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Birmingham Restaurants -- Specific Meals

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My wife and I are fairly new to Birmingham, but here is a list with of some of my favorite restaurants and also some that seem to be enjoyed by a lot of the regulars people on Chowhound that we want to try soon. I was wondering what dishes people get at these places that are 'must haves'.

(Note...I realize a lot of these places change their menu)

1. Ocean
2. Highlands
3. Bottega Cafe
4. Chez Fon Fon
5. Gianmarcos
6. Iguana Grill
7. Bettola
8. Mr Chens
9. Jinsei

For me:

1. Ocean -- Haven't perfected this order. Last time I went I got crab cakes which were some of the best I have ever had and the Nori Tuna which was very good but not amazing.

2. Highlands -- never been

3. Bottega Cafe -- Mac & Cheese is probably the best thing I have had here

4. Chez Fon Fon -- We usually get the Burger and an omelette, but I have heard the trout with brown butter is also delicious.

5. Gianmarcos -- We have never been

6. Iguana Grill -- We have only been once and got the Stone plate with Pork Chops, Steak and Chorizo. It was was good and definitely a unique dish (came with cactus). Next time I go, I would like to try the tamales and chile relleno.

7. Bettola -- The filleto might be the best pizza I have ever had (Buff Mozzarella, basil, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, sliced garlic and sea salt). We usually start with an antipasti platter with our favorite part being the canellini bean puree.

8. Mr. Chens -- never been, but I love potstickers and heard they are very good here.

9. Jinsei -- Never been but I have heard good things about the Kadoma Tuna and the Yellowtail Serrano

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  1. An extensive discussion of Chen's can be found here:
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/598343
    As for some of the others: I don't think you could go wrong at Highlands, unless you don't bring money. It's a world-class restaurant. The service there also is stellar and if you tell them what you like, they'll hook you up.
    At Ocean, lean toward the fresh fish.
    At Bottega and Chez Fon Fon I've been getting into the charcuterie platters/plates. People rave about the steak frites at Fon Fon.
    At Bettola I like the pizza with proscuitto, as well as the similar sandwich.
    Iguana Grill: The chile relleno is very good. I should have ordered the tamales when I was there Friday, but made the mistake of getting the carnitas, one of my favorites normally but they're not good there. One of the best things about Iguana Grill is the atmosphere. If you like authentic Mexican, check out this thread:
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/525429
    The places mentioned in there don't just sell tacos, but a variety of antijitos like sopes, burritos, etc.
    At Jinsei, the sushi is probably the best you'll get in town. They also have several kobe dishes.
    As you explore, your best bet is to do a search on Chowhound, using Birmingham as a keyword. Lots of discussions from barbecue to ethnic foods (if you like Indian, check out Silver Coin in Hoover but we have a couple of other good places) to chicken wings or "holes of note."
    Unfortunately, it's been too long since I've eaten at Gian Marco's so I can't make a recommendation, but it's come up on a few threads in here.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Big Daddy

      1. Ocean--The nori-crusted tuna is my favorite. The pan seared black grouper with white cheddar grits is very good as well. The spicy tuna tempura bon bons are an excellent app, but pack a lot of heat.
      2. Highlands--The menu changes so often it is difficult to pick any one thing. As Big Daddy said, you almost can't go wrong there. I went last Thursday and had the the pork two ways (shoulder and belly) with cornbread panzanella, and it was excellent.
      3. Bottega Cafe--Crab cakes (only served on Mondays).
      4. Chez Fon Fon--I almost always get the burger and fries. But, you heard correctly--the trout is very good. Steak frites is also top notch.
      5. GianMarco's--I almost always get one of the nightly specials, so it is hard to single out anything. On the rare occasions when I order off the menu, the spaghetti and the chicken and sausage boom boom are my go-to dishes.
      6. Iguana Grill--Never been.
      7. Bettola--Love the carbonara and the gnocchi, as well as the lasagna (but it has not been on the menu recently).
      8. Mr. Chen's--Never been.
      9. Jinsei--The Kadoma is hands down my favorite dish there. Yellowtail Serrano is good, but not great. As far as the rolls go, I like the Red Dragon and the Shachioko (sp?).

