The Best of Huntsville by Mike Kaylor
Café Berlin on Airport Road in Huntsville may be Huntsville’s most consistent restaurant.
This is its 22nd year in business as one of the better neighborhood additions from the reincarnation of an area devastated by 1989’s tornado that hit South Huntsville. The German restaurant first opened in the Westbury Shopping Center and later moved to the present location on the north side of Airport Road.
While consistent in quality and service, the restaurant varies its menu from time to time. My favorite meal also changes with passing years.
As a beginner to German cuisine, I believed chicken cordon bleu was the safest choice. As I grew more adventurous, I enjoyed the saucy veal cutlets in cream sauce or smothered with a fried egg. The gypsy schnitzel – pork drowned in a spicy cream sauce – became my most recent favorite.
Now comes something new. The name of the dish caught my curiosity because it reminded me of a former newspaper publisher.
King Ludwig chicken is saucy, bold, and portly. The menu describes it as “open faced chicken cordon bleu.” That translates to chicken stuffed with ham and cheese, and it is swimming in a rich sauce.
I don’t remember King Ludwig chicken as a schnitzel entrée on the menu during my last visit as a restaurant critic for The Huntsville Times. Nor am I sure what I would have said about it then.
Today, though, it made an impression on me and left me with more pleasant memories. And Café Berlin just keeps getting better.
(Click this Café Berlin link to find an earlier review.)
-- January 6, 2013
Oriental Neighborhood Fare
Panda Japanese & Chinese Restaurant is clean and quaint. It’s the perfect neighborhood restaurant for a diverse community like Huntsville, Alabama.
So, why is it almost always empty? How can it survive? The Panda obviously has some secrets that keep its doors open.
The sushi is one. A small bar at the rear of the restaurant contains fresh seafood, sticky rice, seaweed, and seasonings for delightful sushi and sashimi creations. The Dragon Roll is a safe and tasty choice for both beginners and connoisseurs.
Crab Rangoon is a great appetizer. Add a sushi roll and fried rice to make a meal for two. The Rangoon consists of deep-fried wontons stuffed with a crab-and-cream cheese filling, perfectly seasoned. It’s mouth-watering.
Take-out orders must be the life-breath of the Panda. Before even offering seating, the hostess will ask if the order is to go. You get the feeling that’s what most customers want.
Those folks should slow down and relax. The Panda is warm and cozy, and some of the servers speak excellent Southern English. That’s something you don’t find in every Oriental restaurant.
Panda is in the very corner of South Huntsville’s Whitesburg Plaza Shopping Center. If you want to dial it into your GPS, the specific address is 5000 Whitesburg Drive, zip code 35802. At times, its savory aromas drift through the entire neighborhood.
If you’ve never been there, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
--November 26, 2012
Huntsville’s Best Sandwich
Looking for Huntsville’s best sandwich? You’ll find it at a hometown restaurant called Dallas Mill Deli. I seem to find a new favorite there on every visit.
The deli’s Southern Reuben is tops this week. Order it, and the kitchen staff is quick to explain that this is not the classic pastrami-and-sauerkraut specialty. The Southern Reuben cushions a thick slice of bologna between rye toast. It is dressed with a Thousand Island dressing, kraut, and American cheese. For about $5.50, it is delicious.
Of course, not every customer can appreciate the distinctive tastes of sauerkraut and rye. Worry not. You can still find your own favorite here.
Before the Reuben, the toasted pimiento cheese sandwich was tops. Order it on white or wheat bread. If you ask for it all the way, expect lettuce and tomato. It costs just under $4.
For about the same price, you can get what might be Huntsville’s best burger. It is pretty basic, but with a delightful taste. You never know what makes a cheeseburger special. This one is reminiscent of one served in the bar of Huntsville’s long-ago Boots Restaurant.
