Tag Archives: reviews

The Sweet Burger Smells of Home – What I learned from a revisit to Tony’s

30 Dec

A few years ago, I wrote about an affinity I have for a small mom/pop burger place south of Birmingham – Tony’s. It’s homey, with a line stretching nearly out the door most days. The food is good, better than good. But even then, I wasn’t really sure why I liked it so much, until recently, it all came together.

I still really like the place, and I like that it seems to have a following of everyday, regular people – business people, parents, grandparents, etc. Tony was there slinging burgers and dogs that day.

But the why … let me set the way-back machine for the late 1970s or even early 1980s.

Wayback

Tony’s takes me back … to how I remember homemade burgers tasting as a kid. Cooked on a stovetop, in a skillet, smashed down to brown, with the ever-present smell of seared meat and fat wafting around … then the patty was topped with garlic salt, maybe pepper and seasoned salt. The smell is unique. And it’s the way I remember a burger when my mom (and on a rare occasion, dad) and my grandmother cooked them.

  • We didn’t just dash off to fire up an outdoor grill.
  • No premade patties
  • God help you, no broiler…
  • You can try and remove some of the grease with a paper towel, but it’s kind of like trying to keep toddlers clean at the table

A trip to Tony’s reminds me of those times. It’s not just homey, but the smells, the spices and flavors remind me of home, family.

I realized as I ate my burger – it’s served on a giant sesame seed bun, with lots of mayo to give it that rich flavor that mixes so well with seared meat – that over the time I’ve been reviewing burgers, I’ve probably had several that are better made, better all around. Tony’s fries are good, always crispy. But they are from a bag …

No, what I like most about eating a burger at Tony’s – and what is most difficult to explain to people when they ask why I like this or that burger – is that eating a burger at a place like Tony’s make you FEEL GOOD. It makes me feel good:

  • It reminds me of being a kid and home
  • It tastes good
  • You know it’s not good for you (and that’s part of the allure, for sure).
  • It’s also stripped of pretention. It isn’t trying to be a burger place; it isn’t trying to be hip; it isn’t trying to have a burger that could be served at a five-star place … it’s just a place that makes burgers and dogs. It’s an honest burger, from an honest place.

So, enjoy your burger, wherever it may come. Enjoy it cause you paid too much from it; enjoy it because it’s one of the best; enjoy it because it reminds you/comforts you … but most of all Enjoy It, and the slice of the good life that it is.

Galley and Garden: Afterthought burger possibly?

3 Dec

History is littered with many great and forgotten afterthoughts – Ed Muskie, the theory of relativity, the Roebuck part of Sears. But a burger being an afterthought is, in the case of Galley and Garden in Birmingham, unnecessary.

Relatively new to the Birmingham fine-dining scene, G&G is in the old Veranda location on Highland Ave. It opened approximately one year ago and is run by Chef James Boyce, who has a menu of established, excellent restaurants – including Cotton Row in Huntsville.

The menu is varied – with emphasis on local ingredients and seafood. Reviews have generally been very positive. Service – both from reviews and in my experience – was anywhere from excellent to adequate. No issues. It’s upscale. It’s creative. And the pedigree/past helps it.

Why then was the burger I received from G&G such a disappointment? And I ask that question knowing WHY I was disappointed… but the bigger question… well, let’s save it.

Several new/old friends joined me at this lunch. The appetizers were excellent – duck confeit fries and fried oysters. Both delicious. Both presented very appealingly. I could have licked the platter of fries …

Then the entrées came. Two orders of shrimp and grits and two burgers ordered exactly alike – the G&G Burger. Nothing but generally positive reactions to the shrimp and grits. But the burger … from both of us … mmehh.

IMG_2904Underwhelming. The G&G burger (available on the lunch menu for $13) is described as: “grass-fed beef, pimento cheese, bacon, gratitude farms bibb lettuce, tomato.”

