One of the perks of my job is that it requires me to do a fair bit of traveling every year. For some people that might be a drawback but for someone who loves to get on the road exploring as often as I do, my business trips are something that I often look forward to with boyish glee. Admittedly, 90% of my business trips are less than thrilling. My job takes me to some of the most remote and quiet corners of the American Midwest that you could imagine. I'm often up on the Canadian border in northern Minnesota or spending time in the Nebraska panhandle (didn't know Nebraska had a panhandle? Look at a map. Yup. There it is.) where there's precious little to do or see.
But don't get me wrong - I still get great enjoyment out of those trips! The hinterlands of the American Midwest have a special place in my heart with its wide open plains, geometric cornfields, and charming clapboard architecture. Still, I considered myself lucky last year when a project landed in my lap that would expand the reach of my work bit. This project wove its way through the Midwest but also trickled down along the Mississippi River into the South. A few months into the project and I found myself spending a week in a brand new city and state - Jackson, Mississippi.
A city steeped in history ranging from the American Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement, I was curious to explore but that would need to take a backseat to what was truly calling me during my visit - the food! Despite my recent focus on living healthier and being more fit I cannot escape who I truly am, and that's a lover of all things related to food and flavor. Southern food is a personal favorite of mine - whether it's soul food, Creole, or Lowcountry. It's packed with flavor and leans heavily into the indulgent side of life with a heavy focus on cream, butter, oil, and meats. Good, hearty meals packed with calories that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.
I had six days on the ground in Jackson and while I ate a lot of food, these managed to make their way onto the list of my personal favorites. Am I telling you these are the absolute best meals and restaurants you can get in Jackson? Nope, sorry folks. I'm not a believer in the idea of telling people what's "best" when they travel (which is something I hope to write about in the near future).
What I can tell you is that these were the places that stood out during my own experience in the city.
Now, let's dig in!
I stumbled into Parlor Market by complete accident. It was a few blocks down the street from the hotel I was staying at and just happened to be near another establishment someone had recommended to me that day. I cluelessly walked down the street and upon reaching a lively restaurant front with an ambiance that definitely indicated it was too cool for someone like me I figured this must be the place. With exposed brick walls, sun bleached wood beams, and crystal chandeliers I figured it really did strike a charming pose on the mildly rundown street fronts of Jackson. It was only later when I was paying my bill that I noticed the name printed at the top of my receipt didn't match the name of the restaurant I thought I had been eating at!
I have absolutely no regrets though, as the meal at Parlor Market was outstanding. The restaurant does a great job building a fun, moody interior that is upscale but still approachable for a casual diner. Staff were super friendly and more than willing to talk to you about what they thought would make a good meal from the menu based on your likes and dislikes. As for the actual food....
I started with a cup of smoked duck gumbo, which is a play on a traditional gumbo that includes smoked duck confit and a generous helping of Delta rice. Shredded portions of slow fried duck leg along with the holy trinity of green pepper, celery, and onions gave a meaty bulk to each spoonful. True to its roots the concoction was very thick and robust, the smoky bits really come to a head in the back of mouth. Little fried pieces of pork crackling added the right mix-up to the texture profile to bring a smile to my face. A great start!
For my entree I went with the sweet tea brined duck breast over dirty rice. Before you ask .... yes, I ordered duck in my appetizer and in my entree. Yes, I do have a soft spot for duck. No, I don't really care if the meal comes across as a bit "one note" because I was happy as a peach with everything.
The duck breast was quite juicy, which is one of the things that makes duck one of my favorite meats. The natural fattiness of the duck just adds a certain "melt in your mouth" quality to every bite. The exterior of the breast meat had pretty much caramelized into a tiny layer of crisp sugar encasing the meat. The dirty rice was a well seasoned mix of red beans and Delta rice, forming a heaping bed upon which the dish rested. I feel like a lot of Southern restaurants overdue the seasoning on their dirty rice but Parlor Market kept the flavor profile playful and pungent without taking it over the edge. A small pile of creamy shaved onions with dill rounded out the dish. At first I didn't know what to make of this addition but the sharp crunch of the onion combined with the milky smoothness of the cream made for an excellent juxtaposition excellent with the rest of the dish.
