Holy Smoke Over Birmingham

Drive anywhere in the Birmingham, Alabama area and you’ll smell it — The intoxicating aroma of pork smoking over a hickory fire.

Birmingham loves barbecue. There are more barbecue restaurants per capita in Birmingham than most other cities. Many of them have long-standing reputations for unique recipes and excellent food and nine of the best are featured in a documentary titled, “Holy Smoke over Birmingham” which was released in 2006. The documentary has been broadcast several times on Alabama Public Television and it was featured in 2008 at the New York City Food Film Festival.

Featured restaurants include:

Bob Sykes Barbecue (1724 9th Ave. Bessemer) has been in business since 1957, when Bob stopped delivering bread and started a new career with his wife Maxine. Their son Van grew up in the family business. Van is proud to carry on cooking traditions that have been passed down through generations. He cooks pork picnic roasts because the bone helps give the meat flavor. The Sykes family operated one of the first drive-through operations in the country.

Carlile’s Barbecue (3511 6th Ave. South Birmingham) has been owned by two families. The Carlile brothers started it in 1945, but the Evans family has actually owned it longer. At age 80, Anita Evans still works the cash register every day although she sold the restaurant to her daughter Vickie Evans Fuller years ago. Vickie’s husband Joe likes to display pictures of their customers which include Lyle Lovett and George W. Bush.

Costa’s Barbecue (613 Springville Rd. Birmingham) carries the name of its founder although it is owned now by the Pate family. Costa means Gus in Greek and Gus Kanellis founded the restaurant with his wife Maria. Their recipes have a Greek touch including the special seasonings used on their Boston Butt pork roasts. They insert powdered seasonings, soak them in a marinade overnight, and then cook them on a pit for hours.

The Full Moon Barbecue (525 25th St. South Birmingham) got a new lease on life when two enterprising brothers bought an irreplaceable treasure from a retired football coach turned barbecue master. Joe and David Maloof left things as they were at the original location started by Pat James, but have created several new locations. In addition to their mouth-watering meats, they’re known for their half-moon chocolate chip cookies.

Johnny Ray’s BBQ is one of Birmingham’s best known holy smokes and was started in 1953. The Ray family has franchised the name and there are several Johnny Ray’s restaurants, but the oldest one was on Valley Avenue (316 Valley Ave. Birmingham) and was operated by John Simonetti, who most folks called “Pop.” The Johnny Ray’s restaurant shown in this documentary is no longer operating, but there are several other locations. Johnny Ray’s is particularly known for the delicious banana, chocolate, lemon, and coconut cream pies from recipes developed by Johnny Ray’s wife, Honey. (Unfortunately, Johnny Ray’s has permanently closed.)

"Holy Smoke Over Birmingham" at the New York City Food Film Festival
“Holy Smoke Over Birmingham” at the New York City Food Film Festival

The story of Miss Myra’s Pit Barbecue (3278 Cahaba Heights Rd. Birmingham) just shows you what can happen when a convenience store starts serving great barbecue – the barbecue takes over the whole thing! Operated by Myra Grissom and members of her family, Miss Myra’s features barbecued chicken, beef, pork, ribs and sausage. All the sides are made fresh daily and they’ve got a pound cake that’s out of this world!

There are Original Golden Rule restaurants spread out all over Alabama, but the original Original Golden Rule is in Irondale (2506 Crestwood Blvd. Irondale). It started in 1891 as a beer stop on an old wagon road, but has grown into a full service restaurant today. It is presently owned by Michael Matos, founder of Birmingham’s classic Michael’s steakhouse, once located downtown.

The Tin Roof Barbecue is tucked away in the Southlake Plaza Shopping Center (4524 Southlake Parkway Birmingham). If you don’t know it’s there, you might not notice it. But once you’ve found it, you’ll want to come back again and again. Whether you’re interested in pigskin or stuffed pigs, there’s lot to look at in the Tin Roof Barbecue, with sports memorabilia and cuddly pig dolls all over the walls, but the real treat is the food. (Unfortunately, Tin Roof Barbecue is no longer open.)

The last restaurant visited in the documentary is just a short drive north of Birmingham, but it’s definitely worth the trip. Just take Interstate 65 to exit 287, follow highway 31 toward Blount Springs, and look for the smoke. When you see it, you’ve found the Top Hat Barbecue (8725 Hwy. 31 S. Blount Springs, AL). Dale Pettit’s dad and Bob Sykes worked together delivering bread. When the bread company went out of business, they both started chopping wood and smoking meat. Pettit carries on the business once operated by his parents.

Production crew at Top Hat BBQ
Cinematographer Wade Woodall, producer/director Max Shores, and production assistant Jesse Lewis at Top Hat BBQ.

“Holy Smoke over Birmingham” is the second Alabama barbecue documentary produced and directed by Max Shores of the University of Alabama Center for Public TV & Radio. “A Taste of Hog Heaven” which features nine barbecue restaurants across Alabama was originally broadcast in 2003.

DVDs may be purchased online: Buy a DVD of Holy Smoke Over Birmingham