Some thoughts:

  1. The presentation of the burger was attractive (see pic). While “elegant” and “burger” don’t often share descriptive space, this one was both.
  1. Some of this may be seasonality, but the overall flavor of the burger was a bit too understated, flat. Nothing really stood out (except it was heavy on the salty side with the cheese and bacon). I’ve experienced this before with burgers wearing eau de pimento cheese … It should work. It looks like it would work (cheddar cheese and meat, with pimentos). But it just never brings its.
  1. I specifically asked – as I always do when given the opportunity – for the burger to be cooked medium. I know … it’s not the rules; some places cook all their burger to MW or above. Mine was cooked MW, as was the other burger in our party (we both requested M). But if you were going to cook it to MW, why ask? And if it was simply a mistake, it’s fairly laughable for a place that likely serves the most expensive pimento cheeseburger in town … it ain’t eatin’ at Western Sizzlin’.
  1. I don’t have confirmation – so consider this a question. But the bun on my burger looked, felt and tasted distinctly like a bun that you could get off the shelf next door at the Western Supermarket. It’s possible it was some artisan bun/brioche/roll, but it looked like a hamburger bun, felt like a bun and tasted like a bun … hence I remember it as a bun (or maybe duck confeit bun).

Overall, the burger was okay – but truly nothing spectacular. It’s neither the best nor the worst in Bham, and you can get a pimento cheeseburger several places (Jackson’s, Blackwell’s to name two).

And G&G has another burger on its bar menu – the Birmingham Burger, which is more straightforward and on a brioche bun.

So, let’s circle back to the hanging question: this G&G burger is neither primary to the menu nor a shining example of the establishment’s or chef’s abilities. Thus, why is it on the menu? Otherwise, the menu is chocked full of exceptional dishes, accompanied by a burger that really is not bad but also not especially noteworthy.

An afterthought… like this line … something that a good editor would likely have deleted.

"Galley

Yelp Review

Buck Mulligans: Ulysses and an Ironically Fine Burger

24 Nov

Call it a little Irish irony that the latest visit for the beautimousburger blog was to an Irish pub — typically places of simple pleasures and pursuits — named after a character in an almost unreadbable, unapproachable novel. The location of Buck Mulligan’s — in the former Black Market space on Highland Avenue — has a lot of personal memories associated with it:

  • I may or may not have introduced a best friend to a mind eraser at this location on or near his wedding eve … In fact, I may have introduced him to several
  • I may or may not have gone to my first burlesque show in this building
  • I may or may not have made out with some woman there … and can’t recall the woman’s name or even the name of the bar at the time (and if we’re Facebook friends and you recall this, I absolutely remember now; it was life changing … thank you so much).

The name “Buck Mulligan” comes from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Buck’s a nice lad, liking his food and drink. And he may be one of the few amiable characters in an otherwise depressing and wretched book. And there is a delicious, somewhat ironic parallel between the book and the food at this relatively new addition to the Southside of Bham..

Burgers and burger experiences are not all equal. There is a beauty to the simple presentation of a burger at a hole-in-the-wall burger joint. It’s Americana; it’s homey-ness. It’s bluegrass or shaped-note singing. It’s accessible and shared. It might be delivered in paper, or on something disposable. Simplicity, however, doesn’t guarantee goodness. And at the same time, complexity and creativity aren’t necessarily counter to a good burger experience.

As impatient creatures, we don’t always appreciate slow, or something requiring more than a quick glance to consume/understand… which is where the book and the burger meet on the same page …

Reading Ulysses was part of one of the first grad classes I took, and is one of those books that you’re supposed to read. But I think the world might be a better place if we could get an actual, legitimate account of people who have finished it — every page, and give them some long suffering reader award. Modern readers, accustomed to 140 characters, probably won’t even make it out of chapter 1 (which features Buck Mulligan). It comes from that strain of creativity that emerged in the early 20th century that embraced complexity and the shattering of old tropes (and that revelled in ironic self-reference) for it’s own sake — think Absalom, Absalom! by Faulkner, Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, etc.

IMG_2895And the book is beautiful on multiple levels; the complexity and irony in it adds to its depth and its art. The burger at Buck Mulligans — with its Guinness sauce, spinach leaves and garlic aioli on a sweet/brioche-type bun — could make similar claims in the world of burgers.

Buck’s opened in the summer of 2015, and the food — what I’ve experienced — is well conceived and well executed. I sampled the corned beef and have been told the fish and chips are excellent. But for all its claims to Irish pub-ness (which it can legitimately claim for most of the food), it’s also not a burger joint, by any stretch. Might there be a winking, self-referential, ironic nod in a place that transacts on the homey feel of an Irish pub (with thoughts of green beer, songs and lots of beer/whiskey) and also features shaved brussel sprouts and kale on a salad? Is the idea of a night of Jameson shots and a salad liver cleanse a cocktail you’d fix for yourself?

