Tag Archives: Chez Fonfon

The Oasis

I woke up this morning craving a cheeseburger from The Oasis.

If you travel from west to east on University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa you will go through downtown and the heart of the University of Alabama campus. Continuing past Alberta City and the iconic neon sign of the Moon Winx Lodge (which survived the April 2011 tornado despite devastation all around it) you’ll pass through Five Points and a less populated area of Tuscaloosa’s edges. Eventually, University merges with U.S. 11 in Cottondale. Just past that merger point, one might almost miss The Oasis, a ‘50s-era roadhouse on the left.

If you’re in the neighborhood, try not to miss it. I haven’t been there in a long time but the place makes a vivid impression.

The Oasis is the kind of place that would have been referred to as a “beer joint” when I was growing up. It’s in a squat one-story red brick building with double neon zigzags across the top and “OASIS” centered up and left of the glass front door. Pick-up trucks are usually dominant in the front parking lot and motorcycles are often pulled around on the side. A free-standing neon sign tops a pole just to the right of the building. It is topped by the words “THE OASIS” flanked by saguaro cacti and a big neon “BEVERAGES” below. East Tuscaloosa along University Boulevard has long had some great neon.

The small entrance counter and cash register directly in front of you as you come in the door open into a basic dining room to the left with a few booths, tables, and a bar. Of course there was always a great jukebox.  A closed off barroom with a pool table is in the back with its own entrance near the rear of the building. I think I have peeked back there exactly once.

Be warned: Because the Oasis is out of the city limits (I guess) the place is still smoker-friendly and one dines there in a haze of stifling cigarette smoke. I guess it was always a smoke-filled room but I didn’t notice it so much in the days before strict non-smoking regulations. Now it hits you as soon as you open the door. I had recommended the cheeseburger to my parents a few years ago and they went in and immediately went out because of their health problems and the smoke (which I had forgotten to warn them about). The waitress came out and took their order and told them she’d bring it out to the car.

The Oasis has always felt to me like a place where one might go to cheat on a spouse. Maybe it’s the country music playing on the jukebox and the smoky atmosphere. Maybe it’s the clientele. I think it’s a combination of all of the above. Even if the waitress approaching the table doesn’t start off with “What’ll you have, darlin’?” you’ll feel like she did. The wait staff is friendly, experienced, and earthy. They have never suffered fools gladly.

The Oasis cheeseburger seals the deal. It’s a perfect old-style all-beef patty cooked on a flat-top grill with American cheese melted on the top. This is nestled beneath a pillowy top bun with the works – onions, tomato, lettuce, pickle, ketchup, and mustard. Some poll ranked the Oasis cheeseburger as among the top five cheeseburgers in Alabama; I find such rankings annoying but this one got it right by recognizing the Oasis (and I think the winning cheeseburger was Chez Fonfon in Birmingham).  Accompany your Oasis cheeseburger with a generous order of hot crinkle-cut fries. The Oasis was always the kind of place that would wrap a napkin around an ice cold long-neck beer to absorb the cold bottle’s moisture.

I passed The Oasis hundreds of times before I stopped and ate there. In the 1980s a jazz musician friend took me to The Oasis for the first time for lunch. (On that same afternoon, he convinced me how much better my life would be with a pair of Vuarnet sunglasses and I overspent on sunglasses for years after.)

I longed to be a “bad boy” back then but never really had what it took to pull it off. The Oasis, however, instantly spoke to my bad boy instincts and after that first trip I often looked for a good excuse to make the drive east on University.

I was directing a production of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” in 1986. Shepard is a favorite of mine and the twisted and longing love story of an emotionally damaged couple in a run-down motel room in the Mojave Desert is a great example of his singular aching vision. One night after a Friday night rehearsal I told Kitty, the actor playing the female lead, that we were going to do some research on her role after the Saturday afternoon rehearsal and that she should dress in character.

On Saturday afternoon Kitty showed up for rehearsal wearing a little too much make-up and with her honey-brown hair dyed jet black. She wore a low-cut red blouse, skin-tight jeans, and spike heels.

“Perfect,” I said. “Where to?” asked Kitty.

After rehearsal, Kitty, the stage manager, and I piled in the car and headed out to The Oasis. It was mostly a male clientele late on a November Saturday afternoon. I started handing Kitty quarters to feed the jukebox. Every eye followed her as she leaned across the jukebox and picked out the most plaintive cryin’ in your beer tracks.

