Turns out that in Birmingham, you can have your barbecue (among other things) and eat it, too.
Written by Scott Jones
Photography by Beau Gustafson
With the dust settled from the busy holiday season, we now transition into that most peculiar time when folks feel compelled to make all sorts of grand, life-changing commitments. Whether caused by one too many glasses of bubbly on New Year’s Eve or having to transition out of plain-front pants into pleats, these important pronouncements feel a whole lot more like guilt-fueled penance than an encouraging (and attainable) resolution.
Perhaps none are bigger (and the source of more failure) than those focused on diet and exercise. Don’t misunderstand; I’m all for a balanced approach to life, which, I believe, includes regular exercise and a sensible approach to food. However, the self-punishment often begins with crushing workouts and Spartan diets. I’m no fan of either. I’ll let others comment on the exercise piece, but as a culinary professional, I will take up the charge for food.
I guess what gets me the most about the whole post-holiday, all-or-nothing approach to dieting is that many feel sentenced to grazing salad bars or driving past their favorite restaurants. There has to be a reasonable middle ground, right? You know, local restaurants with menus that make both the person doing the committing and his or her personal trainer happy. Armed with my hypothesis, I set out to find a couple of pros who not only know a thing or two about food and nutrition but the Birmingham dining scene as well. All I asked is that they not respond with, “It’s not bad, for healthy food.” A backhanded compliment at best. The way I see it, the food is either good or it’s not—end of story.
I initially reached out to Jessica Cox, a culinary grad and registered dietitian. Cox is the culinary nutritionist for Birmingham-based company eMeals, the nation’s largest online meal planning service with more than 50 different meal plan options running the gamut from low-cal to low-fat, low-carb to diabetic-conscious to clean eating (and lots of other popular, healthful styles in between). So she wrestles with this topic daily.
You could have knocked me over with a feather when—without hesitation—she threw out Saw’s BBQ as one of her top picks. Seriously? “You bet,” says Cox, who firmly believes barbecue and smart eating are not mutually exclusive. “I love Saw’s pulled smoked chicken, though I skip the bun and opt for the regular barbecue sauce rather than the mayo-based white sauce, which is packed with calories and fat. For a side, I go for the greens in place of mac and cheese or baked beans.”
Holley Grainger, also a registered dietitian and self-confessed foodie, recommends going old school by hitting the steam table at Niki’s West or Ted’s Restaurant for a vegetable plate or lean meat and three. Like Cox, Grainger believes in balance—in this case, try baked or steamed rather than fried or creamy. “Don’t immediately assume that all veggies are cooked in bacon grease or butter. There are actually very healthy options,” she says. What’s more, Grainger knows that sometimes nothing beats a scoop of squash casserole or crispy fried okra. “Just pick one, then go with two healthier options to round out your three. Apply the same philosophy when adding a meat—watch out for gravy-topped country-fried steak; instead, go with the Greek-baked chicken or fish.”
When it comes to a light lunch, Cox can’t get enough of the Urban Cookhouse Berry Good Salad. Loaded with antioxidant-rich berries, as well as good-for-you pecans, this hearty salad has just the right mix of satisfying flavors and textures. “I also like the fact that Urban Cookhouse serves all their dressings on the side, giving you control over how much you use.” And pump up the protein by adding chopped grilled chicken, suggests Cox.
What about date night? Is the notion of a good-for-you meal in a white tablecloth setting an oxymoron? Both Cox and Grainger happily agree that you don’t need to bust your calorie budget to soak in a first-class meal. Even venerable spots like Hot and Hot Fish Club and Highlands Bar and Grill offer sensible choices—from grilled seafood and lean meats to reduced stock sauces in place of those fortified with heavy cream or butter. “A couple of handy tips are to pass on the bread and limit alcohol to no more than two drinks,” advises Cox.
Grainger often sidesteps the starchy sides like risotto, creamy grits, and mashed potatoes. Instead, she asks for double vegetables or to have a rich sauce served on the side. “Remember, chefs understand the value of customer service, so don’t hesitate to ask,” she says.
I’m certainly encouraged and I hope you are too. Whether upscale or downhome, the Magic City has ample opportunities for you to stick to your New Year resolution without having to say goodbye to the city’s vibrant food scene. Stay hungry, Birmingham.