I’m surprised it took this long for Tuscaloosa to see a slightly upscale take on the Meat-&-Three concept. Our fair Druid City is awash in places to get Southern sides and meats Southern fried: 15th St. Diner, Maggie’s Diner, City Café, etc. Considering how popular the meat-and-three is, why not take that downhome concept and add a little bit of culinary whizz-bang? Why not take that classic concept and focus it towards local produce, locally sourced meats, and Gulf seafood? Tuscaloosa is a college town with a number of forward thinking, progressive people; one would think that there would be more restaurants to reflect that. Thankfully, Carmelo Café came to remedy the situation.
Carmelo Café opened downtown in September of 2010 in the strip of businesses that includes Mellow Mushroom, Momma Goldberg’s, and 4th & 23rd bar. It’s a great little space with hardwood floors, a couple of church pews, and a prominent staircase that leads to an intimate balcony seating area. On both levels, the eye is drawn to the large chalkboards, on which Carmelo’s entire menu for the day is written. I say for the day, because both the lunch and dinner menus change on a daily basis, based upon what is fresh, what was just procured from farmers, or whatever creative energies Chef Billy Kistler feels like expelling that day. Although it existed before my time here, Tuscaloosa/Northport veterans might recognize Chef Kistler’s name as the executive chef of Milagros. From what I understand, some of the old Milagros sauces and appetizers and recipes ideas were carried over to Carmelo Café. Mostly, however, Carmelo’s keeps it simple and (lesson learned, I’m sure) affordable.
How affordable? Go for lunch: you’ll pay $7.95 for a lunch entree + two super-delicious sides (add a dollar for each additional side if you have the belly room). The quality of food for the price is unparalleled in town. The entrees at lunch are reasonably portioned and always creative. Four of the lunch entrees don’t change from day –to-day as they are too popular: pecan-fried catfish w/ jalepeno tartar sauce; walnut-fried chicken w/red eye gravy; fish tacos w/asian slaw and chipotle remoulade; and (my favorite) low country shrimp & grits (served with bell peppers, onions, andouille sausage, and creamy sauce that tastes intensely like all of those component parts). The rest of the lunch menu changes all of the time, usually featuring a beef dish, one or two fresh fish dishes (Carmelo Café excels with cooking fish unlike any other place in town, and that includes Chuck’s Fish. Do not hesitate to order fish at Carmelo’s), and a pork dish.
It is always a considered deliberation with yourself to figure out which entrée you want. Because, really, you want them all. So you talk it out with your dining companions – which one are you getting? – and eventually come to a conclusion. Today, I was strongly considering the jerk-marinated pork chop w/ grilled peach salsa, and I always nearly order the shrimp & grits. But instead I ordered the country fried steak w/ low country gravy. And I chose correctly: a crunchy, savory crust sticking to a tender strip of seasoned beef, taken to the next level by the rich andouille & onion flavor of the gravy.
Carmelo’s lunch wouldn’t be the value that it is if not for the side dishes. While the entrees put a contemporary spin on classic ideas, the sides at Carmelo’s are almost exclusively traditional: fried green tomatoes, purple hull peas, fried okra, green beans stewed w/ tomato & bacon, baked sweet potatoes, etc. The lineup of sides changes on a daily basis, again based on what is fresh, but there is one constant: smoke gouda grits. The grits at Carmelo’s are unequivocally the best that I’ve had in my entire life. They aren’t course or mealy at all. They are nearly cloud like (as far as grits go), with an unctuous slightly-smoky cheese flavor. These are a must-try. Each meal also comes with some of the densest, sweetest cake-like cornbread you’ll find (not my preferred style of cornbread, but pretty darn excellent).
Dinner entrees also come with two sides. The entrees are larger in portion (some of the lunch entrees will make their way to the dinner menu at roughly double the portion size of lunch), and usually begin at $15. It isn’t $7.95 but Carmelo’s is still very well-priced for a more upscale dinner, especially considering that no dinner entre goes over $20. Dessert is pretty insane value as well. You can easily split a $3.95 gigantic order of decadent white chocolate bread pudding or lavender crème brulee between three people.
If there is a detriment to Carmelo Cafe, it is the disappointing wine and beer list. There are affordable house wines available by the glass, but nothing on the list stands out. The beer list is especially poor; dedicating all of their high-end taps to Choc beers is something of an outrage to a beer nerd like me. The major complaint I have about the wine and beer lists is that they don’t seem to consider the role of drink as a pair with food. The wines are typically drinkable, palate-friendly brands that could clash with the food. On the beer end, there seems to be no thought whatsoever to the food; an India Pale Ale on-tap would go so well with the variety of salsas that Chef Kistler uses, and a rustic Saison available on-tap or in a bottle would match up to the peppery low country and creole sauces often used, as well as hold up against the savory fried meats. Carmelo’s has definite room for improvement on the beverage end. I should give credit, though, to their cocktails. They are nearly always inventive and playful, such as the “A Kick in the Gin,” made with gin, Concord grape, and Louisiana Hot Sauce.
An additional detriment: while the sides are uniformly wonderful, there needs to be more options that are Vegetarian friendly. A vegetarian might order the stewed okra and tomatoes without ever suspecting that there is bacon in it. While there is an $8.95 “veggie plate” option that allows you to order any four sides, many of the sides are cooked with meat or meat stock. And apart from one, maybe two, salads, there aren’t any dedicated vegetarian entrees. Vegetarians and vegans be warned.
Carmelo Café uses as much locally-sourced produce as they can, as much Alabama-farmed meats as they can and as much fresh-delivered Alabama Gulf Coast fish as they can. I don’t understand how this place can be so good and so affordable at the same time. Please eat here. You will not be disappointed.
Lunch: 11am-2pm Monday-Friday
Brunch: 11am-2pm Sundays only
Dinner: Wednesday & Thursday 5:30-9pm; Friday & Saturday 5:30-10pm