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Eating your way through Clarksdale

In the previous post, the upcoming Most Southern Weekend On Earth at Clarksdale, Miss., was discussed.

Whether you visit Clarksdale this weekend or at another time, it’s a great town in which to eat.

People from as far away as Memphis, Little Rock and Jackson drive to Clarksdale to have dinner at Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett’s Madidi.

Madidi is in an old building on Delta Avenue, its interior walls covered with the work of Delta artists. Reservations are recommended, and there’s a high-dollar menu that has entrees ranging from fried quail to coq au vin to duck a l’orange.

Just down the street, Freeman and Luckett operate their far more casual Ground Zero Blues Club. The club opened in May 2001 and offers live music on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The kitchen is open from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. each Wednesday and Thursday and from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. each Friday and Saturday.

The plate lunch each Monday through Friday is a bargain. For $7, you get your entree, a choice of two vegetables, a drink and a dessert. At other times, there are burgers, fried catfish and the like.

Delta Avenue in downtown Clarksdale is beginning to achieve critical mass when it comes to serving the blues tourists who visit the Delta. In addition to being the home of Madidi and Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art (mentioned in the previous post), it has seen a couple of additional restaurants open in recent years.

Rust is open for dinner only from Wednesday through Saturday of each week at 218 Delta Ave. It describes its menu as “progressive Southern dishes with a New Orleans influence” and offers everything from gumbo to crawfish to seared tuna.

Last fall, Stone Pony Pizza (a gourmet pizza restaurant — think Za Za in Little Rock) opened in a building that was built in 1912. It’s a fun place to spend part of an evening.

I’ve mentioned before that I was in Clarksdale almost every week during the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority. Getting away from Delta Avenue, here are the places I ate supper when spending nights in Clarksdale:

1. Abe’s — I happen to like the tamales even better than the barbecue, but both are good.

Here’s how noted food writer Michael Stern describes it at “Abe’s barbecue is Boston butt that is first cooked over pecan wood, then allowed to cool overnight, then sliced, then heated again on the griddle when it is ordered. While it is getting heated, the pork gets hacked into a rugged hash. The process results in meat with lots of juicy buzz in its pale inside fibers and plenty of crusty parts where it has fried on the hot iron of the grill. You can have it on a platter or in a sandwich, which is available in two sizes — normal and Big Abe. We love the latter, which is twice the amount of pork heaped into a double-decker bun. …

“One of the things that makes these sandwiches so especially delicious is the sauce, which is dark red, tangy, with the resonance of pepper and spice, a sublime companion for the meat. Pat Davis told us that it is made from the original recipe his grandfather developed except for one top-secret ingredient, which he swears he doesn’t use anymore. ‘It is sort of addictive, isn’t it?’ Pat said. ‘We once had guys order a case shipped to Oklahoma. They called to tell me they were drinking it in shot glasses.”’

2. Hicks World Famous Hot Tamales — We told you about Eugene Hicks in a previous post titled “A day of Delta driving and dining.” Here’s how Rod Davis put it in an article for the Express-News in San Antonio: “Eugene Hicks not only sells hot tamales here in this fabled hometown of the blues, he sells a lot of them. Sometimes 500 dozen a week: over the counter, from the drive-through window, express delivery in containers holding five dozen each. … So many that this Henry Ford of tamale production, who got his start making bicycle deliveries as a teenager, counts among his diners former President Bill Clinton and an ongoing galaxy of politicians and celebrities.

“So here’s a liner note to the legions of German, British, Japanese, Canadian and American pilgrims who come to this steamy stripe of alluvial Mississippi to pay homage to the legends. You can stand at the crossroads where Robert Johnson allegedly bartered his soul. You can hear live music by new bands and old hands. You can catch up on history at the Delta Blues Museum and you can wander over to Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. But if you want to get the true taste of the Mississippi Delta, best also to genuflect at Hicks.”

3. Rest Haven — As far as the number of visits during my years in Clarksdale, Rest Haven ranked first. I always enjoyed the greeting from Chafik Chamoun, the owner, and the service provided by his daughter. And the variety — Lebanese food, Italian food and Southern cooking. Rest Haven also has the best breakfast in the Delta. Try the country ham, biscuits and eggs.

Here’s how the desserts are described on the restaurant’s website: “One cannot mention Rest Haven without a word about those pies. Coconut and chocolate cream pies with mile-high meringue have been famous here for years. People have been known to travel from Vicksburg and Memphis just for a piece of that pie. An unsettled dispute continually breaks out over which is better — chocolate or coconut.”

