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TAKES. FOURTH EDITION. VOLUME BIRMINGHAM FOOD.

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MAGIC CITY! HEART OF DIXIE! DIRTY SOUTH! U-S-A!

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

In 2005, I moved to metro Birmingham - Blount County, to be precise. That decision was an awful one; I had a 40 minute commute each day, I was drowning in a mortgage that I couldn't afford and Blount County is as methy and isolated as Cullman or Walker Counties.

In 2011, I moved to Southside Birmingham. Now that was the best decision that I've ever made. The Magic City isn't the city you remember from your last visit to a neutral-site Iron Bowl, although Legion Field is exactly the same. Earlier this year, I did a feature on my adopted hometown for Mississippi-based Mud & Magnolias.

Taylor Bryan from the Auburn Sports Information Department and my podcast partner WarBlogle were among a few folks that asked me to craft the Auburn fan's guide to my adopted home. "Bammerham," if you will. When I began writing this, I started to approach 3,000 words before I had finished food and the editor said, "Let's space it out over a few posts." So, okay - challenge accepted. This series may end up being 20,000 words about why you're wrong about the Magic City. You're not wrong to be disappointed in playing in a terrible bowl game - but you're wrong about my city having nothing to offer.

Here's a small sampling of the food options. If you leave Birmingham hungry or even underwhelmed by the food that we have to offer, don't blame me:

Fine Dining.

Y'all, I'm just a simple fella from Lauderdale County. We thought Ricatoni's was real nice, and a date at George's or Dale's was next level. Now fortunately, I can rely on my lady friend to help with this one. I left these recommendations mostly to her, as my fine dining experience in Birmingham has been limited to Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega, Bettola, Ocean and Satterfield's. (I think that's it?) You'll probably want a reservation at these.

1. Ollie Irene. 2713 Culver Rd., Mountain Brook, Ala. - Although Ollie Irene is in the same neighborhood as my office, I've not been there. But Chef Chris Newsome is a rising star in Birmingham's culinary scene, with Ollie Irene having a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant under its belt. If it's the thing she says is the best, I've learned to trust her takes,

2. Hot and Hot Fish Club. 2180 11th Ct. South, Birmingham, Ala. - One of the many renowned spots in my neighborhood, this is Chris Hastings first restaurant.

3. Chez Fon Fon. 2007 11th Ave. South, Birmingham, Ala. - Also in my neighborhood and attached to one of Frank Stitt's other restaurants, Highlands Bar and Grill, Chez Fon Fon regularly makes national lists for its burger. I've still not tried it. But since I turned this list over to Katie and since that deserves mentioning, it will allow me to ignore it in my burger list. Highlands Bar and Grill is fantastic, too. Pricier, more formal.

Standards.

A few places need to be on this list, but I don't really know where to place them. These are places that have long been staples of the culinary community in Birmingham, most before the 80's and 90's resurgence it had behind folks like Frank Stitt.

1. The Fish Market. 612 22nd St. S., Birmingham, Ala. - This is one of my two favorite "first date" spots in Birmingham. Not overly expensive, but nice. And it's always spectacular. Fish Market now has an oyster bar where you can watch 'em get shucked. They also usually have live music, typically jazz or other instrumental fare. They have an amazing selection of sides, including fried dill pickles, John's Slaw and more.

The Fish Market is likely one of the first four or five places I ate in Birmingham and likely one of the first four or five I would take an out-of-towner. Especially if they enjoy seafood dishes.

TIP: Get the pasta with alfredo sauce as a side, put aluminum foil over it at the end of dinner and have lunch tomorrow for $1.50.

2. John's City Diner. 112 Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard N., Birmingham, Ala. - John's has been in Birmingham since Birmingham existed. It's changed ownership a lot, but its' heart is the same - an upscale diner at the heart of a medium to large Southern city. Most places have them. It's also the place you'll find the largest "It's Nice to Have you in Birmingham" mural.

Try the meatloaf. Look around. You'll feel like it's 1969.

3. Gilchrist Pharmacy. 2805 Cahaba Road, Mountain Brook, Ala. - Gilchirst is a very traditional soda fountain in the heart of Alabama's wealthiest zip code. You can get a hot beef on a bun there (I'll explain later), but you can also get a great chicken salad, a great pimento cheese and a great cream cheese and olive (this is a thing that I THINK may also be uniquely Birmingham - more specifically, old money Birmingham). Add a bag of Golden Flake chips and a limeade and call it a day. It'll cost like $6.

