Big Daddy’s Mediterranean Grill and Hookah Cafe
514 Greensboro Ave, Tuscaloosa, AL 35401
One normally doesn’t go to Big Daddy’s for food. They go there for hookah. They might order cheese fries or hummus and pita to go along with their hookah, but food is not the normal priority when someone chooses to patronize this restaurant in particular. As one of the only hookah locations in Tuscaloosa, the draw is large with freshmen who have just reached the age of nineteen (not eighteen, thanks to Alabama’s laws) and are eager to try out a new “taboo.” But naive newcomers aside, Big Daddy’s has firmly established itself in its little cubby of Greensboro, squeezed between Icon, the local gay bar, and Chuck’s Fish, one of the more well-known (and accordingly pricier) restaurants for Tuscaloosans who want to feel sophisticated among their own. And there, anchored down in the middle lands, is Big Daddy’s.
Big Daddy’s exists somewhere in the uncharted regions of the many subsections and stylings of restaurants. From the outside, black-and-white checked stripes and tomato paste red lettering point the observer toward something Italian, or possibly a sort of cheeseburger-serving hole in the wall. Both of these answers aren’t exactly incorrect, but you also have to take notice of the giant words plastered on the front window: “BIG DADDY’S MEDITERRANEAN GRILL AND HOOKAH CAFE”. Luckily, Big Daddy’s caters to all needs. Possible orders include the Big Daddy’s Burger, cheesy fries, Italian sausage hoagies, chicken shawarma wraps, shrimp poboys, stuffed grape leaves, baklava, wing baskets, or hummus with pita. Most all orders involve a hookah, ranging from a basic flavor like strawberry or mint to any combination that the patron can devise. For five more dollars, you can purchase a premium flavor, choosing from shishas with enticing names like “Foreplay” or “Pirate’s Cove.”
Hookah is undoubtedly the main attraction for most Big Daddy’s goers; The front of the restaurant, which is thin and narrow due to the entirety of the kitchen being pieced together haphazardly behind the register, is usually completely empty. Customers come in, might peruse the stack of food menus placed by the register or the single, thoroughly worn and only copy of the hookah selections, and place their orders before scurrying into the back section. The back room is the designated section for hookah smoking, and resembles a large patio with a hastily built walls and a roof surrounding it. Benches with thoroughly-worn cushions line the walls, in front of which are placed thin iron chairs and tables. The lighting is dim and moody, and the job of DJing is left up to the patrons via a loose auxiliary cord suspended from one of the walls.
Once in the back room, it might be a bit of a wait for your food; employees are limited at Big Daddy’s, and there doesn’t seem to be a person specifically designated for certain jobs, like serving. The entrance to the back room is usually hectic with people going in and out or employees shuffling from the kitchen to the room where all the hookahs are kept. Luckily, the driving principle behind most of Big Daddy’s food seems to be that presentation isn’t all that important, so even a “long wait” is fifteen minutes at worst as gyros and fries can be assembled quickly and placed into a red, wax-paper lined baskets and should usually be accompanied by as many napkins as you can possibly get your hands on.
On this trip to Big Daddy’s, I flew solo and in the dead of night, coming in around nine p.m. As someone who never turns down any sort of dish containing chicken, I ordered a chicken kabob wrap, described as “marinated grilled chicken served on fresh pita with tzatziki sauce.” I also asked for a serving of hummus with extra pita, knowing from experience that the one piece normally given was never enough to tackle the entire hummus tub. I was given a little metal sign with my number on it along with my drink cup and straw while my friend placed an order for a mango and vanilla shisha hookah (obeying my one rule that forbids mint in any form or amount). We made our way to the back and waited at one of the wobbly porch tables, and our hookah appeared no more than five minutes later, followed quickly by our food.
Part of the appeal of Big Daddy’s is that the restaurant goer can watch their food be prepared over the food counter. I watched as a spritely chef moved quickly around the grill, tossing on chunks of chicken, beef patties, and fluffy pita bread. He was obviously adept at his position; he never once stopped moving or preparing food, and his movements were usually quick and large. The chicken kabob wrap I was presented with started with a shell of thick, chewy pita, full of chunks of marinated chicken, thick leaves of lettuce, and crisp slices of tomato and onion, all covered in tzatziki sauce. The hummus came in a styrofoam cup, and was covered in a light sheen of olive oil with a dense pile of paprika piled in the center. I was captivated.
After eating at Big Daddy’s, I have decided that their pitas are one of the perfect transportation devices for other foods. Each bite of the wrap provided a succulent bite of chicken, coated in delicious spices and covered in the crunch of the fresh vegetables. The sweet tzatziki sauce had a way of sneaking into every nook and cranny of the wrap, so each bite tasted fresh and zestful. Granted, this was not a graceful eating process; I found myself catching food with the back of my hand and wiping sauce off every couple of seconds. But it was worth it, as I found myself eating voraciously, eager to get the next mouthful. The hummus didn’t last much longer, as I found myself swirling the creamy chickpea spread with a slice of pita to mix in the oil and paprika. A heaping mouthful of pita revealed an exquisite combination of garlic and paprika with a hint of smooth olive oil. I was surrounded by decadent foods that required reinforcements of napkins to handle the amount of flavorful sauces I found myself consuming.
However, it should be noted that Big Daddy’s is not a place for the health minded. Being not exactly nutrition-conscious myself, I love a restaurant that knows to stop at nothing for good flavor. The chicken was juicy and delicious, which I assumed was partly from the scattering of greases on the grill. The hummus (which I allowed myself to write off as a vegetable seeing as one of the main ingredients had the word “pea” in it) was thick and rich, unlike some drier and grainier hummuses that I had tried before. All the food I sampled could easily fall under the umbrella of “pleasure food”, but what a pleasurable food it was!
I doubt that Big Daddy’s will ever become a restaurant known for their Mediterranean cuisine. I fear that its culinary adventures will always be overshadowed by the even less-healthy older brother that is hookah. But for anyone who happens to stumble their way in, I urge you to do yourself the favor of picking up something to eat with that hookah, not for the purpose of “providing a base” or simply trying to fill your stomach, but for a flavorful experience that goes beyond the ethereal taste of smoke. Big Daddy’s food is nowhere near healthy, but somewhere near wholesome – the piece that brings the picture together.