Wade on Birmingham

Books: Excerpt from Emily Brown’s ‘Birmingham Food: A Magic City Menu’

By

Emily Brown, Birmingham Food

The following chapter is an excerpt from Hoover author Emily Brown’s “Birmingham Food: A Magic City Menu” [aff. link]. She is a Birmingham native and a food writer with a bachelor’s degree in English from Birmingham-Southern College and a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She’s also a good friend of mine who once gifted me with a cookbook of her favorite recipes.

Her book looks at the vibrant food scene in Birmingham, including its roots in immigrant culture.

In this excerpt, Brown looks at a Southern and a metro favorite, barbecue.

• • •

Chapter 5, Barbecue

When it comes to barbecue, Birmingham has more than its fair share of options. Whether you prefer sandwiches or plates, traditional sides like slaw and potato salad or more modern accompaniments like organic cheese grits and sautéed local greens, there’s a barbecue restaurant serving up what you want. Local franchises can be found in any corner of the city and surrounding suburbs, and loyalty to a particular brand can sometimes be passed down through generations, much like ownership of the restaurants themselves. Supposedly more than 500 barbecue restaurants have opened in Birmingham since 1920, and though some remain only in the hearts and memories of residents, the new guys in town are earning reputations for seriously good meat.

Golden Rule

One particular brand of Birmingham barbecue grew from a small mom-and-pop establishment to a chain with popularity across the state. In 1891, in the community of Irondale, just east of Birmingham, the Williams family opened a small barbecue joint named Golden Rule BBQ, a good stop on the road to Atlanta for travelers. They served pit barbecue, specializing in pork plates, but also sold beer and cigarettes and did the occasional automobile repair as years went on. In the 1930s, two Williams sisters still ran the business when one, named Ellene, married a man named Jabo Stone, an electrician who owned Stone Electric Company. Soon Ellene brought her husband in to help with the restaurant, and the two ran it together for almost 40 years, serving the same pork plates and selling beer to the locals.

The Stones sold the original property and location of Golden Rule, with its dirt floor, shortly after taking ownership to move closer to the county line, a large spot with room for the family home behind the restaurant. This new location kept the dirt floor in the kitchen, but customers were invited to dine on the wooden floor spanning the walls of the dining room, much like a deck on top of the ground. With the expansion of U.S. 78, Golden Rule moved again and took the opportunity to modernize equipment in the kitchen as well as add metal awnings and neon signs to help with visibility from the highway. With all these changes, it’s no wonder the Stones spruced up the menu with the invention of their barbecue sandwich, which customers could order with chopped inside or outside meat or a mixture of both. The Stones ran Golden Rule when there were separate dining areas for whites and blacks, but they also ushered the business through desegregation in the 1960s.

Since Ellene and Jabo had no children of their own to pass on the business of the Golden Rule, when they were ready to retire in the late 1960s, Jabo began searching out a savvy businessman to whom to sell the restaurant, someone he could trust to keep Birmingham’s oldest continually operating restaurant going. He’d become a fan of Michael’s Sirloin Room and its proprietor Michael Matsos, so he approached him about buying the Golden Rule. Matsos eventually agreed, though he claims to have brokered their particular deal so that the Stones’ only significant payment for the restaurant was a 20-year royalty deal because he didn’t want to pay anything for the restaurant. He joked that Jabo got the better end of that deal for sure. “Jabo Stone made lots more money than I anticipated paying on the royalty,” Michael said, which must have hurt his pride a bit as a well-known sharp businessman. But Michael and his son, Charles, whom he eventually brought on to help run the business, made their own large successes with Golden Rule in franchising and selling the sauces. When the family sold a majority of the chain in 2009, there were almost 25 Golden Rule restaurants across the Southeast.

But back in 1969, when Michael Matsos first bought Golden Rule from the Stones, the restaurant had to move once again, this time due to construction of Interstate 20. This move was essentially across the street from the previous location, and the restaurant has been in the same spot for over 30 years now. The Matsoses pride themselves on selling the same pork plates and sandwiches, and this original location still sells Coke in glass bottles, something old-timers remember fondly. Michael made sure to keep the same style pit for cooking, though the current one is considerably larger than in the old days. “All the cooking is done right out there in front of the customer,” Michael said. “And he knows what he’s getting.” Matsos put his own spin on Golden Rule though, aside from the expansion. He was responsible for bringing in chicken, ribs and beef brisket to the menu and even adding french fries as a side. Each type of meat has its own special sauce to go along with it. The original tomato-based sauce for the pork plate or sandwiches has changed only slightly from the days of the Williams and Stone families, and the Matsos family has added a sweeter sauce to better accompany ribs and chicken. They’ve even developed a mustard-based sauce for customers who might have grown up with a different style of barbecue and for franchises outside the state. These changes have helped with franchising, giving Golden Rule a universal appeal, and Michael credited his son, Charles, with being instrumental to the franchising idea and process.

