Photos by Bill Kline
Seafood Junction owner Jimmy Higgins stands at the food bar in his Algoma restaurant. The painting in the background, by artist Ann Sheffield, depicts an actual incident in the history of the town. The train is carrying the body of a soldier killed in World War II, the son of a local family. Among those coming out to meet the train are several people whose faces are familiar to some patrons of the restaurant.
Pontotoc County residents Schley and Lila Mae Plunk of the Oak Hill community, talk with Seafood Junction proprietor Carolyn Higgins. The Plunks were the restaurant’s first customers when it opened in 1988.
By Brenda Owen
ALGOMA You can no longer board a train at Algoma and head for parts unknown. The old depot has disappeared into history. But, if you visit the site where once stood the “railroad tie capital of the world,” you can buy a ticket to a great meal.
Just ask Schley Plunk and his wife, Lila Mae Plunk. They were the first customers in line when Seafood Junction opened its doors in Algoma in 1988. The Oak Hill residents have been regular customers ever since.
“The oysters are the best,” Mr. Plunk declared as he prepared to dive into a second helping from the seafood bar.
“And the barbecue ribs are good, too,” added his wife.
Carolyn Higgins, who with her husband Jimmy Higgins, opened the restaurant eight years ago, poured the couple another glass of iced tea as she recalled how relatives, friends and neighbors built benches and tables, painted walls, and freely donated their time to help the restaurant get off to a good start.
“It was amazing,” she said with a smile. “This is truly a community restaurant. The community helped build it and we want them to feel like they are a part of it.”
Robert and Shirley McCord of Pontotoc certainly feel that way. They’ve been making regular visits to Seafood Junction since it opened.
“We love the friendly atmosphere,” Mrs. McCord said.
Her husband, a retired postal worker, added, “We come for the catfish, but it’s all good.”
In fact, said Houston resident Ann Wilemon, who was sitting at a nearby table with her daughters, Shonda Houser and Shea Wilemon, “I’ve just come from Florida and it’s better than any of the seafood I found on the coast.”
Regular customers Tom and Mary Ann Daniel agreed. They commute between homes in Tupelo and Ridgeland because of his job with Bell South, and they always pay a visit to their favorite restaurant.
“You can’t find food of this quality and combination just anywhere,” he said. “I recently had a meal on the coast that cost $45 just for me and it was not as good as the food here. I told my friends I had to come back home to get fed good.”
Retirees Cliff and Doris Page of Belmont drive more than 80 miles every couple of weeks to eat at Seafood Junction and visit with the friends they have made over the years they have dined there.
“I lived in Florida for years,” he said, “and there’s no place there that I found to match this. They’ve got plenty of seafood in Florida. They just don’t know how to fix it.”
Dream come true
For the Higgins, the restaurant was an investment in their future.
“We really started the restaurant as something we could do on weekends until we retired, then we planned to go into the business full-time,” Jimmy Higgins said. “We didn’t expect it to take off like this.”
Before building the restaurant, the couple researched available data on other restaurants in the area over a period of several years.
“Most restaurants fail, and I wanted to know which ones had failed and why,” he said.
Using a map, he marked the locations of successful restaurants across North Mississippi and discovered to his surprise that his own hometown of Algoma was right in the center of the radius of those businesses. He also noted that a restaurant featuring fresh seafood, fish and steaks was the most requested by area diners.
For several years, the Higgins collected equipment, ideas and recipes.
“We would go to Louisiana on weekends and vacations, down in the bayous,” he said, “and we’d watch and learn the old, old recipes.”
The restaurateurs determined to use only freshly prepared seafood as much as possible and to develop foods that were unique to Seafood Junction.
“We make all our breading and batter up here from scratch,” Jimmy Higgins said. “Our oysters are fresh, our fish are on ice and we hand-cut the meats.”
Occasionally, as with the imitation crab meat used in the Crab Mornay dish on the food bar, the Higgins will bend the rule, but for the most part, he said, “fresh and from scratch” is the order of the day.
“In the case of the crab, we use the imitation because it holds up better than the fresh crab meat in the recipe and the taste is just as good,” he said. “But when it comes to things like fresh fish, oysters, shrimp and other seafood, I refuse to have frozen. You can get that anywhere. I want our restaurant to serve only the best.”
Another aim of Seafood Junction is to provide a place for families to relax and enjoy themselves, he said.
“All these high chairs along the wall are there for a reason,” he said. “We want people to bring their kids and feel comfortable.”
The decor of the restaurant reflects this casual attitude. From the bare concrete floors to the picnic tables and benches, to the walls lined with paintings by local artist Ann Sheffield, the Higgins designed Seafood Junction to echo the old Southern expression, “Come on in, sit a spell and have a bite to eat.”