History tells us about Mississippi’s storied past. But it is its current generation of community ambassadors, state advocates, entrepreneurs and business owners telling a different story, especially about the state’s most populous city and capital, Jackson.
Their stories talk about progress and pay tribute to many who fought and laid a foundation for equity while passing the baton. “Jackson is the City With Soul because of the people, places, and events that have not only shaped our city and state but are threaded into the fabric of America,” says Yolanda Clay-Moore, director of communications for Visit Jackson, who is a native Jacksonian.
Knowing what makes this city great requires a multi-sensory experience with emphasis on sight and hearing as you learn about its historic role in the civil rights movement, visit more than 30 interactive museums, and embrace diversity at more than two dozen cultural organizations and institutions.
However, leading your visit by experiencing Jackson’s food and southern hospitality isn’t a bad idea and, in fact, will create a soul connection you’ll never thought you’ll make.
The Soul of the South
Located halfway between Memphis and New Orleans, Jackson’s food scene is anchored in generations of soulful culinary traditions and chef-driven concepts that continue to provide depth and creativity to southern classics and globally inspired cuisines.
One of the chefs at the forefront of Jackson’s burgeoning culinary movement is Bravo’s “Top Chef” alum, Nick Wallace. Through a carefully curated menu that is deliciously executed Tuesday – Sunday at the Nissan Café inside the Two Mississippi Museums, Wallace is intentionally creating a new narrative about Jackson and Mississippi through each dish served to visitors.
“It just means more to me other than a dollar bill. It means the world that I have a lot of people coming from all walks of life and we get to cook food the way we think, we deserve Mississippi should eat food, but also too to respect it,” shares the chef, who has also rivaled competitors on the Food Network.
New Mississippi is the term he uses to describe the fresh and innovative approach to Nissan Café’s menu. A smoked brisket wrap with pickled vegetables and goat cheese made in-house, a BLT with a twist that includes cured pork belly and a grilled cheese sandwich with whipped brie that is crusted with parmesan and pecorino cheeses.
In addition to mentioning the rest of the menu, which includes salads, soups of the day and a ramen bowl, he inserts, “We created a gumbo called Mississippi gumbo and it is owned by Mississippi. It is for here. All I am doing is just starting something. I am not going to end it. I am starting something that other people can see that you can honestly be creative and give Mississippi something that it deserves. So having this café in here, it is more than just that. It is about the legacy.”
Legacy is also important to Geno Lee, fourth-generation owner of the Big Apple Inn, which opened 83 years ago on Farish Street, once known as “the black mecca of Mississippi.” Redevelopment of the Farish Street Historical District remains an important project for many Jacksonians and is at the center of the hit show, “The Belle Collective,” on OWN, which follows successful businesswomen and their pursuit to revive it back to its glory days.
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Lee also wants to see Farish Street fully restored and back in business serving the Black community as its significance is sealed in the history of his family, the city of Jackson and the state.
In the abbreviated version of his family’s story, he shares that it started with his great-grandfather, Juan Mora, a Mexican migrant worker who began selling tamales on Farish Street in the 1930s. His marriage to a Black woman expanded their family with a son who would have five children of his own, one being Lee’s father.
Mora opened the Big Apple Inn selling tamales in the heart of the city’s Black business community and eventually added a smoked sausage slider sandwich to the menu he topped with a mustard sauce, slaw and house-made hot sauce. When a butcher shared he had some pig ears that he was going to dispose of, he offered him to Lee’s great-grandfather and the legendary pig ear sandwich was born.
“We do pig ears and smokes better than anyone in the world,” the former stockbroker shares. “You can do the smokes and the ears all day long, but what makes it different is when you put that hot sauce that we make from scratch on the sandwich.” The late Anthony Bourdain most likely agreed during his visit to the restaurant during an episode for his show,” Parts Unknown,” which featured the popularity and goodness of peasant foods.
Lee estimates they go through 250-300 pig ear sandwiches a day and double that for the smoked sausage sandwiches between his two locations, the other one being in North Jackson.
A recent price increase to $2.00 keeps the community coming, but Lee admits does nothing to help him turn a profit. He also acknowledges that he wouldn’t have it any other way, saying, “It is like a ministry down here.”
Soulful Bragging Rights
On any given day, anyone dining at Johnny T’s Bistro & Blues, also on Farish Street, could be in for a pleasant surprise by one of its well-known patrons. Before his exit as the football coach at Jackson State, Deion Sanders, aka “Coach Prime,” frequently dined at the notable spot in Jackson praised for great food and music owned by John Tierre. Sanders even had his own reserved seating area.
Come hungry and with good company because sharing is caring as the southern hospitality at Johnny T’s extends into the portion sizes. Don’t be afraid to speak to your table neighbors who are most likely regulars and you’ll learn that there really isn’t one bad choice on the menu.
With soul food at the heart of Jackson’s food story, it is also at the center of one small family restaurant with a larger-than-life reputation. Tyrone Bully and his father built and opened Bully’s Restaurant in 1982. Bully now operates the community staple with his wife Greta. Their hard work and commitment to creating good food over the last 30 years has never gone unnoticed and in 2016, garnered one of the highest accolades in the industry, a James Beard Classic Award, an award the organization says is “given to locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.”
Timeless appeal is one way to describe so many eateries that have helped put Jackson on the culinary map. Chef Pierre Pryer is behind the southern-style fare at Iron Horse Grill, known for their crafted cocktails and live music.
If you want to feel like you’re at grandma’s house, Sugar’s Place is where you go. Catfish fillets fried golden brown and grits that are buttery smooth, fried chicken, shrimp and all the classic soul food sides can be found on the menu. And if you really want the full experience, don’t forget the Kool-Aid.
For nights on the town and special occasions that call for an experience connecting diners to Mississippi’s southern heritage through French-inspired fusion, La Cour Kitchen & Bar is the place. Dr. Jerrick Rose, a pediatric dentist, opened the La Cour in Jackson’s Highland Village in 2021 with a passion for business and a love of food.
Also a Jackson native, Rose’s travels over the years served as the blueprint for what he wanted to offer local Mississippians and visitors. Offering indoor and courtyard dining that oozes warmth and sophistication, start the day or night with fried okra served with tomato jam and hot sauce or fried crab claws with a Cajun aioli. Their selection of French wines pairs perfectly with the cheese and charcuterie starter and the lollipop lamb chops with mango chutney will not disappoint.
The dinner menu is insanely delicious, with options ranging from soups and salads to entrees such as Creole linguini, shrimp and grits, lobster roll and a 12 oz. filet in a Cognac peppercorn sauce. The cocktails and desserts will also compete for your taste buds’ attention.
Now, Jackson is known for good food, but when it comes to vegan options, well not so much. That is slowly starting to change. The small but tasty list of restaurants serving plant-based fare with a twist on soul food include Oops All Vegan, Sameerah’s Healthy Kiosk, and Meals That Heal.
Hopefully Jackson now has your attention because there is not one bad meal in this city and each chef and restaurant will make sure of that.
Jackson’s food has its own storied history that says homegrown, fresh, innovative and of course soulful. New stories are being created daily and the best way to hear about them is directly from the creators themselves.
Start planning your trip to Jackson by visiting www.visitjackson.com and in addition to visiting these storytellers and their eateries, add on more by scrolling https://www.visitjackson.com/restaurants/. More deliciousness is also loading on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.