Dallas Mill Deli has become legendary as a hometown restaurant in only a few years. It opened in 2006 near the intersection of Pratt Avenue and Washington Street, just outside of the historic Dallas Mill Village. Its walls are covered with pictures and memorabilia from Huntsville’s past.
The deli became a neighborhood hangout for downtown office workers and professionals, as well as residents of the nearby historic districts. After several years in business, it stopped serving breakfast and put a lunch truck on the streets to hit the city’s research parks and construction sites.
Another of the best choices at Dallas Mill Deli is its strawberry pretzel salad, which is listed as a dessert. It is a refreshing combination of strawberry gelatin and sweetened cream cheese on a pretzel crust. It’s displayed in a glass cooler with other desserts and salads. If you’re on the run, stop and grab a slice of it. You’ll be back soon.
Dallas Mill Deli is at 500 Pratt Ave. N.W.; zip code 35801. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The phone number is (256) 489-3354.
Say hello to Kaki, who works there. She’s my daughter.
--November 8, 2012
Farewell to Pauli's
One of Huntsville’s premier restaurants, Pauli’s Bar and Grill, has closed its doors. Owner Paul Thornton this week e-mailed his loyal patrons that this was “the hardest decision I have ever had to make.”
Pauli’s and its adjoining tapas restaurant, Vinotini, closed permanently last Friday night. Thornton had planned to turn ownership of the restaurant over to his mother, but “her financing fell apart,” he said. That led to his decision to close.
Thornton’s message went to customers who participated in his “Birthday Program,” an electronic messaging network that he said he plans to expand city wide. He said customers with gift certificates can e-mail him, and he will find another establishment to honor the offer or make other restitution.
Pauli’s opened at the corner of Slaughter Road and U.S. 72 West in 1998. Thornton had earned a reputation on the staff of the Green Bottle Grill on Airport Road, which was Huntsville’s top restaurant of the 1980s and ’90s. Matt Martin, also from Green Bottle, had been executive chef at Pauli’s for nearly a decade.
Thornton’s farewell e-mail thanked his family and friends for their patronage at Pauli’s. He lauded the loyalty of his staff and encouraged other restaurants to offer them new opportunities.
--October 2, 2012
City Café Diner in Huntsville is much more than its name implies. Neon lights create a retro perspective. All-day breakfast and black-and-white aprons are hints of a diner. Meatloaf, liver and onions, country-fried steak or catfish filets are standards at most Southern cafes.
But what about chicken Marsala, Greek moussaka and Cajun jambalaya pasta? Who can imagine nearly half-dozen variations on the gyro?
City Café Diner offers all of these without sacrificing quality for quantity. And helpings are plentiful.
This restaurant has its roots in Savannah, Ga., and branches that reach as far north as New York. With more than two dozen locations, it still seems to have no official website. Google “City Café Diner,” and you’ll find thousands of choices.
That’s much like the official printed menu soon to roll out in Huntsville. It has page after page of selections – enough to cover 24 hours a day, which will soon be the regular schedule. City Café Diner began opening at 6 a.m. this week.
The restaurant is next door to Cracker Barrel off South Memorial Parkway at Drake Avenue. The building was first a Mexican restaurant called Tia’s Tex-Mex before being transformed into a Chinese Royal Buffet. As City Café Diner, it has become open and spacious, with a dineresque noise level and lively atmosphere.
Business has been brisk during its first few weeks open, and repeat customers are becoming the norm. A huge dessert case is hard to miss coming in or leaving the restaurant. Expect to pay between $8 and $10, whether you have breakfast, a mid-day sandwich, or dinner. A few entrees range up to $15.
RaeRay tried breakfast there about 11 a.m. Tuesday. Service was very good; pancakes and eggs-and-bacon were pretty basic. Grits had the texture of oatmeal.
We’ll go back, though, for the gyros, the patty-melt, the Reuben, the liver-and-onions and the lasagna. City Café Diner has it all.
