Hattiesburg road trip: Where to eat before (and after) the MSU at USM season opener

It’s far better to be the guy everyone calls The Mayor than to actually be the mayor. And really, The Mayor doesn’t quite do justice to the reach and influence of Robert St. John, a name known and respected well outside the city limits of his native Hattiesburg – or the state line of Mississippi or even the border of the United States. (“I’ve got a guy in Paris I’ll get you in touch with,” he told me at one point.)

RSJ (photo courtesy New South Restaurant Group)

RSJ (photo courtesy New South Restaurant Group)

A writer, traveler, chef and restaurateur, St. John – or Robert, or RSJ, or whatever you’d like to call him; he’ll happily answer – owns a growing handful of restaurants in Hattiesburg and eats at another several handfuls on a regular basis. He and many like him consider the city to be one of the best municipalities around for eating good food, with a wide range of influences combining for a surprisingly eclectic and delightful culinary scene.

And that’s why we called him. When I and Brian Hadad, my co-host on The B&B Show and the General Manager of Bulldog Sports Radio, asked for a few recommendations on where to eat on our preseason scouting trip to Hattiesburg, he took it a step further. Or maybe eight steps further.

St. John knows the eatin’ is good, but with Mississippi State making its first visit to play a football game at Southern Miss in 26 years, he wanted to make sure those coming to his town for the first time in a long time – or even ever – got in on the secret. Especially with a nine o’clock kickoff on Saturday. There’s time for six meals in Hattiesburg if you arrive by lunch on Friday, so that’s [at least] how many he decided he was going to personally make sure we had, all in about an 18-hour span.

“I’m telling you, don’t eat breakfast,” St. John warned us the day before we were to drive down from Starkville. “As soon you get here, we’re tying on the feed bags.”

Our assignment upon arrival was simple: eat. Maybe take a few notes or pictures, but don’t let that get in the way of eating. If you need to stand up and unfurl your stomach to clear some room, feel free. Just keep your eyes on the ribs. And the crab dip. And the lasagna. And the drunken noodles. And have you tried the cinnamon croissant yet? Cannelle, magnifique!

The plan was to dine on his food for lunch[es], then hit a few of the area’s favorites for our very many suppers. I remember as a kid reading a book called Six Dinner Sid about a local cat who had six different homes, all of whom fed him every day. Sid had nothing on us.

First up was Crescent City, perhaps the most popular of St. John’s collection of establishments. Upon being seated, we were given menus. I looked at mine, but I might as well have not even bothered. 1. Because St. John was doing the honors of picking the highlights and 2. I’m not sure I could have picked anyway, it all looked so good. The creole menu was filled with words like fried, fresh and flavorful, a nod to New Orleans with St. John’s touch sprinkled throughout.

One of the 85 things we ate (photo courtesy New South Restaurant Group)

One of the 85 things we ate (photo courtesy New South Restaurant Group)

Four appetizers came out first, as I best recall. Crab nachos (housemade chips, jalapenos and fresh salsa on the side), crab and artichoke dip (each month has a special menu. August was crab, September is now shrimp), chargrilled oysters (save the bread for the end so you can dip it in the remaining juices. Boy howdy) and crab wontons filled with hot crab and cheese and paired with a fantastic sweet chili sauce.

We could’ve eaten just what was on the table and been fine, but it was only the first course. Entrees were up next with the eggplant Orleans (everything that makes New Orleans New Orleans, piled on top of eggplant), shrimp and grits (emphasis on shrimp. And grits.), grilled flounder (there are more fish in the sea, but not better ones), corn and crab cake bisque (this might have been an appetizer? I don’t know. My mind goes blank and all I remember is how that bisque tasted coming off the spoon) and then something called Crabzilla (imagine you had a bowl of crab meat, but the bowl itself was made of fried eggplant and filled with cheese, rice and spice. Yum).

Then, of course, was dessert: St. John’s whipped white chocolate and raspberry bread pudding (how does one explain what love is?) and a delightful lemon icebox pie.

“Alright, you guys ready for some Italian?” he asked us.

The answer is yes, Robert. “Death by linguine” would sound nice in the obituary.

The 100-yard walk to Tabella was enough to work off the 10-dish first lunch and prepare for the second lunch at the restaurant clearly in competition for the closest to St. John’s heart. He’s good at food no matter the cuisine, but RSJ literally wrote the book on Italian food. Or, he at least wrote a book after spending weeks and weeks traveling Italy, big cities and tiny villages, searching for the best pasta, the best recipes and the best inspiration possible.

Second lunch at Tabella

Second lunch at Tabella

As he described the ways in which the Italians invented and perfected so much of what we were about to eat, dishes quickly started to fill the table. Fried mozzarella, fried zucchini and fried calamari; spicy pepperoni pizza, fettuccini alfredo, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, and a delightful invention of St. John’s aptly named Pasta Roberto that I couldn’t more highly recommend.

Carbs are good, y’all.

Although, at that point, it became necessary to skip dessert. And to take a quick break. Only three hours until dinners!

The gastrointestinal respite included a tour of the USM campus, a drive around town and the surrounding areas (much larger than I realized) and a few minutes spent dozing on the couch while petting Donut, the St. John family dog. Because what else would St. John name his sweet pup?

