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Wright’s Restaurant

Pop quiz: make a list of all of the Tuscaloosa/Northport restaurants that you would consider to be “institutions” – the stalwart places that have been around forever and will always be around. Everyone’s list will contain the big names like City Café, The Waysider, and Dreamland. There are other places that would qualify too, but students don’t know about them. Places like Catfish Heaven or Mr. Bills – absolute bulwarks of their communities – rarely see a single UA student enter their doors. My goal with writing reviews for Druid City Eats is to draw some meager attention towards these kinds of places, places that are below student radar, that are pre-internet, that don’t have Facebook pages or people Yelping about them.

Here’s a great example of what I mean: if a Tuscaloosa meat-and-three has been around for nearly 50 years, wouldn’t you expect it to feature prominently on a list of T-Town institutions? Wright’s Restaurant in Alberta City fits that description, but it seems like no one on campus knows about it.

Wright’s Restaurant is a simple breakfast and lunch joint. It’s a single room with walls painted yellow, various religious signage hung on the walls. There’s only about 12 booths/tables in the whole place, with a few more stools at the counter by the kitchen. It’s always pretty packed, yet I’ve never once seen a single student eating there. Wright’s serves a working-class customer base, as well as lots of elderly consumers. The waitresses are attentive and legitimately nice. The whole experience looks and feels a lot like it must have back when Wright’s first opened nearly half a century ago. But all of that downhome atmosphere would be for nothing if the food wasn’t up to snuff, and the steady stream of customers at Wright’s suggests that the food is indeed a drawing point.

Let’s start with breakfast, because Wright’s serves what just might be my favorite breakfast in Tuscaloosa. Nothing flashy, no real reason why it stands out apart from simple execution. They have various meats available each day, ranging from ham to smoked sausage links to red hots. Their bacon is pretty darn good, perhaps owing to Wright’s bacon cook taking each strip off the griddle a bit early and then dunking them into a deep fryer for about 40 seconds. This method results in a crispy strip of bacon that isn’t also dry and overcooked. The pancakes are legit, the omelets look pretty good, and well, the most that I can say is that everything is cooked correctly. Breakfast foods get real sketchy real quick when under- or overcooked, and Wright’s super-efficient crew of three cooks doesn’t seem to make mistakes.

The biscuits are plenty good also, better than The Waysider’s for me. They do have biscuits & gravy on the menu, but last time I went for breakfast the gravy ran out before I got there, which disappointed a B&G fanatic like myself, but it speaks to the quality of Wright’s Restaurant: they don’t use prefabricated gravy. They make their gravy in-house each day. They make their pancake batter in-house. It’s reassuring and a sign of good things.

Lunch is less successful – about the quality of City Café — but well worth the price. Because the price is almost nothing – each lunch special costs under $5. Each day the meat-and-three menu changes. When I went on a Wednesday it was meatloaf, chicken pot pie, or a fried pork chop. Chicken & dressing is on Thursday, country fried steak is on Friday, and I won’t say any more in hopes that you’ll go find out their daily menu on your own. Wright’s also has a menu of constant lunch favorites: you can get catfish strips each day (which I have yet to try here), and their cheeseburger looks pretty legit.

While Wright’s has a small assortment of in-house pies available all the time, there’s also a special dessert for each day of the week (Monday has cherry dump cake, Wednesday has pineapple pudding, etc.).

If you’ve ever driven out on University Ave and into Alberta City, you know how utterly devastated that neighborhood was by the April 27th, 2011 tornado. At Leland Shopping Center, where Wright’s is located, essentially every other business still has particle board over its windows. When every other place closed up shop because of damage or location, Wright’s Restaurant remained in business. It’s been open for nearly 50 years and it wasn’t about to let that tornado shut it down. It is, after all, an institution.

[barry]

Wright’s Restaurant is located in Alberta City at Leland Shopping Center (University Ave & 25th Ave, by Leland Lanes bowling alley, right before the Piggly Wiggly).

