Hemp-crusted Pickerel and Gas Station Fried Chicken: The Best Rural Meals of 2018

One of the many benefits of travel is the opportunity to expand your culinary horizons. You may not think of it, but the rural culinary scene took some big leaps last year. From the many communities we visited doing placemaking work in 2018, here’s a roundup of a few of our favorite meals from the road:

White Front Cafe— Rosedale, MS (source: White Front Café)

Zack’s Pick: Tamales @ White Front Café — Rosedale, MS (pop 1,685)

This was my first experience with Mississippi hot tamales — a Delta twist on Mexican tamales. Joe’s White Front claims to be the creator of these homegrown delights. Similar to a Mexican tamale, the added BBQ flavor and smoke make these tied up treats a unique experience. Joe’s is a tiny white shack of a building, as if a Juke Joint became a café, and the atmosphere is unlike any other.

17th Street BBQ — Murphysboro, IL

Zack’s Pick: Ribs and Sausage @ 17th St. BBQ — Murphysboro, IL (pop 10,060)

The home of the grand champion — I have always wanted to eat at 17th Street. Not only did I get treated to a platter of the best ribs and sausage I’ve ever had, but I got a full-on behind the scenes tour from Mike and daughter Amy Mills — the owners and maestros of BBQ that put Murphysboro on the map.

17th Street BBQ — Murphysboro, IL
Freight House,— Paducah, KY (source: Freight House)

Alex’s Pick: Shrimp and Grits, Mickey’s Pick: Pork Chop @ Freight House—Paducah, KY (pop 24,941)

Our staff just might be Paducah, Kentucky’s biggest fans. Freight House is Paducah’s first farm-to-table restaurant and a well-done reimagining of the original use of the building. Added bonus: the lighting inside is spectacular (great for taking food pictures, or just really taking in the beauty of the meals they’re turning out). Alex loved the shrimp and grits, a perfect example of how they’re serving traditional southern cuisine with a modern twist. Mickey described the pork chop here as “next level good.” It seems everything on the menu is good here, drinks included— further evidenced by their head chef and proprietor, Sara Bradley, being featured on this season of Top Chef.

Freight House, Paducah, KY (source: Freight House)

Zack’s Pick: Lamb with Garlic Confit and Berbere @ Primrose — Corning, IA (pop 1,475)

Primrose is my new go to for a perfect model for rural restaurants. Started just last year by a couple who left the Omaha restaurant scene, they bought their building in downtown Corning, put their gorgeous restaurant on the first floor and apartments upstairs. Their menu is progressive yet approachable, both in creativity and price. Plus, they locally source as much as possible, as with this decadent lamb, a dish you’re not likely to find in a town of 1,400 people. More Primroses please! (don’t forget to get their homemade warm sweet rolls)

Mary Jane’s Burgers and Brews/Jackson Street BrewCo — Perryville, MO

Mickey’s Pick: Mary Jane Burgers and Brews/Jackson Street BrewCo — Perryville, MO

This restaurant is part local watering hole, part family gathering space: a great place to take out-of-towners. And with an interesting history — from restaurant, to restaurant & brewery, to brewery, to AirBNB. The food and drinks are delicious, but my favorite thing about it is their big ideas about the future of the restaurant. It’s ambitions like these that act as catalysts within the community.

Lee’s Coffee & Tea — Laurel, MS

Zack’s Pick: Aunt Lee’s Pimento and Cheese BLT @ Lee’s Coffee & Tea — Laurel, MS (pop 18,493)

So you probably know all you need to know about Laurel from the HGTV show Home Town (if you don’t — go watch it now). This fabulous gem of a town is home to 3 couples who grew up there, saw their downtown deteriorated and bought up several properties, fixed them up and turned them into new local businesses (and got a TV show to boot). Several became restaurants, and my top sandwich last year was Aunt Lee’s Pimento and Cheese BLT. I didn’t know how much I love pimento cheese until I had Lee’s famous recipe. Grilled onto a ciabatta bun with crisp bacon, lettuce and tomato is me living my best pimento life. The Zapp’s chips on the side are great, but go for the homemade potato salad instead, you’ll thank me later.

