Back when my family lived in Birmingham, the city was known for barbecue, and, well, not much else. Yet suddenly there are plenty of youthful, trendy food businesses popping up around town. In fact, I felt like I was back home in Austin upon entering Steel City Pops. The shop anchors an old brick building that has been renovated to accommodate other Birmingham food destinations like Octane Coffee and an upscale Mexican restaurant. But Steel City Pops is by no means style over substance—their gourmet popsicles are for real.
Owner Jim Watkins, a former pharmaceutical salesman and church worship leader, first tried the frozen treats at Las Paletas during a visit to Nashville. He returned to Birmingham convinced the product would fit into the city's up and coming food scene.
"The owner and his mom developed the recipes together in her kitchen," explains manager Jonathan Veazey. Their flavors are made from scratch using mostly local produce, sugar, water, and/or local dairy. They carry between 20 and 25 flavors at any one time, and the creamy paletas are separated from the icey paletas in separate freezers, just like in traditional Mexican paleterias.
Steel City Pops carries all the familiar Mexican flavors like strawberry, coconut, and lime, but their Southern-inspired pops are truly noteworthy. Sometimes you can find a divinity pop, modeled after the Southern nougat-like candy. Jonathan described the buttermilk flavor as tasting like cheesecake, but I'd venture to say it tastes even better than that—a sublime harmony of creamy, sweet, and sour speckled with real vanilla beans. The refreshing sweet tea pop had a distinct lemony note, while the velvety peanut butter was dotted with bits of real peanuts. "We have to be careful making that one." Jonathan said, referring to allergies, "we isolate everything."
Other unique flavors include the peach (featuring fruit from the famous orchards of Chilton County, south of Birmingham), strawberry fig, and blood orange. Jonathan's favorite, however, is the coffee. "We use espresso and beans from Octane coffee, next door," he boasts, "they roast their own beans."
Open since May 2012, Steel City Pops is expanding quickly. "We've got three stores in less than a year and half," says Jonathan. All of the pops are made in the kitchen at the Homewood store and delivered to the other locations. Their newest shop recently opened near the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, and hopefully someday soon you'll see Steel City Pops carts around town during football games.
About the author: Meredith Bethune is a writer who of course likes feeling hip and cool at the latest trendy restaurant, but she feels most comfortable tracking down the best tacos, pizza, and barbecue. She is native Rhode Islander currently living in Austin. Follow her on Twitter (@MeredithBethune).