Milo’s Hamburgers, Birmingham AL

Well, here’s the situation with our recent road trip to Memphis: we didn’t get to stop in Alabama for some white barbecue sauce. I had a place picked out and we were looking forward to it, but mercifully, I had the sense to double-check on the restaurant, located in the northwestern town of Hamilton, and learned that they’re not actually open for lunch on Saturdays. Insanity. Who ever heard of a barbecue joint that wasn’t open for lunch on a Saturday? Well, I say that, but they’re out there. The wonderful Hot Thomas in Watkinsville, near Athens, started a schedule some years back that’s basically the least convenient set of hours anybody ever tried to open, and never, madly, on Saturday.

This left me stumped about where to eat because, if you look at US 78 in northern Alabama and Mississippi, you can see that’s not a road that winds through many communities. The day before we left, however, I remembered that when we were last in Birmingham, we drove past a Milo’s. I was familiar with their sweet tea, which is sold in area grocery stores and is certainly about the best available in gallon jugs, but wasn’t really aware that they had a chain of fast food places. I looked them up and cross-referenced our journey and learned that we’d actually be driving right past one of them on Forestdale Road in northwest Birmingham, so we made plans to stop in.

It’s a very curious little place, really. The original Milo’s Hamburger Shop was opened by Milo Carlton in 1946. A second came almost forty years later, once Carlton decided to franchise the idea. Today their website lists sixteen locations in north Alabama, meaning they cover about the same region as Jack’s. I find this so charming, that there’s a part of this country where two fast food chains duke it out, each with more than a dozen locations but almost entirely in the same area code. North Alabama might actually be the only part of the country where this happens. Jack’s has just barely penetrated west Georgia with two stores, but otherwise, as far as I can tell, both chains exist solely within the 205 area code.

Milo’s serves up your basic fast food hamburger patty on a bland and ordinary bun, but they kick up the experience by serving it with the house sauce, which is really unique. It reminded me of a dark steak sauce with extra cayenne and salt. The patty basically comes dripping with that and sprinkled with diced onions. It’s not at all bad, and works equally well as a dipping sauce for the fries.

I was also amused by the side item that I ordered. I saw on the menu that they offered toasted cheese. Now, this was clearly listed as a side item right above fries and only costing 99 cents, so I figured that it would be their take on fried poppers or something. Actually, it was another sandwich consisting merely of two or three slices of cheese, slightly melted and served warm on one of those bland and ordinary buns. I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a toasted cheese sandwich being offered as a side item before.

Honestly, fast food meals just don’t rise much above “okay,” and that was all this was, an okay meal elevated by the curiosity of the sauce and the obscurity of the chain itself. I’m certain travelers can easily find worse meals, and none of them would let you get back on the road with a cup of Milo’s iced tea. This stuff is really great, and it’s amazingly sweet. It somehow tastes just a little bit better after you’ve been gobbling fries served with seasoning salt and dipped into this salty house sauce. You’ll definitely want to get a refill before getting back on the road on a hot summer day.

I’m not sure when we’ll be back in the area. Marie and I have joked for years about driving to Nashville via Birmingham, for no other reason than doing it the stupid way. We laugh, but I do notice that if we take state highways and back roads, we could get to the town of Decatur, and try out Big Bob Gibson’s place, and then only be about ninety-odd minutes from Nashville. That way, I could get the supposedly original white sauce and make up for that place in Hamilton having such dopey hours. The only problem with that plan is that should Gibson also end up keeping traveler-unfriendly hours and doing anything stupid like closing for lunch, there’s neither a Milo’s nor a Jack’s within forty miles. You’ve got to have a contingent strategy for operations as critical as this, you know.

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