The Pizitz Food Hall is an epicurean Elysium, a culinary Camelot, where adventurous gastronomes can awaken their senses, taking their taste buds to new worlds — from Ethiopia, Nepal, Japan, Vietnam and corners of Europe to Hawaii, Mexico and our own “purple mountain majesties.”
The vendors are composed of longtime Birmingham chefs and restaurateurs, as well as some folks who are new to the Magic City food scene. It will come as no surprise to the average Birminghamian that our city is filled with plucky epicures ready to dive into a plate full of intriguing new flavors. But, it did surprise some of the new food hall vendors. “I like Birmingham. I like the people; they like all the food, and that — I am surprised!” says a flummoxed yet delighted Amanshwa Takele, owner of the Ethiopian eatery, Ghion Cultural Hall. “I opened this business almost four weeks ago, and a lot of people have come here three or four times! That is why I am happy,” Amanshwa adds with a smile.
“My favorite thing about being here is the community that we have with the other stalls here,” says Cody Penton, executive chef of Ichicoro IMOTO. “We all look out for each other and help in whatever ways we can. It’s really a one-of-a-kind situation.” Executive Chef and Owner of Ono Poke, Vinh Tran, agrees. “Oh, I am friends with everybody here,” he says, adding, “There are so many cultural flavors here that people are willing to try. It brings families together, different types of people, like people that work downtown — all kinds of people. The Pizitz Food Hall is great.”
So, let’s take a tour of this fabulous conglomerate of culinary creatives!
The Eateries of Pizitz Food Hall
“We derived the name Busy Corner Cheese from Birmingham’s strong history of retail downtown, where the Pizitz Department Store was called ‘The Busy Corner,’” says Brian McMillan, lead cheesemonger and owner of the full-service, cut-to-order cheese shop, where the tagline is “The People’s Cheese.” And Brian is passionate about meeting new people and sharing the flavors and stories of the cheeses he curates. “We want people to feel that Busy Corner is their cheese chop and feel some ownership in it. We also want people to feel comfortable trying new things, without feeling intimidated,” says Brian. “If you get a cheese board, we will take some cues on your likes and dislikes. We also encourage liberal sampling and tasting when making purchases.”
In addition to a thoughtfully curated collection of cheeses, the small independent cheese shop offers artisanal salumi, housemade pork rillettes, liver mousse and some pickled items. At lunch, the sandwiches have been really popular, but when happy hour rolls around, Busy Corner’s cheese and charcuterie boards take center stage and are perfectly paired with the craft cocktails, local beers and fine wines from The Louis Bar, located in the center of Pizitz Food Hall. Grab a group of friends and complement your cocktails with Busy Corner’s most popular Five Cheese and Meat Board. “The beauty of that one is that it is going to be different every time that you come in,” says Brian, who will never tire of meeting the cheese enthusiasts of the Magic City. “Our job as cheesemongers is to tell the stories of the great people, near and far, that do the hard work of creating these fantastic products. As in most things in life, I find that passionate people create things that reflect those passions, and I believe that the consumer can enjoy and appreciate all that goes into it.”
With four eateries in New York City, Choza Taqueria decided it would take its first steps outside the Big Apple into none other than the heart of downtown Birmingham. This straightforward taqueria is the brainchild of Matt Wagman and Chef Ahktar Nawab. “Executive Chef Akhtar brings years of south-of-the-border flavor and technique to our kitchen,” says Roscoe Hall, operations manager in the Southeast for Fourth Earl Hospitality. “Chef Akhtar trained under Tom Colicchio at Craft and worked as the executive chef at Craft Bar. Akhtar truly found his gastronomic niche with Latin cuisine, as the executive chef of La Esquina.” The chef’s culinary brilliance has garnered acclaim, and clearly has won the approval in one of the most culturally diverse food capitals of the world.
Choose your vessel — tacos, torta, burrito, salad or bowl — and then choose your protein or veg! Roscoe says that the chorizo taco — spicy Mexican pork sausage, poblano peppers, pickled jalapeno peppers, salsa macha, queso fresco and cilantro — has been the most popular dish among Choza’s Birmingham followers. But he encourages folks to try the fabulous vegetarian option, garbanzo y hongos — garbanzo beans, mushrooms, Mexican crema, salsa negra and avocado. “The flavor profiles are amazing,” he says of the dish. “The garnishes are perfect. I advise all to try.”
Inspired by his grandmother’s traditional Israeli recipes, Eli Markshtien whips up delicious shawarma, falafel, kebabs, shakshuka, salads and more, using only the highest quality ingredients like grass-fed beef, organic chicken and naturally grown produce from Owl’s Hollow Farm. And the authenticity is astounding: The hummus is creamy and addictive, the warm pita is made in house, and the dishes are often served with tahini and S’rug, Israeli spicy sauce. And don’t miss their fresh salad sides, including classic Israeli salad, tabouli, red cabbage salad, Moroccan carrot salad, red beet salad, roasted peppers salad and baba ghanoush. Veggie lovers and Israeli cuisine aficionados, go to town!