--September 11, 2012
Zoe's Kitchen adds a new niche to Huntsville's restaurant scene. Zoe's is a fast-casual, Mediterranean-influenced restaurant founded in Birmingham some 13 years ago.
The Huntsville location is on Whitesburg Drive, in the former Tony's Little Italy space at Village on Whitesburg. It adds a new dimension to this restaurant haven at the corner of Whitesburg and Airport Road, which features no fewer than eight eateries now and another under construction.
Hummus, orzo, Greek salads, kabobs, pita chips, and wraps give the restaurant its Mediterranean theme. Potato salad, eggs salad, and pimiento cheese add a Southern flavor. The pimiento cheese differs from Mom's with its spicy kick.
Someone's mom must have made it this way, though. The original Zoe's Kitchen was a mom-and-pop's eatery in Birmingham's Homewood subdivision, operated by Zoe Cassimus and her husband Marcus. In 2002, their football-star son John, a former running back for the Alabama Crimson Tide, joined the operation. Since then, more than 60 more Zoe's locations have appeared across the South from Maryland to Arizona. Huntsville's is the 13th in Alabama.
Zoe's opened on Thursday, and the restaurant was spilling over at midday when RaeRay came to visit, needing to be at work in precisely one hour. The crowd seemed overwhelming, but once through the line, our food came in a minutes.
As mentioned before, the pimiento cheese sandwich had a spicy kick, in spite of its claim as a "Southern favorite." It's listed as a vegetarian offering.
Topping the list of grilled sandwiches is the Gruben, which is as good as any sandwich in Huntsville. It's a variation on the Reuben only replacing the corned beef, sauerkraut and Thousand Island with grilled turkey, slaw and spicy mustard. All of this on rye creates a robust savour. Even the roasted fresh vegetables -- boring at other restaurants -- burst with flavor.
On this day, RaeRay could have tried Yaya's hand-made chocolate cake or house-baked cookies for dessert with time to spare. But, no, let's get on to work. Forty minutes was the total time -- not bad for the second day of serving.
What other restaurants are on this corner of Airport and Whitesburg? Well, here's a list of just the northwest quadrant:
Ding How II
Nothing But Noodles
Shane's Rib Shack
--July 6, 2012
I apologize to anyone who has looked here for a new review over the last few months. I’ve lapsed, but I plan to do better. Several things I could have pointed out here if I just took the time. A project called Raeray’s Great Adventure again proved to me how much I love writing. It filled some of the space in my mind that has been empty for some time. This renewed venture with thebestofhuntsville.biz can do the same.
My eating habits have changed drastically since I began punching a time clock. Years of setting my own schedule left me eating once a day at times—often just at lunch with friends or dinner with the family. Now I have a pastry or cereal for breakfast without fail. If I have a lunch hour, I come home for two sandwiches or leftover chili or meat and vegetables. When I can eat out, I make convenient choices.
Regular habits are difficult when you may work one day at 6 a.m., the next at 1 p.m., and then at 10 a.m. Quick meals on the way to work might consist of a Schlotzsky’s sandwich, a plate full of Krystals, or the $5 special from Hardee’s, which includes a burger, hot dog, fries, dessert, and drink. If I have time, I’ll stop at Mellow Mushroom, where a slice of pizza and salad – the Caesar is very good – is a reasonable lunch, minus the exceptional tip for my daughter, Morgan, who works there. My favorite noontime meal on mornings off is the toasted Pimiento cheese sandwich at Dallas Mill Deli, where my other daughter, Kaki, works.
During free evenings, my wife, Jenny, and I hit the special deals at nearby restaurants. Ruby Tuesday continues to prepare us its Parmesan cream sirloin from a previous menu. We do the Chili’s two-person deal with spinach dip and burgers, or we take advantage of Logan’s Roadhouse’s special that includes the mini –desserts in a pail. And practically every Wednesday, we order dinner to go at Bonefish Grill, where the famous Bang-Bang Shrimp is on special at $5.
