Bottega Cafe — Birmingham, Alabama

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Bottega Cafe

2240 Highland Ave. South, Birmingham

http://bottegarestaurant.com

A Frank Stitt restaurant serving a bad dish is like Justin Timberlake releasing a subpar single: It just rarely happens.  Keeping this in mind,  a friend and I recently made our way to Stitt’s Bottega Cafe in Birmingham.

We were the earlybirds  on a Saturday night — we got there around 5:15, and just a few tables were occupied.  We got our app — homemade potato chips and charred onion dip — about 10 minutes after ordering. The chips were crispy and delicious and addicting. I could have easily eaten them all day. And the onion dip was stellar. A bit of a tang and creamy goodness.

But I wasn’t at Bottega Cafe for the apps — I was there  for the mac and cheese. More importantly, the mac and cheese and small salad, which the restaurant offers for $12.  Right as we were finishing the app — perfect timing! — the entrees came out.

HOLY. CRAP.

If mac and cheese dishes were pieces of art (and really, they should be, but that’s another story, another day), then this mac and cheese would be the Mona Lisa. Or the Sistine Chapel. Or anything breathtaking, really. It almost looks too perfect to eat. Almost.

The mac and cheese was a bit too hot (a problem I don’t mind to have) when it arrived, so I snacked on the salad a bit. It was fresh and tasty. But once again, I wasn’t there for the salad. I was there for the mac.

And oh my goodness. You know when you have a long week and just need a drink (and maybe a slice or three of pizza)? And when you take the first sip of the drink, everything bad about the week seems to go away?

Well, that’s what the first bite of this mac and cheese is like. It probably has healing powers. (Definitely tell your Facebook friends who are into essential oils.)  It’s creamy and baked to perfection and tastes as good as it looks. Another added perk: It doesn’t taste as heavy as most of the other mac and cheeses I’ve tried — it could be because of the side salad, or magical powers — so there’s no food coma afterward.

The serving size was so large that I had leftovers, so I had it boxed up and took it (and the salad) home. Another another miracle happened: the leftover mac and cheese was even better, if possible, and the salad wasn’t wilted. I meant to save some of the leftovers to share, but I ate it all with zero shame. Sharing is caring unless it involves mac and cheese, kids — then sharing is insane.

Should you try the mac and cheese? Yes, duh

Rating: 9 out of 10

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Fried Green Tomato’s — Hoover, Alabama

Just looking at this photo of Fried Green Tomato's mac and cheese makes me hungry.
Just looking at this photo of Fried Green Tomato’s mac and cheese makes me hungry.
Fried Green Tomato’s
1615 Montgomery Highway; 205-824-5000  http://eatfgt.com/
Mac and cheese: $1.99

OK, so it’s probably obvious: I love a good meat-and-three. The food’s almost always solid, and there’s usually a mac and cheese option. And when I heard that the owners of the iconic Irondale Cafe (think Fannie Flagg’s inspiration for “Fried Green Tomatoes”) had opened a restaurant in Hoover, I was all in.

And apparently, I’m not the only one. When Dudefriend and I arrived around 1 p.m. on a Saturday, the place was packed. Seven people were in line in front of us, and no tables were available inside the ample dining space. (A few remained in front of the restaurant, but we wanted as far away from the 100-degree heat as possible). But in the few minutes that we perused the day’s menu (among the options: chicken pot pie, buttermilk chicken, country-fried steak and baked chicken), we were at the front of the line. After the courteous and very helpful cashier took our order, our food came out one minute later. That’s right: One minute. You can’t get quicker service at a fast-food chain.

Luckily, a table had cleared off by then, and we were able to survey our grub. (Fried Green Tomato’s gives nice, Southern-sized portions, but not so much that you feel the need to take a nap under the table.) And man, the mac and cheese looked legit. There was lots of cheese and infinite creaminess. Best of all, there were breadcrumbs (cornbread, to be exact) splayed across the noodles — a detail I definitely appreciate.

But did it taste as good as it looks? Fortunately, yes. The noodles were warm and you could taste bursts of Cheddar. And the breadcrumbs balanced the creaminess of the sauce, making the mac taste much lighter than it actually was.

I had plenty of delicious food in front of me (your grandma will want the recipe for the fried buttermilk chicken tenders because they’re even better than hers), but I kept going back to the mac. Forget about the fried green tomatoes: the mac is king here.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Should you order it? Yes

Fife’s Restaurant — Birmingham, Alabama

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Fife’s Restaurant, 2321 4th Ave. North, Birmingham, 205-254-9167, Facebook
Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday thru Saturday

Fife’s is a Birmingham institution. The restaurant has been serving up soul food since 1956, and for good reason: the food tastes like it was prepared with love — like your granny cooked it. The fried chicken, the squash croquettes — there’s no need to try to imitate. You’re not going to get close. And the community knows that as well — there’s almost always a steady stream of cars parked outside the restaurant, from breakfast to nighttime.

So when a co-worker recently announced he was going to Fife’s and was willing to pick up lunch, I decided to take him up on the offer. Why not start the blog on a high note? I’d never tried the restaurant’s mac and cheese before, but it had to be good, right? Precedent and all.

Ten minutes later, my colleague came back with lunch (for four people, so Fife’s shovels the food out quickly) and man oh man, did the mac and cheese look good. It was baked to perfection and there was a huge chunk of crust on top — my favorite part. Oh, and did I mention the portion? Fife’s gives you a hearty scoop of the cheesy noodles — so much that it overflows the portion of the take-out container meant for sides. It was a bit dry, but I attributed that to the fact it’s a take-out meal.

But was it any good?

The quick answer is … no. It was flavorless, bland and lacked seasoning. It tasted like how Britney Spears’ and Iggy Azalea’s “Pretty Girls” sounds: Before you listen to the song you want it to be terrific, like “Toxic” terrific, but by the end  you’ve already kind of forgotten you listened to the thing to begin with. It’s the same with this mac and cheese. It’s blah and forgettable.

So should you go to Fife’s? Absolutely. The price point is good — a meat-and-three dish is under $10 — and most of the dishes are down-home heaven. But skip the mac. Absolutely skip the mac.

Final score: 3.5 (out of 10)