Foodie Travels: Saw’s BBQ, Birmingham, Ala.

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White barbecue sauce.

At tables throughout the pillar cities of the mainstream barbecue world—Memphis, Kansas City, Austin, et al—using those three words together will lead to confusing looks or sneering comments. Folks will either turn their nose at the notion out of offense that their barbecue style is the only way, or they’ll claim they’ve never heard tell of it.

But in Alabama, particularly the northern barbecue communities, white barbecue sauce is a historic mainstay, highly regarded on its own foodie throne. The condiment, often some mixture of mayonnaise, vinegar, pepper and other special ingredients, is the go-to traditional choice for many in the state.

I discovered white barbecue sauce while living in Alabama and working at Huntsville Hospital in 2011. A few of my colleagues at the time discovered my love for food and made it their mission to baptize me in appropriate local cuisine. (I never repented of my native North Carolinian ways, but I am thankful for their acceptance and food evangelism.) Coworkers shuttled me around to barbecue restaurants like Lawler’s and Little Paul’s (sadly now closed). I enjoyed each stop, but nothing wowed me as much as the food—and the white sauce—at Big Bob Gibson’s down in Decatur. (If you can say down, as Decatur is still in North Alabama.) My experiences at Gibson’s were among the best in my barbecue life, and I’m sure it helps, from a food history standpoint, that they draw credit for originally launching the white sauce movement.

When I moved back to North Carolina, I carried the Alabama barbecue experiences with me and shared them with others. I can’t remember a time when my talk of white barbecue sauce was met with anything but disregard here in my home state, until I told my wife, Molly, who has family connections to Alabama, about the stuff that’s odd to most and second nature to those living in “Sweet Home.” Molly seemed game to try Alabama white sauce, and she got her opportunity on a recent road trip that took us through the central portions of the state.

We had several solid choices for barbecue as we passed through Birmingham, and we decided on Saw’s BBQ in the Homewood community on the southeast side of the city. We’d never been to Homewood before, but it quickly gave us a small-town Main Street feel as we parked and walked up the street to Saw’s.

Inside the restaurant, it was clear most folks were regulars, meeting their friends and family for dinner, sitting in their usual spots inside and outside (where there are quite a few patio-style tables), ordering their favorites. The joint had the feel of a place that would be an ideal spot to chow down before or after an Alabama or Auburn (or both) football game on a fall Saturday. The familiar and comfortable qualities had me into the place before even seeing any food.

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For my dinner, I ordered a plate of the barbecue ribs, macaroni and cheese, and potato salad. The sides were both creamy and robust, wonderful deals for the price, The ribs were incredibly meaty (always a value question when trying ribs in a place you haven’t before), generously sauced (with a more universal-style barbecue sauce, though white sauce is available by request, which I heard several times) and wonderfully flavorful. I also love that they came in what I call “Alabama fashion,” with two pieces of plain, white sandwich bread, perfect for “sopping” the plate clean afterward. (If you haven’t tried soaking bread with barbecue sauce on your plate, you’re missing out.)

And of course, as this tale about white barbecue sauce leads you to believe, Molly and I sampled Saw’s Roasted Chicken Sandwich with White Barbecue Sauce. Molly often prefers chicken to pork at barbecue restaurants, and that desire was perfectly matched by Saw’s serving its chicken with the legendary white sauce.

The sauce was as flavorful and as unique as I remembered it at barbecue restaurants in North Alabama. You can tell the influence of mayonnaise, and I picked up a slight peppery quality, yet different from what you’d expect of a white pepper gravy. Quite honestly, Alabama white barbecue sauce is something you have to try for yourself to understand and appreciate. It’s unlike most anything else you’ll ever eat, so it’s hard to compare it to much. Molly enjoyed the sauce at Saw’s as much as I did, saying it was a great accompaniment to the chicken.

Saw’s impressed us with its homey, small-town feel, its delicious barbecue and sides, and its well-matched quality and cost. And I can say that all of my efforts in sharing the legend of Alabama white barbecue sauce finally netted a positive response from someone even game enough to seek it out and try it. I’m lucky that the willing participant is my wife, and I’m lucky that I got to further expand my barbecue horizons by enjoying Saw’s, a great spot in suburban Birmingham.