These are a few of my current BESTs, but I vow to keep more coming in the future. Please join me in the journey.
--June 26, 2012
Sandwiches are packed with pork. Southern-style sides include black-eyed peas with okra. Sauces are tangy and slightly sweet. Huntsville has a new restaurant, and it’s called Moe’s Original Barbecue.
Moe’s has its own niche in the smokehouse tradition. Think barbecue, and the mind races to cities known for their own cooking styles: Memphis, Tenn.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Lexington, N.C. Where do you find Moe’s? It’s in Vail and Denver, Colo., Daphne and Fairhope, Ala. That gives Huntsville a special distinction, along with Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.
I had suggested Moe’s in Tuscaloosa several times over the last year, but my daughter said I could try the one in Huntsville anytime. We always ended up at more legendary Tuscaloosa restaurants, including Nick’s in the Sticks, The Waysider, and 15th Street Café. I finally discovered Moe’s in Huntsville this afternoon.
The atmosphere has the informal feel of Dreamland yet the warmth of Gibson’s. Customers order at the counter the way they would at Thomas Barbecue, then wait for the cook to call their name. Sandwiches and platters include pork, chicken, turkey, and catfish. The restaurant also has a shrimp Moe boy and a chicken wing plate. Prices are for a full meal: $9 for sandwiches, $10 for plates; both include two sides and a drink.
Sweating over the grill is a young cook that looks more like a computer whiz than a barbecue man. Yet he makes customers comfortable calling them by name to pick up their orders and again to invite them back as they leave.
The pork sandwich is stuffed with moist and tender meat and dripping with Moe’s special sauce. Special sides include an intriguing black-eyed pea dish with tomatoes and okra. Macaroni and cheese is another daily special, made with a mild white cheese. Banana pudding is a choice any day of the week.
Moe’s is in the former Chef’s Table building on Cecil Ashburn Drive just east of Carl T. Jones Drive. It is fast and informal and like nothing else in the bustling Jones Valley development. Give it a try.
--From April 25, 2011
Chicken cordon bleu schnitzel was my favorite meal for many years in Huntsville. Only two restaurants served it. Then I discovered the gypsy schnitzel -- a pork cutlet smothered with a sauce of myriad flavors. It was another dish that drove taste buds wild. The dish put Café Berlin among my favorite local eateries. Its sister restaurant, Ol' Heidelberg, had been on the same level since 1978.
The last time I reviewed it for The Huntsville Times, Café Berlin earned the top rating of 4 forks and 4 waiters. That was probably 10 years ago. The restaurant today is better than ever.
Joining the bratwursts, schnitzels and other German delicacies of old are tenderloin, tilapia and even tapas platters. Iceberg wedges and Caesar salads are additional options to traditional red cabbage and sauerkraut. Creamed spinach, cauliflower or brie macaroni and cheese are unique side dishes. Desserts are still delightful.
The chef no longer worries about visits from a newspaper critic. He has no reason for it. The food and the service are impeccable.
--From April 16, 2011
Favorite Meet Markets
Where do you go to find new friends in Huntsville? Here are a few suggestions for the happy hour and after-work crowd.
The mood for food, friends, and music
Train whistles along the nearby tracks can’t drown out the constant laughter nor the lively sounds at LeeAnn’s restaurant. This is more than a gathering place. The food is outstanding at lunch or dinner and reasonably priced. Huntsville’s favorite bands play practically every night. The bar is always surrounded by friendly faces. 415 Church St. N.E., Suite 13. Phone: 489-9300.
Over-the-top gathering spotTake an elevator ride into a lively setting overlooking the historic downtown streets. Welcome to Mason’s Pub. This is an upscale sports lounge with a diverse crowd of regulars. Professionals come from the central city, and technoids arrive from faraway research parks. 115 East Clinton Ave. Phone: 704-5575.
