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FIVE

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).

[natalie]

FIVE is located at 2324 6th Street in downtown Tuscaloosa, a block east of the Bama Theatre (next to the Shirt Shop).

Monday-Wednesday: 5pm-11pm
Thursday-Saturday: 5pm-til
Sunday: 11am-3pm (brunch) & 5pm-9pm (dinner)

Alcove International Tavern

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’sBest 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.

[natalie]

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.

Monday-Thursday: 4pm-2am
Friday: 3pm-3am
Saturday: 3pm-2am

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

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

Moe’s Original BBQ

When  Moe’s Original BBQ opened in downtown Tuscaloosa in early 2010, I was skeptical. I avoided it for some time, as I’m fairly confident the saturation of barbecue restaurants in Tuscaloosa will weed out substandard joints. I decided I’d try it if it could pass the T-town test.  Over a year later, Moe’s was still going strong, and I was curious.

Driving by for that year and a half, I was always confused by its ever-shifting atmosphere. Moe’s has a bit of a split-personality: restaurant by day and bar by night. This division is also represented by the layout of the establishment: bar on the right side, restaurant on the left. The “About” page on Moe’s website advertizes “Alabama-style” barbecue and claims UA as its alma mater, but the first five Moe’s were opened in various parts of Colorado. The mountain atmosphere carries over into the Tuscaloosa location, as the wood interior and ski décor (a lift seat and black diamond signs, for example) are reminiscent of every ski lodge ever. Eleven HDTV’s are staggered throughout the restaurant and bar and are usually set to various sporting events. The bar also advertizes Colorado craft beers, but they’re only available in bottles. The only tap I’ve ever seen there is for Bud Light, and the liquor selection seems pretty standard. I’ve only ever been to Moe’s during meal time, but from what I can tell of the night scene, it looks too undergrad/frat-heavy for my taste. There’s a stage in the corner for live music Thursday-Saturday nights, and when the weather is nice, they open the giant garage-style windows on the front façade to give the place more of an outdoor-ish atmosphere. Of course, you can always sit on the patio.

The menu is fairly simple. Sandwiches (pulled pork, chicken, turkey, and catfish, I believe) come with 2 sides and a drink for $9. Platters (pulled pork, chicken, turkey, catfish, wings, ribs) come with 2 sides a drink for $10. I’ve only ever tried the chicken sandwich, but it’s so good, I can’t bring myself to order anything else. I’ve been told the pulled pork is worth coming back for as well. The chicken is tender and covered in a tangy almost orange-colored barbecue sauce. “Tangy” and “peppery” are what come to mind when I try to describe it. This chicken and thin-but-not-quite-vinegary sauce is then topped with Moe’s marinated slaw, which is unlike any slaw I’ve ever had. Since I’m not a fan of cole slaw, that’s a good thing. Instead of the chopped and creamy slaw I’m used to (hating), Moe’s uses larger pieces of cabbage and a vinegary sauce that compliments the rest of the sandwich exquisitely. The crunch of the cabbage and the combination of the barbecue and slaw sauces really add something to an already good sandwich. Finally, the slaw is topped with a few slivers of cooked bell pepper and a few slices of pickles. This layering of tastes and inclusion of little touches (such as the bell pepper) prove that Moe’s is about more than throwing sandwiches together. They’ve thought long and hard about what makes good barbecue and what best complements that barbecue—and the payoff for all that time and effort is well worth the $9 you’ll pay for it. And I haven’t even gotten to the sides!

Moe’s keeps several sides on the menu permanently: baked beans, marinated slaw, potato salad, chips, and banana pudding. I’ve not had any of these, however, because their “Special Sides of the Day” are always so enticing. The yams were delicious and just sweet enough to border on dessert. I get the macaroni and cheese every time I go there. It’s baked until it nearly dissolves in your mouth with at least two kinds of cheese and plenty of butter. The skillet corn is also fantastic with the same kind of flavor complexity (sausage and celery, namely) I described in the sandwich. I’ve also seen black-eyed peas, peas and corn, and greens on the “Special Sides” chalkboard. On my last visit, I tried the coconut pie, which (as you can tell by the picture) comes in a little cup. It tasted fine, but was easily the least impressive thing I’ve had at Moe’s so far. I imagine the banana pudding served the same way and is probably better, but I’m not a big banana pudding fan so I haven’t tried it.

Finally, the sweet tea is sweet—as tea in an Alabama barbecue joint should be. It’s not the sweetest in town, but it’s not far from it. You may want to half-and-half it with the unsweet if you you’re not a disciple of the “a little tea with my sugar” tradition like I am. Overall, Moe’s really knocked my socks off the first time I tried it and has continued to impress me in the three or four times I’ve eaten there since. You won’t catch me partying there on a Saturday night, but those yams and skillet corn make Moe’s a constant candidate for lunch or dinner every day of the week.

[natalie]

Moe’s Original BBQ is located at 2101 University Blvd in downtown Tuscaloosa, next to the new federal building.

Monday-Saturday: 11am-9pm
Bar open until 2am; 3am on Fridays

Carmelo Café

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.

[barry]

Carmelo Café is located at 405 23rd Avenue downtown, next to Momma Goldberg’s Deli. (205) 345-6914

Lunch:  11am-2pm Monday-Friday
Brunch: 11am-2pm Sundays only
Dinner: Wednesday & Thursday 5:30-9pm; Friday & Saturday 5:30-10pm