Melt — Birmingham, Alabama

The Mac Melt is a grilled cheese with mac and cheese.
The Mac Melt is a grilled cheese with mac and cheese.

There are so many things in life that shouldn’t work out but do. Like Jimmy from “Degrassi” being a successful rapper and dating Rihanna. Or the 2013 Iron Bowl. Or Canadian tuxedos.

One more item to add to that list: Melt’s mac and cheese + grilled cheese sandwich, also known as the Mac Melt.

Yes, you read that right. Melt – located in the Birmingham neighborhood of Avondale — gets a boatload of mac and cheese and sticks it between a grilled cheese on Texas toast. On its own, each item sounds pretty tasty – everyone loves mac and cheese, everyone loves buttery bread, everyone loves grilled cheese – but together, it doesn’t sound that appealing.

I ventured to the brick-and-mortar restaurant with a friend on a recent lunch break to try it out (sometimes Melt’s food truck, Matilda, can be seen roaming around town if you can’t make it to Avondale).  Just a warning: If you want to spend your lunch break with the good folks of Melt, you better get there early. The place fills up quickly.

About 10 minutes after ordering, my mac-and-cheese sandwich and side of fruit ($9 combined for both) arrived. (Yes, Mom, I do eat some fruit. Don’t worry.) The fruit was fresh and delicious, but let’s start real talk here: No one cares about fruit when you have a mac-and-cheese melt in front of you. It’s like choosing to eat a Big Mac when you there’s a Hamburger FonFon beside it — it just doesn’t happen.

Proof that I also ate fruit.
Proof that I also ate fruit.

The melt was indescribable. No, really: I have no way to describe what it tasted like. My friend sampled the sandwich and felt the same way. It was like nothing we had ever tried before. The penne pasta was excellently cooked and covered in lots of gooey cheese, and the restaurant definitely didn’t skimp on the mac. And the bread never got soggy despite all that cheese weight. It was a perfect combo. Seriously, y’all. I know I have a love of bold statements, but really: If sandwiches were Beatles songs, this would be the chorus in “Hey Jude.” It’s fun and triumphant and oh-so-good.

And pro tip: If you’re not in an adventurous mood or just want to get something else on the menu, you can still get plain ol’ mac as a side item for $5. It may not have you singing the Beatles, but it’ll be well worth it.

Should you order it? Yes, yes, yes.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Want to go?

Melt, 4105 4th Ave. S, Birmingham, meltbham.com, (205) 917-5000

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Ajax Diner — Oxford, Mississippi

ajaxLots of people ask you lots of questions when you vacation to Mississippi. Why are you there? Are you having fun? Where are you from that makes you want to vacation in Mississippi? Did you get lost? Seriously, why are you there?

Dudefriend and I made our way to Water Valley (Read more about the small town in this Garden and Gun story), Oxford and Clarksdale about a month ago for a three-day getaway and no, we weren’t lost. We went for the music (Clarksdale is the birthplace of the blues) and to be off-the-grid (really, you’re off the grid. I didn’t have cell service half of the time). But we mostly went for the food.

Oh man, y’all. The food.

From tamales to soul food to barbecue, Mississippi’s got you covered. That was pretty evident on the first day, when we stopped at Ajax Diner on the Square in Oxford.

Ajax is pretty much an institution in Oxford and from what I had read, we should expect a crowd. We got tremendously lucky, though, because we arrived around noon on a Wednesday before classes began, so the town was pretty empty. However, the diner was still busy and we squeezed into the last booth available. (Added bonus: There was a print above our booth that said “Prince loves Ajax” and I’m a sucker for anything relating to Prince.)

Full disclosure: No matter the day, I love to start vacation with a cocktail or beer (or two). But ordering a cocktail at noon on a Wednesday at most places will get you a judging glare. Not at Ajax. After sitting down, the server came over immediately and took our bloody mary order and didn’t even flinch. Five minutes later our super well-made bloody mary came out from the full bar. Yes, a diner with a full bar. I was sold before the food even came out a few minutes later.

And, again, oh, man. The food.

