Thursday, July 30, 2009
Food Tour of Tuscaloosa: The Waysider
The best food comes out of old converted houses. There's something about the creaking wooden floors, the aging fixtures, and the inevitable well-worn seating that makes the food taste better. The Waysider, a Tuscaloosa institution for breakfast since before recorded history, is such a place.
My grandfather and I navigated our way through the old red brick buildings of downtown Tuscaloosa, over the river and along a bank of railroad tracks to find The Waysider. My body was crying out for a big breakfast and hot coffee, as beers and a giant shrimp poboy from the Cypress Inn on the Black Warrior River the night before had left me a little worse for wear.
I worried about a long wait for a table. Earning accolades from Esquire Magazine as a Top 50 breakfast joint probably wouldn't discourage the crowds from swamping this little Tuscaloosa gem.
Fortunately, on this off-peak Friday morning we were able to breeze right into the old red and white house to take a seat in the, ehem, cozy, dining room. By cozy, I mean that the tables are wedged in a Tetris-like arrangement that requires serious diligence in navigating.
Getting seated at a famous restaurant without a wait surprised me. This is something great about Tuscaloosa. It hasn't yet been overrun by foodies and food bloggers like my home town of Austin. A hidden gem remains that way and doesn't get oversaturated with fans.
In keeping with Tuscaloosa city ordinance 4.2.10, every square inch of the Waysider's walls is covered with Alabama football memorabilia. Daniel Moore's ubiquitous prints of great moments in Alabama gridiron history hold a place of honor. The steely painted gazes of dozens of Gene Stallings and Bear Bryants inspired me to eat like a champion.
As for the food, I came looking for a real-deal Southern breakfast, and I found it. I had two fried eggs, bacon, grits, fresh biscuits, and red-eye sausage gravy for a ludicrous $4.85. My eggs and bacon were just fine, but you can get these anywhere. It was the deep south, by golly you're in Dixieland, portion of the meal in the grits, the biscuits, and the gravy that made this special.
I might lose my Alabama card for saying this, but I've never loved grits. Grits have always been a gritty, gloppy, flavorless placeholder for me; a blank canvas that nobody bothered to paint. These grits were graced with the presence of butter, salt, and, I swear, some bacon grease, that elevated them. I've been transformed. I'm a grits man now.
The biscuits came out piping hot in a connected pod of four. They featured a flaky, al dente exterior with a soft, steaming interior. While they tasted great, their primary purpose was as a Gravy Delivery Vehicle for the sausage gravy. Sitting here more than 500 miles from the Waysider, I nearly weep when I think of that gravy. It was so peppery, spicy, and thick with little chunks of sausage. A cardiologist would warn against the dangers of such a gravy, but I swear that instead of damaging my body, it was fortifying me; spackling cracks and regrouting loose tiles.
The Waysider serves up Southern breakfast at its finest. If I had to lodge one complaint it would be that their breakfast made it nearly impossible for me to eat lunch that day. In fact, leaving the Waysider, I wasn't sure if I would ever be able to eat again.