These days, the Golden Rule does a booming business, even selling pies, such as the lemon icebox pie, made famous at Michael’s Sirloin Room. The menu might have changed a lot from the days of pork plates and cigarettes; customers can enjoy a barbecue salad made with smoked chicken and honey mustard dressing if they’re not up for one of Golden Rule’s pork sandwiches smothered in thick barbecue sauce. And while variety might be good for business, attracting a wider range of customers, Michael knew the cornerstone of a successful restaurant is always good, friendly service. “The restaurant business as a whole is very difficult because you may have a good product, but if you don’t have good service to go with it, you have nothing,” he said. “I’ve always believed you can’t compromise quality for a price. Quality comes first. That’s been our motto, and I think we’ve been very good at it.”

In an especially Birmingham-style twist of fate, Michael’s son, Charles, who was the driving force in franchising Golden Rule and a savvy restaurateur in his own right, decided to open a hot dog restaurant in 2012: G-Dogs and Gyros. The idea came to Charles after eating hot dogs topped with his mother’s special recipe for thick and tangy sauce with his mom and dad one day. Unfortunately, Michael Matsos passed away just a few weeks before his son’s newest venture became a reality, but Charles said his dad was excited about the prospect of his casual restaurant serving their family’s version of the historic Birmingham hot dog.

Ollie’s

It’s no secret that barbecue in Birmingham can spark controversy, even if the issues only arrive in the form of debate over sauce preferences. But one longtime Birmingham barbecue institution made national history in the 1960s for a different type of controversy, namely refusing to serve African Americans at its counters and tables even after the national civil rights movement successfully brought an end to the 1914 Birmingham law requiring racial segregation in public eating places. Ollie’s Bar-B-Q in Southside put itself at the center of national discussion when it challenged the segregation law’s repeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — and lost.

Ollie’s wasn’t always such a den of contention, however, and had even been a favorite spot among African Americans and Caucasians alike. In 1926, James Ollie McClung, a former Merita Bread deliveryman (when it was delivered by horse-drawn carriages), opened Ollie’s Bar-B-Q in a small wooden shack on Green Springs Highway. The original building sported a tar paper roof, plank floors and screens nailed in the windows, but the signature thin, vinegary sauce that topped trimmed, lean pork slow smoked over both hickory and charcoal for 10 hours — a process that kept the original owners and cooks working through the night — drew crowds from the predominantly African-American neighborhood in which the restaurant resided as well as from surrounding areas. The McClungs claimed the slow-cooking process, which encouraged any remaining fat in the meat to drip down onto the coals and further flavor the smoke, made their barbecue the “World’s Best.” The barbecue stand found such success that the McClungs had to expand in 1949 and again in 1959, passing the responsibilities of the restaurant down to a second and third generation.

In 1964, James Ollie’s son and grandson Ollie Sr. and Ollie Jr. ran the business, closing on Sundays to show their conservative principles and placing signs on every table that read, “No profanity please. Ladies and children are usually present. We appreciate your cooperation.” White customers made up the restaurant’s base, and regulars could be served at the tables. But even after repeal of the restaurant segregation law, the McClungs continued to serve African Americans only takeout from the end of their counter. By the end of that year, the Ollie’s case ended in the Supreme Court, where the law requiring that “all persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any public place of accommodation … without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion or national origin” was upheld. A major victory for the civil rights movement, the ruling inspired Reverend Edward Gardner of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to remark, “There will be no more sit-ins, but from now on there will be walk-ins.”

