TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - The group of men holding court in the northwest corner of Panera Bread on Friday morning provided a great distraction for a procrastinating writer. They talked politics, local gossip, and - this being Tuscaloosa - Alabama football. But it wasn't until they mentioned blackened ribeyes that they truly piqued my interest.
Bruce McColl, who seemed to be the ringleader of the bunch, explained that he runs a blackened steak sandwich concession on the Quad on Alabama's campus on game day. McColl sets up his tent Friday afternoon and spends much of the evening slicing steaks thin so they have the perfect surface-area-to-volume ratio for the spices they'll receive before going on the grill. I looked at the empty yogurt parfait cup on my table and made a pledge. Friday, I eat healthy. Saturday, I eat.
After parking Saturday morning, I made my way to the Quad, which is like heaven, only with more sundresses, houndstooth hats and flat-screen TVs. Even better, LSU fans - the finest tailgaters on earth - had descended on Tuscaloosa in a great purple wave. My nose took me past Denny Chimes and the library and deposited me in front of McColl's tent. I grabbed a blackened steak sandwich with the obligatory Golden Flake chips (just like Coach Bryant ate) and a cup of fresh-squeezed lemonade.
McColl's sandwich hit my palate the way Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain hits tailbacks. The spicy steak exploded on may taste buds, then drove all the way through my esophagus. Less adventurous eaters should go next door to the chicken finger tent, but those who appreciate true gridiron fare should hit McColl's if you happen to find yourself headed to Bryant-Denny Stadium on a perfect fall afternoon.