      Must have dishes at other places:

      Sol y Luna--Lobster soft taco.
      Cafe Dupont--Fried chicken breast (they may be doing that only at lunch).
      Fire--Simple grilled fish (usually grouper).
      Hot and Hot Fish Club--Tomato salad (when in season) and the shrimp and grits.

      1. re: pinotboy

        I also like the 7-hour lamb at Fire.
        Hot and Hot: You owe it to yourself to try the pork and beans at least once. It'll change your whole concept of the dish.
        The lobster soft taco at Sol y Luna, as are the pork pibil tamal and street style crabmeat enchiladas If you like tequilla, they have an impressive selection there.

        1. re: pinotboy

          Thanks for the reply.

          I should have included Hot & Hot the first time, it is probably our favorite restaurant in the city. My wife loves the shrimp and grits and I always seem to be drawn to their quail appetizer and whatever pasta they have going that day. Good to know about the gnocchi at Bettola. I love gnocchi and havent seen it on many menus around town. It will be tough for me to not get the Filetto though.

          If you are a fan of crab cakes, you should try Oceans if you haven't already. Excellent.

        2. re: Big Daddy

          Thanks for the great links Big Daddy. I have read a lot of the Bham discussion on the board but I have definitely missed some of the topics. Thats part of the reason I wanted to start this thread, I felt like most of the other ones discussed restaurants in general without going into the more specific dishes about what people love, but you have pointed out some great reading on that topic.

        3. Ocean - try the lobster pot pie. It's rich, but oh, so worth it! And I love the grouper with grits.

          Highlands - the crab cake with beurre blanc sauce. Life changing. Usually offered only on Thursday. Bottega offers a crab cake that's practically identical to Highland's because Frank Stitt owns & operates both places.

          Bettola - I always get the proscuitto, ,mozzarella, grilled chicken flatbread sandwich or the lamb & goat cheese.

          Fox Valley - I think this restaurant is overlooked a lot in Birmingham. It's way the heck out in Helena, but it's a real jewel. They have a fabulous wine selection and the food and service is always wonderful. You can't go wrong with any of their fish dishes. I personally love the beef selections. They've got a filet stuffed with fried oysters that's great. And if you can't decide, they have a great surf and turf - filet & crab cake combo.

          1 Reply
          1. re: sheilal

            Ocean- Love the scallops-they are HUGE!!
            Highlands- got the lamb last time- but everything is great!!
            Fox Valley- got the filet and crab cake-only been once- need to get back there
            GianMarco's- special is always great
            Haven't been to the others lately
            Fon Fon- Love the shrimp and avocado salad- fries are awesome

          2. Stopped into Bettola tonight to pick up a pizza to go. I think maybe they have the best tasting crust I have had on pizza ever. I wish the bottom of the margherita DOC I usually get could be a little crisper but otherwise it's great. Their meat and cheese plates are also awesome as is the arugula salad.

            23 Replies
            1. re: Dax

              Dax, Big Daddy, et al:

              Uptown Jimmy here, with a VERY specific request for our first visit to B-Ham. We're coming into town the weekend of the 16th, 17th, and 18th for my buddy's birthday. I'm not sure we'll be up for Highlands after the wedding reception is over mid-evening Saturday night, as that would put us at the restaurant around 9:00 and that's late for dinner, and weekend crowds are NOT our thing. It kills me to miss the opportunity to eat the best B-Ham has to offer, but them's the breaks, I guess.

              So that probably leaves us with some eating to do Sunday before we head back to Athens. Any suggestions beyond Mr. Chen's? We love Chinese food, for sure. Tasty China in Marietta is a favorite, just really good Szechaun food. Is Mr. Chen's worth getting excited about?

              We're not eager to drop major coin on anything even mildly pretentious unless it's truly superb. We've got pretentious and superb here in Athens. Is there anything as good as Highlands that is open in Birmingham on Sunday?

              Honestly, we love all ethnic quisines, but usually avoid straight-up Mexican because the hot sauce gets me every time.

              Anyway, good food on Sunday for a traveling Hound and his beautiful wife. Hit me with something good.

