One of the perks of my job that comes around every once and a while is that I get to try new restaurants. I know, you can hate me. At least I don’t send taunting text messages of what I’m eating to you. Poor B. I used to do that to him. I’m so cruel.
Anyway, the other day I got a last-minute invite to join a friend for lunch at Little Donkey, a new Mexican restaurant with a Southern spin opening today in Birmingham. Of course, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been hearing a lot about Little Donkey. To start with, it’s a new venture by the same guy who owns Jim ‘N Nicks, the popular bbq chain that you may have heard of and eaten at. I’ve never been huge on Jim ‘N Nicks, which is close to blasphemy among my family and friends. Other than the cheese biscuits, which are addictive little bites of cheesy wonder, JNN has always felt rather chain-y to me. The bbq was overly fatty and lackluster, and the sides were ho-hum. (I’m waiting for B’s family to strike me down. They love JNN. Sorry guys!) I will say that recently B and I have found a couple things on the menu at JNN that we do like: their smoked turkey and brisket. I’ll also say that they’ve really started to try to push for Southern ingredients lately, and have been changing up their menu to reflect that. Props for that in my book.
But getting back to Little Donkey. LD will have a local focus, with the entire menu made in house (even the chips and tortillas) from ingredients sourced either locally or from within a one day’s drive when needed. I can get behind that!
The lunch started off with some appetizers and a cocktail. First up was chips, salsa, fresh guacamole, and Chilaquiles: basically a nacho dish where the chips are tossed in a mild sauce and topped with cheese, crema, tomatoes, and a poached farm egg. Oddly, the dish was served cold, while I expected it to be warm, but this didn’t keep me from digging into it. Oh, and it’s enough to feed a family.
Next up was Queso Fundido, which I enjoyed even more than the Chilaquiles. Queso Fundido is a cheese dip-type dish served in a cast-iron pan with chorizo and rajas under the cheese. (Rajas are roasted poblano peppers that are cut into strips and tossed with roasted onions.) It’s served with freshly made tortillas. I enjoyed this quite a bit and would get it again. B could eat it, too, because the onions were in really large strips that he could pick around.
After the fundido (they fed us a ton!), we had soup and salad. The Salad Picado was a bit lackluster: mixed greens with radishes, black beans, pickled onions (I didn’t taste any of these), pumpkin seeds, and chicken drizzled with a Ranch sauce. It wasn’t bad, but I kept waiting for a kick—something zesty or spicy, especially since the menu said the Ranch was a spicy Ranch. Mild is the word that hit me. I will say that the chicken was really tender—so tender we wondered how it was prepared. Sous vide maybe?
The soup was fantastic. The menu just says Soup of the Day, so if you go, hope it’s this one. It’s similar to a Vietnamese Pho, and I thought it was really nice. The broth was subtle with a pleasant kick at the end. Situated in the soup bowl was a generous portion of pulled pork, yellow squash, portobello mushrooms, avocado, a poached egg, and cilantro. Underneath all those goodies was a pile of freshly made pasta. Delish.
Next up, we chose our own entrees. I wanted to try a torta, which is a Mexican street sandwich. After much hemming and hawing, I settled on the Pan Vaso, bread dipped in guajillo and grilled, then sandwiched with “chorizo, queso fresco, diced potatoes, and crema.” I thought it sounded really interesting, and was picturing something where the bread was dipped in a sauce a la French toast and then grilled until it got nice and charred.
Not so. What I got was the equivalent of a slippery sandwich with tomato paste on the outside.
The bread didn’t have any char at all, and though it was fresh and very nice, the sandwich was really hard to eat because of the sauce on the outside. I had to give up and use a knife and fork, but not before my futile efforts stained my fingernails orange. And again, I found it to be rather bland. The corn, however, was awesome. Mexican street corn is grilled and then rolled in spices and Cotija cheese, and this version was great. Here is where those fresh, local ingredients really shined.
Last but not least, the cocktail: Donkey’s Daddy. These little beauties (and they are a beautiful color, aren’t they?) are delicious. From the menu: “Bourbon and tequila spiced up with house made hibiscus syrup and a healthy squeeze of fresh key lime juice.”
If you go, you’ve got to try them. Smooth and refreshing and perfect for a spring day in the South.
A last note: I loved the playful verbiage found throughout the menu:
Would I go back? Yes. For the soup, corn, and a Donkey’s Daddy.
2821 Central Ave. | Homewood, AL 35209 | View the menu here