Dear friends, readers, and Internet search-bots,
We realize that posting here at LiM has dwindled to a meager trickle of late. We know. We get it. You are starved for content from our fertile minds. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you are), we have been busy with other antics, including our other blog about Montgomery — Midtown Montgomery Living. No, we have not left this blog to wither and die as the mainstream media would suggest. Rather, we have waited, biding our time, to return to LiM with a vengeance. We plan to be updating it much more frequently from here on out. Thanks for bearing with us (if, in fact, you have). We love you.
Here’s the setup: Historic American city trying to get back on its feet after years of neglecting its downtown takes bold new strides to re-zone and re-develop its urban core. A big fancy hotel is built with convention space! The (heterosexual) river is turned into something people might like to walk alongside and have lunch near! There’s a new bar with a surprisingly good happy hour, even though it’s stupidly closed for daytime football! And a new Italian restaurant that, despite being prone to bouts of extremely sketchy service, offers some damn fine food (including an outrageously tasty pizza with eggs on it)! And baseball! And oysters!
Even as the exclamation points pile up, redevelopment isn’t without its hitches. Lofts are built and occupied at a trickle. Others see construction slowed or completely abandoned when the economy collapses. Ultimately, everyone knows that if downtown is really going to thrive, people are going to have to live there. To get people to live downtown, there needs to be food available for purchase. Food that goes beyond ribs, pizza and vile “Chinese” food. Bigger cities than Montgomery have struggled with this very same issue. Los Angeles’ downtown residential prospects snagged for years on the “no grocery store” issue.
Functioning high density urban neighborhoods are full of delis, bodegas and other corner stores – residents need to run out and get food, diapers, cat litter and other city living essentials. Also they want to be able to eat delicious and reasonably priced food before and after attending the many urban cultural functions that make downtown living worthwhile.
That’s why we were so enthusiastic about the Deli at Alley Station. It seemed like a first step toward sustainable downtown living in Montgomery. Sure, there may never be a Winn-Dixie downtown, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a nice market (milk, eggs, toilet paper, wine) that also sells tasty sandwiches. Alas, despite the various efforts of ex-mayor (and one-term Congressman) Bobby Bright and various other economic development types neither possibility has yet come to pass.
The Deli at Alley Station is an exercise in disappointment. First, you’ll be disappointed in the food. Maybe their Reuben is good – we’ll never know for sure. But the things we ate on a recent visit were truly terrible. One of us had the “Deli Salad Sampler” with pimento cheese, tuna salad and egg salad. Each salad came ice cream scooped onto a longboat-style lettuce leaf destined to ferry them into infamy. For those of us who have suffered the many indignities of repulsive office meals catered by Chappy’s Deli, this meal was the S.S. Minnow to Chappy’s Kon-Tiki. A total of four crackers accompanied this festival of objectionable goo.
It was probably for the best that we were unable to obtain more crackers. The egg salad may be the worst we’ve ever had (and the genre isn’t replete with luminaries). If you had told us in advance that it was actually a scoop of a flavorless mush called root marm, we probably would have believed you. Immediately after tasting, we were filled by regret. As it turns out, the consumption of emptiness is less glamorous than French philosophers have led us to believe. It is more like the feeling after watching Rhianna’s NBA All-Star halftime show, which is to say that you will need at least a shower and possibly a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints to rid yourself of its aftertaste.
Speaking of aftertaste, there was the tuna salad. Let us speak no more of it except to say that it is not good when your customers are unfavorably comparing it to the tuna salad at Subway (also served with a depressing ice cream scoop, and also the color and consistency of our coming nanotechnology Armageddon).
Finally, and with fleeting shreds of hope for a decent lunch, we dutifully sampled the pimento cheese. Which was served in a scoop-sized portion probably large enough to employ a small army of cardiologists. Now, we know from pimento cheese, and we can honestly say that this stuff was, um, edible. It wasn’t good (that honor is reserved for the edgier kinds of cheese spread that come with small amounts of diced jalapenos), but it was edible. But not in the bucket size. And not with four crackers. And really, not as a stand-alone entree for a lunch (which, where we come from, is a meal). We must emphasize that it was not good. But it did at least taste like the thing it was supposed to taste like.
On the other side of the table we had a cup of soup and the Alley Station Special Grilled Cheese Panini. This is a tarted-up grilled cheese, but it was heavily sold on the online menu, as well as the giant wall-sized menu in the store. This was no obstacle to our cashier’s total ignorance of the item’s presence on the menu. Which seemed odd since it was one of three items flagged with a fork to signify a “signature” item.
We assume, in this culture at least, that a “signature” appellation means that the item is one of the best on the menu – that it stands above the crowd of mundane club sandwiches and turkey wraps as something the chef stakes his or her name to, that it is therefore worthy of flourishes and the word “special” and the little hearts over the “i”s, or what have you. Not for nothing is John Hancock still associated with the politics of personal endorsement. If this is the case, then the Deli at Alley Station is in big trouble. This sad disaster of a sandwich was chewy and cheesy in all the wrong ways. Yes, Virginia, grilled cheese sandwiches can be gross. It was even gross dipped generously in the cup of mushroom bisque. Which soup was edible in the same way as the pimento cheese. Its cook, alas, had made the decision to replace flavor with extra cream. In the age of Rhianna, we all settle for simulacra.
The day we were there we felt it was almost certainly drawing lunch diners off of Sa Za. Which is too bad, if only because this meant more people were eating mediocre sandwiches when they could have been eating delicious egg pizza. It was the allure of the new, we are almost certain – the same reason you couldn’t get a table at Wintzell’s when it opened, but now can walk in and sit basically anywhere.
After you finish being disappointed in the food, you can start being disappointed in the place. The Deli at Alley Station misunderstands the problem with downtown living. The problem wasn’t that people couldn’t get lunch. Sure, maybe they couldn’t get much breakfast outside of the Renaissance’s restaurant (and certainly not “all day” breakfast – let’s see how long that lasts). But is a turkey club (or even a good Reuben) really a revolutionary addition to the downtown foodscape?
The problem was the lack of “grab and go,” of actual deli food (meats, cheeses, breads, the stuff a market offers) and the lack of market offerings. The DAS has decided, in the latter area, to opt for the Rhianna solution and substitute simulacrum for reality. They have a refrigerator case full of candy and dubious health waters up front. On the side there are moon pies and Cracker Jacks well out of reach of any adult (let alone child) who might like to purchase them. There’s a weird display of cans of dog and cat food next to Chef Boyardee ravioli on the other side of the freezer cases. It looks like it’s for show, but is “reachable” by sliding ladder (along with several six packs of beer that are seriously more than eight feet off the ground). Is this really going to be the thing (or a thing) that convinces folks that downtown is now livable?
The DAS could possibly appeal to people who think it’s a treat to go to Panera Bread. This might also eventually serve as an acceptable eatery for people that work downtown. Unfortunately, since the state is broke and probably due to fire all of the state workers soon, there will be fewer of those in the times to come.
There are too few tables for it to be a “hangout,” and we have outlined its total failure as any sort of grocery store, despite the hilarious prop cereal boxes that seem to suggest that someone once listened to an audiobook about urban redevelopment in their SUV as they sped off to their Eastside Hellscape McMansion.
Just because the Deli at Alley Station fails as a deli doesn’t mean it’s bad. We like Dr. Dre despite the fact that he’s not an actual physician. The problem is really with its failure as a restaurant. It will be interesting to see whether Montgomery consumers reward the DAS’ abject mediocrity, and whether downtown ever gets the necessities for the real urban living it claims to want.