And none of this takes away anything from Buck Mulligan’s fun ambiance and tasty food. It’s actually an admission that a place that raises the bar on pub food in Birmingham is doing it with a good natured, post-modern nudge in the ribs. So yes, an Irish pub has a really good burger that is topped with “aioli”  — a burger that I would recommend (and likely enjoy again) — a complex and delicious burger. It was cooked as I asked (not MW, I live on the edge for medium). And the combo of fried onions and the Guinness sauce were a sweet and salty mix that works. With other fun touches — hints of garlic, spinach and grill scores on the bun, it’s good, better than good. It’s a very artistic presentation that is equal to the taste.

And yes, I had a lovely discussion with co-owner Michael Gordon about fries (both he and the other owner Danny Winter were present when I visited). And Buck’s hand-cuts their fries. They are shoestring size, crispy and a nice compliment.

  • Burger — complex tastes mix well together  … 8.75
  • Fixins — not a complete surprise, and it works … 8.5
  • Presentation and ambiance — it’s a pub with good Irish-themed pub food … 7
  • Fries — you had me at hand-cut … 8
  • Costs — moderate

I’ll go back to Buck’s. I enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed a place that has a good vibe, with food more intricate than you might at first expect. But just don’t ask me to re-read Ulysses …

Buck Mulligan's Public House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

http://www.yelp.com/biz/buck-mulligans-public-house-birmingham?hrid=fcKFlGs8BaJS1lINvpjBSQ

Happiness Project: If you’re Prince, it’s cool to be weird

24 Mar

Today, I’m equating guilty pleasures and being happy. If chocolate cake or porches or whatever can bring a few minutes of happiness, I owe at least a nod to his majestic purple weirdness. If I’ve had a guilty pleasure when it comes to music, it has been Prince since the early 1980s.

I was a little bitter at that time in my life … (trust me, I’ve gotten over it). The whole world was not-Lady and not-man Gaga over this one-gloved, unusually high-pitched voiced guy who kept promising the world … over and over … that he wasn’t Billie Jean’s lover.

All the time, I was sneaking reads of the words to Darlin’ Nikki and hoping whichever radio station played “Let’s Go Crazy,” wouldn’t use the short version of the song, which cut off a few seconds of the guitar solo at the end.

Man, that annoyed me.

I was a Prince fan already, because 1999 had been a staple of the band bus. I didn’t have a copy of it, but I knew which songs on it that I liked: 1999, DMSR, Lady Cab Driver and Delirious (I was never that crazy about Little Red Corvette … though I like Corvettes … and the songs was kinda slutty, you know).

My parents – God, love em – didn’t monitor my music a lot, but there was no way I was going to see Purple Rain.

But when I got in high school, I bought a copy of Around the World in a Day, the follow up album to Purple Rain. To non-Prince people, it’s the Raspberry Beret album …

Which brings me to an important Prince-point: the crap on the radio was usually the often doofus-music, as he might tell you himself, schlocked together for Warner Bros. Raspberry Beret was catchy, but with the depth of a your basic sideline or locker room interview.

There are plenty of songs on that album that I flat wore out. And I used to be able – all you oldsters will know of what I speak – to flip the tape at just the right point to begin songs I wanted on the other side of the tape.

I liked that he was catchy, lurid and everything that rock and roll should be. But I was completed taken to another level of weird appreciation when I read the liner notes … I don’t have them around, but let’s just agree on one Prince thing, which was crystal clear from reading those notes:

That is one conflicted dude! All the stuff about God and thanking God for this and that, then songs like Temptation, about sex and going to Hell.

I’ve endured much in my Prince appreciation:

  • I actually watched “Under the Cherry Moon” and “Graffiti Bridge.” Get the soundtracks. As for the movies … If you need a film review, let’s put it this way: Madonna’s films look good compared to these; Roger Corman looks like Stanley Kubrick; those are not tears coming from my eyes … it’s the blood from gouging my eyes out.
  • I quit caring during his symbol days. It went over the top, even though there are songs I like.
  • Not everything – especially stuff done to get out of the Warner contract – is his best work. He mails it in, on occasion.

