To ace the food scene in the college town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, you have to think like a local and avoid the stereotypical undergraduate haunts. Your reward will be comforting plates of meat and three (Southern lingo for an entree and three sides), sweet and smoky barbecue and surprisingly authentic Chinese food. Here are some local gems that might just want to make you go back to school:
City Cafe is meant for early risers — breakfast begins promptly at 4 a.m. and ends at 9:20 a.m., just 10 minutes before the start of lunch. Located a quick hop over the Black Warrior River in downtown Northport, this beloved hole-in-the-wall calls it a day at 3:30 p.m.
City Cafe serves up pure Southern charm, from the local business advertisements epoxied to the tables to the cast of regulars who still tell stories about the late legendary Alabama football coach — and lunch regular — Bear Bryant. Of course the homey menu is a big part of its appeal: Think biscuits for days, fried chicken and lemon icebox pie for dessert.
Mr. Chen’s is not your average, college town Chinese restaurant. While the restaurant serves typical dishes like General Tso’s chicken and orange chicken are on the menu, it excels at more authentic examples, such as Sichuan-style pork in black bean sauce and bok choy with black mushrooms.
After your meal, stop by the attached Asian grocery store for imported spices, snacks and sauces.
Burger Done Right
Five understands what turns a bar into a favorite watering hole: a juicy cheeseburger topped with signature bacon relish and accompanied by crisp fries, a daily happy hour with $5 signature cocktails, and an attached coffee bar, if what you really need is a caffeine jolt. (The iced coffee with condensed milk is perfect for a sweltering Tuscaloosa afternoon.)
The look is Southern eclectic — picture chandeliers and decor courtesy of the Kentuck Arts Festival and Alabama-inspired football paintings.
The best barbecue is always matter of some debate. For kitschy atmosphere alone, you won’t want to miss Dreamland Bar-B-Que’s original location on 15th Avenue. In 1958, John “Big Daddy” Bishop served his first slab of ribs here, later adding locations in other parts of Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Order sides of baked beans, potato salad and cole slaw, and grab some white bread to mop up some of the best sauce in the state.
Serious barbecue nerds might also want to check out Archibald and Woodrow’s, which is tucked away near a shopping center and offers even fewer frills than Dreamland. Go here for Alabama barbecue at its finest: fall-off-the-bone good hickory-smoked ribs, paired with a signature sauce with the right balance of tang and sweet.
Game Day Stop
When Alabama plays home football games, the faithful make a stop at Big Bad Wolves, a game day-only source for nachos on the patio of the Houndstooth sports bar on University Boulevard. The long line moves faster than it looks and is worth the wait —get the pulled pork nachos with jalapenos and drown them in barbecue sauce.
Head across the street to Egan’s to down them with a beer and to avoid the hoards of undergraduates. It will no doubt be loud and smoky, but having access to some of the most talented bartenders in town will more than compensate for it.