I had to get up at 5 am and connect through Orlando to get to Birmingham for the Vanderbilt-Alabama game on Saturday, so once I got to my rental car I headed straight for Octane Coffee in the Homewood neighborhood, the best coffee place I’ve found in Birmingham. It’s not on par with my favorite small roasters – Intelligentsia, Four Barrel, Counter Culture, Cartel, etc. – but it’s a lighter roast of higher-quality beans than your mass-market chains offer. I hung out for a while to write a few things, including starting the mock draft post for Tuesday, and ended up chatting about SSRIs with a few med school students sitting at my table, then chatting boardgames with a young couple playing Rivals for Catan (who also suggested a newish game called The Duke to me).
I was there long enough that I ended up going next door to the Mexican/BBQ place Little Donkey for lunch. Their midday menu offers plates for $8.75 with two tacos of your choosing, most of which contain large piles of smoked meats, and one of their sides. (You can also get a burrito, a salad, or tamales instead of tacos.) I also added a grilled corn on the cob for $2, and the total was more food than I could consume because the tacos were so much larger than I expected. The pork al pastor was the better option, although I did like the smoked brisket too; the latter probably just had too much meat relative to its toppings. The chipotle slaw was perfectly flavored, with the egg in the dressing cutting some of the sharpness of the pepper, and the elote (corn) was solid-average other than (I’m nitpicking) a very uneven distribution of the paprika on the outside. They make their tortillas by hand, and it was evident as they were worth the trip all by themselves. Reader Aaron, who lives nearby, says dinner isn’t quite such good value, but I thought it was very reasonable for the size and quantity of the lunch.
While I was sitting in Octane, Alton Brown sent out a tweet to his favorite road eats from the southern portion of his national tour, and on it was Steel City Pops, which is located right next door to Octane. Serving large paletas in fruit and dairy options for $3 a pop from five (soon to be seven) area locations, Steel City has a great assortment of straightforward and clever flavor combinations that change from time to time. I went with guava, which tasted like … guava. It was good, though. I wanted to try the caramel or the coffee, but didn’t think I could handle that on top of lunch.
My last meal was a substantial disappointment, due to what I think was a process breakdown in the kitchen. Hot & Hot Fish Club is one of the top-rated restaurants in the city, winning a James Beard Award in 2012, offering a menu full of farm-to-table that reflects seasonal produce as well as any I’ve come across. The menu on Saturday was loaded with spring vegetables across the starters and mains, and I was quite optimistic after seeing the salad, with young lettuce leaves still on the head along with English peas, shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and a tart dressing that might have contained anchovies (although the menu didn’t say so, and that would be an odd omission). Even the breads to start the meal, served with fresh butter and their own green salt with dried herbs, were superb, especially the soft white bread, with the crust of a sponge bread but the tender crumb of a highly enriched loaf.
Then I waited. It was somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes before my entree arrived, and that only because I finally asked my server (the bartender) for an ETA on it. He later explained that when he asked the kitchen to fire the dish, they hadn’t done so, and when it did arrive less than five minutes after he made the second request, it wasn’t right – edible, certainly, not worth sending back, but not right, either. The dish was duck breast with “crispy” duck confit served with creamy grits, a blueberry gastrique, grilled peaches, and pecans. The duck breast was almost too tough to chew or even cut; the confit thigh wasn’t crispy in any way and its meat didn’t want to come off the bone. The gastrique was absent, although there were maybe a dozen cooked blueberries in two pockets on the plate. I dislike sending food that is edible back to the kitchen; something has to be unsafe to eat or cooked beyond palatability for me to take that step. This wasn’t at that level; it was just done wrong. The bartender had the kitchen send out a small cup of their spring pea soup, pureed with fresh mint and creme fraiche, but that was – and I don’t use this word often or lightly – terrible. The peas tasted both raw and underripe, so the soup was grassy and very bitter. We grow English peas in our backyard every spring, and when ripe they are juicy and sweet and perfect right out of the pod. Sometimes we pick a pod that isn’t ready, and that was the flavor in the soup. The kitchen just had an off night.