BBQ.

Barbecue is sort of our thing. Well, it's the thing we're most known for - so it's what you're going to come here wanting to sample. I'm going to try to introduce you to a PILE of food options, and I am narrowing them to three instead of five so that it's easier to choose. Anyway, barbecue is contentious - the debate gets heated. Folks like to discuss barbecue. I think in Birmingham, most people that know what they are talking about can safely agree on the top two. After that, it gets a little tricky.

1. Saw's. Three locations. - Saw's has Birmingham's best pork sandwich. Saw's has Birmingham's best ribs (only available at the original Homewood location). And Saw's invented a dish called the "pork and greens on cheese grits" (only available at the Saw's Soul Kitchen location) that will make you reconsider how strange that sounds. Named for the acronym of its' owner's nickname (Sorry Ass Wilson), Saw's is the newest kid on the block, but it's the champ. At the Soul Kitchen location (215 41st St. S., Birmingham, Ala.), you'll get the most unique dishes. Once upon a time, this location opened with a late night menu that included things like the fried dill pickle and pimento cheese sandwich. If pork isn't your thing, you can get the Sweet Tea Chicken Sandwich here, and it's much better than any chicken sandwich you've ever dreamed of. (There's a pickle and white sauce on it.)

Saw's also probably has the best wings in Birmingham, quality-wise. I believe they're available at both the Soul Kitchen and Juke Joint locations.

The Juke Joint location (1115 Dunston Ave., Birmingham, Ala.) offers the pork, the burgers and the sandwiches, but also has some Cajun offerings like po-boys. The original location in Homewood (1008 Oxmoor Rd., Birmingham, Ala.) is just pork and ribs. (All locations offer, largely, the same sides - the potato salad is one of my favorite potato salads anywhere.)

TIP: You can get that white sauce on most anything. At the Soul Kitchen location, anyway.

2. Miss Myra's. 3278 Cahaba Heights Road, Birmingham, Ala. - Miss Myra's is a haul. It's in Cahaba Heights, behind the Summit, and if you don't have plenty of time to spare (or you aren't here for a Birmingham BBQ adventure), it may be a bit much.

But Miss Myra's does smoked chicken better than nearly anyone. Including Bob Gibson. The pork sandwich is fantastic, but the smoked chicken is the thing. You're going to smell like a smoker when you leave, and you'll want to load up on that white sauce (the best white sauce in Birmingham). It's worth the trip, but it's a trip.

3. Full Moon BBQ. Multiple locations across Birmingham. I was going to put Jim N Nick's here, and either are unpopular third place picks, but I left Jim N Nick's off because you can eat at Jim N Nick's most anywhere in the South nowadays.

Full Moon is almost entirely local, though there are several locations, and here's why it sneaks in over, say, Golden Rule - the chow chow. A Full Moon pork sandwich with a pickle and chow chow and a side of onion rings is fantastic. The potato salad is not. The bakers are, and get some of those Half Moon cookies for the trip home.

Hot dog.

Welcome to Birmingham's secret. You know what a Chicago dog is, and maybe you know a New York dog. But Birmingham has a very unique style of hot dog that can't be found anywhere else. The thing Birmingham has is a thing called "meat sauce," which you want to dismiss as chili, but it's not that at all. It's meat sauce. And there are generally diced onions on a Birmingham dog and a special sauce that almost always resembles the Sneaky Pete's sauce you can buy in most stores. And mustard.

And of note: There is a TON of Greek influence (next section) on the Birmingham hot dog.

1. Pop's Neighborhood Grill. 1207 20th Street S., Birmingham, Ala. - In my hood, and what used to be a fantastic late-night treat, Pop's is now just open beyond lunch. I think they close at 3 p.m. Now, Pop's has the Birmingham style hot dog that I just spoke of, but the best thing on Pop's menu is the bacon slaw dog. It's a full strip of bacon on a dog covered in slaw. You can add some hot sauce. It's the best thing you'll ever eat that costs like $2.

