Birmingham is one of the hottest food cities in the nation. Mississippi has a lot to do with that.
BY JULIA SAYERS
Photos by Kelsey Freeman
Blues music wafts through a garden patio. Diners lounge under umbrella-shaded tables or at two Rebel red and blue picnic tables. Inside, vinyl records, license plates, and maps line the walls. Servers carrying baskets of steaming hot tamales continuously come out of the kitchen. But Delta Blues Hot Tamales isn’t located in the Mississippi Delta; it’s four hours east in Birmingham, Alabama.
The city’s only hot tamale joint, Delta Blues opened in 2015. The restaurant is run by husband-and-wife team Adam and Fawn Freis, both originally from Mississippi—Fawn from Laurel and Adam from Jackson. After graduating from Louisiana State University in 2002, they moved to Birmingham, where Adam managed the Tavern at the Summit for 12 years until it closed. The duo had always wanted to open a restaurant, but when Fawn was diagnosed with Celiac disease, they had to rethink their original idea of a Cajun poboy restaurant.
“We both grew up in Mississippi, and have this culture in the Delta of hot tamales,” Adam says. “Every town has its hot tamale joint and we thought that was a good place to start. Tamales are, by their nature, gluten free so we had that as our starting point and built around it.”
The couple researched tamales extensively. A large part of that research included a road trip through the Delta to sample tamales from the well-known joints there.
“We went to every town and asked the locals where the best were,” Adam says. “At the end of the trip, I had a cooler full of 20,000 tamales and we sat down and ate until we couldn’t eat anymore and figured out what we liked and didn’t like.
“Our favorites were from a place in Greenville called Hot Tamale Heaven. Their tamales are fantastic, they’re spicy and straightforward and that’s what I love about tamales in general—they’re not pretentious. You’ve kind of gotta get dirty with them; they’re finger foods. They’re simple but so complicated. A lot goes into the process of making them but the end product is unpretentious and fun.”
Hot Tamale Heaven was also the inspiration for Delta Blues’ picnic tables—the Delta roadside stand is mostly drive-through orders but they have two picnic tables out front.
Once Adam and Fawn had a tamale style and recipe in mind, they set about learning to make them. They offer two types of tamales—spicy pork or black beans. Adam begins by braising the pork for 5-6 hours until it’s fall-apart tender. Then he seasons and cools it overnight. The night next day, he uses a tamale press that has two cylinders: one for masa and one for the filling. It squeezes out the tamales and then they are cooked for another 2.5-3 hours. Adam makes about 120 per hour, and 1200-1500 per week.
“Start to finish, the process of making a tamale is three days,” Adam says. “They’re a labor of love. I’m constantly doing something related to the process of making them.”
The tamales are served either classic, with just the simmering sauce, or with a variety of toppings. Favorites include the M’Sippi Melt, tamales covered with simmering sauce, Crossroads Queso (hot pimiento cheese dip), and Charred Corn Relish; and the Tamale Pie with homemade chili, cheddar cheese, sour cream, jalapeños, and green onions.
Since tamales are naturally gluten-free, the Freises decided to make the entire menu accessible for those with dietary issues.
“We said ‘Let’s make a menu not only for those with Celiac disease, but something that will accommodate all the seven major food allergies,’” Adam says. “We wanted to see what we could do to keep everybody safe but still make the food good.”
Other dishes the restaurant offers include blue corn-crusted Delta Catfish (with catfish from Simmons Farm Raised Catfish in Yazoo City) served with comeback sauce; Butterbean Hummus that uses a pumpkin seed tahini instead of a nut tahini; Fried Pickles breaded in a gluten-free flour blend Adam makes himself; and a Sausage Plate featuring a mix of Andouille sausage from a producer south of Jackson and an Italian sausage made in Birmingham.
“Seventeen percent of the population has [a gluten] aversion and they’re searching for something that’s not available,” Adam says. “I want to be there for people who have that issue. There’s only one other place in town that’s 100 percent gluten free. At least once a day, somebody is taken aback that they can look at the menu and order anything on it.”
A lot of thought and effort goes into both Delta Blues’ tamales and the gluten-free and allergy-friendly aspect of the menu.
“We take a lot of pride in the product, and every day from the moment we open to the moment we close, me or my wife are back in the kitchen,” Adam says. “We try not to send anything out that’s not the way it should be. If you can get good food and quality control, that’s a recipe for success.”
