'Tis the season for awards. The Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, as well as the upcoming Grammys and Academy Awards, all fall right around the beginning of the new year. In light of all these events coming together, I think it's only necessary to have Tuscaloosa's inaugural Best Restaurant Awards. Owners, staff members and chefs have slaved away this past year in preparing all that we Tuscaloosa locals consume and it's high time we recognize their work. I've thought long and hard to come to the conclusion for the best of Tuscaloosa dining through various categories. And the award goes to ...
Best fine dining
. With the appearance of a small, white house, you wouldn't think that it would take the cake for the nicest restaurant in town. Dimly lit and furnished with large, leather couches at the entrance and chairs at the dining tables, you feel as elite as your steak. They are constantly making you feel special — I went with my family for my graduation dinner recently, and when our table wasn't ready at the time of our reservation, they gave us champagne while we waited and gave us every appetizer on the menu — complimentary. It was definitely the best apology I have received from a restaurant.
Best Italian cuisine
. Residing in the heart of downtown T-town, the tiny venue can almost go unnoticed amidst the area's other dominant spots like Café Venice, but once you experience their cuisine you are unlikely to ever pass them by again. They are known for their antipasti platter ("The best in town"), with items like grilled artichoke hearts, grilled zucchini and prosciutto. Their calzones are enough portion to feed a small family and their Pasta Depalma is their most popular pasta. I am usually not a fan of mushrooms at all, but their stuffed mushroom appetizer is one of the few occasions I can stomach some fungus. That's definitely saying something.
. A southern chain restaurant started by two best friends, Mugshots' fun-loving and casual atmosphere is perfect for college towns like Tuscaloosa. The restaurant is famous for The Mugshot Burger, a triple-stacked patty with six strips of bacon, swiss and cheddar cheeses topped off with traditional condiments. If you dare, customers who order this beast of a burger are challenged to finish the entire thing and a plate of fries in 12 minutes with the prize of a t-shirt and a free meal. If you can't stomach the whole meal, it's $20 with a side of stomach pain. I wish I could say I have attempted the challenge, but I don't know of any human that could eat that much. The best part about their burgers and what makes them different from the rest are the buns. The sweet glaze accompanied in the dough is ecstasy for your taste buds.
— Chuck's Fish
. There are multiple places to find sushi in town, but Chuck’s Fish is the best. Owned and operated by Chuck Morgan, the Destin, Fla., native is also responsible for starting Chuck's sister restaurant, Harbor Docks. The sushi at Chuck's is supreme because of its freshness — the fish is flown in daily from Florida, which is more than comforting to know about the quality. If you go on a Tuesday, your sushi rolls are half-price. The restaurant has also recently expanded its seafood empire to Birmingham, so if you decided to venture 40 minutes down the interstate you could bring the familiar taste with you.
Best Chinese cuisine
. This was a tough decision. For some real Chinese experts in town, Pearl Garden is an obscure favorite in Northport. Regardless, I had to make an executive decision for the sake of the awarding process. Pearl Garden may be good, but Swen sweeps the award for its mainstream popularity (similar to what Kings of Leon is likely to do to Phoenix if they win the Best Alternative Rock Album in a few days at the Grammys
). Swen is conveniently located next to Qdoba on the Strip and it accepts Bama Cash for students trying to maintain their monthly budgets. The atmosphere is also an added bonus to most Chinese restaurants in town, being that you can sit down and order as opposed to the pick-up/cashier process of Lai Lai. Their portions are very generous and their menu has plenty of variety.
Best Mexican cuisine
— Iguana Grill
. Positioned within the fairly new Midtown Village, Iguana Grill is by far the best option for Mexican food in the town. The interior is arguably more mentionable than the menu, with a sea of fluorescent lamps and festive mosaics throughout the restaurant. The margaritas are offered in generous glasses, with a variety of flavors like mango or peach in addition to the more traditional lime. Eat your heart out, El Rincon
. Iguana Grill just stole your thunder.
. With its name meaning "food is good," these people know what they're doing. Featuring a menu with an array of soups, salads, sandwiches and creative daily specials, the dessert bakery is the most memorable for anyone with a sweet tooth. Made fresh daily, they offer multiple elaborately orchestrated cakes, cookies, cupcakes and pies to customers. You can also order your desserts custom-made for special occasions like weddings, birthday parties or catering events.
Best Japanese cuisine
. I'm going to contradict myself from the previous Best Chinese award in presenting the underdog with the prize for this one (kind of how low budget "Slumdog Millionaire" dominated the 2009 Oscars and blockbuster "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" walked away with awards like Makeup and Art Direction). Kobe Steakhouse
in Midtown is a little more upscale in pricing than our winner in this category, but features practically the same menu. The hibachi grill is the best part about the dining experience at Hokkaido because a skilled chef comes to your table to prepare your order in front of you, while simultaneously performing side tricks with the food ingredients. Their shrimp sauce is some of the best I have ever tasted ... I am always asking for extra to put on literally everything I order. My only complaint is their parking lot — it's very small and compacted together — pretty much asking for car accidents upon your arrival and departure at peak hours.
As all award ceremonies go, there are the largely publicized awards that are televised and then there are those that you had no idea existed unless you view the complete list of winners online. For the first Best Restaurant Awards in Tuscaloosa, the fleetingly mentionable awards go to ...
Best Mediterranean cuisine
on University Boulevard next to Innisfree Irish Pub.
Best Philly cheesesteak
— Big Daddy’s Café
next to Chuck’s on Greensboro Avenue.
The votes have been cast and the inaugural Best Restaurant Awards for Tuscaloosa have been filed in the history books. To all those who didn't make the cut, it's nothing personal. There's always next year to get experimental for your breakthrough food performance.