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Exploring culinary routes in the Southern U.S.

James H. Jones in the kitchen at his Jones Bar-B-Q Diner Pitmaster James H. Jones, known to locals as Mr. Harold, helms the award-winning Jones Bar-B-Q Diner that's been in his family since around 1910. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

Fine dining doesn’t always demand white linens and fancy plates. Sometimes plastic tablecloths and well-worn dishware are all you need. I was reminded of that culinary truth on my last visit to Doe’s Eat Place, located off the beaten path in Greenville, Mississippi.

On the way into the restaurant, I followed the line of patrons waiting at the back door and snaked through the kitchen, where a pre-dinner floor show of sorts took place—steaks sizzling on the grill and servers balancing platters brimming with salads and tamales.

At the table—cluttered with condiment bottles and a red plastic basket containing individually wrapped Saltine crackers—a waitress ran down the menu options because there’s no printed version. Swayed by the sight of that broiler, I ordered a porterhouse and soaked in the unpretentious and down-home atmosphere of this iconic eatery.

It’s memorable experiences like this that drive foodies to hit the road. Adventures are easily found by following these Southern food trails, each of which is themed around regional food or drink specialties. Simply decide what you’re craving and set off with a hearty appetite.

Arkansas BBQ Trail

A pile of meat served alongside onions, pickles, and slaw on a tray at McClard’s Bar-B-Q

Known for its sauce, McClard’s Bar-B-Q has been serving up succulent grilled meats since 1928. Photo courtesy Visit Hot Springs

Pitmasters in Arkansas have practiced traditional, slow-smoked pit barbecue for generations. Their recipes and techniques have both inspired and been influenced by neighboring heavy hitters in the barbecue world, including Tennessee (Memphis), Texas, and Missouri (Kansas City).

McClard’s Bar-B-Q

The Arkansas BBQ Trail is a loose collection of dozens of smoke shacks and barbecue joints across the state. Each eatery has its own special story, such as McClard’s Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs, a favorite stop of Bill Clinton’s.

Established in 1928, McClard’s is famous for ribs, smoked meats, and its Whole Spread—2 hot tamales topped with Fritos, smoked chopped beef, beans, cheese, and onions.

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner

Dating to around 1910, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna earned a James Beard America’s Classic Award in 2012, and the New York Times included it in its 2021 list of the 50 most vibrant and delicious U.S. restaurants.

Legendary pitmaster James H. Jones, known to locals as Mr. Harold, oversees the pits, where pork is slow-smoked for at least 10 hours before being pulled, slathered with a tangy vinegar-based sauce, and stacked on white bread with or without slaw.

“My granddaddy’s uncle started it, and it got passed down through the family,” Jones said. “We’ve been making our barbecue the same way we always have. And people like it that way.”

You may also like: Why mountain bikers, art lovers, and foodies are visiting Bentonville, Arkansas

Arkansas Wine Trails

Grapes on the vine at Post Winery

Post Winery has grown grapes in its vineyards in the Arkansas River valley since the 1870s. Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

While French settlers may have brought winemaking skills to Arkansas, German and Swiss immigrants made wine a commercial success there.

Those first successful winemakers were Jacob Post and Johann Wiederkehr. In the late 1800s, they arrived in the northwest mountains of the Arkansas River valley near the village of Altus, where their wineries—Post Winery and Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, respectively—remain. They contributed to making Altus the state’s first American Viticultural Area, a designated wine grape–growing region.

In total, 6 wineries make up the Altus Wine Trail. The state’s other wine trails include the Ozark Trail in the northwest corner, the Capital Trail near Little Rock, and the Bath House Trail in Hot Springs.

Post Winery

Sample Post’s bounty in its tasting room, including Blue Parachute, a semi-sweet and slightly effervescent white table wine. Enjoy a glass while noshing on farm-to-table fare in the Trellis Room restaurant.

Wiederkehr Wine Cellars

At Wiederkehr, dig into the Swiss-influenced menu in the Weinkeller Restaurant that’s located in a wine cellar Johann Wiederkehr dug by hand in 1880.

