There are three really good places to eat in Clarksdale, each one with a unique character and provenance. One is owned by Morgan Freeman, the other by a Lebanese lady named Paula,and the third is owned by a guy named Abe and is located literally across the street from where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. So if you’re headed to Clarksdale on a blues pilgrimage, know you’ll be well fed.
Kibbe in Clarksdale?
Located just on the outskirts of Clarksdale, we literally stumbled upon Chamoun’s Rest Haven Diner by accident five years ago. We had just left the Shack Up Inn (Note: When in Clarksdale, go deluxe and stay at the Shack Up) and were looking for a Southern-style restaurant to feed our brood of hungry teenagers. Our kids grew up in the South and know their way around a plate of biscuit and grits. They’ve also traveled with us to Beirut, Lebanon multiple times, so know a good tabouleh when they taste one. Imagine our surprise, when we pull into this ordinary looking diner, right in the heart of the Mississippi Delta and there’s an entire section of the laminated menu devoted to Lebanese food?
The swinging doors to the kitchen open and out charges Paula, barking orders with a thick Mississippi accent and a huge platter of kibbe. We decided to forego the grits and sausage and order the hummos and cabbage rolls instead. We were impressed. I’ve been dreaming of those cabbage rolls ever since, so made a return visit this year and can say the restaurant has not changed one bit. There are red & white checked plastic tablecloths, a huge flag of Lebanon, a parking lot filled with trucks and Paula holding court. On this visit, we avoided the usually packed breakfast crowd, so Paula got to sit and chat with us. She explained the Lebanon connection: Her parents were born in Lebanon, and cousins opened this restaurant back in 1940. Her parents, Louise and Chafik who immigrated to America from Zahlé, Lebanon, took over the restaurant in 1990. Paula knows and prepares all the Lebanese recipes by heart.
If you want a kibbe omelet, go to the RestHaven Diner
This place is obviously one of the daily hangouts for local townspeople who order (I kid you not) a “kibbe omelet.” Her stuffed grape leaves are just as good as her kibbe, narrowly rolled, filled with delicately flavored rice, with just the right amount of moist-ness. Her tabouli is tart and lemony, with big flakes of parsley. Warning: Ordering dessert will be a serious challenge because you have to decide between piled high meringue pie and baklava, which she orders from a veritable Lebanese baker in Michigan. My suggestion? Have both!
Ed Levine said, “Go to Abe’s for BBQ Port tamale!”
Our foodie friend, Ed Levine, founder of SeriousEats.com, seems to have a sixth sense when we’re traveling and in need of a food recommendation. We’ll get a random phone call from Ed and in his barreling voice, he’ll shout, “Mississippi? You anywhere near Clarksdale? Go to Abe’s and order a barbecue pork tamale!” This mandate is always followed by, “Tell them hello from me!” Everybody knows Ed. On our way out of town, we wandered into Abe’s, planning to take barbecue on the road and instead chanced upon the former mayor of Clarksdale, Bill Luckett.. Bill has an Ed Levine type personality and insisted we sit down and eat with his crowd. At Ed Levine’s behest, we ordered the tamales. However, local resident Bill Luckett insisted that, in fact, the “best thing to order at Abe’s” was a chopped pork sandwich so we complied. The barbecue is succulent and sweet and diced to perfection (not small, not too thick). Disclaimer, I’m a barbecue lightweight so all barbecue reviews are courtesy of my barbecue loving husband, David Lewis. In lieu of barbecue, I ordered about the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever had, accompanied by a perfect glass of iced tea. Bill has a tendency to announce emphatically “CmonLetsGo” as he’s walking out of any venue and he essentially kidnapped us after lunch, foiling any plans to leave Clarksdale. We obligingly raced to Bill’s truck and forgot to pick up a jar of Abe’s famous “Come Back Barbecue Sauce.” I guess we’ll be coming back for more.
The aforementioned Bill Luckett (former Mayor) just so happens to be the co-owner of the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale along with Morgan Freeman. When you show up with Bill at this celebrated juke joint, you’re treated like a genuine VIP. Our goal was to listen to music and we were regaled with an incredible show by Lala Craig & Element 88. Lala is what you would get if Otis Spann, Thelonious Monk and Janis Joplin somehow combined DNA and produced offspring. Little did we know the food would also be good. When you’re in the Mississippi Delta you order fried food, period. The fried okra at Ground Zero is the fried okra of your dreams, crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside.
We were joined at the club by some friends of Bill’s, film producers from New York and Paris. They’d never had fried pickles before, so naturally we ordered a big platter for the table. I’ll be honest, it’s hard to pay attention to food when you have this incredible musical performance happening in front of you but my hamburger arrived just the way I like them: buttery bun, nice flat burger, melted cheese. Hubby ordered a BBQ sandwich (of course) and was licking his fingers instead of using the napkin.
Clarksdale may be the home of the blues, but it’s also the home of some really good food. The best food I suspect is in people’s home and frankly, we missed our big chance to sample Clarksdale’s finest, namely “Grandma food.” My good friend, Aerolyn Shaw, happened to notice (via Instagram) that I was in Clarksdale and messaged me urgently, “You better go see my grandma Ora!!” Aerolyn and I worked together at Everywhere Agency for several years. I’ve heard about Grandma Ora, so was more than delighted to visit this legendary matriarch of the esteemed Clarksdale Shaw family at her lovely home on street Rose Street Circle. As we pulled up, Grandma Ora was jumping out of her car with a bag of groceries. “You hungry? I was fixin’ to make some breakfast!”
Gargh, we had to decline, knowing that we were headed to Abe’s for lunch. My hunch is that we may have missed the best meal of our lives at Grandma Ora’s. On the way out, she showed us her supersized chest freezer, filled to the brim with meats and frozen foods, ready to prepare large meals for the Shaw family.
As the sauce at Abe’s intones, “Come Back.” Yes Grandma Ora and Clarksdale, we’ll be back!