Saw’s Barbecue, 1008 Oxmoor Road, Homewood, Alabama

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Legendary Burgers in the American South

#FoodieScore’s Matthew Tessnear ranks his 10 favorite burgers ever

Burger Illustration 2

Nothing quite defines my culinary life like the experience of savoring a delicious cheeseburger enjoyed at a unique restaurant in the American South. It’s that very activity that provides a lasting snapshot of my childhood and my young adulthood in my home state of North Carolina and throughout the region. Maybe it’s a hereditary drive to find every great cheeseburger out there, thanks to my dad’s equal enjoyment of a delicious burger. Certainly, my love for cheeseburgers has never waned, and it’s only grown stronger since marrying my wife Molly, who’s become my #FoodieScore partner in crime.

My all-time favorite take on the American beef burger comes on a hearty bun with melted cheese. The cheese is non-negotiable, and I will tell you there is no such thing as a hamburger. Every other topping is unnecessary, but I do enjoy just minimal lettuce and a light dose of mayonnaise, which I find brings out the flavor of the meat, bread and cheese.

There are so many great restaurants across America that have perfected their own unique cheeseburger, but the South is the only region in which I’d consider myself a burger connoisseur because it’s the only section of the country that I’ve frequented enough to become an expert. I’ve sampled—ahem, devoured—hundreds of different restaurant burgers across the South, and now for the first time I’m proud to share my very favorites with you. These are my top 10 burgers in the American South, until I try my next new cheeseburger, at which time the list immediately is subject to change with the insertion of another classic.

 

Betty Bombers

The Classic Bomber at Betty Bombers in Savannah

 

  1. THE CLASSIC BOMBER
    Betty Bombers
    Savannah, Georgia

It’s always my first choice to enjoy a cheeseburger that, in some way, accents the key elements of beef, bread and melty cheese, even if it includes additional toppings. Betty Bombers does just that, serving up a burger cooked with ever the slightest grilled crust on the bottom and gooey cheese on top. The veggie toppings are just the right kind of dressing that don’t disrupt the essentials. On top of everything, you get to enjoy this delightful sandwich among World War II relics that celebrate the “Greatest Generation,” in a restaurant located inside the local American Legion post headquarters.

 

Burger Bar

“Move It On Over” at Burger Bar in Bristol

  1. MOVE IT ON OVER
    Burger Bar
    Bristol, Virginia

Burger Bar has captured an expert flavor combination with the smoky barbecue sauce, grilled onions and your choice of cheese on the “Move It On Over.” And I must suggest you try it with a side of sweet potato fries accompanied by a sweet aioli for dipping. This stop also offers a sea of memorabilia about country music legend Hank Williams who, legend has it, was last seen alive outside the restaurant.

 

 

  1. CHEESEBURGER
    Steak-Out
    Birmingham, Alabama

Steak-Out has the ambiance of a fast food restaurant that just so happens to deliver. So you wouldn’t expect to necessarily get one of the best burgers you’ll ever eat. But that’s exactly what they do. You get a premium-beef burger and high-quality toppings that tastes like it came off the grill at a high-end steakhouse. You can even get a baked potato as a side at this place. I’m not sure I’ve ever visited a restaurant or burger joint that so expertly blurs the lines between fast food and fine dining. (Unfortunately, I don’t have my own photo of the delicious Steak-Out Burger.)

 

Phillips Grocery

The Cheeseburger Single at Phillips Grocery in Holly Springs

  1. CHEESEBURGER SINGLE
    Phillips Grocery
    Holly Springs, Mississippi

It’s just fun to enjoy a cheeseburger inside a more than century-old building that once housed a lively saloon. On top of that, Phillips serves up a funky little cheeseburger with a standard topping combination I’ve never found anywhere else. The single gives you just the right amount of beef to enjoy the dressing of mustard, pickle, onion and muenster cheese. Well done, Phillips. It’s just an extra treat that you also get to enjoy the place’s general store feel with its furnishings of antique relics of the past.

 

Pawley's Front Porch

Kiawah at Pawleys Front Porch in Columbia

  1. KIAWAH
    Pawleys Front Porch
    Columbia, South Carolina

Pawleys exudes a college-town vibe in its location in the Five Points neighborhood, cozied next to the University of South Carolina campus. The shop’s burger menu salutes the state’s great resort island destinations, and it just so happens to include a tribute to my favorite getaway locale of all time, Kiawah Island. The burger’s topped with one of my favorite cheeses, brie, as well as marinated portabella mushrooms, and fire-roasted peppers. This is one of the juiciest, most flavorful burgers I’ve ever put in my mouth.

