You’d be shocked to know how many authentic ethnic restaurants are tucked in the hidden corners of the Magic City. Once we started digging, we unearthed so many unknown establishments that we had a hard time finding parameters for this article—what a delightful problem! Birmingham is teeming with global transplants, longtime locals with heirloom family recipes and experimental chefs who embrace flavors once foreign to our Deep South cuisine. Our city is rapidly filling with forward-thinking foodies who have curious palates and adventuresome spirits. From beloved neighborhood eateries to uncharted culinary corners of Birmingham, we bring you five distinctly different ethnic restaurants you should have on your must-try list.
Ethnic Restaurants in Birmingham
22 Green Springs Hwy., Birmingham • (205) 941-1009
This restaurant fills the left half of an Asian market and stands poised to be crowned Birmingham’s best Chinese and Korean restaurant. In an often overlooked area on Green Springs Highway on the outskirts of downtown, this eatery is dishing up an endless menu of authentic eats that is sure to elicit mmms of approval as the distinct flavors hit your palate. The vegetables are not mushy and overcooked here, where the cooks clearly want you to taste the vibrant flavors that come together to form each dish. A small bowl of wonton soup is served with three freshly made dumplings—no soggy noodles here—and garnished with still-crisp green onions. The pan-fried bun stuffed with pork and the steamed dumplings are each served with complex dipping sauces that not only complement, but also enhance, the flavors of the buns and dumplings. The endless wealth of mouthwatering, authentic Chinese flavors made us hungry to return, not only to try the Korean menu, but also for the dim sum service—Cantonese-style small plates and steamer baskets of tapas-style comfort food served on carts—on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
1706 Oxmoor Road, Homewood • (205) 879-9292
This beloved Mediterranean restaurant in the heart of Homewood was founded in 1971 by Nabeel Shunnarah, then bought by John and Ottavia Krontiras. The current owners wanted to preserve and build upon the neighborhood establishment that exudes the quaint gathering places they grew up around in their hometowns in southern Greece and northern Italy. They’ve accomplished that at Nabeel’s Cafe & Market, where groups gather for lunch socials, couples dine on the sidewalk patio at dusk, children ogle the shiny, colorful wrappers of the Mediterranean candies in the small grocery shop and locals come to get feta, olives and other fresh Mediterranean groceries. John is on the floor every day, warmly greeting guests and ensuring that his customers are happy. Nabeel’s cuisine is largely influenced by John and Ottavia’s Greek and Italian heritage, although he jokes that the Greek influence is stronger on the menu because Greeks are superior. From gyros, moussaka, caprese salad, tabouli and stuffed grape leaves to bruschetta, pastitsio, chicken souvlaki, spanakopita and baklava, this eatery’s delicious, homestyle cuisine is rivaled only by its old-world European charm.
5426 Hwy. 280, Ste. 14, Birmingham • (205) 518-0208
Next door to a martial arts studio on Highway 280, this unassuming establishment houses a chef who honed his culinary skills in India before bringing his perfected curries and chutneys to the States. Sit down to enjoy this eatery’s complimentary, crispy pappadum, a peppery, cumin-spiced, paper-thin cracker served with sweet onion and savory mint chutneys. For the Indian cuisine newbie, try the chicken tikka masala, a crowd-pleasing dish made of clay oven-roasted chunks of chicken folded into a cream sauce. This is comfort food, Indian style. This South Asian cuisine has striking similarities to the Southern meat-and-three concept, with its grilled meats and sumptuous sauces paired with vegetarian sides and rice or bread, and it easily lends itself to sharing, just like you would at a Southern Sunday dinner. Bhindi masala, a stir-fried or roasted okra dish, is an Indian staple. “Okra and black-eyed peas are very big in my country,” says owner Vijay Bansode, who hails from Pune City, adjacent to Mumbai, where he visits every two years. “The vegetarian malai kofta dish is delicious and worth trying, but the staff favorite is the chicken reshmi kabob.”
121 20th St. N., Birmingham • (205) 322-1282
This vibrantly colored hole-in-the-wall in the heart of downtown Birmingham is the brainchild of Chef Chris Dupont, who founded Cafe Dupont in Springville more than 20 years ago and relocated it to a historic space in downtown Birmingham in 2003. Two doors down from Cafe Dupont, Tau Poco is inspired by international street food. Tau Poco means “little vessel,” which is not only a nod to the buns, tacos, flatbreads, pita and even lettuce wraps that deliver deliciousness to pie-holes the world over, but it’s also a nod to the restaurant space itself, which was opened on a shoestring budget and has garnered Chris national attention for repurposing small, abandoned urban spaces into thriving establishments. And this little vessel is packed with big and exciting flavors, from Japanese and Moroccan to Peruvian, Caribbean and more. The forward-thinking culinary concept deconstructs global street fare, allowing diners to participate in the creative culinary process, picking and choosing the elements of their dish from a diverse menu of popular street food elements. First, choose your vessel, from Korean pork buns to lettuce wraps. Then select your main, two sauces and a side—all for $10. Tau Poco doesn’t skimp on portion sizes. The food is made fresh to order, and the housemade sauces and kimchi are out of this world.
790 Montgomery Hwy., Ste. 104, Vestavia • (205) 200-0711
This is a new, unassuming hole-in-the-wall located in a Vestavia Hills shopping center. Customers can expect a friendly and helpful staff and a clean, light-filled eatery, both of which give you the first impression that great pride is taken in their service, decor and, most importantly, the cuisine. And the dishes do not disappoint, as evidenced by Masaman Thai Kitchen’s rapidly growing local following. Originally, Masaman Thai Kitchen opened as a takeout-only joint, but hungry patrons must’ve caused a change of heart, because tables and chairs were soon added—tables and chairs that were full with diners while we were there. Each dish is made to order in this small kitchen, and while some ethnic restaurants deliver watered-down versions of their dishes to American diners, the cooks at Masaman aren’t afraid to deliver the authentic heat and spices of their native Thai cuisine. Lunch specials come with a cup of coconut tofu soup that has the sweet, light creaminess of coconut milk, perfectly balanced with a spicy kick—a warming bowl of Thai soup for the soul. And if you love perfectly pan-fried flat noodles and a little heat, the pad spicy noodle dish is to die for!
If your mouth is watering at this point, we’re not surprised. Get out and satisfy your ethnic food craving!
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