The McClungs and Ollie’s Bar-B-Q complied and continued to change with the times. In 1968, when Interstate 65 was constructed right in the path of Ollie’s, the barbecue place moved again, this time just a bit farther down Green Springs Highway to the memorable round building it occupied for the next 30 years. As Ollie Jr. took over more of the restaurant’s operations, the restaurant saw changes to the original menu as well — though never to the original sauce. Barbecued chicken and barbecue salads were added to the menu that also included a seasonal mincemeat pie (with meat). In the early 1970s, the McClungs also began bottling and selling their sauce, which sold well at select locations. By 1999, Ollie’s Bar-B-Q had moved once again, this time to the city of Pelham, about 20 minutes south of downtown Birmingham. The final incarnation of Ollie’s lasted until only 2001, when declining sales and a lack of long-term interest by younger family members to maintain the business forced it to close. But despite the troubled history of Ollie’s, the restaurant is still remembered fondly by many, as evidenced by the continued sales of its unique sauce.

Jim ‘N Nick’s

Nick Pihakis of Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q has wanted to be in the restaurant business since he was 15 years old. At age 19, he started working at Rossi’s, one of Michael Matsos’ establishments, and stayed there for the next 8 years, learning the trade. By then his father, Jim, was ready to retire from his career in insurance and suggested they start a family business together. Nick jumped at the chance to join his father in living out his restaurant dream, and in 1985, they purchased a pizza franchise. The company’s corporate headquarters decided not to allow transfer of the franchise and asked them to take down the signs, basically to cease and desist, which is when Nick and his father decided to try their hands at a Southern tradition: barbecue. They hired a former cook from Ollie’s to come and teach them everything he knew about cooking pit barbecue. Once they had their technique down, customers started coming in, though for the first few months the restaurant operated without a name or a sign. Nick said he and his father kept polling their customers, asking for suggestions for the new restaurant’s name. Most suggested they name it after themselves since they were always around, and Jim ‘N Nick’s was born. Soon, they expanded to a second location in the over-the-mountain neighborhood of Riverchase in Hoover, and once suburbanites got a taste of Jim ‘N Nick’s delicious food, which they could easily enjoy at night and on the weekends, the restaurant’s growth really began. As of 2014, there were 34 Jim ‘N Nick’s restaurants around the country, each owned in partnership with a local, and five more are expected to open in 2015.

Now Nick focuses on a business philosophy he calls “lateral service,” which essentially means he believes in taking care of his employees, nurturing them, teaching them and helping them achieve their goals, which translates into good service and a good experience for the customers. Even with 3,500 employees, Nick still considers Jim ‘N Nick’s to be just a big family, and he believes in treating everyone as such. To him, barbecue has always been about family and sharing good food and good times with friends, forging those connections between people over a plate of food of which everyone involved can be proud.

Aside from cooking really great barbecued pork and smoked chicken with traditional sides like greens, macaroni and cheese and more, Jim ‘N Nick’s is famous for its addictive cheese biscuits. Each party gets a basket of these buttery mouthfuls served when it is seated, but customers often keep asking for more and often have to wait while a new batch comes out of the oven. Everything is done fresh at Jim ‘N Nicks. The restaurants don’t even have freezers. Nick says that when they hire people who have come from a chain restaurant background, they basically have to teach them how to cook. He has some quality help at his Southside location, however. Harry Pasisis, who ran Tom’s Coney’s hot dog stand from the 1950s to the 1980s, still comes in a few mornings a week to prep sauces and cheese biscuit batter and a few other things. Nick got to know Harry growing up in the Greek church and said their families have been great friends ever since he can remember.

Though Nick didn’t grow up in the restaurant business like a lot of second- and third-generation Greek immigrants in Birmingham, he does recognize the tradition he’s continuing by owning such a successful restaurant business for almost 30 years. Jim Pihakis was the first generation of Pihakis men born in America, after his parents immigrated to Pennsylvania from Greece. His job in insurance transferred him to Birmingham, which is where Nick grew up, among a community of Greeks who were mainly in the produce, hot dog or restaurant business. Some, like Michael Matsos, even owned her. “It’s about the experience more than it is just about the food. We connected with it. We understood it. I understood food.”

In fostering a sense of personal pride in his employees and local owners, Nick has empowered them to give back to their own communities in meaningful ways. Part of Jim ‘N Nick’s agreement with its local owners is that at least 1 percent of sales will go to support community outreach programs. The company does not advertise, relying instead on these outreach programs focused in schools and churches and on teaching children and adults more about healthy eating to gain name recognition in each neighborhood. In Birmingham, Nick sits on the board at both Jones Valley Teaching Farm and Pepper Place Farmers’ Market, two places dedicated to increasing the quality of and access to healthy food in our community, as well as educating people, whether through classes or cooking demonstrations, about better food choices. (Both organizations are covered in a later chapter.) “Our goal is to develop the next generation to be good servants to the community,” Nick said.

