My brother goes to school at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which is located about an hour West of Birmingham. It’s what you would call a real college town. Outside of the U of A campus and the surrounding town there really isn’t much to see until you hit Birmingham.
I went to school at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and for all intensive purposes it was not a college town at all. As one of my college friends who came with me to a recent Alabama football game said “next time maybe we should go to a real college.”
My family has always been football fans – growing up, Saturdays were for watching college football and Sundays were for the NFL games. But we never really had a college football affiliation until my brother started at Alabama. We were college football fans in need of a team. And it just so happened that we ended up major fans of the number one team in the nation. We fell hard for that southern charm. My brother’s condo is only about 2 blocks from Bryant-Denny stadium, one of the largest college stadiums in the country seating over 100,000 people.
“Get up, its game day!” A college football game day in Tuscaloosa is unlike any other. To outsiders it may look like a cult of people wearing coordinating outfits, all hailing the football god, Coach Nick Saban. This is a school that lives, eats and breathes football.
First the tent-city for tailgating is put up on Friday in the quad and then on Saturday it’s flooded with people. And these aren’t just tents – they are set up by the campus event staff with a full complement of camp chairs, catered food. In some cases there are even large hanging TVs equipped with DirectTV so you don’t miss any other games while you’re getting ready to watch the Crimson Tide. Football is one thing that college kids will wake up early for, so most of them get up early to start drinking. Everyone is decked out in crimson, white and houndstooth – Alabama’s colors. Boys are dressed in button downs, polo’s, khakis and boots and girls in coordinating dresses and cowgirl boots. Everyone dresses up for game days in the South – you can’t just go wearing a standard team t-shirt.
During football season I usually end up traveling to Alabama about 3 times. In addition, this year I also made it to the opening game against USC in Dallas as well as home games against Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn. When I come back from a trip I always feel like I need a salad because I tend to gorge myself of all of the amazing southern food. How can you say no to fluffy warm biscuits, barbecue piled with all the fixings, and crispy fried chicken among other things? I certainly can’t but this isn’t about my self-control issues.
My favorite breakfast spot in Tuscaloosa. It’s a shack-looking diner that stands a mere one hundred feet from the towering Bryant-Denny stadium. The all-day reasonably-priced breakfast spot is filled with all things Alabama football – memorabilia including hanging jerseys, and numerous photos. I always order the #2: a full breakfast of smoked ham, 2 over-easy eggs, hash browns and a biscuit. If you’re looking for something a little smaller, go with the fried green tomato BLT.
If you still have room for dessert they have fried banana cream pie – it’s basically a banana cream pie empanada. In my opinion it’s a “must order” no matter what time of day you go.
They are also famous for their “championship burger”. It consists of two 8-ounce patties on a bun (16 ounces total for the number of national championships Alabama has won) and is accompanied by lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, thick-cut bacon, and onion rings as well as mustard, mayo and ketchup. Another draw is that the owner of Rama Jama’s could be Nick Saban’s twin.
Must-order: Fried Green tomato BLT
The South knows biscuits. That’s a fact. The thick, buttery biscuits at the new breakfast spot on the Strip, Holler & Dash, are made into all types of sandwiches perfect for breakfast or lunch.
I love the “chicken holler” — a biscuit split in half and topped with hot fried chicken, cheddar cheese and pickles with the optional addition of a fried egg. As usual I had to try an assortment of items on the menu so we also ordered the “kickback chicken”. Of course it starts with a biscuit and then included fried chicken, goat cheese, green onion and sweet pepper jelly which added a sweet and savory quality. If you’re looking for sweet then order the “strawberry & dash”. It’s a breakfast version of strawberry shortcake with whipped Creole cream cheese, strawberries and powdered sugar.
Must-order: “Chicken Holler”
Chuck’s is the place to take your parents when they come into town. Set in the middle of Tuscaloosa , it’s an upscale restaurant with a diverse seasonal menu of fish and meat entrées, pizza cooked in a wood fire oven and has a sushi bar upstairs. While I’m often skeptical of a restaurant that tries to do it all, Chuck’s does it well. The only downside is that they don’t take reservations and it fills up quickly. If you’re like me and hate to wait and you have more than a few people in your party then you need to get there right when it opens at 5pm. Nick Saban holds his recruiting dinners in the private dining room upstairs so you know it’s good.
I would recommend ordering a few appetizers to start. The gulf oysters appetizer come with fried oysters topped with soy caramel and hot sauce. The uptown shrimp (a fried shrimp dish that is tossed in a spicy sauce on a bed of spicy slaw) and the fried green tomatoes with a side of Creole honey mustard are a few of my favorites. While they specialize in fish and you can’t go wrong with the catch of the day. One of my favorite dishes I’ve had at Chuck’s is a menu special of crispy roast duck breast served with a blueberry demi-glaze. For dessert I always get the white chocolate bread pudding. No matter how full I am, it’s the perfect sweet bite to end the meal.
Must-order: fried gulf oysters and fried green tomatoes
This one is less about the location itself and more about the drink they made famous. Gallette’s is a standard college dive bar labeled with a sole sign noting it as the “campus party store”. It’s located on “the strip” close to the stadium. Gallette’s is where they serve the “yellow hammer.” The famous cocktail named for the Alabama state bird is most likely made with vodka, rum, orange juice, pineapple juice and amaretto (the real recipe is a well kept secret.) While the drink seems mild it packs a punch. At the bar you can see the drink in giant juice machines like the ones you find slurpees in.
Must-order: Yellow Hammer
When I first walked into the Avenue Pub I noticed the two-story loft with bar games on top. Tucked in the stairway is a small bar with a menu listed on a chalkboard including many specialty beers from Birmingham and other local breweries. If you want to listen to some live music this is a good spot. The Avenue Pub is famous for their juicy gourmet bacon burgers that are served on planks of wood. The burger is simple yet delicious with beef patties topped with provolone cheese and bacon served with mixed greens, sliced red onion and mayonnaise. Go for brunch if only for the chicken biscuit with house-made sausage gravy and an extravagant bloody Mary piled with bacon.
Must-order: the Burger
Tuscaloosa was nothing like what I expected it to be. When my brother told us he had decided to attend the University of Alabama we were confused as to why he wanted to go so far South. We were pleasantly surprised at the lively college town or as they call it – a “drinking town with a football problem.” It’s always fun to make a trip down for a weekend, especially when it’s for a football game.