When you walk into Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, the Mississippi influence isn’t immediately obvious. But look closer and the Mississippi influences become a little more recognizable. The walls include groupings of Mississippi posters from the Old Try, mixed in with others from Alabama. Fighting Okra and Hotty Toddy pennants hang above framed magazine accolades. An examination of the menu shows Fried Catfish, Red Beans and Rice, and Comeback Sauce. This meat-and-three restaurant, a style common throughout both Alabama and Mississippi, is anything but ordinary though.
Johnny’s has a distinct Greek influence from owner Timothy Hontzas background. Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Hontzas was introduced to food at a young age in his grandfather’s kitchen (who owned the original Johnny’s in Jackson).
“I’ve always wanted to cook, I always have cooked,” Hontzas says. “I’m Greek—I don’t think I have a choice in the matter.”
Hontzas, who graduated from Ole Miss, had a long path to Birmingham, which included a cumulative 16 years working with John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, and stints in Louisiana, Colorado, Georgia, and South Carolina before settling in Birmingham and opening Johnny’s four years ago.
He wanted his restaurant to reflect the food of his heritage, but with a “facelift,” as he likes to say.
“There’s a very strong Greek influence, and not for it to be a trite subject for me but we do southern ingredients with Greek influence,” says the self-taught chef. “Everything is sourced out locally. The reason we have chalkboards instead of paper menus is because the farmer dictates the menu. Clearly there is a correlation between Alabama and Mississippi chefs in that type of food. What I’ve brought being raised in a Greek and Southern household was a mixture of both, and that’s exactly what I do at the restaurant.”
The menu changes daily, but staples like Souvlaki with lemon tahini butter and Keftedes (Greek meatballs) stay on the menu. Other things like pastitsio, spanakopita, and Greek cheesecake rotate on and off.
“This isn’t what the yayas would make,” Hontzas says. “Say, if we make a gyro here, I’m going to make the pita bread; I’ll do 15-hour braised lamb shoulder. We culture our own yogurt for our tzatziki.”
Even some Mississippi staples have Greek influence. Comeback sauce, which Hontzas makes in house, originated as a salad dressing at a Greek restaurant in Jackson. “The Greeks invented everything, didn’t you know that?” says Hontzas with a serious expression.
Hontzas believes the strongest Mississippi influence comes in the form of New Orleans cuisine, though.
“I think you see it on the underlying side,” Hontzas says. “It’s not a huge billboard that says ‘I do Creole and Cajun food’ but I think you see that influence on a lot of Mississippi chefs because of the close proximity of New Orleans. Unbeknownst to me, a lot of that makes it onto my menu.”
Hontzas’ time with John Currence in Oxford had a strong influence on his own style.
“Look what John brought to Mississippi—fine dining that had a major New Orleans influence because that’s where he cut his teeth, where he was brought up, and what he knew,” Hontzas says. “We see that on our menu here and I think, more than any other way, that’s how Mississippi chefs are influenced.”
Mississippi chefs like John Currence and Vish Bhatt have made a name for themselves on the state’s culinary scene, and paved the way for others to come through and start a culinary revolution throughout the state. Hontzas cites Russell Smith in Corinth, Mississippi as a chef who’s brought fine food to the small town. Other chefs and restaurants in Jackson, such as Walker’s and Saltine, are grabbing national attention.
“I think similar to Birmingham, you’re seeing some revitalization in Jackson,” Hontzas explains. “Because of John [Currence] and Vish [Bhatt] and Derek Emerson in Jackson, I think chefs are seeing it as an opportunity. I don’t know if they’re being drawn to one place specifically, but they’re being drawn to that field and seeing ‘I don’t have to go four states away to be successful and to find those great chefs.’ I think they’re starting to gravitate there because of the revitalization and go ‘This is the field I want to go into and I might be able to work with these chefs.’”
Hontzas does note that he has seen many chefs moving to Oxford specifically, because of the growing food scene, similar to what’s happening in Birmingham.
“I think there’s a strong correlation between Oxford and Birmingham,” Hontzas says. “They’ve got Currence, Bhatt, and now Kelly English has a place there. You have three strong players there, big time, and here you have Frank Stitt, Chris Hastings, Chris Newsome, and Brian Somershield who are all doing great things.”
For Hontzas though, his strongest influence will always be from his papou’s kitchen. But combined with his love for his home state, time spent in Oxford, and dedication to fresh local ingredients, this meat-and-three feels like home for any Southerner.