2. Gus's Hot Dogs. Multiple locations (Original is at 1915 4th Ave, N., Birmingham, Ala.). - Gus's has the best version of the traditional "meat sauce" hot dog you'll find in town now. Pete's and the Lyric closed, and Gus's is all that's really left of the "old guard," unless you count Sneaky Pete's. Gus's also has a thing called the "hot beef on a bun," a VERY Birmingham thing which is, essentially, a sloppy joe with no sloppy. As the story goes, during the Depression, "hot beef on a bun" was invented because blue collar folks in Birmingham has no teeth because they couldn't afford dental care and this sandwich was made so they could gum a hamburger down. It's still delicious, and worth adding to your order at Gus's.

3. Five Points Market. 1904 11th Ave. S., Birmingham, Ala. - Also in my hood, and also served the most traditional, classic way. This one is a bit of new kid in town is the main reason I slotted it below Gus's, but it's in a hole-in-the-wall and if I told you it had been operating there nonstop since 1959, you'd buy it.

Seriously, if you have time after the barbecue, try a Birmingham hot dog. It's our thing that you're never going to read about in Southern Living or Garden & Gun. We're really, really good at hot dogs.

Mediterranean.

Birmingham's other food secret, although it's hardly a secret as its' the foundation of its' food scene, is it's Mediterranean food. Specifically the Greek influence, but there is also Lebanese and Italian, although Italian has been the most difficult thing for me to find in Birmingham.

1. Pappas' Grill. Vestavia Hills Shopping Center, 1066 Montgomery Highway, Vestavia Hills,, Ala. - Another spot that isn't particularly convenient for someone downtown, but the pastichio is as good as any you'll find anywhere in the South. There are very American dishes, too, but you'll at least want to dive into the baked chicken.

2. Nabeel's Imported Foods. 1706 Oxmoor Road., Birmingham, Ala. - Also a great pastichio, but this menu is a little deeper: lamb chops, Lasagne Molfettese, Eggplant Parmesan, Spanikopita - there's a lot here to celebrate. You'll probably want to share plates with the other people at your table.

3. Makario's Kabob & Grill. 940 20th St. S., Birmingham, Ala. - A Playmaker staple, I slept on Makario's far too long. It's a late night spot, much like its' slightly more American neighbors Al's and Purple Onion, but Makario's actually had really great Mediterranean food. The Makario's Salad is hard to beat, but my favorite menu item is the lamb combo, which comes with grapes leaves, kibba and meat pie. Their baba ghannooj is the best you'll ever have, and while I'm told that I'm incorrect, I quite enjoy their falafel.

And I know I misspelled almost all of that. Try the sauces, particularly the garlic and the tazaki.

Burger.

1. Sammy's Sandwich Shop. 4921 Messer Airport Highway, Birmingham, Ala. - Sammy's Sandwich Shop is way the hell out of the way. Unless you are flying here, in which case, it's super easy. (It's near the airport, which is the only reason to otherwise go to Messer Airport Highway). But Sammy's Sandwich Shop is the best burger in Birmingham.

There isn't much to it, necessarily. It's a seeded bun with lettuce and tomato, maybe pickle and onion on top. Regular old fashioned hamburger. You can put cheese on there. Bacon, I think. And you can get it on Texas Toast. They make their own ranch, so make sure you get some of that for your fries. It's a hole in the wall, and they didn't take credit cards back in the day, but I think they have that straight now. This place isn't particularly convenient, but if you want Birmingham's best burger and you can blow 30 minutes round trip getting to and from there, this is the one.

2. Chris Z's. 2808 University Boulevard, Birmingham, Ala. - Chris Z's is a UAB institution. It's the oldest joint in the Lakeview District, and it's only open for lunch. Sort of the same thing happening here - there's nothing wildly unique about the burger - it's just delicious. Chris Z's has a great patty melt and a great hot dog, too - a pair of delicious sandwiches in their own right.

3. Saw's. Three locations. - The first time I had Saw's Carolina burger, I thought I was in heaven. It's piled with slaw and a Carolina mustard sauce and it's just spectacular. It's the type of burger that gets a slow motion montage - maybe it's just me licking slaw off my fingers while Jessica Simpson's "I Think I'm In Love With You" plays. Saw's puts a fatter ball of meat on the grill, so these burgers get messy. And I rarely order the burger at Saw's because I'll stop on a lot of items before I can land there, but it's delicious and perfect and if you don't want the other great things that Saw's has to offer, this is a fantastic option.

