Worth the Drive | Green Leaf Grill: chef keeps things simple, fresh and local
Story and photos by Liz Young
Jimmy Rogers grew up in a family that spent most of their time in the kitchen cooking great fresh food. “Dad and I would dream up new recipes all the time,” says Rogers, and the typical feast included the harshest of food critics made up of grandparents, aunts and uncles. It was their opinion that mattered most and trained Rogers in cooking the best food possible.
Growing up on nearby Sand Mountain, Rogers spent a good deal of time in Little River Canyon and Mentone. Returning to the area for a high school reunion renewed his appreciation for the beauty of the area. “I was pleasantly surprised that Mentone had remained as I remembered — serene, natural — like time stood still.” Then the perfect opportunity presented itself for Rogers to move back to the area, bringing with him his signature down-home style food.
“I wanted to show Mentone what I learned about serving great food: fresh and simple.” He partnered with the owner of Green Leaf Grill and fell right into place in the small town with a population of just over 300 residents.
Green Leaf Grill, named for the natural refreshing surroundings, is located in the Log Cabin Craft Village on the main drag in Mentone, the quirky, artsy town atop Lookout Mountain in the foothills of the Appalachians in northeast Alabama.
Built in the 1800s — and originally an American Indian trading post — the log cabin that is Green Leaf Grill maintains its naturally rustic charm with a nod to a past unchanged over time. Rogers is known as a “famed local cook” with a huge following who serves up authentic Southern fare at a more-than-reasonable price.
“We enjoy being able to offer a simple bowl of pinto beans and cornbread for $2.95 as well as the higher-end $28 Fresh Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes made from Alabama wild caught jumbo lump crab meat when in season,” says Rogers. Starting with a hand-written menu, Rogers “put it all out there” for his customers to decide on what to include on the final printed version. And decide they did. If you poll visitors, you’ll immediately start a serious discussion over what to order.
Included on that must-order list are BLTs, fried green tomatoes, the Greek pork chop and the cheeseburger, to name a few. But hands-down, the catfish tops the charts. Green Leaf serves its farm-fresh catfish three ways — Southern fried, blackened or grilled — techniques that named Rogers’ catfish as Bama’s Best Catfish in 2018, a contest sponsored by the Alabama Catfish Producers that included over 200 entries.
“It was an honor to be a finalist, but winning is just a dream come true,” says Rogers. “I was born and raised eating catfish. It’s always been on my menu, and it’s our best-seller.”
And the awards keep rolling in. In 2019 Green Leaf Grill was named Best Restaurant in DeKalb County. In a recent issue, People magazine listed the Green Leaf’s Bama Grown Fried Catfish Sandwich — served on sourdough bread with tartar sauce, lettuce and tomato — as the best sandwich in the state of Alabama. “We take pride in offering well-prepared traditional American comfort food that brings folks back,” Rogers says.
Speaking of bringing folks back, Rogers reports that at any given time, not only do you find a good number of locals, but visitors drop in from all over the world. He is constantly amazed at the “variety of people our little town attracts” and as an example tells of a diner from Redding, Calif., who shook Rogers’ hand upon leaving, thanked him for his meal and said that was the best trout he had ever eaten. “That’s Rainbow Trout fresh from North Carolina,” Rogers told him, thrilled that yet another customer made the trip to Green Leaf and was pleased with his find. Reportedly the Rainbow Trout is a close contender to the top-spot catfish.
Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday and during the day on Sunday, Green Leaf — a member of Sand Mountain Electric Cooperative — serves guests outside on the dog-friendly porch with a shaded view of the local shops, or inside where diners can enjoy the coziness of a traditional log cabin. Rogers keeps four fireplaces stoked during the cooler months. Drinks — family-friendly in a non-alcoholic way — are served in Mason jars.
And within the tight-knit eclectic community of Mentone, Rogers is somewhat of a hero. Firemen and policemen — regardless of where they serve — always get a 20 percent discount. Veterans eat free on Veterans Day, as well as the widows of veterans.
When asked about the typical high-stress life of a chef, Rogers maintains that the rewards far outweigh the challenges of running a busy restaurant six days a week. “It makes me happy to see folks enjoy a meal made as fresh and as local as I can get it. Seeing smiles on customers’ faces when they take that first bite — that’s what it’s all about.”
And with a wink Rogers added, “And honestly, this is my social life. My customers are my connection. I wouldn’t live life any other way.” No doubt that an outing to Green Leaf Grill might just make you a friend of Jimmy Rogers for life.