              1. re: uptown jimmy

                Unfortunately, there is not a lot open on Sundays in Birmingham. See these earlier threads:

                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/633229

                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/518089

                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/569409

                1. re: uptown jimmy

                  Actually the two good Asian restaurants are open on Sundays, both of which are becoming my standard of choice on Sundays (I usually order a lot for lunch then finish for dinner) because of the dearth of other really good Sunday options.

                  Chen's is more Taiwanese than Sichuan/Szechuan although one of the newer waitresses tried to tell me there were some Sichuan dishes (I did not note them on the main menu or table side menu). Are Chen's and Red Pearl good? Yes, they are great by Birmingham standards. I've only been to TC in the Atl once and found it to be very different than the offerings here - Sichuan is just that different. They are still worth a visit if you live here and much better than you will find in Athens.

                  I would say that you would still be ok at Bottega or FonFon at 9, but they will be crowded on a Saturday. Hot and Hot and Ocean will be crowded but not necessarily out-of-control.

                  Sunday you could also do Jinsei but get ready to drop some major coin - unless you're not drinking with the drive back then you should do ok.

                  1. re: Dax

                    We're through with sushi for a while (especially in land-locked Southern states like, oh, AL and GA!), so Chen's it is. We love some good Chinese food.

                    You're right, Szechuan food is a doozy. But we love Tasty China to death. Literally, it sometimes seems.

                    Thanks, Dax! Time to review the recommendations for the mighty Chen's...

                    1. re: uptown jimmy

                      Alabama and Georgia landlocked ??? What about the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean ????

                      1. re: BerkeleySQ

                        Of course your geography lesson is appreciated, and perhaps I phrased myself wrong, but last I checked, lordy it's four hours to the sea from where I'm sitting, far too far to get anything resembling fresh seafood without paying astronomical prices. Is Birmingham a major port? I did not realize. You guys do a lot of shrimping and deep-sea fishing round there, catch a lot of bluefin or Alaskan salmon, that sort of thing? Cuz we don't do it in Athens and Atlanta... ; )

                        If I ever eat sushi again, it's going to be in a major city where I can be reasonably sure that the fish is screaming fresh. Call me silly, that's fine, but while in Birmingham I'm gonna eat cooked food, and probably not much fish, that's all I was saying. So Chen's it is. No big deal.

                        1. re: uptown jimmy

                          Places here (mostly wholesale I imagine, but Saris says he personally gets fresh shipments so …) are getting their fish shipped daily from the Gulf and elsewhere. Jinsei is as good as some of the sushi places in Boston which is a fairly large port town. And as far as avoiding seafood in general, not sure about Chen's, but Red Pearl (which I prefer over Chen's by a slight edge but they are not the same regional cuisines), has live fish, eel, clam, frog, etc. tanks. Can't get much fresher than that with the turnover there.

                          1. re: Dax

                            Which cuisine is red Pearl? We're pretty excited. We're gonna order way too much food so we have leftovers.

                            Man we love frog. And whole fish. Lordy, this might be fun. If you vouch, we'll try anything, Dax, you've always been candid and informative. I love being wrong when it means I get to eat well. But we'll probably avoid the sushi. Really good sushi is always expensive, as you say about Jinsei, so...but now I'm getting tempted by that, even...

                            1. re: uptown jimmy

                              Jinsei has gotten a bad rap from some as being terribly expensive--it isn't. Their rolls top out at @ $15, which is only about $2-3 more per roll than you will pay at most other places in town (and the quality is far superior). Their alcohol prices are extremely high, however.

                              If you decide to go on Sunday night (they are not open for lunch), you are in luck: All rolls are $8 on Sundays. Be sure and try the Kadome Tuna (although it is not a roll)--great stuff.

                              1. re: uptown jimmy

                                Red Pearl is Chinese; maybe more amalgam of regional cuisines because it sure doesn't yell Sichuan or Taiwanese. Maybe general Southern/Cantonese? Those are about the only regional Chinese cuisines I know (and yes, I am including Taiwanese), There is a nice focus on seafood so maybe it is Cantonese.

                                Here is a recent thread. If I can find the updated menu I took home that night, I will try to scan it and link to it somewhere.