To finish off this decadent meal I asked my server what would be good to add a sweet note but wouldn't be overly heavy after what were two pretty sit-in-your-gut dishes. He recommended Parlor Room's affogato, which were two small beignets along with two small scoops of Bailey's Irish Creme ice cream, and a small carafe of Beanfruit Company espresso. If you're unfamiliar, affogato means "drowned" in Italian and is used to describe drinks where espresso is poured over ice cream or gelato. Despite the inclusion of ice cream, affogato is typically considered a drink and not a dessert. The inclusion of French beignets, popular throughout the South by way of Louisiana, is what brings this dish to the dessert menu at Parlor Market.
The beignets are fried and covered in copious amounts of powdered sugar, but the dough is so light and airy that it really didn't feel all that filling. The Beanfruit espresso was probably a bad idea considering it was 10PM by the time I was indulging my sweet tooth, but it was delightfully acidic and bitter in contrast to the creamy smoothness of the Bailey's ice cream. My server was right - it was the perfect way to end the meal, even if I didn't get to bed till 2 AM that night!
I only had one meal at Parlor Room so I cannot vouch for it's quality on an overall basis. I can tell you that if this meal was an indication of the food quality it generally serves - I wouldn't hesitate to go back.
Jackson isn't exactly on the same level as New York or Los Angeles when it comes to high power chefs and recognizable restaurant names, but the Mayflower Cafe might come as close as possible to being the city's "famous" place to dine. It's claim to fame is currently twofold - it was featured as a location in the popular movie "The Help" and it's also one of the few restaurant that was around in town during the invention of the storied comeback sauce, a mayonnaise and chili sauce concoction that is popular as a dip and salad dressing throughout the region and much of the South.
I have to admit that one of these is much more appealing to me as a visitor than the other, and since I've not once been compelled to visit a place simply because it appeared in a movie you can bet it was the comeback sauce that was the siren to my grumbling belly one evening after work on a hot Mississippi evening. Downtown Jackson isn't a very big area so it's pretty easy to walk around. I hopped out of my hotel and made the short walk over to Roach Street (yup) where the neon glow of the Mayflower Cafe's iconic sign called me in.
I admit that I was expecting the atmosphere to be rather homey and the staff to be excessively sappy with their greetings and service. The interior was definitely homey though the service was a bit more gruff than I had expected. It's clear this place is used to being busy and while visitors are often seen in the seats this is still an establishment that caters to locals and runs its operation around them. I happened to drop in on the cusp of dinner rush so was able to get a seat at a well-used booth along the wall where a menu was dropped off for me and I was left to my own devices to select a meal.
Service was definitely friendly with an element of urgency, so if you waltzed in here thinking you were going to have a meal with a leisurely-paced waitress (and they were indeed all waitresses when I was there, no men working the tables at all) you've got another thing coming. But the hospitality and the smiles were all there, just with a quicker pace under the feet - they've got plates coming up and tables to clear, folks.
Similar to my meal at Parlor Market, I started off with a cup of gumbo but this time without the fancy fixings. The cup was a relatively small portion but did pack some substantial flavor with stewed shrimp swimming in a rich mixture of peppers, okra, and onions. Rice was packed into the side of the cup and added body and texture to a dish that already had quite a bit of it to begin with. Okra isn't my favorite vegetable but does tend to creep into Southern cooking quite often. I will say the Mayflower Cafe did a good job of removing a lot of the stickiness that comes with okra, so I didn't find it too distracting from my overall meal.
And now for the funny part - the meal I ordered came with a side salad with the famous comeback sauce as a dressing. I was entirely too caught up thinking about the day's work and how excited I was to try this famous sauce that I forgot to snap a shot of it before digging in. The salad was a traditional mix of tomato wedges, iceberg lettuce, carrots, etc. The comeback sauce was indeed quite tasty but .... nothing I really would drop my panties over. A good mix of creamy, heat, and tartness.