Well that break was certainly long enough to digest a 5,000-calorie lunch. Let’s get dinner.

Stop No. 1 was Leatha’s, an odd combination of a place which is at the same time a well-kept secret and a famous BBQ joint. Whether or not you’re hungry when you pull up, the smell when you get out is enough to stir the appetite into action. The highlight is the smoked ribs.

Most BQQ enthusiasts will tell you that when ribs fall off the bone, it’s actually a bad thing, a sign that they were boiled rather than cooked the old fashioned way. Somehow, Leatha’s has perfected their method so well that their wood-smoked ribs are so tender they really do almost come clean off the bone. This time, it’s a good thing.

Juicy and tender, with sweet sauce on top and baked beans, potato salad and coleslaw on the side, piled on plates set on top of wooden tables, our first dinner might have been my favorite.

Dinner No. 2 was great, too, though. We left the staple of the southeast for the realm of the Far East, meeting the rest of the St. John family across town at Jutamas Thai Restaurant. I will confess that, despite being a Mississippian, my preferred method of heat comes not from BBQ sauce but from the spices of Thailand.

For that reason, I ordered my phad kra prow at the second-highest heat level possible, one measurement below what they call “Native Thai Spicy.” Knowing how much was already filling me and how much more was to come, I wisely selected the Goldilocks of the heat index; it was just right.

Hadad’s drunken noodles were among his favorite bites of the entire journey, while the plate of volcano shrimp St. John’s youngest offspring ordered looked fit for display on a magazine cover.

“Now, time for steak and ribs,” St. John announced as he rose from the table, using the same voice parents would use to tell their kids they’re going out for ice cream.

Third dinner at Donanelle's

Third dinner at Donanelle’s

On the ride down Highway 49 toward nearby Camp Shelby, RSJ prepared us for what we were about to eat. One man who travels the country eating BBQ, he told us, considers the ribs at Donanelle’s to be the best in existence. Not the best in Hattiesburg, best in Mississippi or even best in the south – just the best, period.

The steak is so good, St. John informs us, that Donanelle’s is his go-to spot for a birthday dinner. Proof shows up in the form of the thousands of signed dollar bills adorning the walls, a solid couple dozen of which are signed by members of the St. John family.

“We’d like a slab of ribs for our appetizer,” St. John informs the server after taking our drink order, “and three ribeyes for our meal.”

We each ordered ours medium-rare. I took onion rings with mine, a choice I was very happy with by the end of the meal.

As we had been told, the ribs at Donanelle’s were completely different from those at Leatha’s. They were both smoked over wood, but that’s where the similarities stopped. Trying to compare the two isn’t even apples-to-oranges; more like apples-to-androids. Where Leatha’s were sweet and tender, Donanelle’s were spicy, strong, charred and quite delicious. If one were to describe a plate of pork as manly, those ribs would be the choice. They were the old west cowboys of the smoked meat family.

The steak, by the by, was equally enjoyable. Seasoned just right, cooked perfectly, flavor filling every bite. Dinner No. 3 was more than worth the short drive to the outskirts of town.

“You guys look like you could go for some dessert.”

I’d have figured “nap” was the appropriate end to that sentence, but we hadn’t made it this far to give up now. I looked at Hadad and he just smiled, glancing at his completely empty plate. He’s a machine.

A light dessert followed at Branch, one of four establishments in the St. John complex of restaurants where we’d begun the day. House-made donut holes (like little light balls of beignets) and vanilla ice cream put us right to sleep.

18 hours and some 50,000 calories after our heart-stopping marathon began, our final meal stands as the one I enjoyed the most – breakfast at C’est la Vie, a French bakery St. John swears is better than anything he had in his extensive travels through France.

Bacon croissants, my goodness (photo courtesy C'est la Vie Bakery)

Bacon croissants, my goodness (photo courtesy C’est la Vie Bakery)

I’ve never been, but I have a tough time doubting him, especially after the owner, Januz, sat at our table and explained everything we were eating, his French accent still strong even after six years having passed since he moved to the States from France and opened C’est la Vie Bakery.

Januz bakes everything in traditional French fashion; light, airy and never overly-sweetened. The cinnamon pastries are pastries with a hint of cinnamon, rather than the globs of icing, butter and cinnamon with some pastry mixed in our friends at Pillsbury have made us so familiar with.

The warm croissants are layered, buttered and fluffy, baked a touch longer than we’re used to in America, a style I rather enjoyed. The croissant stuffed with bacon and topped with a slice of cheese and Italian seasoning – I’m sure it had a name but I must not have been able to hear over the sound of my chewing and satiated groaning – served as breakfast in Hattiesburg and then lunch again in Starkville when I ate the second one upon returning home.

It was good to get back, by which I mean fall asleep on the couch and not eat anything heavier than a shred of lettuce for two days, but it was hard not to be a little sad knowing I’d left so much good food behind and hadn’t even yet experienced all Hattiesburg had to offer.

Good thing Mississippi State goes back this weekend. See you at Crescent City Grill for lunch No. 1.

If you like eating, too, consider joining in the fight against child hunger in the state of Mississippi. Visit www.msfoodfight.com to help.

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