Monday-Friday: 5:00am-11:15am (Breakfast), 11:30am-3:00pm (Lunch)
Saturday: 5:00am-11:30am (Breakfast only)
Sunday: closed

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The Oasis

One of the most recognizable lines in the discography of country music superstar Garth Brooks goes, “Think I’ll slip on down to The Oasis/Oh, I’ve got friends in low places.” Drive over to The Oasis, far down on University Ave, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking that Brooks was talking about the dive bar in Cottondale, AL. It’s a real salt-of-the-earth type townie bar – all wood paneling and domestic lager and back rooms and smoky haze. The jukebox pumps out classic rock and 90’s country, and there’s irony-free karaoke. There’s even a signed photograph of Garth Brooks eating there hung right by the door, so it isn’t surprising to hear the local urban legend that Brooks was singing about this place.

Here’s another thing that locals say about The Oasis: they say it has the best burger in Tuscaloosa.

Indeed this little shack of a bar that sits on a lot more pothole than pavement has a few tables and a few crimson booths and a kitchen that serves up various fried and grilled things. I don’t really remember what kinds of entrees were on the menu except for the burgers. The burgers are the reason to make the drive.

Only order the double cheeseburger if you’re really hungry. The burgers at The Oasis are bigger than they look, and they look intimidatingly large to begin with. They come out on buns the size of paper plates, and these bad boys aren’t cut in half to help you out or anything.

The burgers are cooked medium well: no pink left (unfortunately) but not at all dried out. These patties are plenty juicy, dripping with fat & meat juice. The bottom bun very quickly becomes soaked through with grease (which is fine; nearly all good sandwiches have structural integrity issues). There isn’t anything magical or revelatory about the burgers here: they’re just the product of an 80/20 burger mix (that’s 80% lean beef and 20% fat–the optimal blend for burgers) and a grill that’s seen years and years of seasoning cooked into it.

The fried stuff is worth ordering too. The Oasis has simple, no-frills French fries and onion rings that don’t need to do anything special. The chili cheese fries are as basic as basic can be: the already-good fries topped with Hormel chili from a can and sprinkled with cheddar cheese… which is then melted when the plate is put in a microwave.

The burgers go down even easier because of the atmosphere. There’s nary a student in sight–just townfolk, people looking to unwind after a long day. It’s a bar, so there’s lots of laughing and smoke and sounds of pool balls clacking against one another. The jukebox at The Oasis is a near-endless source of excitement. It’s the kind of juke box (and the kind of customers choosing the songs) that will play both George Strait’s “Adalida” and Nickleback’s “Burn It to the Ground” (the WWE Monday Night Raw theme song), and no one gives it a second thought. At one point during my recent visit there was an expertly curated three-song stretch of 90’s country: Alan Jackson’s “Midnight in Montgomery” (a poor man’s “The Thunder Rolls”) followed by Clint Black’s underrated “Like the Rain” followed by Garth Brook’s “The Thunder Rolls.”

If you’re looking for a good burger or you’re looking for a real down-home Tuscaloosa spot unblemished by the courting of student dining dollars, then make the drive down University Ave to The Oasis. There’s no pressure on first timers. After all, no one there is big on social graces.

[barry]

The Oasis is located at 6720 University Blvd E, Cottondale, AL (it’s on the left-hand side of University coming from Tuscaloosa proper. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place, but it’ll pop up right as you get into Cottondale).

Monday: 7pm-8pm
Tuesday-Saturday: 10am-10pm
Sunday: 2pm-3pm

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

Chloe’s Cup Coffee and Teas

As you hear the bell clang over the heavy wooden door, citrus walls and homemade hula hoops silently greet you. A chenille throw is draped over a retro couch. Local art work lining the walls ranges from cow-themed paintings to tornado photography. Delicate jewelry made by local artisans gleams from the shelves. There is a mantel, but no fireplace. The smell of organic coffee is brewing. Soothing music emanates from a Pandora radio station. The chalkboard behind the counter will inform you of the daily selections.

And then you see Gail—a beautifully southern woman with teased mahogany hair who is always dressed to the nines. You can’t miss her. Gail Faulkner opened Chloe’s Cup in May 2010. She is a spunky woman who started a private business with two looming competitors: the economy and Starbucks. Gail has a simplistically profound mantra: “Stick with it, hang in there, and pray!”

