During the holidays I experienced another example of a strange phenomenon that occurs in a select few restaurants. My wife sent me to Momma Goldberg’s Deli to get stocking stuffer gift cards for our kids who attend Auburn. “Momma G’s,” as my kid’s and their friends call it, has been jam packed at their Auburn campus location for decades now, and just recently opened two locations in the Birmingham area. I figured that while I was there I would try their signature Momma’s Love sandwich. It was awful on just about every level. Describing all the miscues would be a waste of words and space, but there was nothing about it that was done right or with a concern for quality or taste.
But my opinion is obviously not shared, as Momma G’s was packed that winter afternoon. Everyone in the place was young, probably either still attending or recently graduated from Auburn University. For these youngsters, Momma G’s isn’t about the taste and quality of the sandwiches at all. Momma G’s is a fondly remembered experience shared with friends during a special time in their lives. I suspect that nostalgia alone will bring enough Birmingham based AU alumni to keep both Momma G’s locations booming. Those of us who matriculated elsewhere have several dozen other deli restaurant choices to provide us with far superior food, and to stop any rebuttal emails before they start, I’m not picking on Auburn here. The fair-to-middling ribs offered at the various locations of Tuscaloosa based Dreamland BBQ are an even more famous example of this same phenomenon. Anyone who has been dragged to this BBQ mecca by an Alabama alum has surely left wondering, “What’s the big deal?”
I suppose with a bit of research we could find that almost every university and college supports at least one restaurant that serves food that in any other context would have insured its failure. The “fabulous” hot dogs and hamburgers offered at Georgia Tech hangout The Varsity severely underwhelmed me after having grown up eating dogs in Birmingham’s superior hot dog spots. But, I really can’t think of an example of a restaurant that has had long term success fueled mostly by the patronage of the students of our city’s largest academic institution, UAB. Last week, I tried a new place located not very far from campus that has all the potential to be a great student hangout; Pop’s Neighborhood Grill, on twentieth Street, a block from 5 Points, across from the Mellow Mushroom.
Pop’s is the real deal, with a classic deli sandwich and burger menu, well prepared by Sammy “Pop” Guarino and his kids, Heather, Amanda, Christopher, and Matthew. They have been open since October, and offer a full breakfast menu, prepared to order, lunch ‘til 3 p.m. and late night hours for the Southside bar crowd on Fridays and Saturdays. They even deliver free to any Southside bars and clubs. They are closed on Sundays because some nights the bar crowds keep them open until 3 or 4 in the morning.
Heather Guarino is the oldest sibling of the clan and the driving force behind Pop’s. Her father had been in the restaurant business his whole adult life, starting decade’s before with the Sneaky Pete’s chain. Heather has recently graduated with a culinary degree and decided to partner with her father to use high quality ingredients and the techniques she had learned to elevate the typical fast food menu. The difference in the taste and quality of the food is obvious with every bite. They use only Boar’s Head deli meats in all their sandwiches, several of which have been named after regular customers or the other Guarino’s that don’t work at Pop’s.
The hamburgers at Pop’s might just be the best in Birmingham. The Kaiser rolls are from a specialty bakery in Atlanta, and they patty each burger to order from fresh ground beef. Lately, I had been on an unlucky streak of mediocre burgers, so Pop’s is now my current go-to place for the American classic sandwich, and probably will remain there for a long while because of the care they take in preparing the food and choosing the ingredients.
Heather Guarino said they have a commitment to using fresh ingredients whenever possible, because she believes diners will be able to taste the difference. Their chicken wings and tenders are purchased fresh and prepared from scratch at the restaurant. They even make their own hot wing sauce, rather than rely on a bottle of pre-made from a restaurant supplier. The brothers and sisters are always tweaking their recipes and trying new things. The cupcake of the day changes whenever anyone gets an inspiration for a new flavor. Last week it was blueberry cobbler, and it was delicious.
With all these young people with a passion for food working together, and their family bond to each other, Pop’s has a rare and genuine old-fashioned atmosphere that you owe it to yourself to experience. It’s ironic that that the Guarino family has chosen to paint their restaurant in the iconic red and gold of mega-corp competitor McDonalds. They couldn’t be a bigger opposite. But with all those Guarino siblings wanting to expand the chain with their own future locations of Pop’s, McDonald’s days as the fast food industry leader may be numbered.
Dee Marcus writes food-centric commentary for Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.