Other than the comeback sauce I didn't really know what else to aim for at the Mayflower Cafe so I simply ordered what looked good to me at the time, and that was the Seafood Platter - shrimp, oysters, and a flounder fillet stuffed with crab meat. No additional description was provided and I ended up with a pretty standard fried seafood platter. The shrimp and oysters were breaded and fried, though it appeared they were pan-fried and not deep fried. Also, no generic batter from a bag, these appeared to be hand tossed. The flounder fillet was fairly sizable and the entire middle was covered in a crab and bread crumb mixture. Side of fries came with the meal along with tartar sauce and a lemon wedge.
Definitely a gut bomb with so much fried food on one platter, though I did my best to make it through. I'm kidding - I ate the whole damn thing except for a handful of the fries with ease and gusto! You really can't go wrong with fried seafood in my book, and Mayflower's offering was strong. It wasn't the best platter I've ever had but the hand tossed breading on the shrimp and oysters and the tasty crab stuffing for the flounder really brought it home for me.
I wasn't planning on getting dessert at all after the litany of fried foods I had just shoved into my gullet, but the waitress said three magic words that can usually persuade me to indulge my sweet tooth regardless of how full I am - coconut creme pie. I recently wrote some thoughts about my grandmother on the blog, and I mentioned that she was a fan of making pies for me. She knew my absolute favorite was coconut creme and she'd always make sure to have a fresh pie made for me on my birthday or if it had been awhile since we had seen each other.
Mayflower's offering was pretty traditional though a bit sweeter than I am accustomed to eating. It's a dessert though, so I'd rather they err on the side of more sugar than less. The fluffy mounds of whipped cream sat on top of a thick coconut custard base all topped with toasted coconut flakes browned to a nice crunchy texture level. All of it was quite delicious, with the only part I didn't really care for being the crust which I found slightly too salty.
Overall I thought Mayflower Cafe offered a pretty great meal though the price was a bit higher than I expected. It's just down the road from Parlor Market and if given the choice I'd choose to go there instead of Mayflower. Still, if you're in town for a few days I don't see any reason not to hop into this cute little corner cafe for a little grub.
DEEP SOUTH POPS
You wouldn't think that a hybrid coffee shop, popsicle stand, and bar would work, but for some reason it does in Jackson, Mississippi. And it works damn well. Even though Deep South Pops isn't really a traditional restaurant, it was by far my favorite commercial establishment to stop by in the city.
They have two locations but I only visited the location in Belhaven across from Millsap College on State Street. From the outside it looks a bit like an autobody shop or something similar, but don't be fooled and head right inside. The service counter is right there when you walk through the door and friendly staff immediately greet you with big smiles.
There's quite a bit of seating available throughout the remainder of the building with lots of big wooden tables, bright chairs, exposed brick walls, and wooden barn doors separating the spaces. It's a very fun, interesting space to spend a little time on a hot Southern morning or early evening.
My first time visiting was in the morning to grab a quick cup of coffee and snack on my way to an early morning meeting outside of the city limits.
I opted for a caramel latte with a croissant, which are baked daily at local bakery La Brioche. The coffee is simply and served in a paper cup, though that doesn't stopped the staff from creating a bit of foam art on the top. The latte itself was warm and acidic, a nice little bit to perk you up after a groggy sleep in the southern heat. A fun ribbon of caramel flavoring laced its way through every sip from top to bottom. The croissant was average, a bit too stiff for having been fresh baked that morning. I'd give the pastry a pass in the future though don't hold it against Deep South since this is brought in from off-site.
My second stop was late in the afternoon after a long day of work. Obviously popsicles play a big roll at the store considering the name, and the menu puts the offering front and center. I noted many of the flavors were homages to local cuisine and ingredients and made a mental note to come back later and try a few.
SO. GLAD. I. DID.
Wow, these popsicles were by far my favorite thing I ate this whole trip!
I had a really hard time choosing a flavor based on all the excellent offerings on display, so I ended up with two selections. And I did so with no shame, folks! I picked the creole cream cheesecake and also a plain buttermilk. If you're unfamiliar, creole cream cheese is a form of farmer's cheese common in Louisiana made with skim milk and buttermilk. It has a creamy, tart flavor that works well with sweet accompaniments such as sugar or fruit.
