Barbecue aficionados do not normally consider Birmingham a mecca; those honors usually go to the likes of Memphis, Kansas City, and Lexington, N.C. But what the pork pundits overlook is that the city, and its suburban environs, are liberally sprinkled with BBQ joints; one is hardly a five minutes’ drive from any of them. From shabby inner-city storefronts to squeaky-clean strip mall franchises, you can find it all in Birmingham. In between those extremes is a gem. Demetri’s was founded about 40 years ago by one of the numerous Greek émigrés who settled in Birmingham on the heel of countrymen who originally came to work in the steel industry in the early 20th century. Located in Homewood, the first bedroom community over Red Mountain, several unusual delights await the hungry patron.
Plenteous sweetened iced tea comes to your table in a jiffy. There's a surprisingly large menu of pork, beef, ribs, chicken, and turkey, or if you come for breakfast, traditional Southern favorites like grits or even French toast, the specialty of the house.
Traditionalist that I am, I ordered the pork shoulder platter. Perhaps most notable was the side of slaw. In most of the South, you get a very finely chopped mass of cabbage, carrots, and other produce shavings dressed in either a tart mixture of vinegar and sugar or a sweet compound of mayonnaise and sugar. At Demetri's, the waitress brings out a full SALAD PLATE of shredded veggies with a dollop of Greek dressing atop! Unlike most coleslaws, this is decidedly crunchy and plentiful, not simply an afterthought to garnish the side of the plate or the top of a sandwich. Further culinary delights arrived on a school-cafeteria-type green melamine plate, in the form of sliced pork shoulder and baked beans with slivers of pork throughout.
Birmingham barbecue sauces are typically spicier and sweeter (sometimes with a ketchup base) than the sauces of their country cousins, where vinegar sharpness is more typical. Demetri’s Greek heritage shows up in a perfect urban balance of down-home flavor and European nuance. In most of Alabama, pork shoulder gets the fine-chop treatment. You can have it that way if you insist, but I recommend you take the sliced option, to fully experience the chewiness or “bite” usually missing with most Deep South pulverized pork.
Chocolate cream pie: Birmingham folks like their sweets as much as folks out in the country, but where you will find egg white meringue out in the provinces, in the big city they top their pies with whipped cream (enough to make Soupy Sales or The Three Stooges proud!). Beneath that is a dense, flavorful pudding with a true taste of Hershey’s cocoa.
People of all kinds keep Demetri's busy most of the time. What draws them out is exemplary food and service.
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Nice enough folks, to be sure, but the Greek-style Southern BBQ just doesn't float with a real Southern boy. Two bites in, and I knew I had made a big mistake, when it came to wanting to have Alabama "Q."
The BBQ itself was OK, but the sauces just did not make me happy. It was the sides of coleslaw and baked beans that sealed the fate of my experience. They both had a compeletely Greek spice to them that was just so far removed from tradition, they might as well have not been coleslaw and baked beans. Since the folks were so friendly, I asked for a to-go box, and finished reading the paper, and drinking my iced tea. Strangely enough, it was classic tea that would have made grandma proud. I guess it's hard to make Greek iced tea.
I can't say enough about the city of Homewood. It has a lovely downtown area that is feet friendly, and sports a lot of "mom & pop" shops, filled with nifty wares.
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