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Fat Kahuna’s Beachside Grille Brings Hawaii’s Aloha Spirit to Cocoa Beach, Florida

21 Apr

fk cocoa beach sign

What do you think of when you think of Cocoa Beach? Most folks from my generation think of the classic TV show “I Dream of Jeannie,” which was set in this coastal Florida community. Major Anthony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman) was in the Air Force and I’m sure most of you know that Cape Canaveral is in the vicinity. I attended nearby Brevard Community College for one year, so I do have some working knowledge of the area. However, I must admit that my JuCo years were many moons ago. Areas can change a lot over 30 some odd years and the Melbourne-Cocoa Beach area is no different.  This region has long been popular with Spring Breakers and we happened to be returning during the annual Spring Break for many of our nation’s universities.

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We had planned on hitting The Pompano Grill, but it (as we found out) is only open for dinner. We encountered a very cool looking surfer joint called The Green Room. I was ready to eat there … until we eyeballed the menu. It featured a variety of health food smoothies, salads, and wraps — strictly vegan fare. That would have been fine for me and my wife, but we were also in the company of our two ravenous teenage boys. I asked a local for dining suggestions and she pointed us to a somewhat traditional seafood mecca overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I’m sure it would have been OK. Yet I was not seeking OK — I was seeking something fresh and out of the ordinary. It was then that we spotted Fat Kahuna’s.

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Fat Kahuna’s is actually sort of small — and brightly colored. The outside looked suitably beachy and the name was intruiging. A peek inside only made me more curious. It was a very hip little beach bar with ceiling fans spinning above and the sounds of Hawaiian music filling the room.

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Just take a gander at the interior (shown above). Pretty inviting, huh? My wife and I had just returned from a Hawaiian vacation a few short months earlier, so the surroundings felt familiar — and appealing. The upbeat hostess/waitress welcomed us with a big smile and led us to our table, which happened to be adorned with a cheerful orchid. The aloha vibe was clearly alive and well here. But I was now a bit baffled. How did this place even exist with little or no presense on the internet? Well, it turns out that Fat Kahuna’s had been open less than a year. The hostess explained that early reviews had been quite positive, although the place was still something of a well-kept secret. My goal is to make sure that this secret doesn’t continue on much longer. Their chef attended Johnson and Wales and the owners have spent a considerable amount of time in Hawaii. How’s that for a winning combo?

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A “Surfer Crossing” sign seems perfectly at home here

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A basket of tortilla chips with bean dip and a Big Wave Golden Ale

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The restaurant’s island-inspired decor was breezy and tasteful

fk taco plate

OK — so the atmosphere was nice and the people were friendly and the beer was cold. What about the food, you ask? Well, I am happy to report that it was fine as well. I ordered the fish taco plate with black beans, salsa, and coconut rice. The tacos were of the soft corn tortilla variety. The fish was mahi mahi — flaky, blackened mahi mahi, to be more precise. Everything was fresh and tasty. I became so relaxed and caught up in the Hawaiian vibe that I even ordered a second beer (they serve my current favorite, Kona’s BIG WAVE GOLDEN ALE). This is something I rarely do at lunchtime,  but, hey, I was on vacation, doggone it. Give me a break, will ya?

fk taco close

Lesson to be learned here? Beach communities offer lots of dining choices. Many are good, many not so good. Most cater to tourists and the widest possible audience. Wait. Did I mean widest or widest? Yes … my answer will be YES. Too often fried seafood rules the day. Don’t get me wrong — I dig fried fish, oysters, and shrimp as much as the next guy. It’s easy to fall into that rut and never climb back out. Eating fresh does not mean having to sacrifice on flavor. Fat Kahuna’s is a perfect example of that. Beach views, fresh flavorful food with a Hawaiian Island flair — what exactly is not to like? Eat here now. You can say “MAHALO” later.

Trust me, friends.

At Fat Kahuna’s, you’ll ride a wave of deliciousness … with no fears of a wipeout.

Fat Kahuna’s – 8 Minutemen Causeway, Cocoa Beach, FL 32931

http://www.facebook.com/FatKahunasGrillBar; (321) 783-6858

“The Gulf” Adds Some Needed Juice to the Orange Beach, Alabama Dining Scene

12 Jan

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The structural design is striking, for sure. It is a beautiful space and it flows nicely with its surroundings. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the creation of The Gulf, an exciting new restaurant concept in sun-drenched Orange Beach, AL. The colors blend nicely. The logo (featuring Neptune’s trident) is hip and attractive. GM Johnny Fisher, a former baseball pitcher at the University of South Alabama, tells me the logo was designed by Big Communications in Birmingham, AL. They are the same folks who created the successful Alabama Gulf Seafood campaign. Sounds like they have a nice little niche going.  

