When Anthony “T-Bone” Crawford was just a kid, he dreamed of having a cheesesteak restaurant. He drew pictures of what his place would look like – with lots of happy customers and a mailbox out front.
Today, the Philadelphia native, who was raised in Oakland, California, owns and operates T-Bone’s, a cheesesteak shop in Birmingham’s Five Points South. True to his dream, there are lines out the door during busy times, and there’s a mailbox out front.
But realizing his dream was not easy.
Crawford first opened the restaurant in Center Point in 2002. He had a second location on Highland Avenue until he lost that lease, but his Birmingham customers followed him to the original store.
“The people from the Southside, bless them,” he says. “They helped keep us going. They would travel – it’s not far, but it’s far – and they would come and support us. I mean, ‘Shout out to the Southside.’”
He moved back to Southside and opened his Five Points location in 2014. And now his Center Point customers come here.
And through all this moving around, Crawford weathered some of the toughest economic times in recent memory.
“It was a hard time, a really hard time. … Where we were located at in Center Point, we were tucked in with the car dealerships. If you remember, the car dealers were having a horrible time. So, it really affected us. We had to work a lot harder. I would walk around and pass out menus, and I would just try to keep our name out there because … money was tight, and a lot of people were going through some hard times,” he says.
“I’m not supposed to be here. There’s no reason why I should be here. I didn’t finish college. No bank would loan me any money. I did it all myself. Maxed out my credit cards. Went into debt. When times got tight, I doubled down my effort. Worked around the clock. Got up every day thinking about it. Sometimes that’s what it takes, you know. If you want it, you gotta get it. It’s as simple as that.
“I worked hard. My family pushed me. I had support from friends. I felt like I had a good product, and I wasn’t going to stop. It was a struggle, believe me, but I felt like it was my time. And I was blessed.”
It helped that he had (and has) a solidly delicious menu.
Crawford knows a good cheesesteak when he tastes it and makes it. And his mantra at T-Bone’s is, “We make cheesesteaks, not mistakes.”
They also make cheesesteaks in a number of ways.
There’s the Famous, a savory mix of freshly cooked sirloin steak and grilled onions under melted white American cheese. You can add mushrooms and bell peppers if you want. Crawford likes to say the most popular sandwich “is the one you like.” So, they make it like you want it.
“We like to give people something fresh when you come in the door. We take your idea, and we make it happen,” Crawford says. “You know that your food is cooked fresh every time.”
Crawford has his own riffs on the classic Philly sandwich, too.
The Irie, with grilled lean sirloin, red onions, lettuce, tomato and white American cheese, features a delicious, sweet-spicy jerk sauce and is one of his top-selling items. Mexicali steak dresses the sirloin with salsa and cheddar cheese sauce. There’s even a Philly made with grilled chicken instead of steak.
All these cheesesteak sandwiches are served on rolls from Amoroso’s Baking Co. “Cheesesteak is not a cheesesteak without Amoroso rolls,” Crawford says, “and we get our rolls straight from Philadelphia.”
They also make hoagies like the Carlo Gambino with Black Forest ham, cheese, tomatoes, red onions, basil, olive oil, oregano and salt and pepper. Wrap versions of the cheesesteaks and hoagies are served on flatbread. Bone wraps include the Meat Haters with lettuce, tomato, red onions, green peppers, mushrooms, cheese and a special sauce, as well as the Jive Turkey with honey-roasted turkey, lettuce, tomato, red onions, mushrooms, cheese and sauce.
“We do salads,” Crawford says, “incredible salads. If you order a salad from us, we go make it in the back. They don’t just sit around.”
There are burgers like the Dirty South version with a half-pound of lean ground beef, lite mayo, mustard, ketchup, pickles, white American cheese and Jack Daniel’s grilling sauce. The crisp, panko-breaded onion rings are delicious, and the fry choices are many. There are Plain Ole Fries; cheddar fries; spicy fries; ranch fries; and cheesesteak fries, which are topped with steak, onions, peppers, cheese and chipotle aioli.
You also can get homemade cheesesteak eggrolls. And there’s a nacho take on cheesesteak with sirloin, onions, melted cheddar, tomatoes, lettuce, jalapenos and chunky salsa on a bed of tortilla chips. It’s called “Dat Damn Dip.” It’s just one of several clever names.
The near-steady metallic clink of spatulas chopping and tossing ingredients on a hot cast-iron cooktop adds to the distinctive ambiance of this little restaurant. Walk alongside the busy, open kitchen to place your order. “If you’re in here and you see us and it’s crunch time, we’re moving,” Crawford says. “It’s like a dance – we’re doing twists and we’re listening when you’re not thinking we’re listening. We do restaurant good. We do food good. You know what I’m saying?”
Take your seat beneath the huge, colorful murals at a cozy booth (one decorated with a map of Birmingham and another with book covers) or choose a high-top table for two or four; pull up a stool if you need to.
Crawford’s customers are students from UAB and Samford and nearby Ramsay High School. They are people who work in offices downtown and in hospitals all around. They are tourists staying up the street at Hotel Indigo.
He wants all these people to think of T-Bone’s as “the place that you have to go. If you have friends that are visiting. I wanted to be the spot that you have to take your friends to make them remember Birmingham,” he says. “Birmingham has a lot of incredible food and a lot of places that you can go and just get blown away. We have a lot of competition in Birmingham, and we want to stand out. We try to stand out every day.”
Crawford employs about 10 people; he’s loyal to them, and they are all committed to his vision of delicious, fresh food.
“You can tell that the person that prepared (the food) put the heart into it, and they care about it,” he says. “And it’s not just about how it tastes, it’s how it looks, how it goes out. We might not be the fastest all the time, but we’re always going to be the freshest. We always want to put our love into every sandwich that we make.”
Crawford says he’s proud to have achieved his lifelong dream.
“Sometimes you have to pat yourself on the back. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror and say how proud you are of yourself and what you’ve done, because a lot of times nobody’s going to tell you that. You have to feel good about yourself. … I come in on my days off, and I walk around the store and I thank the ice machine, I thank the grill. It’s real. It’s real. It’s amazing.”
T-Bone’s Authentic Philly Style Cheesesteaks and Hoagies
1017 20th St. South
Birmingham, Alabama 35205
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
Closed on Sunday