Gaines Ridge Dinner Club — Camden, AL

Zack’s Pick: Full Menu @ Gaines Ridge Dinner Club — Camden, AL (pop 1,845)

The food is solid but the experience is what you go for. I was fortunate to join a large group of Delta leaders for a late supper at this sprawling plantation-like home just outside Camden. From the sweet tea to the braised beef and beans, to the bread service and the homemade chocolate cake, we went back in time. I’m a sucker for supper clubs and this spot did not disappoint.

Alex’s Pick: Middendorf’s — Manchac, LA

Established in 1934, Middendorf’s is a restaurant featuring fresh Louisiana seafood and a popular destination for travelers heading down south to New Orleans. What to eat: Seafood Platter (fried… even if you typically prefer broiled) What to drink: Abita Purple Haze

Prairie Firehous — Brandon, MB

Zack’s Pick: Hemp Crusted MB Pickerel @ Prairie Firehouse — Brandon MB (pop 48,859)

The largest rural town we’ve worked in brought us a former firehouse turned into a top-notch restaurant and event space. The menu is heavy on local proteins, and I had never had (or heard of) Pickerel, a local freshwater fish similar to midwestern Walleye. Crusted in local hemp and served with a radiant dill pickle tarter sauce. I never thought I’d want a dish like this in negative 15 weather, but it paired with a hearty local stout and I couldn’t have been happier.

Prairie Firehouse — Brandon, MB
Zeus — Crowley, LA

Zack’s Pick: Cauliflower Pizza and Appetizer Sampler @ Zeus — Crowley, LA (pop 12,839)

Learned there was a large Lebanese population here in Acadia Parish just outside Lafayette and immediately asked if there was a Lebanese restaurant — and I was led to Zeus. Wow, what a delicious surprise in a sea of mom/pop diners, Zeus is a standout. I always order the hummus plate (the pu-pu platter of the middle east) my first time at a new middle-eastern spot. Flawless hummus, falafel, baba ghanoush, spinach pie, homemade feta, meat stuffed grape leaves and the best mujaddara (a blend of lentils, rice and onions with spices) I’ve ever had. But then the owner happened over and said we had to try their special — Cauliflower Pizza. “A perfect blend of Lebanese and Cajun cooking…” it was explained. Never had a cauliflower crust I liked, and I wouldn’t have known that this buttery, flakey crust was flowerless. There are several Zeuses all over the state, but this is the original across from the lovely Crowley Opera House.

Zeus — Crowley, LA
Gather — Atmore, AL

Zack’s Pick: Trammel Street Train Wreck @ Gather — Atmore, AL (pop 10,002)

Atmore is one of my favorite small towns, sitting on the Florida/Alabama border. A few locals formed a restaurant group and started David’s Catfish House, a solid southern diner, but wanted something more upscale and they created Gather. Gather can compete with French Quarter eateries in décor, service and their menu is outstanding. Similar to Primrose, they push the envelope with dishes in a town not known to be fancy. Created in a former garage just off Main St. — it sits facing the super active train tracks that roll through the center of town, and was the inspiration for this dish. Petite filets smothered in creamy, garlicy grits, crunchy fried green tomatoes and fresh crab all underneath a leaking fried egg that “runs off the rails” into the healthy dollop of pork belly confit. Washed it down with an ice ball of Dettling, a bright local bourbon from Escambia County. I needed a nap after this.

Gather — Atmore, AL

Zack’s Pick: Fried Chicken @ Double Quick — Rosedale, MS (pop 1,685)

Yes, Double Quick is a gas station. And yes, this is the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. It’s best directly from the C-Store, but I had this heavenly delight at a friend’s home, served on beautiful china. I swore it had to be homemade by my hosts, but they confessed they bought it just 20 minutes earlier from the Double Quick down the street. I have no idea if all Double Quick’s (a popular southern c-store) serve this, so go to the one on the corner of Vorhees and Main in downtown Rosedale and eat it right out of the carton. Imagine the best fried chicken you could ever eat, this is it. (BTW — White Front Café and their Tamales are only 3 walkable blocks away)

Alex’s Pick: Crawdad Hole — Water Valley, MS (pop 3,362)

Located in the center of town, Crawdad Hole features boiled seafood such as crawfish, shrimp, and crab legs. What to eat: Crawdaddy with a side of boiled shrimp. What to drink: Sweet tea or anything from the local brewery — Yalobusha Brewing Co.