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Fisher, who is obviously passionate about this exciting new venture, explained that this original concept was something of a Food Truck 2.0. Clever … and true. The enclosed kitchen structure is not large and the menu is short but sweet. All of the seating is outside — including the bar and the upstairs “balconies.” You can sit upstairs for the best panoramic views. Or you can sit on the wooden deck. Or on the grass — yes, real grass. It’s almost like a putting green. Or you can sit in a chair or comfy couch on the white sands of Perdido Pass. Talk about options! I really like the tiered approach for the outdoor “dining room.”

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OK, time to talk more about the menu board. Here it is (above). It gets tweaked from time to time, but the burger and grouper sandwich have become staples — and why not? Music by the 70’s R&B band WAR was spinning on the house turntable when I stepped up to place my order. Vinyl??? You bet. I heard Dave Mason, War,and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass during my first visit. This feature scores major points with this longtime vinyl junkie and thrift shop denizen. Getting back to the food, the Gulf Burger is just $6 and made with Meyer Ranch (based in Colorado) Natural Angus Beef. None of the cheap stuff here. The Grouper sandwich is $12 and always fresh. Grab an order of fresh cut french fries ($4) as a side or take my lead and skip right ahead to dessert. More on that later.

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These cool T-shirts at The Gulf are moving fast

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My beach view as the food was being prepared

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Even the seats & indoor/outdoor carpeting are cool

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I’m pretty sure the open air bar will prove to be a smashing success

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The space heaters are here — if they are needed

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The Gulf Burger arrived looking all hot and tasty. It was. I was impressed with the attention to the little details. The brioche bun was soft and delicious. The tomato slices fresh and juicy. The lettuce is chopped fresh daily. The house aioli delivers a nice lemon, garlic tang. Even the kosher dill pickle was impressive. This was no sliver, people — this was one half of a big, fat dill. I take notice of this stuff, don’t you? All the food is served on brown paper trays, which only further reinforces The Gulf’s casual vibe and food truck mentality. Place your order at the window, grab a seat overlooking the water, dig the tunes, and prepare thyself for a solid meal. It is on the way, baby.

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The grilled brioche bun made the burger even more memorable

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As for the previously mentioned dessert, the Meyer Lemon Pound Cake (above) was sublime. It’s basically a lemon cupcake topped with a stunningly sweet, tart Meyer Lemon icing. Plenty of it too. You can even see the lemon zest in the generous blob of icing on each piece of citrusy cake. It was a sunny January day when I visited and the heat of the sun’s rays slowly melted my icing into a soft, warm consistency. My entire meal including the juicy, flavorful burger and tangy pound cake came in at under $10. Pretty hard to beat that. And the views were worth a million bucks — especially in the heart of the winter here along the Alabama Gulf Coast.

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Talk about your table with a view? Incredible!

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Cool day on the beach. Grab yourself a Hot Buttered Rum and chill.

Let me put a bow on this thing by saying that I am thrilled that The Gulf has arrived in our little nook of the world. This place is very hip, the people really care about the food, and the beach views and casual, sandy vibe are second to none. And did I tell you they spin vinyl??? Oh yeah, guess I did. Got any old, neglected vinyl laying around? Take it to Johnny — he’ll give it a good home. And speaking of home, I have found a new one at The Gulf. I’ll be a regular in the Summer months. And I’ll visit when I can in the chillier months too.  Can’t think of a better way to wash away the Winter blues — short of another trip to Hawaii.

Great job, Johnny Fisher and crew. We love your new place. Thank you for giving us this little piece of paradise. Like Neptune’s trident, The Gulf is quite sharp — and “on point” too! 

The Gulf  – 27500 Perdido Beach Boulevard, Orange Beach, AL

(251) 424-1800; http://www.facebook.com/#!/thegulfal?fref=ts 

A Visit to Berkeley and San Francisco (December 2012)

27 Dec

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My home base for this brief 3-day visit was the historic Claremont Hotel in the hills of Berkeley. What a beautiful property. The views off the back of the property were simply amazing. You could watch the sunset over the bay with the Golden Gate Bridge and the SF city skyline in the background. Stunning.

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I arrived late and quite tired on the first night. I decided to stay close and dine at the hotel restaurant. The food turned out to be pretty good. I especially enjoyed the Gilroy Garlic Fries, but boy did my breath stink afterwards. Had to brush and rinse several times that evening. It was all well worth it.

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Napa Smith Lost Dog Ale was my beverage of choice that first night in town. It was mighty fine — and mighty powerful. The brew’s 7.2% alcohol content (I had 2) knocked me for a loop, especially after traveling all day. I decided to call it a day and head for the rack.

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I was in Northern California for a conference, but was able to bust loose during a long lunch break one day for some exploring beyond the walls of the Claremont. I walked about a mile (pretty much all downhill) to the first signs of commercial and culinary civilization. The first spot of interest I encountered was the Star Grocery. A classic corner grocery updated for the modern age. It had something of a hippie, granola vibe to the place — totally what you would expect for Berkeley.

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Star’s bakery goods looked impressive. So much bread, so little time!

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I ended up grabbing lunch at a place called Southie — a very hip little California bistro. The atmosphere was contemporary with a menu full of fresh and healthy local fare. My Roast Turkey with Applewood Bacon sandwich really hit the spot. The focaccia bread was obviously fresh and the sandwich was completed with locally grown romaine, sliced avocado, and a totally on-point rosemary aioli. It all was quickly polished off. It came with a bag of chips, but I chose not to consume them. I was saving room for the far more interesting treats that lay ahead.

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The next day was even better. The conference concluded before noon, so I bounded down the hill once again and grabbed the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) for San Francisco’s Financial District. Shortly after I got off the subway, I spotted the famous Nom Nom truck (best known from its time on Food Network’s THE GREAT FOOD TRUCK RACE). The line was rather lengthy, but I took a deep breath and plunged into the cue.

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Service was actually pretty swift and my Vietnamese sandwich (aka “Banh Mi”) was a tart, tangy joy. The price wasn’t bad either.  The pickled vegetables and green leaves of cilantro were a perfect match for the chunks of grilled chicken and the crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside bread loaf. I added a little bit of Sriracha for some added zip. It was a chilly day in the City By The Bay and the bright red condiment warmed me to the bone.

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Determined to eat my way across town, my next stop was the Tadich Grill. It is also known as “The Original Cold Day Restaurant.” And now I know why. It is a warm, welcoming spot — a favorite in this town since 1849. All the restaurant seating was occupied, so I bellied up to the bar.

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I ordered a bowl of chowder, a pint of Sierra Nevada, and took time to check the old place out. The servers look they they have all worked here for quite a while. Most were well north of 5o years old and all were decked out in classic white smocks. My bespeckled bar attendant was super friendly and very attentive. He even gave me some strong touring tips — the best one being to avoid walking the city’s steep hills and to purchase a day pass for the cable car system.  Thank you, sir!

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My Clam Chowder (New England style) was rich and creamy, the brew just the right flavor note and temperature. Yet it was the bread served alongside my soup bowl that was the real revelation at this stop. My server told me the rustic looking loaf was baked daily by the legendary Boudin Bakery of San Francisco. He added that it was a proprietary recipe only sold to area restaurants and not the same as the Boudin Sourdough bread found all over town and in the local airport gift shops. My day was humming along nicely.

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My next stop on the trolley line was Chinatown.

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Chinatown is nice for sightseeing. I was tempted, but not ready to eat again.

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After wandering about Chinatown for a half hour or so, I jumped on board a cable car headed for the intersection of California & Polk. The trolleys are a great way to get around town — even on a brisk day. I chose to sit in the car’s open air seating to get the full ambiance of city sights, sounds, and smells. A bum approached me for some money and I was in such a good mood that I flipped him a couple bucks and wished him a Merry Christmas.

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The Swan Oyster Depot was featured in Tony Bourdain’s The Layover TV series.

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Their display of fresh local seafood lured me inside.

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The marinated squid salad looked like something out of a Japanese horror flick. But it tasted like the gastronomical equivalent of a Shiatsu massage. That alone should have been enough. The accompanying Anchor Steam beer and more fresh-baked Boudin bread had my taste buds singing like another famous Tony — Tony Bennett.

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Later that same evening, I met up with my childhood friend, Colin Jewell (pictured above). Colin and I had not seen one another in over 40 years (yes, we’re old). I believe I was about 10 years old or so the last time we crossed paths. We grabbed a beer or two and started catching up at the Tadich Grill. The reunion continued over a great Greek meal at Kokkari, an Italian biscotti in the North Shore neighborhood, and a nightcap (“Surfer’s Punch”) at the world famous Tiki bar known as the Tonga Room.

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The “room” (shown in picture above) is actually cavernous and includes a full-size swimming pool as a focal point. Precisely timed thunder and lightning cracks are occasionally heard over the Tonga Room’s sound system. That is immediately followed by a faux tropical rainfall that is thankfully confined to just the pool and not the bar tables and hightops along the periphery. Pretty cool, huh?  

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And yes, I did end up buying some Boudin sourdough bread to take back to Alabama. Sure, it’s a very touristy thing to do. It is also a very wise thing to do. The bread in the SF Bay Area  is truly amazing. Foodies who live around here are extremely fortunate. As for me, I’ll soon be inquiring about any Bread of the Month Clubs that might exist for poor suckers like me who can only visit once in a blue moon. What a wonderful town San Francisco is. I may not have left my heart there, but I surely left my bread  there.

My Top 10 Bites & Top 5 Sips from our 2012 Trip to the Island of Oahu, Hawaii

27 Dec

TOP TEN MEMORABLE BITES

Please keep in mind that this is in no way a complete list. Many delectable treats were devoured. And many refreshing beverages were consumed. Narrowing down the list to 10 food items and 5 drinks was decidedly difficult. Enjoying Hawaii’s delicious bounty was not. Special mention should go out to the Diamond Head Deli and Bakery.

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Everything we ate there was top shelf. That included their memorable ginger spiked grilled tuna steaks and the gargantuan (almost as big as Diamond Head) blueberry scones (seen above) they serve up each morning for breakfast. If I could move any restaurant we visited on Oahu back to the mainland with me, the Diamond Head would probably be the one.

1) FRIED BANANAS @ KAHUKU LAND FARMS, KAHUKU (NORTH SHORE)
fried banana
2) SPAM MUSUBI (“SPAM SUSHI”) @ CHING’S GROCERY, KULA
spamwich
3) GARLIC SHRIMP @ BIG WAVE SHRIMP, HALEIWA
garlic shrimp
4) MALASADAS @ LEONARD’S BAKERY (NEAR DIAMOND HEAD)
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5) MACADAMIA PINK SNAPPER @ BLUE WATER SHRIMP
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6) PORK DUMPLINGS @ LEGEND SEAFOOD, HONOLULU
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7) SWEET PINEAPPLE BREAD, YUMMY LAND BAKERY, KALIHI
sweet roll
8) BOWL AT CRISPY GRINDZ FOOD TRUCK (NORTH SHORE)
acai bowl
9) HAUPIA (COCONUT PUDDING) ICE CREAM @ HU LA LA’S
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10) HAWAIIAN PIZZA (KALUA PORK & PINEAPPLE) @ DUKE’S WAIKIKI
hawaii pizza

TOP FIVE SIPS

1) MAI TAI @ ROYAL HAWAIIAN RESORT
mai
2) KONA COFFEE @ HONOLULU COFFEE COMPANY
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3) BIG WAVE GOLDEN ALE FROM KONA BREWERY
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4) PASSION FRUIT LILIKOI PUNCH @ LA MARIANA TIKI BAR
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5) HAWAIIAN SUN PASS-O-GUAVA NECTAR DRINK
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The Bluegill’s “Flaming Oysters” – Easily One of Mobile’s Best Bites

10 Nov

The causeway over the Mobile Bay has many dining options. All of them focusing on seafood. One of our favorites is the Bluegill Restaurant. They have been around since 1958, although they have had a few different owners over that long period of time. The Bluegill is now operated by the Cooper Restaurant Group … the same folks who run the wildly successful Felix’s Fish Camp (also on the causeway) and Mobile’s own version of Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

The Coopers have done a fine job in retaining much of the Bluegill’s original rustic charm. The whimsical exterior is adorned with antique advertising and humorous declarations such as “No Curb Service Since 1958!” Yes, they have long been known for their fried, locally sourced oysters, but there is a relatively new menu item that has totally captured our fancy.

The Fish Tacos are good, but our mind was on something else

You can dine inside or out at the Bluegill. I would encourage you to sit outside whenever the weather allows. Such a relaxing atmosphere overlooking the bay and watching the occasional boat (or gator) chug by. The open air deck is pretty much fully covered and clear plastic flaps can be lowered if rains or windy conditions should arise. They frequently feature live local entertainment on the deck here. That only adds to the whole “Margaritaville” vibe. A Kenny Chesney tune played over the sound system as I was being seated this late Friday morning. My server (a young man named Buck) did a great job of taking care of me. Fast, friendly service has long been a trademark of all the Cooper-owned restaurants here in the Mobile Bay area.

Please DO NOT make the mistake of not ordering the Flaming Oysters at the Bluegill. They have only been offered for a short time, but they have quickly earned (and rightfully so) a large and loyal following. I crave them — and apparenty I’m not the only one. I’ve heard that someone on the inside at Cooper Restaurants was a longtime fan of Drago’s in New Orleans. That famed eatery has long been known as THE place to get your flame grilled oyster fix in NOLA. I have dined there and can attest to its glory. Magnificent. The Cooper’s recipe is equally sublime — matching Drago’s slurp for slurp.

An order of a full dozen is just about right for me. Each half shell comes complete with fresh local oyster, butter, garlic, and lots of Parmesan cheese. They are placed over an open flame, which can viewed from the inside dining room. A bit of show biz never hurts and the Bluegill gets that. And just when you think this recipe can’t be topped, they go and throw in a couple of large pieces of flame kissed, authentic New Orleans-style Po-Boy bread. It’s legit bread, for sure — straight from some Big Easy bakery. You’ll need it to sop up all the remaining butter and garlic mixture once your oysters are history. Trust me, leftovers don’t happen here.

