One of the most fascinating things about Huntsville, Alabama is seeing the transformation of ideas into ingenuity. While the story of the Saturn V may be the things legends are made of, often we are unaware of this same creativity playing out in our local food scene. As a transplant moving here in 2018, one of the things that sold me on Huntsville was this imagination taking the form of food.
Marked by a discrete pineapple sign near the corner of Jefferson and Clinton, it’s hard to tell what you’ll walk into when you cross through the entrance and descend into a basement. You would never guess that a Tiki Bar perfectly capturing the essence of Hawaii would await. I feel like I should see young Sailors sipping Grog as my eyes make their way down a beautiful mural that compliments the island theme. Enter Jeremy Esterly, owner, creator, and chef at Phat Sammy’s.
I see Jeremy sitting at the corner of the bar feverishly working on new recipe concepts. I’m greeted by his wife Maggie as she graciously offers me a beverage and directs me toward the menu QR code. Immediately, I realize that running a restaurant is a commitment that knows no bounds. I introduce myself to Jeremy and compliment the artwork. He tells me that it’s all the creation of Logan Tanner and that I may have seen his murals at Lowe Mill. Of course, I have. They’re impossible to miss. You can see his latest work in the form of a magnificent Little Richard mural at MidCity.
But I’m not here for the décor. I waste no time and ask Jeremy what inspired an eclectic Asian-inspired eatery in the heart of Downtown Huntsville. Much like myself, Jeremy informs me that he has moved around many times in his life. From culinary school to Vermont and working kitchen jobs in Cleveland and Huntsville, Jeremy embraces change and uses this to fuel his innovative menu. Phat Sammy’s started out as a pop-up concept specializing in anything but ordinary sandwiches and was well received. Once you visit the restaurant, you’ll see what the buzz was about.
What’s even more interesting about the story of Phat Sammy’s is the amount of adversity Jeremy and his team has had to overcome. Between opening the week COVID-19 shut down life as we know it, several robberies that stole targeted their liquor selection, and stormwater seeping in to destroy their POS system, it’s hard to believe that this has all happened within a year. Alas, Phat Sammy’s weathered the storm (no pun intended, I think) and is still here to serve up some astounding food and cocktail options.
Here’s the kind of artistry you can expect to come from the mind of Jeremy directly to your plate:
These delicious morsels are the perfect way to kick off your experience. These soft, fluffy buns are packed with Fried Oysters, XO Sauce, and Sichuan Pickles. I personally appreciate the departure from a traditional filling like Pork Belly that you’ll find on almost every Asian menu these days. The XO sauce is a traditional seafood sauce, originating from Hong Kong, that injects profound umami (think meaty, savory) flavors. The Sichuan Pickles add a fragrant, acidic character that helps separate the Fried Oyster and XO sauce, ensuring one does not overpower the other. You’ll get two buns per tray but good luck not inhaling both!
BBQ Pork Belly
When a menu mentions Pork Belly, my mind immediately gravitates toward something resembling meatier bacon. This rendition must be from the whole pig because it’s huge! This amazing peppery, crispy portion is dressed with a Korean BBQ sauce, Pineapple Pickled Radish, Scallion-Onion Salad, and Sweet and Spicy Squid. It’s exactly what I envision when I think of Asian Pork Belly. You’ll get the sweet-spicy Korean BBQ flavors with the acidity from the Pineapple Pickled Radish to cut through the sweet and balance the spicy. Don’t be frightened of the squid. You won’t even know it’s there. The presentation of this dish is incredible and takes the old “you eat with your eyes first” adage to heart.
This is Poutine, flipped upside down, spun around, traveling to another dimension, and then coming back more delicious than ever. Topped with Chinese Gravy, Cheese Curds, Kimchi Hot Sauce, and completed with Fried Egg and Fried Chicken Wings, these handcut Fries are like climbing Mount Everest with your tastebuds. You’ll unpack different flavors in each bite which make eating this dish an experience of culinary entertainment. It’s the creative representation you are looking for when you hear the words “Asian Fusion” uttered.
Spam Fried Rice
Who doesn’t love Fried Rice? Most people would turn their noses up at Spam but I encourage you to step outside of your comfort zone. You won’t be able to tell that this crispy Spam is not bacon decorating the classic. Add some Barrel Aged Teriyaki sauce, Baby Corn, English Peas, 1-hour egg, and Pea Tendrils and this is a meal within itself. I loved the addition of the sous vide prepared egg. It adds a creaminess like no other when combined with the bite of rice. Pea Tendrils are the leaves and shoots of Snow Peas which add a welcome greenery and crunch. This is one of those comfort food dishes that I’ll struggle not to order every time I visit.
Craving something more familiar to dip your toe into the ocean of interesting choices? No worries, Phat Sammy’s still offers the sandwiches that made them a hit from their pop-up days. I’m already eyeing the Lamb and Chee made with slow-roasted Lamb Shoulder. Have a vegetarian or vegan in your group? Perfect, they won’t feel excluded here.
If you want to try something different you would typically find in a big city, give Phat Sammy’s a shot. You’ll see that Jeremy Esterly is truly a master of his craft with an innovative spirit that should be celebrated. Just look for the Pineapple.
Growing up between the Washington DC suburbs and Savannah, GA, Brett always found music and food to bridge the gap between the two worlds. Musician, US Army veteran, Software Engineer, dedicated home chef, Brett has worn a variety of proverbial hats and is used to traveling outside his comfort zone in pursuit of new experiences. Whether studying abroad in Greece or deploying to Afghanistan, food and the people involved in the process, became a way to relate to his ever-changing world view.
While an engineering career may have led Brett from Tampa, FL to Huntsville, more importantly, there was a flourishing food scene to explore. After discovering most of his coworkers had no idea what their city had to offer, he started a food blog to catalog his experiences and share recipes that demystify culinary techniques. He has found an audience in fellow foodies and industry professionals alike.
Aside from food, Brett also enjoys building his vinyl collection, sipping craft beer and whiskey, and building websites for small business owners. He loves exploring the city through the stories told by its long-time locals.
Follow Brett (RocketFuel HSV) on Instagram and Facebook.