Honorable Mention - Jack Brown's Beer and Burger Joint. 2811 7th Ave. S., Birmingham, Ala. - I hesitate to include Jack Brown's because it's a chain. But it's a very, very small chain with the nearest location to this one being, I think, in Nashville, Tennessee. And that one was built after this one. Jack Brown's has a "Notcher's Club" where beer drinkers can attempt drinking 100 different beers over their visits to the pub and receive a shirt with their name on it. And that's super, super cool and I'm almost there, but Jack Brown's is incredible because the burgers are unique and they are perfectly portioned. Perfect. On Sunday at Jack Brown's, you can get a burger between two donuts. On any day, you can get the Elvis, a burger with peanut butter and bananas. You can get the Jack on Piggy Back, which is a burger with hot dogs on top. There's the Shocker with jalapenos and cream cheese. Everything is great. Add a side of sweet potato fries and mix siracha into the special sauce they give you. And it's all pretty inexpensive, too.

Asian/Thai.

1. Red Pearl. 243 W. Valley Ave., Homewood, Ala. - Red Pearl is a bit of a hike, but it's worth it. Featured on Bizarre Foods, Red Pearl sits in an old Quincy's. It's a market and a restaurant, one where you can order fried bullfrog (it's tasty). You'll find plenty of familiar, comfortable items on this menu, but you'll also find a lot of really unique stuff, too. Try the unique.

2. Great Wall. 706 Valley Ave., Birmingham, Ala. - The key to Great Wall is asking your server for the Sichuan menu. The fish balls, the garlic lamb - all of the stuff on the Sichuan menu is just amazing.

3. Surin. Multiple locations (Original location is Surin West, located at 1918 11th Ave. S., Birmingham, Ala.) - I heard a comedian once warm a crowd up by talking about asking his hotel clerk for a restaurant recommendation and the clerk saying, "Do you like Thai?"

Yeah, that's a weird thing to hear in Birmingham. But Surin is great at it. My favorite dish they serve is only available at lunch - it's the Chicken Noodle Bowl, which has this weird, amazing sauce with a big chicken breast and some noodles dunked in it.

The sushi is at least the second best in town (Jinsei is probably better, but it's also even more expensive) and the dinner menu has interesting things like duck. You like duck, right?

This is one of my top two "first date" spots in Birmingham. It's pricey, but not overly so.

Mexican.

1. Mi Pueblo. 216 Greensprings Highway, Homewood, Ala. - Mi Pueblo is a Mexican supermarket with a restaurant in the back. It's been so successful that it recently quadrupled its' size by moving from a space the size of a post office into an old Food World across the street. Here's the thing about Mi Pueblo - Mexicans go there. They buy their groceries there, they eat there - you'll be the only American around. It's that good.

They have a buffet now, but the tacos are where it's at. Each is around $2, and you can try out al pastor, chorizo and other toppings you'll not find at the Taco Bell. And you'll leave stuffed and with the best Mexican you've ever eaten at under $10.

2. El Barrio. 2211 2nd Ave. N., Birmingham, Ala. - El Barrio is high-end Mexican. "Gourmet" Mexican. This isn't a spot that you get free chips and salsa and point at a letter and get four things wrapped in tortillas with refried beans and rice. But since the gourmet Mexican place is in, I list this here to mostly encourage you not to go to Little Donkey. Little Donkey is awful. It has the worst service you'll ever get at a restaurant and its' food is "okay."

El Barrio makes a really great chorizo meatloaf. Its' also downtown, so if you're staying at one of the places I'll recommend, it'll be easier to get to. Very good, medium-priced, unique dishes.

3. La Paz. 99 Euclid Ave., Birmingham Ala. - La Paz is better than El Barrio, but that's not a sexy opinion. It's WAY better than Little Donkey. La Paz is traditional Mexican fare that you can get in any small Alabama town at a restaurant with a sombrero and a Mexican blanket hanging on the wall, but it's done really, really well. Better than any of those places. And a better atmosphere than any of those places. Try the Gordo. Get some guacamole.

Honorable Mention- Rojo. 2921 Highland Ave. S., Birmingham, Ala. - Rojo is where we play trivia. The menu is half American and half Mexican. Nothing on it is traditional fare by any stretch, which is why it's an honorable mention and not  in the top three. But if you want something very inexpensive that can please a diverse group of people regardless of gender or age, a great bar and a great patio in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Birmingham, Rojo can't be topped. Get the totchos.

Pizza.