Crawdad Hole — Water Valley, MS (source: Crawdad Hole)
The Chocolate Season — Algona, IA

Zack’s Pick: Chocolate and Waffles @ The Chocolate Season — Algona, IA (pop 5,468)

The Chocolate Season was opened a few years ago by the forever entrepreneurial couple Erika and Brad Jensen. Erika, the chocolatier, is from Algona, and Brad, a photographer, is from Blair, NE. They were living in Omaha trying to make their way, and it was too darn expensive. They bought a beautiful building on Algona’s main street, put in a flower shop as a tenant, Brad’s photography studio on floor 2 and turned the rest of floor 1 into the one-of-a-kind The Chocolate Season. These are the best chocolates I’ve had in the Midwest, and my wife and kids do not let me return home from Algona without a box full. They also have a full service restaurant and their sandwiches and bowls are made with homemade ingredients (Rueben and Chicky are excellent), and go on a Saturday for their Waffle Brunch OMG you will leave with so much love in your belly.

John Currence of City Grocery — Oxford, MS

Zack’s Pick: Moroccan-Spiced Braised White Oak Pasture Iberico Pork Necks with Toasted Mustard Seed Polenta, Cucumber Yogurt Relish and Charred Pecans — Bentonville, AR (pop 49,298)

I’m cheating here, as this fancy dish was part of a whole series of guest chefs brought into Bentonville for the first ever Heartland Summit put on by the Walton Family Foundation. Every dish was great, but this one stood out for its originality. Created by John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, MS, I can’t wait to get to Oxford to sit down on his home turf.

The Co-op Bar and Grill — Pomeroy, IA

Best Bar

Zack’s Pick: The Co-op Bar & Grill — Pomeroy, IA (pop 612)

Town wanted a bar, no one person would open one, so the town opened one. Passed this spot on the way home from our work in Spencer, IA and needed some dinner. The Co-op is what it sounds like — owned by 69 residents of Pomeroy, and the place is packed, each time we’ve been there. Wear your Co-op t-shirt on Wednesdays and get drink specials all night long. Plus — their smoked Iowa chop is solid.

Honorable Mention

Wolff’s Grill and Bar — Dawson, ND

Zack’s Pick: The Mamma Burger @ Wolff’s Grill and Bar — Dawson, ND (pop 63)

After a long day in rural North Dakota, you need a drink. Wasn’t looking for food, but after our group had put several black velvets back at our Kidder County watering hole of choice, we noticed The Mamma Burger on the menu with this description: Cheese, Bacon, Peanut Butter, Fried egg, Jalapenos — $11.00. Couldn’t resist, we ordered 1 and split it 4 ways. The guy next to us overheard our order: “Hey you know how that got created?” / “Nope.” / “Pregnant lady, some time back, came in here annoyed she couldn’t drink, was hungry. Ordered a cheese burger and asked for all that other stuff on it. Now it’s on the menu.” And in all honesty, it was delicious. Putting it in the Honorable Mention category simply due to our state of mind, pretty sure just about anything would have been delicious that hour.

Taylor Books — Charleston, WV (source: Taylor Books)

Best Coffee Shop

Mickey’s Pick: Taylor Books — Charleston, WV (pop 47,929)

This place is a bookstore, art gallery, clay studio with monthly memberships, a coffee shop, and the Underground Cinema. Great coffee, great pastries, but the real reason to come here is to soak up the atmosphere. I love it because I can (and did) spend an entire day here.

What are your favorite rural bites? We’re scheduling our travel for 2019 and we would love to hear about them! Tell us your favorites on Twitter.