Chloe’s Cup (named after Gail’s granddaughter) is setting itself apart from the city’s other coffee shops with the little things. Feel the ivory mug in your hands instead of an impersonal piece of plastic. If you are ordering to-go, there is no need to stand around awkwardly pretending to be interested in your phone. Just sit down and pull a magazine out of the spacious basket by the condiments. If you come in on Tuesday nights, you can snap your fingers while the Voodoo Saints play eclectic New Orleans blues. Employees quickly know you by name, and there is a low turnover rate, which is miraculous in a college town.

There is an innate sense of camaraderie at this downtown Tuscaloosa coffee shop.  UA English teacher (and future DCE reviewer, he claims) Austin Whitver, told me why he continually returns: “There’s really good coffee here. Gail is really nice, and I like the people that work here.” Whitver went on to explain the overall atmosphere and the key ingredient of his attraction to Chloe’s Cup: “The crowd here is usually–even when there are large numbers of people–civil and quiet. Starbucks is often more loud. And the idea of “local” is the most important thing…it’s something that I don’t think a lot of students think about very often: the importance of supporting local business.” He also appreciates the fact that Chloe’s Cup offers a 10% discount to UA students and faculty.

And as for the menu? My advice is this: take advantage of the specialty lattes. They make a mean raspberry white mocha and an amaretto (vanilla, almond, espresso and milk) that’s to die for. If you don’t like coffee, they offer real fruit smoothies, bubble tea (green tea, half and half, flavored powder and tapioca pearls), plus an assortment of hot chocolate flavors and teas. They also have an extensive list of sugar free lattes, great for all you health nuts who prefer aspartame to genuine cane sugar (I do not judge for I am one of these insanely illogical individuals). And there are desserts galore. My personal favorite is the sweet potato biscuit. Even if you avoid this vegetable at Thanksgiving, you’ll fall in love with the buttery confection dusted with powdered heaven. Chloe’s Cup also has fantastic chicken salad and black bean soup, but all the “real food” items are overpriced for the rather pathetic amount you receive (the fruit cup ratio consists of four grapes to one strawberry.) So, I recommend sticking to the fabulous coffee and treats.

Chloe’s Cup is a local business worth supporting. Go there. Eat the food. Drink the drink. Most of all, meet the people. Savor a refreshing variation from the monotonous chains that bombard Tuscaloosa. You don’t want to miss out on such a unique opportunity.

[amanda shields]

Chloe’s Cup is located in downtown Tuscaloosa at 2117 University Boulevard in the brick strip mall with Moe’s BBQ.

Monday-Friday: 7am-10pm
Saturday: 9am-8pm
Sunday: 2pm-10pm

Mugshots Grill and Bar

Mugshots is my favorite burger place in Tuscaloosa.  It is located downtown and is a good place to go for lunch if you are looking for somewhere close to campus that is not on the Strip.  It is also a good place to go before catching a show at the Bama Theatre or a wine tasting at Carpe Vino.  Note that if you visit Mugshots at a “peak” hour (lunch or dinner) or during a home football game weekend, you will likely have to wait a little while for a seat.  As the crowd might indicate, however, it is worth the wait.

When you first walk into Mugshots, you will note the “sports bar” like atmosphere with jersey’s and, because we are in Tuscaloosa, all things Crimson Tide on the walls.  You will see ESPN on televisions scattered throughout the restaurant, which is located in an old building that still houses much of its original character (like the brick walls, which hold not only sports memorabilia but also the “mugshots” of customers sent in from around the country and the world).

Mugshots is the home of the burger, serving up everything from the standard to the gourmet (peanut butter burger anyone?) including the three patty, six bacon strip, behemoth: the Mugshot (eat your meal, including beer battered fries, an onion ring, and a hand-battered pickle, in 12 minutes or less and it’s free!).  If burgers aren’t your thing, there is still plenty for you to eat: from sandwiches, to pastas, to Mugshot specialties like grilled Ahi Tuna, and much more.