1. Bettola. 2901 2nd Ave. S., Birmingham, Ala. - This is upscale; borderline fine dining. But it's reminiscent of Mario Batali's Babbo in New York City and Boston. The problem with that is if you're going to a place that upscale, you generally aren't getting the pizza, but this one is fantastic.

2. Slice. 725 29th St. S., Birmingham, Ala. - Slice found a way to combine the locally sourced food boom and make it into pizza. In Lakeview, where you'll find a handful of the places I've mentioned here, My favorite thing that can be eaten there year round is the Soul Pie: turnip greens, black eyed peas, Conecuh sausage, grilled red onion, bacon, pepper jack and cheddar. "This Little Piggy" is an explosion of meat, the "Bajalieh Special" is simple - it has bacon, grilled red onion and Wickles pepper rings - and the "Wing and a Prayer" has braised chicken, bacon, green and red onion, tomato, bleu cheese crumbles, ranch and hot sauce.

There's a seasonal item on there right now that looks phenomenal - "What the Duck," which has house smoked duck, bacon, Alabama goat cheese, caramelized onions, spinach, locally sourced mushrooms and a veal demi glaze.

3. Post Office Pies. 209 41st St. S., Birmingham, Ala. - Post Office Pies was born of Saw's, and it's the most New York of the bunch. Like Slice, everything comes by the pie. The Swine Pie (house made pork sausage, pepperoni, bacon and mozzarella) and the White (roasted garlic, parm, pecorino romano, mozzarella and ricotta) are my favorites.

Sandwiches.

1. Fat Sam's Sub Station. 1154 11th Ave. S., Birmingham, Ala. - Fat Sam's is in a place nearly as disgusting as my apartment. I imagine if the health department is watching, they aren't handing out 100's to Fat Sam's.

But easily one of the two best sandwiches in metro Birmingham, and the Fat Sam's experience notches it about number two. Sam is a New Yorker, but he has adopted UAB as his own, and he likely knows more about the Blazers than anyone in Birmingham short of the UAB Sports Information Department and Steve Irvine. I like the Son of Italian a lot, but they also have a Chicken Parmesan and a Chicken Philly, the Dragon's Belly is great,. and the Kitchen Sink is an award winner - you'll not possibly finish it without feeling like a train hit you.

2. Mr. P's Deli. 813 Shades Crest Rd., Birmingham, Ala. - The menu at Mr. P's is really intimidating because it has roughly 80 sandwiches on it. My favorite is probably the New York Yankee, which has chicken, swiss, bacon and Mr. P's own white sauce. The Italian Sausage is great, too - topped with mozzarella and Mr. P's own BBQ sauce. Mr. P's also has a great potato salad, and it's in Bluff Park, so you'll enjoy a nice view.

3. Kool Korner. 1360 Montgomery Highway, Vestavia Hilla, Ala. - Kool Korner shut down recently at the Vestavia Hills City Center, but it's coming back to the old Philly Connection on the Vestavia/Hoover line. There may not be a better Cuban anywhere, and the Eye Round is also spectacular. It may not be open by December 30, but if it is and you want a Cuban, this is the spot.

Honorable Mention 1. Klingler's Bakery. 621 Montgomery Highway. Vestavia Hills, Ala. - All of these honorable mentions are such because they aren't particularly sandwich shops, but sandwich shop is where they best fit. Klingler's is a German bakery, but they make a fantastic meatloaf sandwich. And they also have a sausage or schnitzel sandwich that's really great, too. We had a blog several years ago called "Birmingham Lunch Club" where some friends and I went out to eat each Friday and rated our favorite lunch spots. Klingler's won when we seemingly retired the blog.

2. Rocky's Pizza. 715 Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard S., Birmingham, Ala. - Rocky's is a pizza place. And their pizza is among the best in Birmingham - but it's sort of a delivery/take out spot, and that's why it missed my pizza cut. The same goes for their Muffaletta, but it's pretty special. A whole one is the size of a tire and will feed a family of ten. A half one will be enough for your lunch for two days.

3. T-Bones. Authentic Philly Style Cheesesteaks and Hoagies. 1017 20th St. S., Birmingham, Ala. - I've never been to Philadelphia, but I assume this Philly cheesesteak is better than anything there. Craig Ferguson became famous here for saying that Salem's Diner in Homewood had the best Philly he had ever had, and he was including Philadelphia.