But I look past all this to his purple funkiness. Enjoy some clips of a couple of my favorites …

Ballad of Dorothy Parker

http://www.dailymotion.com/embed/video/x6njop
The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker (Live at Leno) by CJanssen

Anotherloverholenyohead

http://www.dailymotion.com/embed/video/x6rcff
ANOTHERLOVERHOLENYOHEAD Live 1986 by samsarax

http://www.dailymotion.com/embed/video/x93d85
Prince Lets Go Crazy / Purple Rain tour 1985 by Recoda321

Check out these great blogs, too, from other happy people.

Happiness Project: To all the words I loved before …

20 Mar

I like to think of myself as a complicated man (it’s been my experience that most people think they are, too … but no, really, I AM). I grew up in the country and have fought dirt clod wars, wormed cows and baled hay. At the same time, I studied medieval literature and swore off Bette Midler for the last 20 years.*

*I tried telling Bette to leave me alone. Yes she’s brassy, but CLINGY. I just said, “Enough woman, I banish you for the decade of the 1990s” … and it just has seemed to carry over.

I’ve hit a stage in life – a nice one – in which I’m old enough to know better but sometimes I’m too old to care. And at the heart of it all, I will admit to being a geek. A word nerd. I’m a writer, for heaven’s sake.

Thus, words make me happy. I love them. I’ve been accused of thinking too much, but some of these words give us a refreshing, summer-like view of life and why we’re spinning on this planet.

Like the people who’ve passed in and out of my life (and I feel like I should be breaking out in Willie Nelson/Julio Iglesias “To all the girls, I’ve loved before …”), I have words that have left a lasting impression on me. I think about these words, because in various areas of my life, they have spoken to me. They have spoken of the interconnectedness that we all share, because they sometimes give deeper meaning to something. They remind me that to hold two disparate ideas at the same time is more fascinating than insane.

Or maybe I like them just because I think words are cool.

  • Communicate – the same root word, “commune” is at the heart of the words community and common. It’s cool to me that the word we use for where we live is also the word for the process of exchanging information and ideas. When you add in that the word communion is also connected to this, it points to something other-wordly and un-defineable in how we communicate. Words themselves become the connection between people. It really is a mystery that we have specific words that mean specific things — like dog being a dog. But somehow, it’s like we have a connection we can’t explain, understanding where its unexpected and a yearning to be … connected with others.
  • Remember — Memories are sometimes all the happiness that we can tap into. But if you’re like me, I can’t say I have some catalogue in my head and can tap into those ideas and feelings at the drop of a hat. I have to remember them. I’d not thought much about what that means until someone pointed out to me the word is a combination of “re” and “member.” That’s awesome, folks! Memory isn’t about a little snapshot; it’s actually a process of making us whole again. It returns the displaced part of us, of our lives to a wholeness.
  • Adventure — A word used in the Christian church to evoke awaiting, anticipating something (advent) is the same word that we use when we talk about something exciting, heading into the unknown. The meaning seems to have evolved: one meaning before it happens and the other the entirety of the experience. And in the end, they both point to how we are changed and readied for something bigger and more important by walking boldly into the future.
  • Value — Not too much on this one, but I do like that it means both something that I place a worth on and at the same time, it means what is intrinsically important about something. It kind of points to the importance of the action of placing value on something … but at the same time, maybe not. It’s complicated.

There are other words. But you may have some of your own. Feel free to leave any you love in the comments, because they are likely to have made both of us happy at some point.

If you haven’t already, visit some of the other great people who have taken the happiness challenge … Here are links to their blogs:

Happiness Project: A Mexican Revolution

13 Mar

There are a couple of rules that I believe are wise to live by:

  1. Don’t go out of genre when you eat somewhere
  2. If you make a promise, you need to keep it.
  3. I cannot and should not be held responsible for anything said or done under the influence of tequila.

That last one is harder and faster than the first one. Most of my head-slapping-est experiences of the past 40 or so years – at some point along the way – included either, “let’s just do one more shot” or “can you bring me another margarita.”

But when it comes to Mexican food – or what we like to call Mexican food round these parts – margaritas and lard aren’t the only things that make them a happy place.