Don’t deny yourself the unique experience of traditional Ethiopian dining. “Everybody eats together, family-style — wife, husband, kids, friends,” says Amanshwa Takele, owner of Ghion Cultural Hall, his second location with the original, eight-year-old eatery based in Atlanta. “You can share and try all the flavors. And you eat with the hands because it is more tasty. It is more of an experience.” There are four main options at Ghion: Chicken, veggie, lamb or beef — served with salad, a side of spicy sauce and “teff” flatbread. Made from grass seed, this spongy flatbread is not only perfect for sopping up the flavors and sauces of each protein and veggie dish, but it is also organic, gluten-free and easy to digest.
“Mostly I push the people to try lamb — either lamb tibs (or pieces), spicy tender lamb stew or mild curry lamb stew,” says the Addis Ababa native who moved to the United States 18 years ago. “And the veggie plate — that’s the best. If it’s your first time to come here, I push people to try that. But the Ghion Special is the most popular. It comes with veggie, lamb, beef, chicken — everything is included. Everybody likes that one.” Don’t miss this gem of cultural richness. Stop by on a Friday or Saturday night to witness a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony on the open-air patio, along with some live Ethiopian music!
Authentic ramen, an umami-rich noodle soup with toppings, has been around in Japan for about 70 years. “Only recently have its artisanal versions become popular all over the world,” says Cody Penton, executive chef of Ichicoro IMOTO. IMOTO, meaning “little sister” in Japanese, indicates the Pizitz Ichicoro’s relationship to the “firstborn” Ichicoro eatery in Tampa, Florida. “If you’ve never had our ramen before, we keep one foot in tradition and one foot in regionality. Recently we did a BBQ chicken abura soba, or ‘oiled noodle,’ and made our own version of white BBQ sauce to glaze the chicken.” The most popular bowl is well-loved across most artisanal ramen houses: Tonkotsu, which features the mouthwatering ‘double-pork broth’ and the fan-favorite, citrus-braised pork belly.
Like an overlooked little sister, the veggie dishes often play second fiddle to stars like citrus-braised pork belly. “Being in the South, vegetarian options aren’t always the first pick,” says Cody. “But I’d put our veggie ramen up against a lot of meat-based ramen bowls. We make a hearty curry-miso broth, add our custom-made ramen noodles and top it with scallions, grilled onions, bean sprouts, butter-braised corn, soy-marinated mushrooms and sesame seeds.
“Our ice cream and popsicles are made with natural fruit and fresh ingredients,” says Lichita’s owner Eloy Garcia. “They have the texture like a homemade ice cream — smooth and creamy.” Made in the Mexican style, with less sugar and no eggs, Eloy’s homemade icy sweets are lighter, so feel free to indulge with gusto! The flavors range from classic (strawberry, vanilla and chocolate) and creative (burnt milk, eggnog and bubble gum) to distinctly Mexican (guava, pina colada, mamey and chongos). “The most popular ice cream flavor is cookies and cream and the most popular popsicle is coconut cream,” says Eloy, but he encourages adventurous epicures to go for the deceivingly delicious cheese ice cream. His favorite thing about Lichita’s? “Making popsicles and ice cream with a lot of dedication,” he says with an oh-so-sweet smile!
Birmingham chef Abhishek Sainju, better known as “Abhi,” garnered a cult following with his traveling catering kitchen, Everest Sushi. Birmingham foodies began following the sushi guru, and soon the talented chef was helping to launch Bamboo on 2nd. These days, Abhi is back at it with his first brick-and-mortar ventures: Pizitz Food Hall’s MO:MO:, followed closely by ABHI at The Summit.
MO:MO: is a fast-food, street-style eatery serving local ingredients with Asian spices. “I thought it was a brilliant idea for Birmingham,” says Abhi. The most popular dish and the eatery’s namesake are the momos — steamed Nepalese dumplings with turkey, veggies and Alabama tomato vinaigrette. These homemade pockets of pillowy goodness with slurp-worthy savory broth came to prominence in the Magic City food scene at Bamboo on 2nd, and they were so memorable that they deserved their own little corner of the world. The streamlined menu also includes Banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich of either pork belly, lemongrass chicken, grilled shrimp or seasonal veggies, served on a crusty baguette with cilantro, pickled carrots, pate, jalapeño, cucumbers and spicy mayo. Abhi tells us to be on the lookout for a variety of healthy rice bowls!