Mississippi Seafood Trail

Serving of shrimp and grits at Half Shell Oyster House

Dig into the Smoky Bacon Shrimp and Grits at Half Shell Oyster House. Photo by Jaime Morgan, Food Tech, Half Shell Oyster House

Fresh-caught gulf shrimp, oysters, crabs, and a variety of fish land daily at 80-plus restaurants throughout Mississippi. The collection of eateries that comprise the Mississippi Seafood Trail includes nearly 2 dozen that dot the 62-mile Mississippi coastline, including in Biloxi, where a shrimp fleet plies the coastal waters daily.

Half Shell Oyster House

“We enjoy a huge array of seafood, but shrimp is a standout,” said General Manager Chad Henson of Biloxi’s Half Shell Oyster House, which has more than a dozen other locations across the South. “There’s such a difference in the quality of the shrimp that’s harvested here. If you love shrimp and love to eat local, then the Seafood Trail is something of a must.”

10 South Rooftop Bar & Grill and JuJu & Crista’s Shrimpboat Café

In addition to beachside standouts, you’ll find unexpected landlocked stops. In Vicksburg, 10 South Rooftop Bar & Grill features delicious seafood and stunning views of the Mississippi River, while flip-flops are the norm at the casual JuJu & Crista’s Shrimpboat Café in Corinth.

You may also like: 6 charming Mississippi River towns you’ll want to visit

Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail

Doe's Eat Place tamales arranged on a plate

Located in a former grocery story, Doe’s Eat Place is known for its grilled steaks and handmade hot tamales. Photo courtesy Visit Mississippi

Follow the Blues Highway (US Highway 61) through Mississippi to discover a genuine Southern original, the Mississippi Delta hot tamale.

While recipes vary across the area, this delicacy is generally made with finely ground spiced pork—or sometimes chicken or beef—encased in cornmeal dough and wrapped in corn husks or parchment paper. Rather than being steamed like tamales in many other regions, they are simmered in a chili-powder broth.

Similar in size to a large cigar, Delta tamales are sold everywhere from roadside stands, juke joints, and pop-up shuck shacks to fancy restaurants.

Tamale fans will gather in Greenville, known as the Hot Tamale Capital of the World, for the Delta Hot Tamale Festival from October 13–15. Taste tamales, listen to live music, see cooking demonstrations, and enjoy carnival rides in this celebration of a humble but delicious dish.

While in Greenville, don’t miss 2 prime trail spots for authentic experiences.

Hot Tamale Heaven

Hot Tamale Heaven, a city staple since the 1970s, proclaims that its all-beef tamales loaded with herbs and spices offer a “a taste of heaven before you get there.”

Doe’s Eat Place

Dating back even further, Doe’s Eat Place has been welcoming diners since 1941. Famous for its handmade tamales and grilled steaks, this former grocery turned unfussy eatery earned a James Beard America’s Classic Award in 2007.

At the intersection of US.highways 61 and 49, Clarksdale is known as the infamous crossroads where, according to legend, Delta blues king Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for mastery of the guitar.

Abe’s Bar-B-Q

You’d probably consider selling your soul for the tamales at nearby Abe’s Bar-B-Q, but you’ll need only $5.50 for a bundle of 3. Smother them in chili and cheese for a couple of dollars more.

Ground Zero Blues Club

Take a trip across town to Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by Mississippian and Academy Award–winning actor Morgan Freeman, and listen to some of the best blues anywhere with a plate of tamales in front of you.

Louisiana Boudin Trails

Diners share boudin at Hollier's Cajun Kitchen Boudin

Sample boudin along the Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail at places like Hollier’s Cajun Kitchen in Sulphur. Photo courtesy Visit Lake Charles

The Interstate 10 corridor between Lafayette and Lake Charles and beyond in south Louisiana is home to 2 savory trails dedicated to a regional staple: boudin (pronounced boo-dan). This highly seasoned sausage is made with ground meat—often pork but sometimes shrimp or even alligator—mixed with rice, onion, and green bell pepper.