                                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/645830

                              2. re: Dax

                                The fish at Jinsei, Ocean and Highlands (among other places) is indeed extremely fresh. Not it-was-caught-a-mile-away fresh, but as Dax points out, these folks do get same-day shipments.

                                You would really be missing out if you skipped seafood at these places just because Birmingham is not smack-dab on the coast. If you are having bluefin tuna at some sushi bar in Tokyo you can rest assured that it came from half a world away, as bluefin don't live in the Pacific.

                                1. re: pinotboy

                                  Well, I can dig it. That Sunday deal at Jinsei sounds tempting, though we go more for nigiri, usually. How are the prices for those little mouthfuls?
                                  I'll see if they have a website.

                                  We've been a little spoiled, I must admit, by the wife's parents having a place in Charleston, where we get fish just hours out of the water at the little fish market on the way home from the beach every afternoon. None more fresh. So delicious. Any fool can create a gourmet meal with fish that fresh, lordy....

                                  1. re: uptown jimmy

                                    Unfortunately, their web site has been under construction for the past three years. But, this site will give you an idea of what they have on the menu: http://www.birminghamrestaurants.com/...

                                    1. re: pinotboy

                                      Boy, that's gonna end up being some website, you betcha.

                                      Menu looks good. Prices seem reasonable. What's the atmosphere? Cozy and traditional, or upscale and fancy? I do love some plain blond wood in a sushi bar, but lordy I'd love some real good sushi again.

                                      Thanks for all the help, guys. I'm excited. Athens is still sorta missing a few major puzzle pieces when it comes to food, but hey, it's a nice little place to live and work...

                                      1. re: uptown jimmy

                                        It has a real "big city" feel to it: See here for a detailed description:

                                        http://www.bhamdining.com/jinsei/

                                        1. re: pinotboy

                                          Alright, kids: against all odds, we're going to both have Friday off, so we'll cruise into B-Ham mid-afternoon and have the option (I guess?) of Chez Fonfon or Bottega for a mid-afternoon snack and beverage before checking into the hotel and getting ready for the rehearsal dinner.

                                          They both seem to have their bars open all day? Which is the better bar menu? I see only references to "limited bar menus" being available. Bottega cafe serves pizza all day? We just want a few fabulous drinks and some REALLY good food from this Frank Stitt restaurant empire we keep hearing about.

                                          I'll call my buddy, the guy who's getting married, and I'll call the restaurants as well, but any guidance you guys can give is much appreciated. Seems like ole Frankie could use some website updating....

                                          1. re: uptown jimmy

                                            I personally would choose Chez FonFon. The burger and pommes frites are out of this world. If you just want nibbles, I would recommend the combo cheese platter. As for drinks, get "The Orange Thing". This is a signature drink that is also served at Highland's Bar & Grille. They have a blackberry cosmo that's fab as well. I usually get wine at Bottega so I can't comment on the drinks. Pizza is available all day. I really like the flatbread with smoked salmon or the carpaccio or the antipasto plate. You really can't go wrong at either place, really. It just depends on the atmosphere and cuisine you prefer.

                                            1. re: sheilal

                                              I agree on the Chez Fon Fon. Another good thing to share would be the charcuterie plate. Decent bears, including a few high-gravs.

                                              1. re: Big Daddy

                                                mmm high gravity bears ...

                                                1. re: Dax

                                                  Well, that charcuterie sounds like my most utmost favoritist cup of tea. Nasty bits make me so happy. And it includes a country pate, right? Heavenly.

                                                  I probably sometimes mostly prefer French, the wife loves Italian, it's like choosing between blondes and brunettes, right? Why choose? Enjoy them all!

                                                  Oh, wait. I'm married. And she'll be choosing for us, maybe when she wakes up sometime tomorrow, or maybe sometime next week, right at the last minute probably. And she mustn't read this post, because my pathetic attempts at racy humor will not amuse her as much as they amuse me...

                                                  1. re: Dax

                                                    Now, are the Unibroue beers considered "high gravity"? Cause we serve that stuff at the restaurant and that's some seriously great beer. Their Maudite is amazing. Such a complex flavor profile.

