Mae’s Food Hall in Cullman, Alabama is the first stop in our summer series exploring how local farmers and makers are growing alongside the community-focused food hall trend.

{Big City Concept, Small Town Feel}

Food halls, traditionally European, are becoming more and more popular across America. Similar to food courts, which have decreased in number along with shopping malls, food halls allow visitors to eat in an open environment. Also distinct from food courts, which typically offered fast-food vendors or corporate chains, food halls promote hands-on preparation, traditional artistry and an eye toward community. Food halls have gained popularity across the South in recent years as food lovers look for places to gather and enjoy fresh Southern grown and made ingredients.

While food halls have mostly been confined to larger cities, Mae’s Food Hall has successfully brought the big city trend to a small-town setting. Recently opened in Cullman, Alabama’s historic Warehouse District, Mae’s captivates visitors with a bar—Ruckus—and an 80s-style arcade—Big E’s—while letting them choose between five authentic Southern food vendors: I Love Bacon, Cantina Taqueria, Link’s Hot Dogs & Hamburgers, Big Spoon Creamery, and Strada di Napoli. On the menus are meals prepared with the freshest locally sourced ingredients.

 

Owner Shane Quick’s dream of a community gathering place where neighbors and friends could enjoy delicious food with a local focus has become a reality. We think Quick’s grandmother Linnie “Mae” Quick, for whom Mae’s is named, would be proud of the energy and fresh approach to Southern dining the food hall has brought to Cullman’s historic downtown.

{Variety is the Spice of Southern Life}

I Love Bacon // With two food trucks in Birmingham and Huntsville, I Love Bacon is very much a roaming bacon emporium. Founded by Alabamians Keith Hill and Josh Patrick, I Love Bacon crafts high-quality sandwiches with catchy names. The most popular is the “Carlos Santana,” a hearty sandwich stacked with flank steak, bacon, ham, smoked mayo, a sunny side up egg, swiss, lettuce and tomato, all held together by two warm brioche buns. The Mae’s Food Hall location is their first without wheels.

Cantina Taqueria // Cantina Taqueria serves fresh tacos and South American dishes with homemade margaritas. The Castro family has prepared the recipes of their father for over a decade and opened Cantina Tortilla Grill in Birmingham’s Pepper Place Market. The original location expanded to include a food truck as well before adding the Cullman location. Their fish taco combines egg washed tilapia filet, slaw, and avocado with cilantro mayo and chile de arbol salsa. Cantina Taqueria uses only the freshest ingredients, sourced locally as often as possible.

Link’s Hotdogs and Hamburgers // The gourmet hot dogs and hamburgers from Link’s are stuffed with fresh ingredients and burgers are made with Wagyu beef. The bacon jam burger is loaded with local flavors—hickory smoked bacon, caramelized onions infused with Tennessee whiskey and brown sugar, fresh tomato, diced onions, and pickles.

Big Spoon Creamery // Since their founding in 2014, Big Spoon Creamery has expanded outside the original MAKEbhm location in Birmingham and now again into the food hall at Mae’s. As we’ve written before, Husband-and-wife Ryan and Geri-Martha O’Hara ventured out into business for themselves, envisioning an ice cream shop that would cater more lovingly to people, caring more about quality than their competitors could afford. Local ingredients go into their small batches of seasonally flavored ice cream, which is scooped into homemade waffle cones. Fresh, creamy dairy pairs with classic Southern flavors like honeysuckle and blackberry in limited edition flavors.

Strada di Napoli // Strada di Napoli turns out handcrafted, made to order pizzas with exacting attention to detail provided by Chef Zach Chanin. This vendor offers visitors a taste of an authentic Neapolitan cucina. The specialty Italian pizzas, baked in a handcrafted brick oven imported from Italy and assembled on site, are topped with fresh vegetables, cheeses and meats. When in season, pies feature meats and greens grown by Blue Creek Farm, located in nearby Florence, Alabama. Strada di Napoli also serves Saltimbocca Fresca—a Neapolitan bun topped with ricotta and mozzarella, olive oil and balsamic glaze, optional ham or spicy salami, and tomato and arugula. Fresh salads are also an option here, often featuring the same locally grown produce used in the pizza making process.

{A Taste of Italy by Way of Cullman, Alabama}

On a recent visit to Strada di Napoli, Chef Zach Chain gave us a tour of the Strada di Napoli kitchen and discussed his approach to pizza making. The small kitchen is dominated by a beautifully crafted Neapolitan wood-fired pizza oven. Shaped in a traditional dome, heat is concentrated inside the oven by an exterior clad in sparkling red tiles. The opening of the oven is trimmed with sturdy brass fittings. Peering beyond the brass-lined opening, a small fire is visible, flickering in the corner of the warmly lit oven. Chanin throws a few more sticks of wood on the flames and almost immediately, heat begins to radiate into the kitchen. Temperatures inside the oven can reach 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.

 

{When the Dough is Ready, the Fire Appears}

According to Chanin, it is this extreme heat, when coupled with exactly the perfect dough, which makes for an exceptional pizza. Pizza dough is both an art and a science. At Strada di Napoli, Chanin begins the quest for the perfect dough by using the highest quality flour and yeast available and by precisely monitoring variable factors such as air temperature and humidity. Each batch of dough is mixed differently, considering these daily variables. A separate room connected to the kitchen houses another special piece of equipment: a diving-arm mixing machine. The elite mixer mimics the motion of human hands, with a slower movement that doesn’t elevate the temperature of the dough as much as traditional mixers. The dough is mixed and proofed in this room before it is portioned into pie-sized rounds that will soon find their way next to the crackling fire.

When the perfectly measured, mixed and proofed dough finally lands in the kitchen, a variety of fresh, local ingredients await. During the summer, tomatoes grown in Cullman County form the basis of the sauce. Add fresh buffalo mozzarella and locally sourced basil, and you have the perfect classic pizza margherita. Toppings vary by season and on the day we visited, Chef Chanin had arrived that morning with a haul of freshly picked arugula from Blue Water Creek Farm. After forming the dough into a thin disk and arranging a variety of toppings, the pizza is placed on the peel and in one grand, sweeping motion the pie is expertly placed beside a mound of flaming, glowing wood.

Like magic, the intense heat immediately puffs the edges of the delicate dough into large bubbles and the mozzarella turns to gold. In under a minute, a pizza emerges from the glow of the oven with gooey melted cheese and a crisp crust speckled with just the right amount of char. Chanin finishes the pizza with arugula dressed in olive oil. When you bite into this fifty second pizza, you can taste each ingredient and the distinct flavor that only comes from a wood fire.

Chef Zach Chanin’s focus on locally grown produce began during his childhood spent in North Carolina. Like many chefs from this state, he was inspired by Chef Bill Neal’s work at Crook’s Corner Restaurant. His goal at Strada di Napoli is to bring this level of passion to the pizza making process daily. This care and attention is evident in each dish created in this small north Alabama pizza kitchen.

{Local Flavor, Southern Community}

Whether you are looking for world class Neapolitan style pizza or a scoop of dairy fresh ice cream to beat the Alabama heat, you will find delicious, local ingredients served with true Southern spirit and probably a few new friends when you visit Mae’s Food Hall in Cullman, Alabama. Along with a great variety of food choices, Mae’s regularly hosts live music and bingo nights. All ages will enjoy coming together in this fun gathering spot.

Mae’s Food Hall is open for business at 110 1st Avenue NE, Cullman, Alabama on Tuesday and Wednesday from 11a.m. until 9 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. Mae’s Food Hall is closed on Sundays and Mondays. For more information, visit the website at maesfoodhall.com.