Louisiana Boudin Trail

Find about 30 stops on the Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail inside gas stations, mom-and-pop shops, roadside grocers, and restaurants in and around Lake Charles, like the family-owned Hollier’s Cajun Kitchen. Boudin here is mostly traditional, using pork, rice, onion, parsley, and seasonings. Depending on the maker, boudin can be heavier on meat than on rice, or vice versa. It can be made using long- or medium-grain rice, which yields a softer-textured boudin.

Cajun Boudin Trail

Relish even more along the Cajun Boudin Trail, which features 50-plus boudin shops and grocers in Lafayette and surrounding cities. Most have a special recipe passed down through generations and guarded as a family secret. Find a number of such operations in Scott.

“Scott is known as the Boudin Capital of the World,” said Ben Berthelot, president and CEO of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission. “We invite people to come sample the wide varieties of boudin they can experience on the trail and come to the annual Scott Boudin Festival in the spring or the Boudin Cook-off held in downtown Lafayette in the fall.”

You may also like: Savor the cuisine, music, and history of Louisiana’s Cajun Country

Louisiana Oyster Trail

A full plate of oysters at Drago's Seafood Restaurant

Savor succulent oysters along the Louisiana Oyster Trail at places like Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, which has 5 Louisiana locations. Photo courtesy Visit Jefferson Parish

Large, lush, and mild, Louisiana oysters are the star attraction at restaurants along the Louisiana Oyster Trail, which zigzags through Jefferson Parish. You can identify each location by a 3-foot oyster sculpture outside, designating the restaurant as an official trail stop.

At these eateries, you’ll find oysters fresh-shucked and served nude on the half shell, fried, and baked in various styles, including Bienville and Rockefeller.

Drago’s Seafood Restaurant

Savor a great option at several locations of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, which brushes oysters with a sauce of garlic, butter, and herbs and then dusts them with Parmesan and Romano cheeses before charbroiling them on a hot grill. Drago’s original restaurant opened in Metairie in 1969.

More oyster eateries

Other spots on the trail include eateries in Gretna, Harvey, New Orleans, and Crown Point. Each restaurant is as unique as the oysters they sell.

“What makes our oysters different from anywhere else is their salinity, achieved through being grown in a brackish water, which is a mix of fresh water and salt water,” explained Charlene Hale of Visit Jefferson Parish, adding that the flavor is subtle and not overpowering.

Tennessee Whiskey Trail

Jack Daniel's statue at the Jack Daniel Distillery

Stops along the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, including the iconic Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, offer tastings and tours. Photo courtesy Jack Daniel Distillery

Celebrate the Volunteer State’s long distilling history on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. Divided into 3 sections—west, middle, and east—the trail includes about 30 locations. Pick up a free Tennessee Whiskey Trail Passport at any of the participating distilleries or download a digital version and let the sipping begin.

Distilleries along the trail

Charity Toombs, the trail’s marketing director, recommends beginning in the middle, where a saturation of distillers is found, including icon Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg. It’s joined by craft- and boutique-based operations like Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, a pre-Prohibition distillery that’s been brought back to life in Nashville, and Old Glory Distilling Company in Clarksville, which released its first batch of whiskey in 2021. Many offer tours along with tastings.

“What makes the Tennessee Whiskey Trail unique are the communities that surround the trail and the hospitality partners share, places like Miss Mary Bobos in Lynchburg, offering down-home country dining experiences unlike any others,”  Toombs said.

In addition to touring the trail, attending events is great way to experience Tennessee whiskey.

Next up, the Grains & Grits festival in Townsend, near the Smokies, on November 5 features more than 30 distillers and chef-led food experiences. A highlight is the Ring of Fire, where 5 chefs encircle a large firepit and, paired with a distillery, incorporate a spirit into their dish of roasted pork, lamb, chicken, or sausage. Attendees must be at least 21 years old.

Suzanne Corbett is a food historian and author from St. Louis.

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