The shop was HOPPING with business when I stopped in so I took my order to go and sat in my car to taste test my selections. The buttermilk is where I started and it didn't disappoint - creamy and tart with just a little kick of sweetness at the end. I think there was a slight hint of vanilla added to the mixture for that kick of sweetness without adding much sugar. A subtle offering, but a pleaser for sure!
Next was the creole cream cheesecake, which is when I looked down at my feet and realized my panties had dropped. Wow. While the buttermilk was all about subtleness this one was a barnstormer - ransacking your mouth with its milky goodness. Massacring your tastebuds with the sweet slice of sugar across your palate. I've found my new popsicle savior, and its name is creole cream cheesecake.
I ended up coming back here daily to try a new flavor of popsicle after work, and it's a good idea to do just that if you're in town for more than a day or two since Deep South Pops changes their popsicle offerings daily (and often times within the day depending on when batches are finished and what sells out). This is one of those "do not miss" places in my book. A great place to relax with coffee and a book, but hands down an excellent destination for a fun twist on regional flavors.
KING EDWARD GRILL
While generally speaking I'm not a fan of dining inside of a hotel, I make exceptions in a few situations when the hotel houses a kitchen that can legitimately throw out some solid food. I was staying at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Jackson, which is housed in the historic King Edward Hotel building. Originally built as the Confederate House in 1861, it was burned down during the Civil War and then rebuilt as the Edwards House in 1867. It has run under different names and ownership since then until December 2009 when it was reopened as a combination apartment building and hotel, run by .... you guessed it, the Hilton Corporation.
I'll admit I was not sold on where to stay during my trip to Jackson until I realized the Hilton Garden Inn used to be called the Confederate House. I thought there was a bit of cosmic justice in a gay Asian dude taking off his clothes and kicking up his feet there. Plus, one of the city's best rated restaurants, King Edward Grill, also happened to be in the hotel lobby. Seemed like a good bet!
I hopped in to King Edward Grill one evening after work when I wasn't feeling particularly keen on wandering too far from my hotel room. The good thing about Jackson is that no matter what restaurant I went into, it was never too busy. Lively - yes. Waitlist busy? Never. Service was very friendly at King Edward, though I have to say it was the slowest out of any of the places I visited on this trip.
Noticing a trend here? I'm a big fan of starting a meal with soup. Not sure where I picked up this quirk, perhaps it was that growing up my mom almost always had a cup of miso soup set out for me with meals. Miso isn't on the menu in very many places in Jackson, so I opted for the french onion instead. A bit of a sad offering to be honest. The flavor of the broth was pretty solid but for me a good french onion soup should have a beautifully crusted baked cheese on top. The sprinkling of shredded cheese over this was pretty much the epitome of "if you're gonna screw it up just don't do it to begin with."
For my main meal I went with the "Chef's Po Boy" which was a pretty traditional preparation - french bread, crispy battered shrimp, lettuce, and a tangy remoulade sauce. Tomatoes offered on the menu but declined by yours truly when ordering. A side of fries along with two ramekins of ketchup, which is genuinely one of the most annoying trends in dining for me. I don't need you to portion my condiments for me, a-thank-you-very-much.
This was a good sandwich, which can be hard to do with a po boy. French bread is quite firm and sharp to begin with, so toasting it and pairing it with crispy breaded shrimp can be a disaster if not done properly. King Edward managed to merge the two rough textures well, using the remoulade to soften the sandwich just enough to keep it from destroying the roof of my mouth. Shrimp was cooked well and the spice mix in the breading mixture packed a nice little kick to the back of your throat. Thumbs up on the sandwich.
The sandwich was quite hefty so my initial plan was to call it a day and end my meal right there. Then entered the King Edward Pie - a sweet potato pie stacked with a pecan pie. I like sweet potato pie as it is, and pecan pie is probably in my top three favorite kinds of pies. Combine them? Not passing that up, folks. Even when my stomach was approaching max capacity.
Since this sounded like the kind of thing that might toe the line between sumptuous and sexual, I ordered it to go so I could enjoy it in the privacy of my room.
Like most American desserts, this slab of heaven was loaded with sugar and my tongue danced a little jig as the first forkful slide into my mouth. As you can see from the picture, this slice of pie was just oozing with sugary goodness. Not only was it sweet, but the sugars were richly caramelized, giving the pecans a nice charred sweetness that really gave a distinct profile to each bite. This was a unique little dessert that I thoroughly enjoyed.