Kitty, who was already a skilled actor, was finding her character with each sip of a cold one and with each quarter in the jukebox. We paid up and headed for the car. As Kitty was getting in the car, a group of women in a pick-up truck slowed down. One of them rolled down the window and yelled “Slut!” at Kitty. The truck and its women sped away, slinging gravel in the wake.

“Well that was fun,” said Kitty with a sly grin. “Where to next?”

We decided to go to Leland Lanes in Alberta City and bowl for a while.

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Highlands Bar and Grill

IMG_1509  My first extended post-Katrina visit to New Orleans in 2007 coincided with the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. Held in May, that event showcases local restaurants and is a draw for food and wine aficionados from many places. I met a couple who were restaurateurs from Napa and the husband’s work required him to travel all over the world. When I mentioned that I was from Birmingham, he said, “You know, Birmingham is a great food city. Not many people know that.”

I already knew but it was nice to hear it from somebody from the west coast.

Growing up in Birmingham, there was good dining to be had and there was always an abundance of Greek-owned eateries from hot dog stands to white tablecloth establishments. The place has long been a mecca for classic southern “meat and three” places and the quality and variety of barbecue and barbecue styles in the area is an embarrassment of riches.

But when Frank Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) in Five Points South in 1982, the bar for Birmingham dining was significantly raised. A few years later Stitt opened Bottega and Bottega Café (www.bottegarestaurant.com) a few blocks away on Highland Avenue and then Chez Fonfon (www.fonfonbham.com), a more casual bistro, next door to Highlands.

Add to that a preponderance of good eats from other chefs, many of whom worked for Stitt before striking out on their own. There are always a new attitude and a new swagger creating a great and unpretentious urban destination for dining at every level and taste. In the Five Points South area near Highlands, I am partial to Ocean (www.oceanbirmingham.com) and Hot and Hot Fish Club (www.hotandhotfishclub.com) but every time I go to Birmingham lately it seems that a “must visit” new dining option has opened somewhere in the city. I am falling way behind on keeping up and checking them out.

Highlands, however, is still the flagship. It is pricey and elegant and provides an unmistakable sense of occasion when one enters the door. However, it is never snooty nor pretentious, it features the best locally grown and fresh ingredients, and a meal at Highlands is always an opportunity to relax and breathe. Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, create gracious and memorable dining experiences for their guests.

The wait staff is knowledgeable, efficient, and playful. I like to eat seafood from the Gulf when I am at Highlands; for my taste, Highlands prepares fish better than anybody. But everything on the menu pleases. We celebrated my mother’s milestone birthday at Highlands last summer and she declared her steak that night to be “the best steak I’ve ever eaten.” The menu is seasonal and changes often but Highlands baked grits, a signature dish, is always on the menu.

Two of my most often thumbed through cookbooks are by Frank Stitt. The first, an instant classic, is Frank Stitt’s Southern Table. It was followed by Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita. In each, the reader and cook find a delicious assortment of unique takes on food preparation and presentation culled from Stitt’s extensive experience. Stitt is a native of Cullman, Alabama, who attended college at Tufts and Berkeley, apprenticed and cooked in France and the Caribbean, and ultimately opened his restaurants less than an hour from where he was born.

Highlands Bar and Grill and Frank Stitt are on my mind this week because the 25th presentation of the James Beard Awards (JBAs) for restaurants and chefs will be held in Chicago on Monday, May 4, 2015. Highlands Bar and Grill is one of the five finalists for Outstanding Restaurant for the seventh year in a row. The other four finalists this year are in New York.

I have been paying attention to the JBAs (www.jamesbeard.org) for many years and have paid particularly close attention since Stitt and Highlands have been regular contenders. Stitt was inducted into the JBA Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in 2011 and was named Best Chef – Southeast in 2001. I find that very often the winner for Outstanding Restaurant is a top five finalist several times before it wins so every year I tune in to see if this year is Highlands’ “turn.” I feel good about lucky 7.

A confession: I will be watching the James Beard Awards on Monday night. They are streamed every year on livestream.com and I am just enough of a food nerd to watch a couple of hours of restaurant awards. I want to be a witness when Highlands gets its much deserved honor. It will be an honor for the whole city. On the down side, it may make it even harder to get a reservation at Highlands Bar and Grill.

Mother and Truman at Highlands in June 2014

(The photograph is of my mother, Jean Journey, and my nephew, Truman, outside Highlands in June 2014.)