I make a visit to Mugshots every time I have visitors from out of town, and it is yet to disappoint them.  Being a vegetarian, my natural burger choice is Brady’s Black Bean Burger.  I should note that I did not ask if the black bean burger can be substituted for the beef patty in their other burgers, but I don’t see why this would be a problem.  The black bean burger, like all Mugshot’s burgers, is huge.  Add to it a very large “side” of beer-battered fries or onion rings (it’s hard to choose) and you’ve got a very filling meal.  I can never finish the whole plate and on this trip, my dining companion, who ordered the Katie’s Kickin’ Chicken Basket appetizer, couldn’t finish theirs either. My advice if you plan on eating at Mugshots: come hungry or plan to take food home.

The black bean burger itself is handmade and better (and thicker) than most black bean burgers I’ve had before.  It is certainly better than any of the frozen brands available.  The burger sits on a large sourdough bun, which is a good thing because these patties are hard to contain.  The black bean burger includes a combination of items that at first seem odd, but the red onions and mayo create an interesting blend with the mildness of the burger.  Add pickle, tomato, lettuce, sautéed mushrooms and Swiss and cheddar cheeses, and you get a burger in which every bite is filled with different flavor combinations—none of which are disappointing.

Mugshots has so many interesting selections, you should never be disappointed.  The staff is always kind but, if they’re busy, you might have to wait longer than usual and it is sometimes a good idea to remind your waiter or waitress that you’re still there.  Prices are good, especially considering the large portions you receive.  Mugshots has other locations (though it remains exclusive to AL, MS, and LA), of course, but if you’re in Tuscaloosa, you have to try it.  Especially that peanut butter burger…

[amanda stevens]

Mugshot’s is located at 511 Greensboro Ave, just south University and across from Chuck’s Fish.

Monday-Saturday: 11am-2am
Sunday: 11am-12am

Pearl Garden Chinese Restaurant

If there’s one thing I love more than crab angels, it’s drive-thru crab angels. That’s right, those delicious little pouches of cream cheese and imitation crab wrapped up in a crunchy wonton handed come into my possession, and I never have to leave my car. All of this is made possible because Northport’s Pearl Garden knows something other Chinese restaurants don’t: At some point or another, we all need our Kung Pao Chicken to go.

Pearl Garden has a drive-thru AND is on my way home from campus, so I stop by for Chicken Fried Rice pretty regularly. Chicken Fried Rice is pretty standard and I’d imagine it’s pretty hard to screw up, though I find I prefer Pearl Garden’s to Swen’s. I always order a small ramekin of what PG calls “Hokkaido’s Shrimp Sauce,” which is fantastic pink sauce you get with your shrimp or chicken at any hibachi grill (I think it costs $1 extra).  I’m obsessed with the stuff. I’ve also had their hot and sour soup, which is quite good (sorry egg drop folks–I can’t bring myself to try the stuff, so I can’t report on PG’s). The only thing I’ve ever been disappointed with there is the egg rolls. They’re just blah. I usually just skip that part of the order/meal.

Also, you should know when ordering at PG that the small portions are plenty and the large portions are ridiculous. My roommate and her fiancé share a large order of something when they pick up food from there. I always order a small Chicken Fried Rice, and it completely fills one of those big square Styrofoam to-go boxes.

In order to fairly review the place, I decided to dine in on this particular visit. The service has been good every time I’ve eaten there, and this was no exception. My food was excellent, it was prepared promptly, and my sweet tea glass was never empty (and I can go through some tea). For the sake of variety, I ordered the Princess Chicken this time instead of my usual fried rice. The menu described it as “Diced chicken cooked with onions, green scallions, and red peppers in our special sauce.” What’s not to love, right? Right. The chicken and vegetables tasted exactly like you would expect/want them to, and the sauce complemented them well. The only way I know to describe it would be as a cross between sweet and sour sauce and a red curry. I’m certain that a simple sweet and sour sauce was the base, as this was the same consistency and had the same syrupy sweet flavors, but there was definitely an extra level of spice you don’t get from sweet and sour. This particular dish was labeled as “Hot and Spicy” on the menu (and those who know me know I have a limited tolerance for spiciness), but I tried it anyway and found the hotness well-balanced and far from overwhelming UNLESS  you actually eat the red chili peppers, which I don’t recommend, by the way. I had no idea what I was getting into with this dish but was quite pleased with it.