Loud and lively
The restaurant itself is named for the massive Mexican furniture that fills its dining room. But the outdoor patio and friendly bar are the main attractions of The Furniture Factory. Local bands keep folks rocking at this popular hang-out. 619 Meridian St. Phone: 539-8001.
Dividing up the Pie
Huntsville started out with two original pizza parlors in the 1960s that still survive in some form. They are mentioned elsewhere in THE BEST OF HUNTSVILLE. This section spins the real dough on today’s neighborhood pizzerias. Each part of town has its own favorite.
New York’s Finest
Tommy Bergin grew up on the streets of New York, where every borough and practically every block claimed bragging rights to the finest pie. He fell in love with Huntsville and decided Bridge Street Town Centre would be his new neighborhood. He and his wife,Christy, have made a lot of friends through Tommy’s Pizza. 325 Bridge Street N.W., Suite 101. Phone: 327-8600.
College kids from around the Southeast are well acquainted with this neighborhood pizza hangout. Mellow Mushroom is a legend in Atlanta, Auburn, on the Gulf Coast and across the South. It always has a local flair. This one is Space Age, and it’s located in the chic Providence Town Centre community. 470 Providence Main Street, Suite 102. Phone: 864-2727.
The Cove’s Upper Crust
A bustling bedroom community for Huntsville’s high-tech research centers needed a personality of its own. Tortora’s Pizzeria provided it. This Hampton Cove area family restaurant invites youngsters to try their hand at tossing dough. It’s fun for all ages. Try one of the prize-winning pizzas. 182 Old U.S. 431, Suite B. Phone: 536-6100.
Top 10 Shopping Spots
This list is sort of a hall of fame for the
1) Historic Hardware With Arts and Crafts
In the early 1900s, two brothers opened a store in downtown
2) A Butcher Shop That’ll Make You Lick Your Chops
Where can you find the best slab of meat cut to the best size and shape? Residents of the Five Points area have been going for many years to Star Super Market for their beef and ham steaks. This store is a favorite of the barbecue crowd.
3) Favorite Neighborhood Grocers
Folks come from all over town to John’s Big Brothers Super Market for its home-grown hospitality. It still has that first-name, small-town atmosphere. The name comes from a long-ago
4) The No. 1
Whether you want china, silver, crystal, brass or any of the other finer things for that man or woman on your gift list, try Lawren’s in
Whatever style of lighting you might be looking for can be found at Richard’s Lighting. Richard’s has one of the brightest showrooms in the South. This is a jungle of fixtures of every size, shape and fashion.
6) An Antique Mall Worth Making Tracks To
Antique dealers from all over the
7) The Best All-Around
For tropical plants or any other variety, Bennett’s Nursery (formerly Byer’s
8) The Best of Tubs for Rub-a-Dubbing
Did you ever wonder where the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker in the nursary rhyme found a tub big enough for the three of them? Well, if they cast off in the
9) The Coolest Store for Fireplaces and Accessories
Southern Fan and Energy Store sounds like just a celing-fan showroom, but it offers much, much more. The showroom here is probably the coolest place in town. It displays more than 75 celing fans swooshing lazily thorough the air. And the selection of woodburning stoves and fireplace accessories is second to none.
10) Gifts for Your Favorite House Plant
If you like to baby your house plants, buty them a gift at Jolly Green Thumb. This is more than a flower shop. It has an excellent variety of pots and necessities for repotting and companions for your loneliest leafy pet. Also, home gardeners can find everything here that they need to get started each spring.
Huntsville’s Top Restaurants
This list will be constantly changing and updating as new restaurants arrive and as tastes change around town.
This sidewalk café is downtown Huntsville’s answer to big-city dining. Enjoy a gourmet meal streetside, at the bar or in a rustic wine cellar below ground. 100 South Side Square. Phone: 382-9500.
This fine-dining German bistro has been a Huntsville favorite since the 1980s. It is a spinoff of its older sister restaurant Ol' Heidelburg. The Deutsch delights are delectable. 964 Airport Road. S.E. Phone: 880-9920.