                                                    1. re: Dax

                                                      Sorry, the piggy flu has knocked me on my h1n1. Of course, I meant to say high grav deer.

                                                    2. re: Big Daddy

                                                      We don't need no stinking bears, high gravity or not. Bears are cute from a distance, but rather dangerous up close.

                        2. I can't argue with anyone else's suggestions here, but just make a couple of additions. Yes, the trout's excellent at Chez FonFon, although I always seem to end up with the moules frites or hamburger. The crabcake (same mentioned at Bottega and Highlands and offered only on Thursday, I think) is also to die for. And the country pate...
                          Wish I could say I ate at some of the top-notch places often enough to have favorites, but the fritto misto at Highlands is so light and crisp it's revelatory. At Bottega, we always get the carpaccio, and I once had a rabbit papardelle there I still think about.
                          Haven't settled on a favorite pizza at Bettola yet but love any with proscuitto or fior de latte.
                          No mention of Cafe Dupont yet, but the fried oysters there are spectacular.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Mediumgoof

                            Its a shame uptownjimmy that you won't be able to make it to Highlands. I've eaten many great places and I can say without reservation that Highlands is worth a trip. Five and Ten is good - sometimes very good - but the last meal I ate at Highlands a year ago had me saying between every bite this is the best thing I have ever eaten - it really is that good.

                            It has been years since I have been to Chez FonFon or Bottega, but I never thought Bottega Restaurant compared to Highlands. Bottega Cafe was always a fun and good place to go for a bite and a drink, and will likely be packed on Friday night.

                            Have fun and enjoy that great city!

                            1. re: Mediumgoof

                              Two favorites I had last year when in Birmingham. Goat cheese-stuffed squash blossoms at Highlands. I can still taste them, so good! The charcuterie plate at Hot + Hot Fish club I enjoyed more than the entree. Very good as well.

                            2. We strongly preferred Chez Fon Fon to Highlands. The service and food at Highlands is very, very good, but the place is just a bit too formal/fancy (and expensive) for our tastes. Chez Fon Fon was a delight, though, with the frisee salad and the charcuterie really hitting the spot, and our server was a pleasure to interact with.

                              We had a great time in B-ham, lovely city!

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: uptown jimmy

                                Glad you had a good time and enjoyed your meals. Let us know when you're coming back for some more suggestions (hint: A spring afternoon under the giant wisteria in the courtyard of The Garage bar is incredible).

                                1. re: uptown jimmy

                                  Forgot to mention, we tried Red Pearl on our way our of town. Umm, this place could use a good scrubbing, to be honest. The bathroom/kitchen/receiving area was, umm, disheveled, I guess you might say, if you were trying to be euphemistic. Would not recommend anyone go out of their way if visiting from our of town, but might drop in occasionally if I lived there.

                                  The fish tanks were drastically low, leaving the fish packed into the very bottom of the tanks and vying desperately to cope with the situation. It was a little unnerving.

                                  Our "server", a young lady, was openly hostile, and even fielded cell phone calls while at our table several times, literally interrupting our ordering/serving process to take calls. Not sure about you guys, but this homey don't play dat.

                                  The food was pretty good overall, the hot and sour soup being wonderful, the dumplings being average, and the pork and bamboo shoot dish being pretty darn good. But lordy, with the grungy atmosphere and questionable food-handling and truly obnoxious service, we'd have a hard time spending any more money there.

                                  1. re: uptown jimmy

                                    Sorry you had that experience. After dozens of trips, I've never had service problems like that. Dumplings, spring rolls and appetizers like that are definitely to be avoided there, because they're just the frozen products the market sells.
                                    And you're right, it ain't the most pristine place. But my experience has been, especially when it comes to ethnic restaurants, holes in the wall is where you find the best and most authentic -- as long as it clean enough to not poison the customers.

                                    1. re: Big Daddy

                                      Totally agree and those gyoza are straight from the freezer in the store. No offense jimmy, but I would never get hot and sour soup when shooting for authentic. Did you see all of the other soups they offer? Duck bone, manilla clam and chinese okra, watercress and pork, etc.