On a recent visit to Athens to see my folks, dad suggested we get lunch. I said I’d recently heard of a newer place called Wildwood Deli, just off the square in downtown Athens, on 113 W Market Street. “The Original Downtown Deli”, Wildwood has been named #9 on a Best Things Alabama top ten list of best delis in the state. The Huntsville metro area may not be known for outstanding sandwiches, but Wildwood Deli is out to change that, one lunch at a time. Rhonda Fisher and her son Matthew, a graduate of Auburn’s Hotel and Restaurant degree program, took over Wildwood earlier this year from its previous owners, who moved in after the closing of Tortillas Blanco several years ago. Matthew has since moved on to other culinary adventures, but Rhonda remains in charge at Wildwood, where she prepares fresh lunches and various homemade baked goods daily. Rhonda says she’s well known for her spin on the classic Southern dessert, strawberry pretzel salad.
Wildwood Deli is a small space with limited indoor and outdoor seating. They serve a fairly standard menu of sandwiches, burgers, salads, and bottled soft drinks. They’re proud to not use or own a freezer and the resulting freshness of their food. They’re listed online as not serving alcohol, but on our visit, six packs of local Rocket City beers and other craft brews stocked the shelves, and a sign by the outgoing door said “No Alcohol Beyond This Point”, so presumably patrons can now enjoy a beer inside. FYI, Wildwood Deli doesn’t offer ice for drinks.
I’d been told the Philly Cheesesteak with shaved ribeye was a star of the menu, so I went for a half. I wanted to try the homemade potato soup, also getting good marks, but they were out. Dad ordered a cheeseburger and a Dr. Pepper. I had a bottled water, and the total was $19.
My cheesesteak arrived first, and dad’s burger a few minutes later. Not a big deal, but if you’ve spent a lot of time in the world of kitchens, as I have, you tend to notice every such tiny detail. We dug in shortly thereafter and shared mostly positive takes on the food. Dad’s burger was plain in appearance, with that bright orange American cheese glow tipping off that Wildwood Deli is not about the highfalutin. But he didn’t hesitate to nod affirmitively when I asked if it was good, saying, “It’s very fresh.”
My wife is from Philadelphia, and so I’ve been educated in the ways of the cheesesteak. In its homeland, this iconic sandwich is prepared in various ways, with the steak usually either sliced or shaved. I do quite love a good shaved steak sandwich, so I had decided to try Wildwood’s version before we got there. Though the cut was definitely tasty, well-seasoned and tender ribeye, the steak wasn’t shaved; it was chunked, really. The flavor, solid hoagie roll, and traditional toppings of sauteed peppers and onions with a light spread of mayo made for a satisfying lunch, but the trimming and prep of the meat could have used closer attention. My cheesesteak had a few pieces of gristle, an error easily corrected.
Wildwood Deli is a solid choice for a leisurely lunch just steps from the square in historic downtown Athens. Matthew and Rhonda once even hosted fixed price dinners complete with live music, known as “Secret Suppers”, with food showcasing local ingredients like cheese from Elkmont’s Fromagerie Belle Chevre, but Rhonda says with the departure of her son Matthew, she hasn’t found the help needed to continue those. Wildwood does still offer catering services. I spoke to Rhonda Fisher by phone to ask about the discrepancy in their posted hours of business in store and online. She said she’s been trying to contact someone at Google to correct the old hours of 11am-5pm. WIldwood's current hours are 10:30am - 2:30pm, Monday - Saturday.
By; Stephen Locke
Stephen Locke grew up in north Alabama, and returned to find a beautiful wife and East Limestone mutt to call family, after years of toil and revelry afar, and having absorbed the lesson, "Don'tcha think, sometime's it's wise not to grow up?" His true loves include waterfalls, houseplants, architecture, photography, basketball, and whistling along to his favorite guitar solos.
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