When my waitress handed me the bag containing my King Edward's pie, she leaned in and whispered "I snuck in one of our red velvet bread puddings with some caramel sauce for you hun." She was so sweet and pleased with herself that I didn't have the heart to tell her I don't eat chocolate.
But just look at that gooey little disc of earthy, chocolate goodness there! I didn't taste it but I'd be willing to bet it was amazing.
On my last day in town I swung by King Edward's one last time for lunch as I needed something quick and close to my hotel prior to driving to the airport to catch my flight. This time I opted for the shrimp & grits - seared shrimp, rendered Tasso ham, bell peppers, onions, all served with a creamy roux-based sauce with cheesy grits.
I actually prefer this preparation of shrimp to the po boy at King Edward! There's just something about the creamy sauce and the smoked ham that brings a umami richness to the dish. Shrimp and grits is one of my all time favorite Southern dishes and they do a pretty bang up job here with it. Portion size was generous, which I find virtuous in a restaurant that makes food I enjoy. The only thing I didn't like about the dish were the cheesy grits. The cheese felt a bit much for the dish and I felt like it actually detracted from the overall flavor. The sauce was creamy enough as it was, there didn't need to be even more cheese in there. But I know I'm not the biggest fan of cheese to begin with so take that a grain of salt. Even with the cheesy grits, this was a damn right taste meal!
I also had a side order of hot water cornbread with molasses butter. Excellent. Mouth watering. Molasses butter is now on my list of things to try to make at home and use to make myself feel like the Barefoot Contessa, except I actually acknowledge my husband is gay. I know there's a big push lately to make cornbreads more savory but I'm strongly in the "sweet" camp with it comes to corn cakes. The restaurant I worked in for years during college served cornbread and I was known to occasionally slice myself a big slab, microwave it till it was piping hot, and then put a double scoop of vanilla ice cream on top and then drizzle the whole mess with honey.
Long story short - sweet cornbread is my jam and King Edward's Grill serves a great version.
EATING WITH LOCALS
Southern hospitality is one of those concepts that can often be dismissed as mythical but generally speaking I've actually found it to be quite real in most cases.
My time in Jackson was no different, as over five days I was given food or invited to eat with locals four times! I couldn't accept every invitation but I did take them up on two of the offers.
While working on reviewing some documents related to work, a woman working in the building I was being housed in for the week swung by and let me know that they had planned a big barbeque for the day and that "people have been cooking all morning and grubs just about up if you want to grab a plate or three."
Why yes, yes I do want to grab a plate. I ended up with barbequed pork, cornbread, collard greens, baked beans, and sweet tea for a hearty and delicious lunch.
For my second meal I was again working on a project when someone knocked at my door. Another person I'd been speaking with on occasion throughout the week as we walked up and down the hallways of the building was there with a bag of food. "Baby, we had a big dinner last night and had so many left overs and I'd hate to see it go to waste so I packed up a nice little goodie bag for you if you'd like to take it for lunch."
Why yes, yes I would like to take that bag of home cooked food ma'am! I don't even let my fiance call me baby but for this lady, it seemed so natural I hardly batted an eye.
I took my bag of food and found a quiet picnic table next to a lake and enjoyed a hearty lunch of fried catfish, more collard greens, red beans and rice, and some sort of smoked ham.
I have to admit - Jackson is an interesting little slice of Americana that gave me more than I was expecting. It's filled with history and culture, but honestly it was the food that really captured my attention during my week long visit. Playful plating, moody Southern vibes, friendly locals, and historic cafes all contributed to a fun and tasty week in the Mississippi Delta. Again - please keep in mind that these are simply the best things I ate while I was there. I'm not claiming these to be the best places to eat in Jackson at all. I'll reiterate that I'm not a fan of chasing "the best" when traveling or trying to tell you what is best. I'm just sharing my experience and hoping you get some ideas or inspiration!
So - have you eaten at any of these places? Enjoyed a meal in Jackson, Mississippi that I didn't get to try? Let me know!