By JAY REED
My recent trip to Gainesville, Fla. had one primary purpose: to attend a meeting related to my day job. Mission accomplished.
Trips of any length, as I have tried my best to teach anyone who will listen, are also opportunities for culinary exploration. Side mission also accomplished. Sometimes the two missions are parallel (good eats despite the meeting) and sometimes they are tightly knit (good eats at the meeting). Thankfully, this trip leaned a bit towards the latter.
At the lunch catered by Omi’s on our first day, I took a minute to survey the scene and saw rice, beans, chicken and a hotel pan full of something I couldn’t quite identify. I asked the server what kind of food it was. He said, “Rice, beans, chicken…” I stopped him. “No — I mean, is it Mexican, Cuban or something like that?” (It did appear themed). “Oh,” he said, “it was made by a Cuban person.”
It took us a minute, but we communicated. All three days the food was original, delicious and oh-so-plentiful. The problem? We ate, we sat. We broke, we sat. We lunched, we sat. You get the picture. So by the third day, I was munching just to stay alert, but I still tried everything. Even the “Cuban” veggie lasagna.
On the first evening it was just me and the GPS for dinner. I had a list of suggestions from an old Starkville buddy who now resides in Gainesville, but I decided to save them for later. I scrolled through the top-rated places on my Yelp app and ended up at the Tupelo Grill. (Maybe I was a little homesick?) As a good North Mississippian I had to know where the name came from, and it turns out that Tupelo honey (much of which comes from Florida, apparently) was the inspiration, not the city to our north. I began to read the menu, and just wanted to weep. All my go-to dishes were there: shrimp and grits, grilled Mahi tacos, and a whole section of barbecue options. My GPS doesn’t require nourishment aside from electricity and whatever 3G is, meaning I was on my own and could only pick one. I discussed my dilemma with Rich (the owner, I learned later) who was personally taking good care of me. I had settled on barbecue, but would it be pulled pork, ribs or brisket? He suggested the ribs, smoked with dry rub and just a bit of sauce, but in this world of options, it just seemed wrong to choose only one. I solved my dilemma via the sampler platter: ribs, brisket and pulled chicken. I knew I couldn’t eat it all, but since when has that been a factor? It would give me an opportunity to stop when I was full. Guess how that worked out.
The platter came, and I think I made a good decision. The ribs were plenty tender, not over-sauced, and unusual in that there were hardly any bones attached. The brisket was also definitely something to write in the paper at home about. I haven’t been converted from considering pulled pork as my primary smoked meat, but the more I eat good brisket the more I like it. (I was born in Texas, after all). Though I wouldn’t usually order pulled chicken on its own, it made a nice vehicle for testing the galvanized bucket of sauces he brought to the table. This was fun. Rich explained that all of them were house made, and three out of the five were barbecue varieties. The Sweet had bourbon and molasses, the House had cloves and honey, and the Hot was a cousin of the Sweet with a little Habanero thrown in. The ketchup and mustard were also made on the premises. In fact, he told me they make just about everything they serve except the cheese and bread, then added that he had a loaf of rye bread in the oven that he needed to check pretty soon. My kind of place.
Choosing my sides was almost as tough as choosing the meat. More favorites were there: sweet potato fries (with a dill dip that several Yelp reviewers had oooed and ahhhed about), collard greens and grits. Those caught my eye first, and all go well with barbecue. As I learned, however, edamame succotash and red quinoa pilaf make great companions as well. The succotash looked traditional, with the lima beans replaced by edamame, and the corn freshly cut off the cob. The pilaf, which looked pretty wild in the little bowl, was totally different than any side dish I’ve ever had. Little bits of tender carrots, onion and celery were mixed in with the quinoa, with a nice buttery mouth feel. This is something I’m going to figure out how to make.
I really did stop with a few things left on my plate, and was about to ask for the check, when Rich asked about dessert. I still had pie in the refrigerator at the hotel, and had decided to pass without even looking at the dessert menu. He understood, but still teased me with a mention of deep-fried Key Lime pie. Oh boy. And his wife made the pie. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, nor leave Gainesville wondering how it would have been. That may have been the best decision I made all weekend.
Creamy, almost melty, tart-sweet filling inside, a tower of crunchy batter outside, and a little whipped cream to boot. I hope I get to go back to Gainesville.
And I wish Tupelo was in Tupelo.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .