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Magic City eats: A culinary tour of Birmingham combines history, world cultures

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Amanshwa Takele is the owner of Ghion Cultural Hall. Takele, who also owns a Ghion location in Atlanta, said Ethiopian food is prepared healthier. (Reginald Allen, for The Birmingham Times)

By Ariel Worthy

The Birmingham Times

Amanshwa Takele is the owner of Ghion Cultural Hall. Takele, who also owns a Ghion location in Atlanta, said Ethiopian food is prepared healthier. (Reginald Allen, for The Birmingham Times)
Amanshwa Takele is the owner of Ghion Cultural Hall. Takele, who also owns a Ghion location in Atlanta, said Ethiopian food is prepared healthier. (Reginald Allen, for The Birmingham Times)

Generations of African Americans and other minorities have passed down recipes and dishes from decades ago that still are relished today. Much of that food can be tasted in restaurants scattered throughout the Birmingham metro area. Some are renowned for their award-winning delicacies and top notch service. Others are favorites among celebrity customers. At a few, the owners personally serve customers.

Over the past month, the Birmingham Times visited nearly two dozen minority-owned restaurants, cafes, and other establishments to enjoy their flavor. One thing they all had in common: family atmosphere, a loyal customer base, and good food.

“I know most of my customer’s names,” said Otha Nichols, owner of Kat’s Kreations in Center Point. “We keep getting new customers, but about 70 percent are repeat customers.”

For the owner of this newly opened restaurant—which offers menu items like Chicken Dressing, Pork Chops, Chicken Broccoli Casserole, and Oxtails—it is very encouraging to see people coming back.

“That means we have a good thing going,” Nichols said.

Selecting fresh options is important, too.

“I try to cook seriously. I don’t fool around with it,” said Delores Banks, owner of North Birmingham’s Eagles Restaurant, renowned for its oxtails and chitterlings. “I get the best ingredients. …  Nothing is canned here. I buy fresh greens, and wash them and boil them before I cook them. I go the extra mile for my food. That’s why it’s so good.”

Often, black-owned restaurants are continuing a legacy. Take Nelson Brothers Café in downtown Birmingham, for instance. Owner Jessie Nelson hasn’t changed the menu or the recipes his father used when the café was opened in the 1940s.

“I still use his Sweet Potato Pie recipe,” said Nelson, 76.

He sticks with original recipes—such as the one for Egg Custard Pie, a customer favorite—not only because of its taste and popularity but also because many of his customers are generational.

“We have customers who date back three generations,” Nelson said. “Their grandparents came in here back in the day, and now they come in here.”

Not all popular eateries have brick-and-mortar locations. Travis Chicago Style, Birmingham’s first food truck, is popular with customers across the area. Owner Travis Holmes, who has been in business for 40 years, has traveled all over the nation selling his famous beef burgers (the truck doesn’t serve any pork), which are smothered in homemade barbecue sauce and piled high with onions, peppers, and mustard. His best-seller: the five-pound Chicago Bear Burger with Polish sausage, grilled onions and peppers, cheese, and Travis’ special sauce.

Post Office Pies owner John Hall returned to the Magic City after stints at New Yorks Gramercy Tavern and Per Se. Reginald Allen, for The Birmingham Times
Post Office Pies owner John Hall returned to the Magic City after stints at New York’s Gramercy Tavern and Per Se. (Reginald Allen, for The Birmingham Times)

A New Spin

Many new restaurant owners put a spin on traditional dishes by offering vegan, pork-free, gluten-free, and paleo options so customers with different tastes can still enjoy the foods they love.

Ensley’s Sumthin Good is a pork-free establishment that will start offering vegan fare in May.

“When our people try to eat healthy, many think the food tastes bad, … so we’re trying to serve food that is healthier and good,” said Jehudijah Woods, who owns the restaurant with his father, Eddie Yerby.

Sumthin Good is known for its turkey meatballs and turkey necks.

“We care about what we put in your food,” said Woods. “We’re trying to teach people that they can eat well, and it can still taste good.”