As a companion to service and outreach, serving the best-quality food available is also at the core of Jim ‘N Nick’s philosophy. “We want to always use the best-quality food we can afford and buy local as much as we can,” Nick said. Honesty in preparation and choosing the best recipes for its guests extends beyond the food served in Jim ‘N Nick’s restaurants, too. Since 2003, Nick and his restaurants have cultivated a close relationship with the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group dedicated to recording and preserving the history of Southern foodways, a process that encourages conversation and a democratic atmosphere in which change and growth can come about. Through this relationship with the Southern Foodways Alliance, Nick and a group of other chefs, restaurateurs and writers have formed the Fatback Collective, an organization whose members come together to learn, share and help one another. The Fatback Collective has competed in the Memphis in May barbecue competition and also helped rebuild two barbecue restaurants that burned down, but its biggest enterprise of its brief existence has been the Fatback Pig Project. No longer satisfied with just serving the community through their restaurants, Nick and the Fatback Pig Project have purchased a pig-processing plant in northern Alabama to try to fill the gap left in pig farming and processing since Bryan Meats closed in Mississippi. They’re trying to find a steady and sustainable market for farmers to grow heritage breed hogs. Then the plant processes the meat into things like bacon for Chef John Currence’s Big Bad Breakfast, which opened a second location in Birmingham, and Donald Link’s Cochon. The final goal for the group is to market its higher-quality product for wholesale. “We feel like we can carve a niche out,” Nick said. “With our buying power, we felt like we could make a difference putting farmers back to work.”

The fact that Birmingham is home to two distinct and successful barbecue chains with appeal beyond the state just proves that it’s more than the food that makes customers loyal to a restaurant. With Jim ‘N Nick’s, the warmth and communal spirit honor the particularly Southern spirit of hospitality while the focus on quality and sustainability for the future of hog farmers across the region brings the restaurants into the forefront of modern food concerns. Considering the first Jim ‘N Nick’s opened just a few short years after Frank Stitt began his crusade to make Birmingham a notable food town and the fact that Jim ‘N Nick’s has flourished for this long, the future of barbecue in Birmingham is in good hands.

Saw’s

Speaking of the future of barbecue in Birmingham, one of the newest and most original and forward-thinking barbecue franchises around town still maintains a steadfast connection to traditional roots, even when it comes to its unique vinegar-based sauce. Since Mike Wilson first opened Saw’s BBQ in Homewood in 2009, Birmingham residents have been clamoring for his pulled pork, smoked chicken, savory sauces and traditional sides, which is impressive in a market already known for lots of great barbecue. And with Mike’s expansion into two other restaurants, Saw’s Soul Kitchen and Saw’s Juke Joint, plus a food truck, Saw’s Street Kitchen, it’s clear that Birmingham can’t get enough of his artful and unpretentious food served with soul. Mike came to Birmingham initially in 2000 to work in the test kitchens at Cooking Light magazine, one of the publications put out by Southern Progress in Birmingham. At the time, Birmingham was just beginning to see an awakening in terms of notable high-end cuisine, but there weren’t a lot of non-chain, casual places to eat that still offered quality eats. In his native North Carolina, Mike had often spent weekends off from his job as sous chef at Dean and Deluca barbecuing with friends, experimenting with different cuts of meat, smoking times and eventually coming around to mixing his own rubs to season and color the meat. “I’m one of those guys trying to make everything homemade,” Mike said. So eventually, he even developed his own sauces, which are vinegar based, like those from Ollie’s were long ago. Once Mike came to work at Cooking Light, he still kept up his weekend hobby of smoking meat, and occasionally, he’d bring in leftovers to share with his co-workers. Word got out, friends raved and begged for more and Mike started thinking about finding a food truck so he could sell his barbecue more professionally at nights and on the weekends when he wasn’t at the test kitchens. A photographer friend suggested a space in Homewood for Mike’s commissary kitchen, something he’d need if he could find a food truck to purchase, but since it was so close to Broadway Barbecue, he balked, not wanting to step on anyone’s toes. Mike did like the Broadway Barbecue space, though, and mentioned on a Thursday he’d be interested in buying it if the owner ever felt like selling. By the next Tuesday, the deal was done, for less money than it would have cost to start up a food truck, and Mike took 2 weeks off from Cooking Light to open his Saw’s BBQ restaurant, keeping all the equipment from Broadway and even keeping on two employees, one of whom, Ms. Anna, runs the Homewood location still. By the end of those 2 weeks, Mike knew he couldn’t return to his job at the magazine. The restaurant was an immediate success.