This makes sense, because the Flaming Oysters are truly UNREAL!

Bluegill Restaurant – 3775 Battleship Parkway, Spanish Fort, AL 36527

(251) 625-1998; www.bluegillrestaurant.com

“Having Fun At The Bluegill!”

Saw’s BBQ In Homewood, Alabama Makes The Cut

11 Mar

Saw’s BBQ is found in the Edgewood District of Homewood, AL

Saw’s BBQ is a cool looking joint — if a good bit smaller than expected. We were curious about the restaurant’s unusual name, so I did a quick Google search. It turns out Chef and Owner Mike Wilson, who opened Saw’s in 2009, is a native North Carolinian. And his eatery’s moniker is based on the Johnson & Wales trained chef’s high school nickname, “Sorry Ass” Wilson. S-A-W. Funny — and true!

BBQ and Pabst Blue Ribbon — a match made in heaven

Saw’s decor is about what you would expect from a BBQ joint

Antique signs are nice – even if they don’t have much local flavor

I opted for the Pulled Pork plate with two sides (beans & slaw)

They are obviously Crimson Tide fans at Saw’s – no big surprise!

The beverages of choice here are Coca Cola or ice cold Budweiser

The Pulled Pork was excellent — well above average. The meat was moist, lean and tender. The smoked BBQ ribs were mighty fine too. My son Austin did a good job of methodically gnawing his half slab down to the bone(s). I just happened to snag a single rib before he rolled up his sleeves and really went to town. Best of all was the sweet vinegar-based sauce that adorned my platter of piggy meat. You should buy your own bottle to carry home for $5. Let me point out at this juncture that you will regret it if you don’t obey my suggestion. The sauce at Saw’s is world class and not readily available outside the Birmingham area.  

Saw’s Sauce – you had better get you some!

The beans were OK — nothing truly unique about them. I wasn’t really crazy about the slaw, which is a mega-tangy, finely chopped, vinegar-based affair. We found the slaw overly tart & acidic … making it hard to stomach more than forkful or two. Some may love it, but it’s not exactly our cup of tea. Personally, I prefer a rough chopped, mayonnaise-based slaw with big crunch and a little sweetness. Temperature is important too. I like it chilled.

I want to conclude this review on a high note — as I should. Maybe the slaw and beans were nothing to write home about. But the slow smoked pork and Saw’s delicious NC-style BBQ sauce are some of the best you will find anywhere in the great state of Alabama. Alabama is indeed the “Heart of Dixie” and serious BBQ country to boot, so that kind of praise is not easily come by.

Service at Saw’s is prompt and the surroundings suitably homey. We really like this little joint a lot and plan on returning one day soon. One trip certainly doesn’t tell the entire story — that’s for sure. In particular, we want to sample Saw’s Smoked Chicken with White BBQ sauce. When that happens, I hope to see you there. I’m pretty sure you will find this smoke-filled neighborhood dive anything but “sorry ass.”    

The fluffy Banana Pudding looked good too – maybe next time!

Saw’s BBQ – 1008 Oxmoor Road, Birmingham, AL 35209

(205) 879-1937; www.sawsbbq.com

Day Trip to Bayou La Batre – “Alabama’s Seafood Capital”

20 Nov

The sign says it all — and there is a lot of truth to this. I was expecting a little town dominated by the seafood industry. That is pretty much what I found. But there were plenty of surprises during my brief weekday visit. I was only in town for a couple hours. And part of this time was spent on business. However, I did find enough time to scout around, snap a few images, grab some lunch, and just generally get the vibe of this sleepy, little fishing community.

Even BBQ joints take on nautical themes in Bayou La Batre. Case in point: Capt. Frank’s Smoke Shack. I didn’t try the good Captain’s Q on this trip — I was holding out for some local seafood. I did take a moment to peek in the window. Cozy little joint. Wonder if the food’s any good? Drop me a note if you’ve tried them out.

They may want to work on that slogan – not the best we have seen.

I’m partial to this salty swine in the window at Captain Frank’s.

Seafood Gumbo — certainly a local favorite in these parts.

There is a pretty significant Vietnamese population in BLB. Many of these folks are employed in the seafood industry. Working on the shrimp boats, picking crabs, etc. Their presense becomes obvious as I motor thru town. I came across this Vietnamese grocery (above), which is located next door to a Vietnamese bar/pool hall. I popped in just to check out the ambience. To say it was authentic would be something of an understatement. Exotic fruits and veggies could be seen at every twist & turn. They had a fine selection of Asian DVDs. The owner barked at employees in a manner that oddly reminded of that scene in “The Deer Hunter.” Thankfully, no Russian Roulette was involved.  

