Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Road Eats: Big Bad Breakfast in Birmingham, AL.

How far would you drive for a chili dog waffle? Well, that's probably too far.

But not if you're already in town and have heard amazing things about a place like Big Bad Breakfast. The retro diner,
originally opened in Oxford, MS under the auspices of Chef John Currence has found life for a second outlet under an agreeable partnership between Currence and Alabama's own Jim N' Nick's founder Nick Pihakis... in a strip mall southeast of Birmingham proper.

That's enough of the copyspeak.  Let me tell you about our visit.

Grav and I rolled out to Birmingham for Food Media South, a really neat conference that brought folks that write food blogs and articles like myself together with editors and social media folks and other people who think southern food is just dandy.  I was pinching it in between an appearance at the North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association's meet in Fayetteville and an important mission to Houston (more about that later).  I'd already put about a thousand miles on the Honda, we were done with the conference and we needed sustenance of epic nature before the dual drive that day to Corinth and Tupelo, MS, respectively.

The thought of eating at a chain restaurant or even at somewhere close to our our hotel seemed... defeating, somehow.  After all, Grav and I relish the adventure... it's what keeps us going.  So we poured through Urbanspoon listings and found something that seemed very, very amazing -- Big Bad Breakfast.  It wasn't too far out from Homewood, where we'd been overnighting, and though it was exactly the opposite way from our departure direction, the photos provided on the review page were astounding.

Now, I've had and missed my chance to eat at the original Big Bad Breakfast quite a few times... thanks to the fact that my Oxford forays are usually limited to visits to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium each October and that by the time I have free space for breakfast, I am eated-out, I have passed.  I have enjoyed Chef Currance's marvelous City Grocery and Boure' (the latter of which makes a Bloody Mary in which I don't have to beg mercy, it is of beauty).  So I knew there was a good chance the vittles would be better than edible.  I shared the information with Grav, and he got excited.  So we got our stuff together, checked out and drove. And drove. And drove. Because, for someone coming from Arkansas, that drive down to Hoover from Homewood (which is all apparently part of the Birmingham metro) is a series of undulating forested hills interspersed with regularity by big flats of shopping centers and the occasional apartment complex, as if one had magnified the scope of JFK/Highway 107 on its journey northward from McCain Boulevard in North Little Rock on up through Sherwood and transported it miles away.  That's a ridiculous analogy. I probably should apologize for putting that there. But I won't.

We drove and drove, and it took us a good 40 minutes or so to get there.  And there was a line out front.  Now, you know me, I'll take a line in stride.  And if you've read this blog for any length of time, you know that Grav won't suffer anything more than five minutes, because he has things to do. So I dropped him off up front and went to hunt down a parking spot and he came back, arms flailing, with his usual "anywhere but here" mantra.  He hollered that it was a 50 minute wait, FIFTY minutes, not 15. I looked around, noted the presence of a Krispy Kreme, and put my foot down.  Dammit, I wanted to eat here.

It wasn't the chef that had lured me in, not even the promise of non-pork alternative chicken sausage or even the knowledge that the jelly is made in-house.  I had spotted something on the menu, and I was wondering if I might possibly get up the gumption to take on a certain dish.

But we had the line to contend with, and once I found a parking spot about six down from the front door we waited, windows open, for someone to holler that it was Well Done.  Yeah, I made a bad pun there.  I am in that sort of mood.  All the while, Grav flip-flopped between reasoning that by the time we'd driven back as far as Homewood, we'd finally get in -- and the idea that this better be the best damned breakfast he'd had in his life.  I countered with the fact that it was Sunday, that we'd checked out at 11 a.m. and that the church crowd was jockeying for every restaurant in the region with us.  We could take this.

Thing is, this particular Sunday was a rather dreary, wet day.  Few wanted to wetten their bottoms on the benches placed outside, and we noticed several that walked away after standing around under umbrellas.  The front vestibule might have been packed with hipsters waiting for a bite to eat, but outside there were families chatting up each other's ideas on food.  I overheard one three-generation set decide to try a local burger joint instead when it was mentioned that the noon hour had approached.

It was perhaps for that very fact that a mere 28 minutes into our wait, that sweet young girl leaned out the glass door and hollered "Well done!" which got Grav scrambling out of the car, waving his hands shouting back "we're here!" and me to get the cameras out of the backseat and lock up.  I caught up with him as he knocked his way between folks far thinner than us to follow a very dapper young man to the only spare seats in the place, a round right next to the kitchen with a pair of backless barstools.  He looked apologetically at me and asked if it'd be all right.

It was PERFECT.

Just a quick glance at the menu told me I'd be getting some "lead" in my system, and I ordered up Octane Coffee.  I was tempted to get fresh squeezed grapefruit juice as well but demurred, knowing my bladder was no match for the gargantuan stretches of recently-opened I-22 that had not yet been built out to by the myriad of tiny towns along its 'Bama length.  Grav peered over his glasses at his menu, grumbling that we'd waited too long to eat and he was going to have a hard time of it.  I threw suggestions his way, each answered with a grunt.
I even pointed out the beautiful creations coming out of the kitchen window, masterfully composed and beautifully orchestrated by a gentleman who checked out and ensured that every detail was correct.  Our dapper waiter, who I believe was named Samuel, kept my cup full and nodded appreciation at my choice to leave it black.