 

Cal Dreaming

Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger at California Dreaming in Charleston

  1. BARBECUE BACON CHEESEBURGER
    California Dreaming
    Charleston, South Carolina

Outside of the classic/basic/house cheeseburger style that emphasizes the meat, bread and cheese, a set of toppings with sweet barbecue sauce and bacon is my all-time favorite, and no one does that combination any better than California Dreaming. It’s the perfect amount of sauce and a generous helping of perfectly crispy bacon. There are a couple of California Dreaming locations—which also give you the feel of a fine-dining experience with their snappily-dressed servers—but the Charleston location has consistently had the very best burger of them, and it easily has the best setting with a panoramic view of the river harbor near downtown.

 

Al's Burger Shack

Kenny J at Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill

  1. KENNY J
    Al’s Burger Shack
    Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Al Bowers knows Chapel Hill (he previously worked at another local legendary restaurant, Merritt’s Store & Grill) and he knows a delicious, creative burger. His joint, just down the street from the University of North Carolina, tops its delicious patties with fun toppings like those on the Kenny J, which is both distinctly North Carolina and Southern with its Cheerwine barbecue sauce, not-too-spicy pimento cheese, grilled onions and bacon. I must also praise him for not completely splitting his buns, which allow the sandwich to envelope its toppings, making the burgers easier to eat. Additionally, he caters to your size preference with the buddy bite, Al and Big Al sizes. And if all of that is not enough, he may serve the most flavorful French fries (with sea salt and rosemary seasonings) I’ve ever had alongside a burger.

 

 

  1. EXTRA SHARP CHEDDAR STEAK BURGER
    McGuire’s Irish Pub
    Destin, Florida

Adjacent to the white-sand beaches and emerald-colored waters of the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll find that this joint, with money taped everywhere, offers quite the valuable burger. McGuire’s calls its creations Angus Steak Burgers, and the quality is so good you’ll feel like you’ve got a tender steak on your bun. If that’s not enough for ya, try the $100 Grand Burger of Filet Mignon, caviar, merlot sauce and imperial champagne. Seriously. I’ve never sampled the high-dollar version myself because I haven’t seen a way to top the Angus Steak Burgers. (Sadly, I haven’t had a McGuire’s burger since 2006, and that was before everyone carried a high-quality camera phone, so I have no personal photo here. I need to fix that soon with a trip to Florida’s beautiful panhandle.)

 

Lankford Grocery

Old Fashion Hamburger (with cheese) at Lankford Grocery & Market in Houston

No. 2 OLD FASHION HAMBURGER (WITH CHEESE)
Lankford Grocery & Market
Houston, Texas

In this restaurant tucked into a friendly neighborhood between the Fourth Ward and Midtown sections of the nation’s fourth-largest city, you’ll find a remarkable cheeseburger that offers the freshest overall combination of toppings I’ve ever eaten on a burger. I enjoyed the softest bun, the greenest, leafiest lettuce, the crunchiest, most flavorful onion, and a fresh beef patty that is second in quality only to the No. 1 sandwich on this list. I’ve discovered that not all of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” spots are legendary in quality. This one deserves that status.

 

Kim's Kitchen

Cheeseburger at Kim’s Kitchen in Stanley

No. 1 CHEESEBURGER
Kim’s Kitchen
Stanley, North Carolina

Kim Millman’s cheeseburger has topped this list throughout my life because of a steady diet of the most important ingredient in a burger: the beef. You won’t top the fresh, hand-pattied, perfectly cooked beef on a Kim’s cheeseburger. You also get a substantial sandwich that’s an incredible value for your money, while adhering to Sheldon Cooper’s (of Big Bang Theory fame) burger formula that prizes the perfect bun-meat-condiment ratio. And you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a friendly table visit from Kim herself while you’re dining in this community fixture between Charlotte and Asheville.

Where do you get your favorite cheeseburgers? Share with us in the comments section, or share with #FoodieScore on social media. Follow @FoodieScore on Facebook and Instagram, or @Foodie_Score on Twitter.