Shrimp chips seemed right at home at Vien Dong. Especially in BLB.

The Eat Alabama Wild Shrimp campaign has recently morphed into Eat Wild Alabama Seafood. This latest, more inclusive strategy seems to be paying off. The organization’s marketing office is located in an older strip mall on the edge of Bayou La Batre. I spent about a half hour chatting with office administrator, Rosa Zirlott. Very nice lady. What a pleasant visit we had. Rosa really knows her stuff, that is for certain. And she is extremely passionate about her job. Rosa currently owns 2 shrimp boats and has been involved in the seafood industry for most of her life. She seemed fairly satisfied with the results her leadership is producing. Lots of work still remains and we are determined to do our part to assist Rosa and the countless area fishermen and shrimpers she represents. Learn more at http://www.eatalabamawildshrimp.com

As our brief meeting wrapped up, I asked Rosa Zirlott two quick parting questions:

1) “What is your favorite local seafood market?”

2) “Where can I get some good local shrimp for lunch?”

The answers followed, but not without some explanation. It turns out there are currently no retail seafood markets in Bayou La Batre. “How can that be?”,  I inquired. Well, Bayou La Batre apparently does not enjoy much traditional tourism — in part because of its rather remote location. Local residents either work in the seafood business or know someone who does. They tend to go straight to the source … cutting out the middle man. This also guarantees the exact origin of the product. Commercial fishing operations in BLB only tend to sell wholesale – and in large quantities.

As for my lunch plans, that answer was easier for Rosa to process. “We really only have 2 seafood restaurants in the vicinity. But one recently closed.” So process of elimination led me to The Lighthouse Restaurant, located a short drive away in nearby Irvington, AL. Rosa suggested I try the crab claws. She also urged me to stop by Jubilee Seafood on my way out of town … thinking they might sell me a couple pounds of fresh wild shrimp for the road. I decided to proceed directly to lunch at The Lighthouse. Maybe next time, Jubilee. I’ll be the dude with the flat top toting a giant ice chest.  

Jubilee Foods — “For All Your Seafood Needs”

The Lighthouse Restaurant is your typical Southern seafood dive … minus any water views. It is found a mile or so inland on Padgett Switch Road. The marquee out front (a scaled-down lighthouse that would be at home on a miniature golf course) was promoting the premiere of History Channel’s new BIG SHRIMPIN’ series. The show is sort of a DEADLIEST CATCH spin-off and it is being shot in and around Bayou La Batre.  

The hand-painted mural out front provides an old school touch.

The Lighthouse menu offers local seafood choices in abundance.

The lightly fried shrimp at The Lighthouse were just as scrumptious as I had anticipated. There just weren’t enough of them! The lunch platter, which costs $9.95 plus drink and tip, included 6 shrimp and 2 sides. The shrimp were the first to go. That took all of 2-3 minutes. After that, I was left with some frozen krinkle cut fries, a boring side salad with thick Thousand Island dressing, a few Captain’s Wafers, and 2 average hush puppies. And I swear the iced tea tasted like water. Next time I’ll order the large shrimp platter for $13.95 or maybe spring the additional two bucks for $15.95 Seafood Platter (see menu above). I’m sure that’s great. Sounds great. I’ll also skip the tea and order an ice cold beer — unless it’s a work day, of course.    

Lighthouse Restaurant – 12495 Padgett Switch Road, Irvington, AL

(251) 824-2500

Leesburg, Virginia’s Cajun Experience a Very Positive One

1 Nov

I just spent a weekend in Northern Virginia and DC. Celebrated my Dad’s 84th birthday and my Granny Justice’s 100th birthday. I also found time to seek out some good eats. Perhaps the best bite of the trip came to me courtesy of The Cajun Experience — A Taste of South Louisiana. They are located in the heart of historic downtown Leesburg, Virginia.

Leesburg is a quaint little town. Well, not that little anymore. Loudoun County is booming and is now one of the wealthiest and fastest growing areas in the country. But it still has tons of charm. Leesburg is the hub of this scenic part of the Old Dominion. It boasts many fine restaurants — some quite elegant. Yet it’s not exactly a place where you would expect to find authentic Cajun cuisine. Peanut soup, yes. Virginia wine, yes. But boudin? And andouille? Really???

One look at the menu and my expectations were immediately elevated. They use Leidenheimer bread??? Wow, these folks are taking this authenticity thing pretty seriously! They offer a great selection of PoBoys too. I quickly zeroed in on the Hot Pot Roast variety. My brother Bill opted for the Fried Shrimp PoBoy. Neither one of us would regret our choices.  