The noise inside was tremendous, and the crowd of young folks still standing in the vestibule made it moreso,  Every stool in front of the low bar up front was taken, and groups of two and three and even four surrounded similar tables to ours that were in the front window.  The other side of the place might have well have been Siberia, its noise impact unapparent thanks to the closer crowd, but Grav
went anyway and shot at them with the BAC.  I growled at him when he returned and insisted he make a decision.

Because I already knew what I wanted.  Though I was tempted by broiled grapefruit and the Cahaba Lily, I was sold the moment I saw it... the
ultimate bite-me to my upper digestive tract... the Move-It-On-Over.  Lo, I knew from its very ingredients that it would be very, very good or very, very, VERY bad.  And after spending the previous day in the company of some of the most intelligent, entertaining and vaunted members of the southern culinary and literary community, I was raring to challenge myself.

My concentration over such may have been the reason why I didn't get Grav's order, and how I managed to screw up and order for him the Low Country Breakfast rather than the requested Creola Skillet.  I am still to this day burned inside about that.  Not that Grav wasn't gracious about it, but that I had erred.  Until I can get him back to Oxford or Birmingham to experience his requested dish, I am in his debt.

Even with that, once Samuel had pinned down our orders, Grav continued to watch the ever-varied parade of items that came through that window, the collection of biscuits and grits and porky things, a mountainous cheeseburger, skillets and omelets of multiple colors and sizes.

We had no doubt, though, when our order was coming... because there was a mountain approaching the front of the kitchen window, a mountain of truly epic.  I briefly reconsidered my life choices, decided I was fine with them and after all, we were on the road, and made mental note to order some larger pants.

Our plates were delivered.... and Grav's plate was beautiful.  It was as if someone had pulled an image from the pages of Garden and Gun and inflated it into this more than respectable, heady-scented skilletful of steamed potato hash covered with andouille, corn, tomatoes, eggs and cheese and these perfectly formed, gorgeous curly shrimp.  Yet once our cavalcade of photos were complete, Grav poked at it
and lamented the lack of crawfish.

It was then that I realized my error.  I felt great guilt as I tore into the monster before me.

Mind you, we had eschewed breakfast for the promise of an incredible brunch, and now it was afternoon and I was nicely caffeinated from the Octane Coffee. But it would not have mattered if I had recently consumed a complete Tudor man breakfast, or a lunch.  Within the circumference of the pliant iron-fired cake, an entire large all-beef hot dog, hotly griddle-sauteed, spread out in large chunks.  Over it were the pleasures of the best chili dog in the world -- sweet coleslaw, hearty beef chili, deep orange Cheddar cheese, grilled onions and jalapenos and gorgeous, sweetish housemade pickle slices like saucy drunken kisses.
feast moments before... I could not keep my fork off the structure created for my enjoyment.  From its sweet waffle base to its saltine cracker top, it was everything I'd ever looked for in a

And while Grav became familiar with his plate, while he began to elevate and praise the remarkable biscuit with his repast and to slather it with housemade strawberry jam, I inhaled every bit of
the Move-It-On-Over, every cumin-laced chili dollop, every sliver of red onion, every melted morsel of cheese and puddle of remaining slaw juice, all but about half the jalapenos.  After all, I was going to be in an
enclosed vehicle with Grav for hours to come, no need to Dutch oven the poor boy.

I consumed the waffle with relish and desire in a way that should have been embarrassing to any other boyfriend unaccustomed to the passion I feel for good, hearty food.  And I managed to do it without dressing myself in its crumbs or drips.

It was enough.  It was thrilling and filling and once I realized it was gone I sat on my stool and stared longingly at my plate, my belly already griping at the waistline on my pants.  Samuel poured me more coffee and swiftly returned with another cupful in a takeaway.  I even reached across the table and swiped a fingerful of strawberry jam left on Grav's plate.

If there hadn't been the need to rush to get to the day's other review hours away in Corinth, I might have considered a stayover.  As it was, I bugged Grav to at the very least get some bacon to take home with him.  Ever the gentleman, he reminded me he wouldn't be home enough to enjoy it, and that we now had a better reason not to skip the Oxford location just because SFA tended to fill me to the brim.

If the line had been long when we had arrived, it was longer still when we left, the cadre of hungry diners waiting their turn far more patiently than Mr. Weldon tends to wait, all hoping for a chance at a table and a hot offering from the griddle at Big Bad Breakfast.  I suspect on our next visit to Birmingham, which I hope is soon, we'll join that line again.

PHOTOFEED BONUS: On our way out of town, we found a Vulcan.

Big Bad Breakfast
5361 US Highway 280
Birmingham, AL 35242
(205) 490-7568
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Big Bad Breakfast on Urbanspoon





2 comments:

  1. Never a bad meal at Big Bad or any Nick Pihakis restaurant. And lucky for us, we live less than 15 minutes away... usually hitting it between 1:30-2pm (just before closing) to miss the crowds. fyi, Pihakis just opened a new place at Mt Laurel. We at there for the first time last night. You'll have to try it the next time your in town. Allison

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  2. This makes me so happy! It was still newly opened when I went. I really enjoyed it! I've been wanting to go to Food Blog South (that's what I know it as, but I guess it has a new name) but it costs a pretty penny. Definitely thinking about it for next year, though.

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