By Jennifer Kornegay
Bo Hamilton, owner of Ox Kitchen in Fairhope, points to the people of the quaint city by the bay when he names what he loves most about running the casual eatery he opened in 2017. “Fairhope is full of a bunch of really good, friendly people, and doing what I do, I get to interact with them every day,” he says.
His devotion to his new hometown is obvious when he talks about it, so his restaurant’s name makes for a fun story. “The Ox is for Oxford, Mississippi,” he says, “because that’s where my wife and I had planned to open our own place.” Those plans obviously changed, and the roots of the original idea run deep, back to when Hamilton was a student at Auburn University.
He spent a few of his summers during college in Wyoming and started cooking at restaurants there. “It was my first time ever being in a kitchen, and I really enjoyed it, so when I came back to Auburn, I got a job cooking at a restaurant,” he says. He and the chef of that eatery became friends and opened up a restaurant of their own. It did well for several years and gave Hamilton a chance to hone his culinary skills further. When the property’s owner put it up for sale, he and his chef partner decided to close, and Hamilton moved back to Birmingham where he worked construction.
During that time, he got married to a gal from Oxford, and the couple moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he continued in construction before he realized how much he missed being in the restaurant world. He got back in the kitchen, working under a chef at the town’s famed ski resort.
Then, Hamilton and his wife began missing home. “We had always planned to come back South to start a family, so we did, and we decided to open a restaurant,” Hamilton says, “either in Oxford or Fairhope.” Initially, Oxford won out, hence the name of the restaurant. Yet when he and his wife realized that charming small town didn’t have as many outdoor recreation opportunities as Fairhope, they switched gears and headed down toward the coast. “But we liked the name, so we kept it,” Hamilton says.
Ox Kitchen began in a food hall and quickly attracted loyal customers. The eatery’s popularity grew enough to justify the move to a larger, stand-alone location last year, proving that Fairhope residents don’t really care what the restaurant’s name is. They care about Hamilton’s food philosophy. “I did fine dining for a long time and got a little tired of that, but I still wanted to give people that quality yet in a more casual environment and at a lower price,” he says. “Ox Kitchen is good food in a relaxed, family friendly environment.”
Today, diners peruse the selection of burgers, tacos (like shrimp with chili-lime slaw), hefty sandwiches (the house-smoked turkey on sourdough with chipotle mayo is a hit), salads (a mix of quinoa, pickled radishes, pepitas, black beans, charred corn and avocado is filling and flavorful) and a tasty selection of starters (including roasted Brussels sprouts with a salty-citrus sauce for dipping and pecan smoked wings with Alabama white barbecue sauce). They order the item that speaks to their stomach before grabbing seats inside (with the giant ox painted on the wall watching) or at an umbrella-shaded picnic table out on the back patio. “The menu is mostly things I grew up eating and enjoying,” Hamilton says.
Simple but scrumptious
He makes some changes and additions, but most dishes, like the big, beefy burgers, are always available. And all of Ox Kitchen’s food shares Hamilton’s commitment to keeping things simple but scrumptious, with a few special touches, like bringing in bread from iconic Gambino’s bakery in New Orleans for its po’ boys. Almost everything is made by the Ox Kitchen crew and prepared fresh to order.
“It’s like fine dining but without the white tablecloth and the big check,” Hamilton says. “We don’t cut corners, yet we get food out quick. It’s fast, but by no means, fast food.” He notes that he’s considered knocking his prices down even more, but to do things right, he knows he can’t stray from the firm foundation he’s built his dishes on. “It’s a balance, but I think our diners appreciate that we use the best ingredients,” he says.
His personal favorites are Ox Kitchen’s creamy, flavorful hummus, served with grilled pita wedges and a zippy cucumber dill sauce, and the gyro, a fluffy pita rolled around blackened chicken or shrimp, feta, roasted red peppers and pickled onions. “I like anything with a Greek influence. I grew up in Birmingham where there is a lot of Greek-inspired foods thanks to a big community of restaurant owners with that heritage,” he says. Ox Kitchen diners often opt for the Ox Burger, a classic all-American cheeseburger with house-made pickles and Ox Gravy (a savory red wine and rosemary demi-glace) on a brioche bun. “It’s by far our best seller,” he says.
While Hamilton isn’t as hands-on in the kitchen as much as he once was, he’s relishing the rewards of being a restaurant owner. “I love food, but I really love running this place. I have a great team and great customers. I get to talk to them all day and provide them with something they want. That’s the best part.”
And he’s happy that he’s doing it where he is. “Fairhope is beautiful; it’s on the water and there are so many ways and activities to explore the outdoors here,” he says. “But it’s really about the people. They are what make this city so special.”
365 Greeno Road South, Fairhope
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.