Some people catalogue their lives – Facebook Timeline style – by the songs they remember along the way. I can catalogue my life by the Mexican restaurants that I’ve had a relationship with over the years.

Until I was in college, Alabama was really a Mexican food wasteland. Now, you’ll find some diehards who will argue that places like El Palacio’s or El Gringos (in the various locales they were in) were exceptional. They were exceptional in the way that a crank telephone was hi-tech at the turn of the century … but I don’t see many people today hauling one of those babies around in their back pocket cause it fits better than an iPhone.

The other George Wallace

When I was in grad school at Alabama, I had a friend name George Wallace Law, III. He was in a strange, have-to-see-it-for-yourself way, a combination of Governor George Wallace and George Wallace, the comedienne. About 250 lbs., white as a sheet and with a voice that was twangy and a bit high-pitched for someone his size. George ate at La Fiesta in Tuscaloosa every day … the same food at each meal … Chicken Nachos and a sweet tea … and if he had his way, it would be served by “fast-as-Hell Ricardo.”

I tried to get him to go to other places – Pepitos on the Strip – but he was comfortable at La Fiesta. And if Mexican food has become anything in this state in the last 20 years, it is pseudo-ethnic comfort food … with an order of cheese dip.

After Emma was born, we had a Mexican restaurant of choice, Guadalajara in Hoover (closed). She would eat plain tortillas, and we always made the mistake of going on mariachi band night, which led to the rather awkward experience of having the band come over and croon the Barney theme at her (with the look of “I have your cojones, amigo, and will be expecting a tip for our fine playing”).

George Wallace ...

Damn dinosaur! Damn mariachi!

A move to East Birmingham … and more Mexican food relationships developed … Sol Azteca, another Guadalajara, Habaneros, and a lot more. There was a time, as a young man, that I looked over the checkbook and saw my small discretionary money being funneled consistently toward this taco turnpike.

And with more moves and places coming and going, the list goes on … Pablos, San Antonio Grill, Habaneros, Las Pinatas, Sabor Latino, Los Amigos, El Cazador, El Palacio …

Some of the best family and friend memories I have of the past 30 or so years come from being with others and enjoying these cheap but plentifully available meals:

  • Watching the green enchiladas do their work, to get labor started so Emma could join us in this world. Then, years later, turning to green salsa to encourage Ben to leave that wonderful place, that warm, safe place …
  • Finding a place that served white salsa in Williamsburg, Va. Never had it anywhere else … and the hombre wouldn’t fork over the recipe, either. It’s closed now … gone.
  • The, to quote Emma, “freak-ass clown” — and it was a real clown — who came to ChiChi’s in Eastwood, and made balloon animals … and probably LSD back in the kitchen.
  • Eating at El Cazador in Eastwood with the Archibalds and the Yarbroughs … and Emma breaking some large piece of pottery that was next to a fake fireplace … it was a one-time Western Sizzlin’
  • At the El Palacio’s in Irondale, when Emma and John Yarbrough were mostly engaged with trying to stuff the most gumballs possible in their mouth … They used at least $5 on those gum balls … that’s the price of a margarita, for God’s sake!
  • I went to Maine, and was denied any decent Mexican food (and by the way, I nearly cried when we ate at Cracker Barrell in Poughkeepsie, NY). The only place near Freeport — an unholy union called Pedro O’Haras! When I woke up on our way home, leaving from Hagerstown, Maryland, I planned the whole trip home around getting back in time to eat the Fajita Chicken Nachos at Pablos that night, before they closed.
  • Realizing that not all margaritas are created equal. Two of the strongest in Bham — Chuy’s and Cocina Superior. Thus, I have fuzzy memories (of which I cannot be held responsible) of being there with works friends — Valerie Ramsbacher, John Hill, Steve Welch, and others. I also remember a post-divorce trip, instigated by two other single work friends, Linda Childs and Sonya Smith, and discovering that mojitos have just as much kick. I also, at least vaguely, remember several fun dating memories in recent times … way too many margaritas at CS with Dawn Hammack, and at Chuys, enjoying the sunset on the porch with Cherie Cornelius and getting there right as happy hour started with Heidi Rowe and watching the staff fight with the door … oh, and getting the free food.
  • Then there is Betsy. She’s been eating salsa, probably in her bottle. By at least 18 months. Not so much eating the chip as using it to shovel the salsa in her mouth. We starts ’em early!