Saw’s BBQ is small, like an old-school barbecue joint. Aside from the delicious meat, which Mike says stands out because he doesn’t chop it, it’s all pulled, customers enjoy traditional sides like greens, macaroni and cheese, corn, deviled eggs and more. The place felt immediately like it had been around forever and is warm and inviting with its close tables and smoky scent wafting to the street. “I try to take care of the little things and instill it in other people I work with,” Mike said when asked why he thinks he had such immediate success. “You’ve got to take care of the little things, and the big things will come. It’s all about the food, to me.” He also takes pride in the fact that they serve the same ingredients, from the same places, that high-end restaurants around town use.

Mike’s second location, Saw’s Soul Kitchen in Avondale’s newly vibrant neighborhood, came about just as much by chance. A friend suggested Mike meet Brandon Cain, a former chef de cuisine at Ocean who was ready to go out on his own in the restaurant business. They started talking with Coby Lake, one of the brothers who owns Avondale Brewing Company, an anchor in the neighborhood, and bought the spot with all the kitchen equipment and utensils almost the second they saw it, knowing it would be perfect for Mike’s dream of a casual restaurant with great hamburgers and seafood sandwiches, plus his barbecue. The standout at Saw’s Soul Kitchen, however, is the pork and greens. Perfectly seasoned and sauced pulled pork sits on top of a bed of cooked greens and creamy cheese grits, all topped with crispy, thin onion rings. When Alton Brown came to town in 2014, he raved about the ribs at Saw’s. The third Saw’s location, Saw’s Juke Joint, opened in the Crestline neighborhood in 2012 and allows Mike and his partners Doug Smith and “American Idol” winner Taylor Hicks to combine the signature Saw’s flavors with the atmosphere of a fun, neighborhood bar. The latest Saw’s iteration is the food truck, serving a mobile version of customer favorites like huge, deliciously messy burgers and bringing Mike’s restaurant dreams full circle back to a food truck.

Always on the move and looking for his next opportunity has helped Mike find spaces for new concepts and expansions of his brand at the right time, every time. His partnership in Post Office Pies, the new artisan pizza joint down the street from Avondale Brewing and the Soul Kitchen, has gained national attention for Birmingham and the restaurant’s chef and partner John Hall. John Hall is a Birmingham native but spent time at Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York after culinary school. While in New York, John ran a bike-delivery pizza restaurant out of his apartment kitchen, and his love for crafting pizzas was born. Post Office Pies is a modern take on a classic, with toppings like house-made sausage and local vegetables on wood-fired crusts, but they keep a foothold in tradition with the restaurant’s booths, which came from the old Michael’s Sirloin Room. Within months of opening, Post Office Pies was named one of the Top 33 pizza places in America by Thrillist.com, and Chef John Hall was featured in the New York Times, high praise indeed.

With hints that expansion into other states, in some form, is in the works for Mike, he’s poised to become one of the more recognized chefs and restaurateurs from Birmingham. But his humble and grateful attitude makes Mike’s successes well deserved. “Without the customer you don’t have any of this,” Mike said. “It’s just about right and wrong. If you’re not going to serve that plate to your mother, don’t serve it to my guests.” He believes in treating people right and treating people fair, from the customers to his staff. “You’ve got to be honored,” Mike tells his staff. “These people worked hard for their money and are going to spend it on something we’ve created.” Birmingham has definitely been welcoming to Mike, and he’s grateful. “I’m thankful people in Birmingham embrace us and are adventurous … I think [Birmingham’s] changing for the good, and it’s only going to get better.”

• • •

Emily Brown has her launch party for “Birmingham Food: A Magic City Menu” from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Alabama Booksmith in Homewood. Upcoming signings include 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 18 at Chickadee and 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 18 at Birmingham Bake and Cook Co., both in the Cahaba Heights neighborhood of Vestavia Hills.

“Birmingham Food: A Magic City Menu” (Aug. 3, Arcadia Publishing)

Emily Brown

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