. Louis and lived most of his life in London, I’m yet to figure out his Irish connection. In addition to burgers, Innisfree carries a fairly standard array of “pub grub:” fish and chips, wraps, fries, messy chips (their version of barbecue nachos), and a decent bread pudding. They also have a daily meat-and-three (vegetables) lunch special that’s not on their regular menu. Update: I recently had the fried fish with green beans, mac and cheese, and sweet potato fries, and was rather pleased with my meal. Nothing terribly special, but really good nonetheless.
As far as the quality of the food goes, it’s good, though perhaps not quite good enough for the price. The burger I had was tasty enough (it had a bit of a charred taste, which I don’t really care for but some people like) but far from one of the best in town (see Hooligan’s, The Oasis, and Rama Jama’s). The burgers come with fries (I get sweet potato fries, which are good but nothing special) and costs about $9. My favorite thing to order is the messy fries, which are actually an appetizer. They run about $8-9 as well, but it’s enough food for two people to make a meal of. Kettle-style chips covered in pulled pork, a sweet barbecue sauce, melted cheddar cheese, jalapenos, and sour cream. They’ve very different from Big Bad Wolves or Bryant-Denny Dreamland barbecue nachos, but if you’re having withdrawals in the off-season, Innisfree’s version is quite good and will certainly hold you over.
Speaking of the off-season, one thing about Innisfree that makes me smile every time I go in is a digital countdown clock above the bar. The last time I went in, it was steadily counting down from 193 days 1 hour 48 minutes and 47 seconds with a poster above it that reads: “YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS.” And it’s true. I do know: it’s the countdown to kickoff 2012. The rest of the walls in Innisfree are covered with all kinds of Irish kitsch, proverbs, and paraphernalia: signs that read “God created liquor to keep the Irish from conquering the world” and “Beer: So much more than a breakfast drink!”; a chalkboard countdown to St. Patrick’s day, Boston Celtics stickers and jerseys, and lots of Guinness logos and signs.
The bar keeps a good variety of beers on tap, and as far as I can tell they don’t rotate: Sam Adams seasonal, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Smithwick’s (pronounced “Smittick’s”), Newcastle, Harp, Bass, Magic Hat #9, Guinness, Stella Artois, Blue Moon, Sweetwater Blue, and Sweetwater 420. The liquor selection is also pretty extensive. The place itself is quite large with at least three different rooms (I’ve honestly not even seen the entire building), a large outdoor patio, and plenty of large tables, booths, and bars at which to sit. There are large flat-screen TVs on just about every wall (three hang over the main bar) and dart boards. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a pool table in some part of the bar I haven’t ventured into yet. The music (which I think is a Pandora station) entertains me more than anything at Innisfree: ‘90s nostalgia abounds. It’s always (at least in the afternoons when I tend to stop by) some combination of Counting Crows, Three Doors Down, and Nine Days (remember that band? Yeah, me either).
Finally, multiple posters inside advertise a weekly “Bloody Mary (or Irish Mary—not sure what the difference is) Bar” Sundays from 12-4. It’s apparently something like a buffet setup where you create your own Bloody/Irish Mary. I’ve not tried it yet because, honestly, if I need a Bloody Mary on a Sunday, I’m not going to be in any condition to drive to Innisfree to make it. Still, it’s a neat idea.
As I said, I’m not one for crowds, so I tend to avoid Innisfree during party hours. It’s on my way home from campus though, and at 2:00 when I haven’t had lunch yet and a lot of other places are closed, it’s a nice, quiet spot to stop for a beer and some messy chips. If I’m feeling particularly productive, I can settle into a booth and get some lesson planning done before heading home for the day (where I’ll inevitably take a nap instead of working). It’s far from my favorite restaurant in town, but let’s be honest, Innisfree is a pub. It isn’t trying to be the a great restaurant. And I do think it’s one of Tuscaloosa’s better bars. It’s a good space and atmosphere that gives the kids the good time they’re looking for at night and gives me exactly what I need to relax in the afternoon.
Monday-Thursday: 11am–1:45 am
Friday: 11am–2:45 am
Saturday: 12 pm–1:45 am
I stumbled upon Good Times Restaurant and Nightclub on accident. There’s a nondescript white building a couple of blocks past Stillman College that used to be home to Prime Choice lounge (and before that, a meat and three called Madear’s); driving past it, there was one of those plastic Pepsi-sponsored banners that read “Good Times. Now open! New owners, new restaurant!” If you see a new, locally-owned restaurant with a “now open!” sign outside, why not stop in?
When you walk through the door you’ll notice the menu, register, and actual pictures of the food to the right. You’ll be greeted by Shonda Witherspoon, the owner and driving force behind Good Times. She’s very warm and inviting. She talked me through the menu and it became clear very quickly that she’s proud of the food she’s serving. Shonda definitely makes you want to eat at Good Times.
Food is made to-order, so while waiting for my order I sipped on the house sweet tea. Shonda told me that this was “real country sweet tea,” and was quick to point out that she’s not serving it from a large metal container like most places do because she doesn’t like the way that the metal affects the taste. It’s a lovely glass of sweet tea, instantly one of my favorites in Tusclaoosa. It’s very sugary, yes (presumably that’s what makes it “real country sweet tea”), but it also has a nice extra kick of tea leaves flavor as you swallow that cuts through the sweetness.
Waiting for your food to cook also gives you time to appreciate the unique atmosphere that Good Times has. It’s a dimly-lit place, owing to the fact this it become a legitimate nightclub at night (an ages 25+ only nightclub, which is a genius idea). The red tablecloth dining tables are spread out amongst the bar area. Sit down where ever you’d like and your food will be brought out to you. People come in and out, dining in or picking up to-go orders, as R&B plays from the cable TV radio station. You are in full view of the club’s dancefloor – a slightly raised stage in the middle of the place that is surrounded by a white picket fence. In a back corner are a couple of tables of stuff for sale: purses, throwback caps, pairs of Air Jordans. The vibe of Good Times reminds me of places in residential areas of major cities (I got thrown back to the places I’m used to in Kansas City, where I’m from) mixed with an distinctly downhome flair.
Good Times keeps the menu simple: burgers, fried fish, shrimp, chicken tenders, wings. Stuff that works good as bar food and as a comforting lunch option. The shrimp and whiting strips are fried up very nicely with a no-frills approach to seasoning; Good Times isn’t trying to rock the boat here. Squirt on some pungent house hot sauce and get to eatin’. The wings might be the finest thing on the menu. Shonda recommended her “Sweet Fire” flavor – her specialty sauce because, so she’ll tell you, the name reflects her personality. I don’t see a reason to order wings that don’t have the tasty sweet fire sauce on them: it has a base flavor very similar to the hot sauce, but it’s balanced by a lot of sweetness. It almost tastes like an Asian wing sauce; there’s honey and orange flavors helping to tame the undercurrents of heat.
Good Times features the standard assortment of side dishes. I really enjoyed the simple, medium-cut French fries. But the fried okra is the star of the sides as far as I can tell. It’s served up in the usual style of battered slices. The batter doesn’t coat the entire slice, though. This helps the okra to still taste like okra, only more savory (so many places overwhelm the taste of the okra with their batter). This might just be my favorite fried okra in the city.
I should mention that the prices at Good Times are very fair. There’s a special each day that makes things even more affordable. You certainly get the most out of your money here. If you’re traveling out that way past Stillman, don’t hesitate to drop in to Good Times. Solid, comforting food served in one of the most unique atmospheres in Tuscaloosa.
Good Times is located on 1735 Culver Road, two blocks past Stillman College.