Fine dining and a lively bar are the attractions at this restaurant in the city’s Medical District. Its calendar is always filled with special events. 801 Franklin St. Phone: 519-8019.
The exclusive Providence Town Centre planned community is the perfect spot for an innovative dining experience such as this. The menu is eclectic, and the desserts are heavenly.
475 Providence Main St. N.W. Phone: 489-9470.
James Steak House
Choice steaks are the attraction at this restaurant that is part of Washington Square – a trifecta that includes Humphrey’s Bar & Grill and Mason’s Pub. They have pumped new life into the downtown area.
109 Washington St. Phone: 704-5555.
This casual eatery has quietly become one of Huntsville’s favorites. It is fine dining with a friendly atmosphere.7500 Memorial Parkway S.W. at Main Street South. Phone: 881-7244.
Upscale meals take on a Mediterranean aura at this Jones Valley restaurant. The owners trained under Alabama’s master chef, Frank Stitt. 2724 Carl T. Jones Drive S.E. Phone: 650-2514.
Fine dining can be healthy. Vegetarian and heart-friendly meals are mainstays, and they never lack flavor. This bistro offers something for every taste. 501 Jordan Lane N.W. 722-9401.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House
This is the crown jewel of downtown’s prize hotel. Lunch is affordable, and dinner is always a special occasion.
And now back to
THE BEST OF HUNTSVILLE
by Mike Kaylor
Condominiums are sprouting up where cotton has grown for years. More and more new clothing stores and specialty shops appear, and they find a profitable place among the long-established businesses. A town with much tradition and pride in its past is making history as the future unfolds. This is Huntsville – the self-proclaimed Rocket City and one of America’s top technology centers. If you live here already, you are to be applauded. Visitors should beware that Huntsville is contagious, and it is catching.
I caught onto the city quite by accident in 1977. There was a job opening at The Huntsville Times, and I wanted it. With it came an opportunity to live in one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. My first few weeks here, I stared out the window of my one-bedroom apartment at the cotton fields that stretched for miles to the west. Today, those fields are gone — replaced by apartments, condominiums, warehouses and office complexes.
Since moving to Huntsville, I have tried to take advantage of as many of its pleasures as possible. At The Times, I began writing a column in 1979 called “Night Moves,” which covers the city’s nightlife. The idea for the original THE BEST OF HUNTSVILLE, published in 1984, stemmed from the many phone calls I received from readers wanting to know where to entertain visiting friends or where to take their spouse on a special occasion. This second edition of THE BEST OF HUNTSVILLE reflects changes that had come during the following year. It includes more than a dozen new eating establishments and nightclubs, as well as several dozen additional suggestions for shopping. None of the businesses have paid to be in the book. All opinions expressed herein are my own, and the choice of items to include was entirely mine. At the same time, I would like to commend those businessmen and women whose establishments are included here, and I would especially like to congratulate those that have remained unchanged from the first edition. In addition to making it easy on the author, they have proven to have consistent service.
Of course, this book could never have come to pass without the enthusiasm of civic leaders and support of co-workers and bosses at The Times. My family encouraged me to continue during long nights when the Sandman begged me to sleep. I would also like to thank the many friends who have assisted by editing, proof-reading or helping research this book. Without people like them living here, Huntsville’s attractions would have little meaning.
So we come to the pages of a new THE BEST OF HUNTSVILLE. May you find it entertaining and informative, and may it help you find better ways to enjoy our wonderful city. If any of your favorites have been omitted, please let me know for future reference. And if any of thse bests fall by the wayside, look at this book as a way of recording the way Huntsville was. If anyone during the 21st century discovers a copy of THE BEST OF HUNTSVILLE and finds anything in it interesting, the work will not have been in vain. But for today, join me as we travel though these pages to THE BEST OF HUNTSVILLE.
NOTE: This was the Introduction from 1985 slightly edited and updated for clarity.