Eating ethnic in Oxford

OXFORD – If you’re burned out on burgers and sick of subs, Oxford just may be your gastronomic getaway.
One west-end shopping center alone hosts restaurants with Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Mexican menu, and the town’s recent history is replete with exotic eateries that exist now only in wistful thinking.
Generations of Oxonians and University of Mississippi alumni remember the old Ruby Chinese Restaurant. Even now, it’s easy to find web users pining for the town’s earliest Asian offerings on the spot that now houses a chicken restaurant.
Marie’s Lebanese Cuisine was another of the early ethnic establishments. Marie Husni operated the restaurant from 1991 to 1996 downtown and on Heritage Drive from 2007 to earlier this year.
“When I started it in 1991, there was hardly even a Mexican restaurant,” said Husni, who also sold Middle Eastern ingredients for home cooking. “Now, you have so many different ethnic restaurants, and even Kroger carries grape leaves.”
Husni, who earned a doctorate of philosophy during the years between her two restaurants, said friends constantly ask if she will reopen. As a new grandmother, however, her priorities have changed.
“I still love it; I cook every day in my house, and I invite my friends – but now I do it for free,” she said.
Over the years, a slew of other foreign-themed restaurants have come and gone from the Oxford scene. Some were genius, others head scratchers. One a few years ago inexplicably included Italian opera as background music for its “Spanish Caribbean” theme, for instance.
Oxford joins Tupelo in seeing a proliferation of Asian restaurants – Japanese (including hibachi-based), Chinese and Thai among them. Another Asian offering is Maharaja Indian restaurant, which features traditional spicy dishes of its South Asian homeland, with accommodations made for Americans’ often tamer palates.
Garth Frazier is a frequent diner at Maharaja “because we like it a lot,” he said. “I was a fan of Indian food before, but I didn’t often have access to it.”
Indians, of whom there are hundreds at Ole Miss, are only a small part of Maharaja’s customer base.
“When they want Indian food, they cook at home,” said owner Mahdu Ankisetty. “When they eat out, they want American food.”

Other ethnicities
Several restaurants of varying Italian pedigrees have made their mark on townspeople, students and visitors. Dino’s was a fixture for years, and the upscale Pearl Street Pasta left its South Lamar location just a couple of years ago when its owners decided to return to their hometown of Natchez.
Old Venice Pizza offers Italian dining with pizzas, calzones and pasta – and a decidedly Italian décor.
Mistilis’ Café, which had several lives and locations over several decades, was sometimes referred to as a Greek restaurant. Owner Angelo Mistilis disavowed that title, noting that its most popular dishes included pork chops, steaks and spaghetti. Present-day Volta Taverna lays a claim to Greek heritage with such casual foods as hummus and pita.
In recent years Mexican restaurants have become almost ubiquitous in Oxford. At least six of the establishments (not including a Mexican fast-food franchise) are open, and a build-your-own-taco restaurant is set to begin business next spring a few doors from the Square.
Another Oxford ethnic original – albeit from a more homegrown ethnicity – is soul food, which reflects both African-American and Scots-Irish heritages. Probably the gold standard was Isaiah’s Busy Bee Café, which served home-style vegetables, meats, a legendary pound cake, and sweet potato pie in a tiny house on east University Avenue from the early 1970s to the 1990s.
Ajax Diner on the Square now serves the town’s best-known soul food, including chicken and dumplings, turnip greens and meatloaf. Tallulah’s Kitchen, just up the hill from the Busy Bee’s former site, has its own claim on such dishes as fried catfish, fried okra and pulled pork.

Non-ethnic exports
One evidence of Oxford’s ability to foster trends in restaurants has nothing to do with ethnic eateries, but with the city’s role as home to several restaurants that have successfully reproduced themselves in other communities.
Old Venice Pizza now has additional locations in Oxford, Tupelo and Memphis, while Abner’s Famous Chicken Tenders has nine restaurants, and Newk’s Express Deli has 28 locations in seven states.
The granddaddy of Oxford gustatory exports is McAlister’s Deli. Started by Don Newcomb (also a founder of Newk’s) in a converted service station on University Avenue, it now has about 300 locations in 22 states. The company offers a wide variety of sandwiches, salads and dressed potatoes, “secret recipe” sweet tea and, at many locations, a free wi-fi connection named “Tea-1.”
Going head to head with every stereotype about Mississippi food, the company website boasts, “The only thing missing is food that’s fried or greasy.”

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

ERROL CASTENS / Daily Journal Oxford Bureau