Well, that doesn't hold a candle to T-Bones. So I can only go on what Craig Ferguson says here, but it has to be better. T-Bones also has a great french fry selection - fries topped with ranch, fries topped with cheese, fries topped with salsa. It's in the heart of Five Points again after spending a few years in Center Point, and I think Mr. T-Bone is a big Auburn guy. Give him a "War Eagle."

Meat and Three.

Another Birmingham staple, largely influenced by Greeks, there are a lot of great meat and threes in the Magic City. Here's the thing - the Birmingham meat and three was what happened when the Greeks decided to make traditional Southern fare. So while the "meat" portion is going to be fish or baked chicken, the "three" portion is going to be heavy on collards and traditional Southern "vegetables" like macaroni and cheese and fried green tomatoes.

1. Niki's West. 223 Finley Boulevard, Birmingham, Ala. - Niki's is the undisputed, uncontested champ. If you asked me to narrow this entire list down to three overall places to go, Niki's is probably among those three.

Niki's is a cafeteria on the north side of town that can hold roughly 500 people. It usually does at lunch, but with about 20 people working on the cafeteria line and urging people to move quickly, it never takes long. They have it down to a science - you'll be there, in and out in an hour. You may spend $25 on food because you can't say no to the 500 options on their buffet, but it won't take long.

2. Eagle's. 2610 16th St. N., Birmingham, Ala. - Eagle's is in Niki's backyard, and there, you'll see no Greek influence - instead, an offering of meats that includes pig feet and ears, ox tails (which are delicious), chitterlings, neckbones and more. (For the less adventurous, there are pork chops, beef tips and rice and chicken wings.)

The line is typically out the door, and it's worth the wait. My favorite thing on that menu? The fried cream corn and the collards.

3. Ted's. 328 12th St. S., Birmingham, Ala. - Ted's is near UAB, so if you're downtown, it's the easiest to reach. Like Niki's, it's heavily influenced by Greek traditions, and its' meats typically feature baked chicken and fish dishes. It's tiny, but the service is always top notch and the food is even better.

Fast Food.

Birmingham has a ton of local fast food spots endemic to the Magic City. One of my favorite spots is among them, and it'll be controversial among out-of-towners.

1. Milo's Hamburgers. Multiple Locations. "Everybody goes to Milo's," or so says the song. And if the song can't reel you in, one of the best run local brands on social media (@milosburgershop) should entice you.

Milo's burgers are absolutely like nothing else you'll ever have. The lady thinks she has deciphered the sauce as a brown gravy mix with something else in it. I've always thought it was Worcestershire and ketchup. Whatever it is, you'll love it or hate it or it'll grow on you, like it did me. There's a "little extra something," a meat pickle, if you will that tops it. The sweet tea is legendary and, what I did get my Yankee pal to agree on, the fried pies are amazing. I like lemon the best.

In the last couple of years, Milo's has rebranded and that rebranding brought along one of the best things that has ever happened at Milo's: #staysaucy. The addition of three great new sauces - boom boom, double O and a new honey mustard. Milo's has also begun serving breakfast, and from that menu you can now get the Conecuh sausage gravy biscuit, which is a gravy biscuit topped with chunks of Conecuh sausage. It is everything you are dreaming it can be.

2. Jack's. Multiple locations. Jack's is kind of regional, but barely. Jack's has super, super cheap hamburgers - the special is always under $5 - and their breakfast is the best fast food breakfast you'll ever have (Hardee's included). They have fried chicken and they have a big ice cream bar. They also have some in-house sauces like their own ranch and their Comeback sauce, which you should dip everything in.

3. Hamburger Heaven. Multiple locations. Hamburger Heaven has a perfectly delicious hamburger and all, but here is why they are on this list: milkshakes and cornballs.

Local Fast Casual.

1. Taziki's. Multiple locations. Taziki's is one of many Birmingham chains that has expanded far beyond the walls of our state, but it's because it's the best. If you're around Friday - Sunday, try the Friday pasta. It has chicken and pasta and tomatoes and stuff and the sauce on it is really good.

2. Zoe's Kitchen. Multiple locations. Another local chain that is rapidly expanding, I've become a big fan of Zoe's as of late. The hummus is great, and I like the club a lot, but the steak rollup is now my favorite menu item. Both of these spots are heavily Greek inspired, and both are delicious, mid-range healthy options for a fast quality lunch.