Beer was the first order of business. It was a weekday, sure. And it was lunchtime. But it was also Friday. Cause enough for us to crack open a couple of cold ones. Louisiana brew is offered and we were accepting. Bill had the Abita Fall Fest. I called for a Jockamo IPA. I sucked mine right out of the chilled bottle. Bill, going for a slightly more sophisticated look,  asked for a glass and was pleasantly surprised when he was presented with a frosty cold mug — straight out of the nearby upright freezer.

The Hot Pot Roast PoBoy arrived hot — and tasted hot. Spicy hot as well as temperature hot. It came with a nice portion of crispy housemade potato chips. The bread was really great, the sauce (sort of a kicked up remoulade) creamy, and the pot roast lean and tender. No chunks of fat, no gristle. Really good. I mean really, really good.

Just take a gander at this sammich. How can you not love this???

Chopped jalapenos, huh? That explains my PoBoy’s spicy punch.

Dessert came in the form of freshly fried beignets showered with lots of powdered sugar. We couldn’t resist pairing the piping hot beignets with a steaming cup of chicory coffee. The beignets are made with the same mix used at New Orleans’ famed Cafe Du Monde. We learned this without asking. A delivery was made while we were dining. They were mighty fine (hard to screw up hot fried dough and powdered sugar). Crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. The coffee was the real deal too. Our younger brother Mark checked in by phone during our lunch and was more than a bit disappointed to learn what he was missing.

This Cajun Experience is an authentic one. I have eaten a lot of Cajun food in my time and this doesn’t take a back seat to many of them. That is particularly impressive given the distance between Leesburg & the murky Bayous of South Louisiana. So do march on in when you can … and let the good times roll.  

THE CAJUN EXPERIENCE – 14 Loudoun Street Southeast, Leesburg, VA

(703) 777-6580; www.cajunexperience.biz

Sunday 12-9 pm; Monday – Friday 11 am – 9 pm

Make The Old 27 Grill Your New Friend in Fairhope

1 Oct

The Old 27 Grill can be found on Alabama State Route 181 (once known as County Road 27) just south of Wal-Mart. It’s somewhat off the beaten path, although this part of Baldwin County is growing more bustling by the day. The local residents are a mix of farmers (cotton, corn, pecans, etc.) and Mobile-based professionals seeking a little more elbow room & greenery.  

The front facade of the restaurant looks relatively new, but the overall vibe is retro general store. As a matter of fact, the word GROCERY actually appears on the sign which tops the eatery’s entry. I was in the vicinity one weekday (late morning) and decided to drop in for an early lunch. Cool looking little joint, I thought. And the reports I had been receiving about the food quality were pretty encouraging. Spotting motorcycles parked out front is another positive indicator. I must add that the American flag flying to the right of the main doorway is a nice touch too.

The patio courtyard at the Old 27 is inviting, for sure. But it was a steamy day in late September and most diners had opted for indoor seating. I joined them inside. The surroundings were clean and appropriately appointed. My glass-topped table had a decidedly Ducks Unlimited theme. Picking up the menu, I was immediately impressed with the variety of choices for such a tiny kitchen.

Hot Dogs & Sausage Dogs are principal players at The Old 27 Grill. The dogs are all beef and offered in your choice of 7″ or 10″. Beyond that, the possibilities are pretty endless. 27 toppings, yes 27, in all. Figures, right? All the basics are here, along with more quirky condiments such as “Comeback” sauce, Green Chili sauce, and that omnipresent Sriracha red chili sauce. The first dozen topping options are free. Others require an additional modest financial commitment.  I also couldn’t help noticing the ambitious list of beverage options. Abita Root Beer, Vernor’s Ginger Ale, Stewart’s Cream Soda, Yuengling, Lazy Magnolia & Abita Beers, and a better than average wine list (bottle prices range from $12-$16). The Old 27 also sells local honey and a variety of their bottled sauces. I guess that is where the GROCERY comes in, huh? 

Beyond weenies, there are several appealing sandwich choices at lunchtime. The burgers are popular, yet I decided to go with Comeback Chicken Sandwich. Marinated chicken breast, bacon, Swiss cheese, crisp lettuce, thinly sliced red onion, and a heaping dollop of Old 27’s signature Comeback sauce. Comeback sauce is a prevalent condiment in the Mississippi Delta. You might say it’s the Magnolia State’s answer to Louisiana’s remoulade. Take some mayo, add some red chili sauce, mix well. That will give you the general idea. Each sauce is slightly different to the next — everyone introducing their own spin or secret ingredient to the party.   

This Comeback Chicken Sandwich (seen below) is elevated by a fresh brioche-style bun at Old 27 Grill. The sandwich was tasty (how could it not be?). My lunch basket was rounded out with a generous helping of Old 27’s housemade potato chips. You can upgrade to fries or onion rings for a slight upcharge, but sticking with the standard option was not a misstep. The chips were great and I was soon a member of the clean plate (or should I say basket?) club.