The chips and salsa are on the table, and I’m ready to order … So, enjoy, amigos … cause with me, happiness comes with order of beans and rice.

If you haven’t already, visit some of the other great people who have taken the happiness challenge … Here are links to their blogs:

Sam’s Super Samwiches – a load off my mind

12 Nov

Brace yourself: I can be a bit stubborn, with a side order of procrastination. And no, I’m not impressed by the people who’ve just jumped up to second that one! Sometimes, that stubbornness manifests itself in me choosing not to do something – like when I went years without getting a mobile phone.*

* Which I can also say that I haven’t gotten yet, in a technical sense, since the  phone was kind of forced on me by a previous boss … But it’s now the only phone I have and I am a bit addicted, not that this has anything to do with this story.

I’ve been putting off a trip to a hamburger stand of high regard, not because I didn’t want to go. I’ve put it off because I know the owners (XX, Sue!). A lot of this blog is just for fun, but I take seriously what I write about; if I don’t like it, you’ll know. See my Purple Onion review.

I’m breathing a sigh of relief now that I’ve actually been to Sam’s Super Samwiches in downtown Homewood. First of all, the place is an icon. There are a lot of nice shops in the revitalized downtown Homewood. Most are a bit high-brow, but there are a few hold-outs, like Sam’s.

Sam’s is really a hot dog stand, in the Birmingham sense of the word. Its look, feel and food, to a degree, are evocative of the Greek-inspired hot dog stands in downtown Birmingham (see my review of Lyric Hot Dogs). It can get busy and frankly, if you want a place to sit and eat, you’ll likely need to be willing to eat on the curb (not the Curb that used to be in Homewood … the actual curb).

That’s not to dismiss it; it’s just not a sit down place. It’s a place to order a great dog and a tasty burger.

First, on the burger; It’s a sloppy, delicious mess. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you decide to eat outside (which you’ll probably want to do, instead of trying the few counter spaces). And let’s say, that it’s freakin’ cold. And you don’t want to move … GET SOME NAPKINS BEFORE you walk out.

The burger is grilled on a griddle, not too firm and not too loose. So, it’s juicy and has a great, not too seasoned taste to it. I got the SuperCheeseBurger … and then saw someone next to me with a SuperCheeseBurger with bacon. Damn. I wish I’d thought of that, cause I would have arm wrestled that little pip-squeak for it. Beautalicios was there; she would have tackled his parents. The fixings on the burger as just about perfect, with chopped lettuce and onions that mingle so nicely. I almost thought I heard them singing Kumbaya.

But Sammy’s is definitely a low-tech establishment where you should check your pretense and desire for pomme frites at the door. It is gloriously a throw back, not in a Johnny Rockets-plastic way, but it a WYSIWYG way. It’s a hot dog and burger stand. No trays. Your food will come wrapped in paper.

Now, if I said this was the best burger in the town, then my quest would be over and you’d not have the pleasure of reading more of my reviews. Sam’s has a tasty burger, but my quest will continue. Plus, Sam’s has something else going for it – reputation and being a local institution. Plus it has a good dog, too.

Points are 1-10 (ten being the best)

Meat – 8.75 … I have no idea about the origin of this burger species, but the meat tastes fresh. It’s also treated in a way that doesn’t dry it out or make it too runny. (According to a source, who is — should I call it “inside the ownership” — the meat actually comes from the Pig down the street, patties made daily.)

Bun and fixins’ 8.75 – This was a nice surprise, with the lettuce and onion mixed and the sauce not too overpowering.

Sides – (unsure) … Well, I don’t think that I can give real points for fries on this one, since you can’t get them there. Chips, you can get. However, the homemade chili and having a hot dog could be kind of a side … okay, I did that, but I’m a glutton. All in the name of my craft.

Service & Presentation – 8 … I like the feeling of being moved through a line a warp speed and not have someone cranky about it (I’m looking at you Niki’s). There’s nothing wrong with no plates and having everything on paper; fits the place.

Ambiance – 9 … You can’t pay for nostalgia.

Rating – A+

Sam's Super Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

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