Z’s Restaurant in downtown Birmingham is also known for its pork-free fare.

“[A lot of] vegetarians eat with us, so we don’t put any meat in our vegetables,” said owner Ezekiel “Zeke” Hameen. “Some people say, ‘If you don’t have any pork, I don’t want it … but I guess I will eat that turkey.’”

Hameen’s restaurant, nationally recognized for its vanilla bean pie, is styled to resemble a living room and dining room.

“We try to create an at-home atmosphere,” he said. “Some people want to hear soft music, so we have albums of gospel music. We want you to feel at home.”

Juan Beras left and Luis Delgado plan to open Miami Fusion Cafe in May. Reginald Allen, for The Birmingham Times
Juan Beras (left) and Luis Delgado plan to open Miami Fusion Cafe in May. (Reginald Allen, for The Birmingham Times)

 

Something Different for the City

T-Bone’s Authentic Philly Style Cheesesteaks and Hoagies, located in Five Points South, is Birmingham’s only Philly cheesesteak shop. The owner—Philadelphia, Pa., native Anthony Crawford—started the restaurant because he couldn’t find a cheesesteak in the city.

“We fill that niche,” said Crawford, 51, who has the bread for his sandwiches shipped from the City of Brotherly Love. “The opportunity was there. A good sandwich is something you can’t deny.”

Crawford believes Birmingham is experiencing a renaissance of black-owned businesses, many of which want to give the city something different.

Birmingham native John Hall, owner of Post Office Pies, lived in New York City for a while and ran a late-night pizza-delivery business from his apartment. He took the orders, made the pies, and delivered them on his bicycle. When he returned home in 2013, he decided to open his restaurant the following year in a former Avondale post office—hence the name.

Ghion Cultural Hall brings authentic Ethiopian food to the Magic City. The restaurant, located at the downtown Pizitz Food Hall, serves food in the traditional Ethiopian style—served on injera, an East African sourdough flatbread. Instead of using utensils, diners use one hand (traditionally only the right one) to tear off pieces of injera, which is used to grasp and eat the flavorful stews and salads.

“It’s something most people here have never had,” said owner Amanshwa Takele. “We do everything different: the seasoning, the taste, how we eat it. It’s very different.”

Takele, who also owns a Ghion location in Atlanta, said Ethiopian food is prepared healthier: “We have vegetarian and vegan choices, but we also give you a lot of food.”

With Ghion now in Birmingham, residents have another dining option.

“People have driven to Atlanta for the food, and now it’s right here,” said Takele. “[Ghion] is a good place for the city of Birmingham.”

Another different option: Puerto Rican fare at Tropicaleo in the Pizitz Food Hall

Tropicaleo offers authentic Puerto Rican dishes, such as Mofongo—fried plantains that are mashed and stuffed with meat—and Puerto Rican Sweet Bread.

“We stick to traditional recipes, but we make a point of using local ingredients,” said owner Isabel Medina, 27. “There are a lot of parallels in Puerto Rican and Southern cuisine, which has made it easier. Everything except the plantains are local. We make our own bread and everything here.”

Miami Fusion Café, expected to open in May, fuses two popular types of cuisine: Caribbean and sushi.

“We’re bringing something new here,” said Luis Delgado, part owner of Miami Fusion. “Not everybody eats seafood, but we have a sushi chef. We’re coming back with new flavors to give to Birmingham.”

Pillars of the Community

In addition to serving up a variety of food, black-owned restaurants also serve as pillars in the community and models for young adults, particularly those interested in starting their own businesses.

“I came from Bessemer,” said Rodricus Hunter, owner of Bessemer’s Kaylyn’s Food for the Soul, which is known for its oxtails. “I was 25 when I started. I did it young. If could do it, then [others] can do it, too. I know a lot of people who have opened their own businesses.”

Good food does more than just inspire and nourish—it can serve as common ground.

“People are going to always eat,” said Walter Thomas, owner of East of the Mississippi Diner (customer favorite: Baked Chicken) in Five Points West Ensley. “People will always gather where there is food. There are always good times when food is around.”