A closer look at the Comeback Chicken Sandwich at Old 27 Grill

The housemade chips at Old 27 were large, crunchy & delicious

I must say I was tempted by the dessert menu at Old 27. Not that I was still hungry. The sandwich and chips, along with a tall glass of iced tea, had made for a quite satisfying mid-day meal. Brownies, crepes, and soft serve ice cream all make for excellent post-entree selections. I was drawn to the Strawberry Crepe, but that will have to wait for another visit. This first trip to the Old 27 Grill was, in my mind, a success. Sure, my tea was a little weak for my taste. But if that is your biggest gripe, then you are likely doing pretty darn well. The service, I should add, was friendly & swift. The atmosphere homey & welcoming. The overall attention to detail impressive. Looks like I have found a new dining partner in the Old 27 Grill.  

OLD 27 GROCERY & GRILL – 19992 Highway 181, Fairhope, AL

(251) 281-2663; www.old27grill.com

Open Tuesday-Saturday 9 am – 9:30 pm; Sundays 11 am – 8 pm

The Dragonfly Food Bar Soars Proudly into Downtown Fairhope

5 May

I first heard about Dragonfly at the Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival this Spring. They were offering some pretty unique street treats that particular day. I was tickled to later learn that they had opened a “food bar” in the heart of Fairhope’s historic downtown. It certainly seemed to be a good fit.

The advance buzz (Get it? Dragonfly?) on the street was quite positive. In fact, some of my local contacts were raving about Dragonfly’s innovative world view on tacos. A braised beef cheek taco was being offered the day I finally decided to show up. What took me so doggone long to get here???  

This retro bike stands ready to deliver your Dragonfly lunch

Dragonfly offers 12 (yes, you heard right) taco choices on their daily menu. After some intense internal debate, I called out for one Kung Pao chicken taco and one braised pork taco. I plan on eventually getting to them all (with the possible exception of chicken liver taco), but that may take numerous visits to achieve. No problemo … I can surely make that happen.  

It’s all about Dragonflys – even the outside lantern plays along

Yes, they do look seriously yummy don’t they? They were. Let’s just put that right out there. Really, really good. The flavors were somewhat familiar. It’s just the whole “rolling them up in a taco thing” that was throwing me off a bit. Pork roast as tender as Granny’s love — enhanced with apple, habanero, lime, and avocado. Spicy Kung Pao chicken accompanied by chopped carrot, daikon, and a zesty peanut sauce. I love Asian satay and I love my Granny, so I was totally on board with the whole nine yards. But where exactly does one find daikon in Fairhope, Alabama? I’ll have to ask Dragonfly’s chef/owner Doug Kerr about that someday soon. More power to him, I reckon.

I often refer to Fairhope as an “artsy Mayberry by the Bay.” We even have our own little barber shop — and a vintage barber’s pole — just like good old Floyd. (Insert your own joke here).

The barber shop is actually the Dragonfly’s next door neighbor. Seems like a minor detail, sure. Yet I was able to dine outside at the sidewalk picnic table and, at the same time, overhear all the latest gossip spilling out the barber’s wide-open front door. Talk about taking in the local atmosphere!  

The hot habanero peppers and lime juice were obviously fused into the fresh apple sauce-like topping (see above). Think of it as a kicked-up version of the old 60’s standby pork chops & apple sauce. The slow-braised pork was really moist and juicy, so I had to refrain from slurping up all the leftover liquid in the bottom of my cardboard “taco boat.” I’m still not sure where the avocado was hiding.  Anyone? Bueller??? 

The view from my picnic table – looking east on Fairhope Ave.  

OK, here’s a closer look at the Kung Pao Chicken (above) with carrot and daikon. Daikon (which is actually misspelled on the Dragonfly menu) is sometimes known as a white radish or Japanese radish. It doesn’t pack much flavor. It does impart some nice crunch.  The chicken was lean, the Chinese spice on point, and the flour tortilla fresh & warm.

We think you will soon be mysteriously drawn to the Dragonfly Food Bar. It’s hip, quirky, and creative. The decor is (like yours truly) a blend of retro and contemporary. Their tacos are mighty fine. Can’t wait to sink my teeth in the Lobster Corn Dog ($12) too. And the Crispy Blue Cheese Olives with Vodka Remoulade ($6). It ain’t cheap, folks. And it sure ain’t Taco Bell — or even Los Tacos. So check your cheap a$$, fast food mentality at the front door, please. You get what you pay for, people — and you’ll get a lot at the Dragonfly. But don’t just take my word for it. Swing on by sometime and take a swat for yourself.

Dragonfly Food Bar – 319 Fairhope Ave., Fairhope – 251 990-5722

www.dragonflyfoodbar.com

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