I ordered fried catfish, squash casserole and mac and cheese – a very orange/yellowish plate, but whatever. I was on vacation. You don’t eat greens when you’re on vacation.

The catfish was pretty stellar – it was fried perfectly with a great crunch and lots of spices. And the squash casserole was bangin’, too – lots of butter and cheese. The entire point of squash casserole is getting a semi-healthy food – squash – and turning it into an artery-blocking side, and it definitely succeeded.

But that mac and cheese. Y’all, that mac and cheese.

(Just a reminder of how delicious it looks:)

IMG_2644

Actually, it should probably be renamed cheese and macaroni, because the noodles were swimming in some seriously legit Cheddar. It was absolute gooey goodness. To top it off, they sprinkled lots of pepper in it, giving it a killer spicy aftertaste. Even though they gave a solid portion and I had plenty more food to eat, I wanted more. I wanted lots more.

“How do people sing the blues in this state when this exists?” I asked Dudefriend.

I then “made” him take a bite, and his eyes went all wide. “You’re going to say this is the best, right? Because this is definitely the best mac I’ve had.”

Is it the best mac I’ve had? No, but I’ve eaten a lot of mac in my 29 years. Is it in the top five? Oh yeah. It’s so good it almost makes me want to say “Hotty Toddy.” Almost.

Should you try this mac and cheese? Yes

Rating: 9 out of 10

More info here

Walton’s Southern Table — Huntsville, Ala.

IMG_2381Walton’s Southern Table on a Saturday afternoon is the perfect spot to people watch: There are purple-haired grannies at one booth, hipsters at another, and engineers from Redstone Arsenal at another.

The reason the meat-and-three restaurant, which is on the busy intersection of Airport Road and Whitesburg Drive in Huntsville, has attracted such a diverse crowd? The food is ridiculously delicious, and the prices are on point.

We stumbled into the restaurant for a late lunch on a recent Saturday afternoon and were immediately seated. A server came over and took our order (and fielded our questions expertly), and within five minutes the piping hot food was on our table.

And it all barely fit on the table. I ordered the pot roast with mac and cheese (obvs.) and strawberry pretzel salad; Dudefriend got chicken and dressing, hashbrown casserole, fried green tomatoes and pinto beans. We’re both hearty eaters, but the amount of food was almost intimidating. I stared at the feast, eyes all agog, and the server sensed my hesitance: “It’s a lot of food, I know.”

But I shouldn’t have hesitated because the food was SO. GOOD. You know how Leslie Knope feels about JJ’s Diner on “Parks and Recreation?” Well, if I lived in the Rocket City, Walton’s would be my JJ’s Diner. The pot roast (with carrots and potatoes) was tender and had a dash of nutmeg that balanced the savory gravy. The slab of strawberry pretzel salad was so large that I don’t think an entire defensive line could finish it. Almost everything on Dudefriend’s plate was spot on as well. The chicken and dressing was legit chicken and dressing, not dressing with just a bit of chicken like other restaurants. And he let me take a bite of the hashbrown casserole, which was one of my favorite dishes I’ve eaten all year. I wanted more, but he was a bit greedy, and I can’t blame him one bit: it was comfort food at its finest.

But here’s the thing: Out of all this stellar food, the mac and cheese was just OK. It was definitely cheesy goodness, but it didn’t stand out. After trying all the other food first, I definitely expected more. Don’t get me wrong: If you’re jonesing for mac and cheese it will hit the spot, but I’m not sure I can recommend it when that hashbrown casserole is on the menu. Seriously, that hashbrown casserole, y’all. Love poems should be written about it.

So my recommendation? Go to Walton’s Southern Table ASAP. And take whoever you want, from your grandparents to your too-cool foodie friends, because they’ll all love it. Wear your stretchy jeans or sweatpants. And get that hashbrown casserole. And that mac and cheese, if you’re in the mood for it. If not, don’t bother.

Should you try the mac and cheese?: Eh, whatever you want

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Here’s Walton’s Southern Table’s information

My colleague Matt Wake reviewed Walton’s here.