3. Taco Mama. Original location in Crestline Village with locations in Tuscaloosa and Homewood coming soon. Taco Mama is Moe's or Chipotle or Qdoba or whatever, but it's way better. The sauce selection is out of this work (there are pestos and all sorts of wild things to dip a quesadilla in, and you can build your own. Here's a thing: chorizo. Your quesadilla can have chorizo.

Late Night.

1. Al's Deli. 1629 10th Ave. S., Birmingham, Ala. - Al's is the undisputed king of late night. Ridiculous lines out the door, but they move fairly quickly. It's situated just off of UAB's campus and it's open 24 hours. There's a giant courtyard with a fountain, as if it's some kind of upscale place, but no upscale place I ever heard of has ranch fries.

And these are the best ranch fries. You can get a kabob or a hamburger or frozen chicken fingers or a big, fat steak baker, but the ranch fries are one of my favorite dishes in Birmingham. Get them after midnight and they are even better.

I imagine Frank Stitt eats those ranch fries in a secret panic room in his basement.

2. Marty's PM. 1813 10th Ct. S., Birmingham, Ala. - A lot of folks, including my co-founder of College and Magnolia, former editor Chris Fuhrmeister, refuse to acknowledge the existence of Marty's PM. See, Marty died a few years ago. And Marty created one of the greatest establishments in the history of this city - a bar and restaurant that was only open from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m. Marty welcomed musicians every night, largely jazz, and that place felt like something out of the Roaring 20's. It was a magic that'll never, ever possibly be recaptured.

The new place doesn't have music all the time. They have televisions. They play music over the stereo. There's no smoking. But here's what they do still have: the best patty melt you'll put in your mouth at 2 a.m., a frito pie and a recession special, similar to the one at Robert's in Nashville - a bologna sandwich with chips and a PBR for $5 (I think that's still the price).

3. J. Clyde. 1312 Cobb Lane, Birmingham, Ala. - The J. Clyde is Birmingham's renowned beer bar, and it isn't open 24 hours a day, but it is open until at least midnight, and I think the kitchen is open that entire time, too. And the kitchen has a really overlooked burger, but my favorite things are the appetizers. Get the fried sauerkraut balls and the fried green tomatoes. They also have a fabulous cheese plate, the first place I learned that Red Dragon Mustard Cheese existed. Great eats after most places are closing at 9 p.m.

Brunch.

1. Cosmo's. Upside Down Plaza. 2012 Magnolia Ave., Birmingham, Ala. - Cosmo's is a pizza place, and they're usually open pretty late - so maybe they deserve an honorable mention in the late night category as well. And with that, you can design your own slice of pizza. That's right: Cosmo's will let you choose the toppings that you want on one slice of pizza.

But at their brunch, they put everything on English muffins. Or almost everything. There's shrimp and grits and Eggs Like Rusty and Leisa's Favorite and Cowboy Beans. They have a great bloody mary bar with piles of everything that you want to add to a bloody mary, and they always have live music, and it's usually really good. I've never confirmed this, but I think Leisa is from New Orleans. She has that sort of sensibility about her, anyway. It's super relaxed.

It's also one of two spots on this list that I can walk to, which is half the fun of brunch for me.

2. Buck Mulligan's Irish Pub. 2011 Highland Ave. S., Birmingham, Ala. - The other spot I can walk to is the newest addition to Five Points, Buck Mulligan's. If you haven't been a while, it's in the old Black Market. If you haven't been in a while, it's in the old Duggan's or Hippodrome.

Buck Mulligan's is likely the closest to authentic Irish fare I've ever had. Their All Day Breakfast is muy brunch item of choice - it is served with bangers, eggs, soda bread, some kind of jam, some kind of ham and baked beans. It's the oddest combination, and it's terrific.

So is the bangers and champ. And they tell me the Guiness burger is great, but I've been so hung up on the more traditional items, I've never gotten away from them.

3. Jackson's Bar and Bistro. 1831 28th Ave. S., Homewood, Ala. - Probably not on the list for most people, but I like it a lot. Jackson's has the best grits I think I have ever eaten. And they have a lot of sausage situations. Jackson's also makes a great omelette. If you stay a bit farther out of town, Jackson's is you jam. It also has a great patio if the weather cooperates.

Until next time, when we'll hit the Birmingham bars...