I simply alternate between the two.

And here’s how the website tells the story of the restaurant: “Lebanese people began immigrating to Mississippi in the 1880s. Many of the early Lebanese residents sold dry goods door to door and eventually opened their own stores. Chafik and Louise Chamoun arrived in the United States in 1954. Chafik borrowed a suitcase and received $50 from a wholesaler of women’s apparel. He peddled women’s clothing door to door for years until opening his own grocery store in the 1960s in Clarksdale.

“Customers noticed Chafik eating a strange-looking sandwich that Louise made frequently for his lunch. After samping this oddity called kibbie, a steady increase of customers started asking Louise to make them similar sandwiches, and Chafik had to move tables and chairs into the store to accommodate what became a regular luncheon tradition in Clarksdale. In the words of Chafik: ‘Once everybody tasted, everybody wanted.’

“To a great extent, the Lebanese community has assimilated into the American culture. However, though clothing and language have changed, the Lebanese foods have persisted. Traditional foods made with cracked wheat, parsley and grape leaves are still very popular. Newcomers to the Mississippi Delta are surprised to discover a Middle Eastern cuisine sharing the same table with black-eyed peas and collard greens. … The Rest Haven is perhaps known best for its kibbie specialties. Kibbie is made with lean ground round, cracked wheat, olive oil, onions and special seasonings. You can indulge in kibbie sandwiches, kibbie patties, kibbie baked, kibbie fried, even kibbie raw. You can eat kibbie with pine nuts, cabbage rolls, stuffed grape leaves.”

4. The Ranchero — I had supper there with my family week before last. I ordered the seafood platter.

Nelms Mitchell started the restaurant in May 1959 in a one-room concrete block building. For years, it was known mostly as a hangout for teenagers. But it has long been a full-service restaurant serving everything from barbecue to seafood to steaks to one of the best bowls of gumbo in Mississippi.

Locals often refer to it simply as The Ranch. The walls are a museum of Clarksdale’s rich history. Mitchell played high school football in Clarksdale with the great Charlie Conerly, who quarterbacked the New York Giants from 1948-61. There’s plenty of Conerly memorabilia in the restaurant, including a number of his trophies.

Conerly led Ole Miss to the Southeastern Conference championship in 1947. He led the nation in pass completions with 133 that year, rushed for nine touchdowns and passed for 18 more. He was named the Player of the Year by the Helms Athletic Foundation. I believe that’s one of the trophies in the restaurant. He was fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting that year. In the NFL, Conerly was the 1948 Rookie of the Year and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1959 by the Newspaper Enterprise Association. He led the Giants to an NFL championship over the Chicago Bears in 1956 in a game played at Yankee Stadium. He also portrayed the Marlboro Man in commercials. After retiring from the NFL, Conerly and his wife, Perian, returned to Clarksdale. Conerly, who died in 1996, owned shoe stores.

5. Ramon’s — This is the home to the best fried shrimp anywhere. I can also recommend the fried chicken livers, the spaghetti and the oysters. Get good directions. It’s in a residential neighborhood.

Michael Stern writes: “It takes a diehard Roadfood devotee to drive along Oakhurst Street in Clarksdale, spy Ramon’s and think: ‘My, what an excellent looking place to eat.’ It is, to understate the point, a less-than-handsome restaurant far off the beaten path in a residential neighborhood. The savvy tipster who took us there, Roger Stolle, described going to Ramon’s as ‘like eating in a small Florida restaurant from the 1970s … but with serious roof problems.’ Roger told us that local lore says Thomas and Barbara Ely, the couple who run it, rent the building for a dollar a month so there’s no real incentive for them (or the owner) to repair or renovate.

“Tables are bare, chairs are mismatched. Still, there is some serious effort to make the dump charming: empty fifths of Jack Daniel’s and three-liter jugs of Taylor chablis have been made into decorative lamps all around the two dining rooms.”

6. Uncle Henry’s — If you want to drive out toward Helena and the banks of Moon Lake, you owe it to yourself to have dinner at Uncle Henry’s. Dinner is served each Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. George Wright likes you to call for reservations at (662) 337-2757. Uncle Henry’s is the site of the old Moon Lake Club, a noted gambling establishment mentioned by Tennessee Williams in some of his dramas.

Hungry yet?

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