This Wednesday’s great road-trip food comes from Clarksdale, Mississippi (pop. 15,304)
“Would you like some more?”
The question took me by surprise, not because of the generous hospitality, but because of the measured, gravelly voice. I looked up from my omelet and saw an older gentleman in a red plaid shirt. He was clearly not my original server.
“Yes, please … thank you,” I said.
He filled my coffee cup with a smile, went to another table and topped off another customer’s, and then returned the pot to the burner at the back of the restaurant. It turns out that this "waiter" wasn’t a staff member at all, but in fact another customer dining two tables over from mine.
Now blessed with more fresh steaming coffee, I returned to that magical omelet, whose main mouth-watering ingredient was kibbie. Also spelled kibbeh, this Middle Eastern dish blends bulgur wheat, ground lamb, and spices into a tasty mixture. It’s hard to say exactly how kibbie brings an omelet to life, but that is precisely what it does. Try to imagine classic breakfast comfort food with a secret jolt of flavor and energy.
I’m not aware of an exhaustive study to back up this claim, but I’d say that there is only one place in the United States where the customers top off each other’s coffees and where you can enjoy a delicious kibbie omelet for breakfast. That place is Chamoun’s Rest Haven Restaurant in Clarksdale, Mississippi, right down the road from the city’s monument to the Crossroads.
I’m also betting that I’m not the first person to dine at the Rest Haven – and will certainly not be the last – who experienced that spark of alchemy when food, atmosphere, location, and timing all work in harmony to create a memorable moment. Seriously, who would expect to make a quick blues odyssey to the Mississippi Delta and come back raving about how great the Lebanese food is?
The Rest Haven is more than a family-owned restaurant with an eclectic menu. It also serves as a social gathering place and an informal business hub for the area.
“I’d like to know how many deals closed since this place has been here,” Chafik Chamoun said in a short 2010 documentary on his family’s restaurant, its history, and its role in Clarksdale’s community. He said the restaurant is where people gather to discuss politics, farming, and business. Chamoun referred to the United States as the greatest country in the world, a sentiment also noted in his obituary when he passed away in 2017.
So how did I find the Rest Haven on that morning in May 2016? It started with a search for the Crossroads, an eerie intersection of old US Highway 49 and old US Highway 61. At that location sometime in the 1930’s, Robert Johnson allegedly fell to his knees and made a pact with the devil in order to gain his unique mastery of blues music. Whether the intersection of modern highways 49 and 61 is the real Crossroads is open to debate, as is the whole Robert Johnson legend (but that’s a story for another day!)
But Clarksdale's musical history runs deeper than such legends and lore. Sam Cooke was born there, and Ike Turner (born and raised there) used the city as his base before moving to St. Louis. The Delta Blues Museum calls Clarksdale home.
The day before, I had followed the Blues Trail south from Memphis via Tunica to Clarksdale and caught two fun live shows, one at the Ground Zero Blues Club (co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman) and then one at a blues joint called Red’s. The next morning, I got up early to visit the tourist version of the Crossroads. That was when I spied the alluring neon sign of the Rest Haven in the distance.
One of the taglines of the Rest Haven is “from kibbie to cornbread.” On my next visit – and there will be a next visit – I will definitely have the cornbread … and much more.
[The link to the Rest Haven documentary is used by permission from Barefoot Workshops]
Frank Luby has road-tripped for over 25,000 miles in the United States. He keeps going despite all those miles, because he knows he has still only scratched the surface of what this country has to offer. For more of his stories on blues music, you can check out his book Blues Flashbacks.