“My passion is food, and I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant,” says Vinh Tran, proud owner of Ono Poké, his first restaurant. Vinh was inspired by a Hawaiian snack he enjoyed during his childhood in Hawaii. “Poké means chunks of fish cut into cubes. It is marinated with ginger, sesame oil, sesame seeds and other of my secret ingredients,” says the self-taught chef. “It is very healthy and very tasty, and we can customize the bowl, so that it is either a salad, a rice bowl and you can have all of these fresh toppings. And on top of that, we created sauces so that you can have it spicy, sweet, creamy — and it is just very refreshing.” The bowls are customizable and there are some set flavor combos, but the most popular combo usually includes a base of half rice (white or brown) and half mixed greens with Ahi tuna poké, cucumber, jalapeño, edamame, tobiko and crispy onions with samurai sauce and spicy aioli.
“The Pizitz Food Hall is great. It’s a very ‘foodie’ atmosphere, so it attracts people that are going to try new and different things,” says Vinh, who relishes being a part of the food hall, but is perhaps even more blown away by the public reaction to his eatery. “My favorite thing is seeing how people actually like poké so much! We are the first poké place in Birmingham and, I think, in the whole state of Alabama. And we have had a really strong customer return and positive feedback. That makes me happy that people actually like poké and like our food.”
Headquartered in Birmingham, Revelator Coffee is becoming a java juggernaut in its own right. Sourcing the highest quality coffees from around the world and known for their rich and complex coffee and espresso drinks, Revelator has expanded to have locations in New Orleans, Birmingham, Mountain Brook, Nashville, Chattanooga, Charleston, Atlanta, Boston and now the Pizitz Food Hall! “Our most popular item on the menu would be cold brew. This is something we are known for,” says Joseph Daly-Casillas, regional manager of the Birmingham, New Orleans and Nashville locations. “Cold brew, which is steeped overnight for 18 hours, brings out the true flavor while cutting down on acidity.” These expert baristas are also known for their pour-overs, which are prepared using the Chemex brewing method to bring out the true flavor in hot coffee. Pair your cuppa joe with a locally sourced donut from Homewood-based Hero Doughnuts or assorted pastry selections from Feast & Forest. Get your java fix at this calming coffee oasis!
Tropicaleo at the REVeal Kitchen
Supported by REV Birmingham and their CO.STARTERS platform, the REVeal Kitchen will serve as an incubator for the Magic City’s emerging culinary creatives. The current tenant of this quarterly rotating stall is Tropicaleo, a Puerto Rican powerhouse poised to soon find a permanent home. “We love to eat out and try new things, but after a while we started missing the food we grew up with, the bold flavors of Puerto Rico,” says Tropicaleo owner, Gabriel Marrero. Marketing Director Isabel Medina adds, “We realized that Birmingham might enjoy those flavors too.” So, inspired by childhood memories and fresh ingredients, the duo set out to create the traditional flavors of their home. “Traditional Puerto Rican cuisine is a unique tasty blend of Spanish, African and Taíno,” says Isabel. “This results in a blend of seasonings and ingredients, some familiar to Birmingham and others new. When you come to Tropicaleo, expect street-food favorites like sandwiches and more unique dishes like mofongo.”
The Cuban sandwich, of course, is a fan favorite, but another dish worth your taste buds’ time is the mofongo, a quintessential Puerto Rican dish of mashed plantain served with a side of gluten-free, Paleo cilantro rice and your choice of chicken, pulled pork or a vegan option. Gabriel and Isabel are extremely friendly and eager to share the flavors of their culture. “Our favorite thing is meeting new people,” says Isabel. “We have made so many great friends through Tropicaleo!”
Belgium meets the American South in this eatery. Owners Dan and Audrey Roberts combine traditional Belgian, whole wheat or cornbread waffles with savory Southern-style meats to make the classic chicken & waffles, as well as some off-the-beaten-path options, like pulled pork & waffles or shrimp & grits waffles. For a sweet twist on the corn dog, try the waffle dog, a 100% beef dog encased in a waffle or the Conecuh sausage on a stick! Grab a side of waffle fries, sweet potato waffle fries, cole slaw, collard greens or cabbage to round out your Belgian-Southern feast! And don’t miss these waffle wizards for breakfast!
Keep an eye peeled for Alabama Biscuit Co.’s second location, where they’ll be serving up their signature creative biscuit sandwiches, like the fried bologna biscuit with oven-crisped mortadella, house whole-grain mustard and house-pickled veggies; or try the goat cheese, pecan and honey biscuit with roasted pecans, Belle Chèvre goat cheese and local honey drizzle.
Also from acclaimed New York-based chef Akhtar Nawab and Matt Wagman of Park South Hospitality comes Fero, serving up traditional rustic Italian dishes with a modern twist.
And last but not least, The Standard will offer a classic American staples. “It’s my take on the classic Birmingham hamburger and hot dog shop,” says chef Matt Ralph. “We’re not trying to reinvent the hamburger; we’re just using house-ground beef and quality ingredients to make a tasty burger, along with a couple of traditional Birmingham hot dog offerings and a few sandwiches to round out the straightforward, quality-driven menu.”
Head downtown to explore this food lover’s fantasyland!