I also ordered, of course, an order of crab angels. In addition to the shrimp sauce, I’m also obsessed with these little star-shaped delicacies, and PG has some of the best in town. I’ve often found at other restaurants that the wonton has gone stale or that the crab tastes overwhelmingly like imitation crab. The wontons at PG are always perfectly crunchy, and while I would be shocked to find out they used real crab, somehow their crab doesn’t take imitation-y. I suspect because they rely more heavily on the cream cheese base than many other restaurants. Whatever they do, it works.

There aren’t a whole heck of a lot of Chinese restaurants in town (a shortage of international cuisines in Tuscaloosa? No!). Swen is the other one I tend to frequent, but when I go there, it’s strictly out of convenience, not the longing desire for delicious crab angels that drew me into Pearl Garden tonight. I knew I couldn’t  (or shouldn’t, rather) make a dinner out of six crab angels, so I ordered an entrée as well with intention of taking a to-go box home for lunch tomorrow—a lunch I’m very much looking forward to.

[natalie]

Pearl Garden is located at 2719 Lurleen B. Wallace Blvd in Northport, just south of the intersection with McFarland/Hwy 82.

Lunch: 11am-2pm everyday
Dinner: Monday-Saturday 4pm-9:30pm; 4pm-9pm on Sundays

Manna Grocery

In a town like Tuscaloosa, home to pulled pork and wings, being a vegetarian can be hard.  The answer, my fellow herbivores (and omnivores), is Manna Grocery and Deli.  Manna is separated into two sections: the grocery section located at the front of the store and the deli/restaurant section near the back of the store and is a fabulous spot to eat whether you are grabbing lunch for the afternoon or for the next week.

The grocery section, while not large, is adequately stocked with products you can’t find in most other stores around Tuscaloosa.  While Manna is slightly pricier than say Target or Publix on products you can get around town (primarily Morningstar and Boca products), it is only a dollar or so difference and you are supporting a local business rather than a chain store (not to mention the selection of vegan/vegetarian/organic options is much larger).  Also, Manna offers more than just organic food, sporting organic beauty products, supplements, and some other miscellaneous items like jewelry and candles.

If you venture out of the grocery section, you will find the small deli in the back.  The deli section offers cheeses, cold vegetarian and vegan snacks, limited fresh produce (you should note that this is all the fresh produce that is offered), and to-go wraps, sandwiches and burritos.  If you aren’t in the mood for cold selections, however, you can order something hot from the restaurant area.

The restaurant area is right next to the deli and offers four types of vegetarian pizza and all vegetarian burgers. But fear not, my meat-loving friends, there’s plenty for you too (and it’s healthier than anything you can get from a crinkly paper bag)!  Manna offers both vegetarian and non-vegetarian paninis, sandwiches, burritos, and salad and soup plates, as well as daily specials, which vary from day to day (you can find them on their website). The restaurant, like the store, isn’t large, but there is ample room.  I ate there at around 11:30 a.m. and though it was busy, there were still tables available.

For lunch, I chose the veggie and goat cheese panini.  I should note that I’d never had goat cheese before and subsequently discovered that I am not a fan, but the panini was still very flavorful.  The portabella mushroom added a tangy taste that mixed well with the other veggies and ingredients.  The bread was well toasted and really added to the flavor.  The panini was also very filling but if you’re still hungry you get your choice of chips to go with it—not to mention you can add dessert to your meal. Chocolate or mint chocolate pie, anyone?

The staff there is also very helpful.  Anytime I’ve been in the grocery section I’ve received assistance and found the same to be true when ordering food.  With great food and a helpful staff, Manna is a nice place to visit if you’re looking for a quick meal between classes.  As a vegetarian I feel lucky to have a place like Manna that offers alternatives to the limited selection of vegetarian foods found in larger stores around town.  It’s a good place to go if you’re a vegetarian looking for variety or if you’re just looking for healthier alternatives to Tuscaloosa’s usual fare.

[amanda stevens]

Manna Grocery is located at 2300 McFarland Blvd East across from Snow Hinton Park.

Manna’s store hours are Monday-Saturday 9am-7pm.
Their deli/restaurant/lunch hours are from 11am-2:3opm Monday-Friday and 11am-2pm on Saturdays.