on the Jackson Dining Scene
Bu Meghan Holmes
Photographs by Marianne Todd and Mike and Dianne Barrett
In the first quarter of the 20th century, around 500,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States, searching for economic opportunity. Recent arrivals also fled military conflicts, including World War I and later the Greco-Turkish War. Ninety percent of these immigrants were men who spoke little English and joined communities of other Greeks in population centers while assimilating to life in the U.S. Eventually, some of these men made it to the South, settling in cities like Jackson and Birmingham and opening restaurants where they served foods with both Greek and more traditionally American influences.
In Jackson, restaurants like the Mayflower Café, Elite and Crechale’s have been part of the dining scene for more than 50 years. While they were started by Greeks, the cuisine also strongly reflects coastal Southern and soul food influences, heavy on the seafood as well as meat-and-three lunch specials. There are also recently opened casual Greek American eateries like Keifer’s, Zeek’z House of Gyros and Krilakis in the Jackson metro area. The city also has an authentic Lebanese and Greek dining option – Aladdin Mediterranean Grill. These restaurants reflect the long history of Eastern European and Middle Eastern migration to the area, which continues today, bringing new culinary options to Jackson as well as cities across the country.
George Kountouris and John Gouras arrived in the United States in the early 1930s from the Greek island of Patmos. They opened the Mayflower Café in downtown Jackson in 1935, originally as a hamburger stand that expanded to occupy the space a beer garden formerly held in the same building. Jerry Kountouris owns and manages the restaurant today; George was his great uncle. Jerry took over the restaurant in 1990 after a 20-year career as a pharmacist.
During a typical lunch shift, Jerry greets customers and operates the cash register. After the rush dies down, he sits in one of the booths to eat his own lunch. When Jerry took over the restaurant he revamped the menu, removing less commonly ordered items and emphasizing fresh seafood and other recipes his father developed over the years. He didn’t change the décor; it’s been the same since they installed air conditioning in the 1960s.
“I grew up in this restaurant, but I didn’t start working here until 1990,” Jerry Kountouris said. “My dad came up with a lot of the recipes we use today, like the sauce for our seafood. It’s a combination of butter, lemon, Worcestershire and herbs. I can’t tell you what herbs. It really
lets the flavor of the fish or any kind of seafood shine through. We also use that on our oysters,” he said.
Mayflower’s broiled oysters are delicious, served swimming in a buttery, flavorful broth and topped with browned breadcrumbs. The lemon cuts the richness just enough to keep it from being overwhelming, and the oysters are lightly cooked, still plump and briny.
“We’re also known for our comeback sauce,” Kountouris said. “That’s something the Greeks brought to Mississippi. It’s similar to Thousand Island dressing.” The Mayflower’s Greek salads come undressed, with a bottle of comeback for the table. It’s a tangy, creamy, bright orange condiment, and you’ll find many diners dolloping it on top of Captain’s Wafers while they wait for entrees to arrive.
During lunch, meat-and-three options like chicken and dumplings, hamburger steak, pot roast and catfish are the most popular. During dinner, people typically opt for steak or seafood. “We serve mostly saltwater Gulf fish, like redfish, speckled trout, flounder and cobia, as well as shrimp, oysters and softshell crab,” Kountouris said.
The Mayflower’s décor reflects the restaurant’s preoccupation with the sea. Assembled wooden boats in bottles decorate an area behind the counter also covered with photographs of the Kountouris family and friends holding large freshly caught fish. The building’s exterior entryway is decorated with colored tiles, a light blue background with crawfish, crab and fish interspersed throughout as if the wall of the restaurant represents the water. There’s also a glowing neon sign.
Inside, classic music from the '50s and '60s plays, and there is a coat rack attached to each vintage brown booth. The restaurant appropriately served as a filming location for “The Help,” written by Jackson native Kathryn Stockett, which takes place in 1960s Jackson.
According to Kountouris, the Mayflower, “doesn’t have any Greek dishes,” and in some ways that’s true. Though the restaurant is Greek founded and Greek owned, most of the food reflects the regional availability of Gulf seafood combined with a strong soul food influence.
Elements of Greek influence remain, though. There’s the feta and olives in the Greek salad, and the lemon and oregano in the seafood seasoning. The food could be on a New Orleans menu, but it would also make sense on a menu in Patmos, where Kountouris’s family often fished and ate ample amounts of seafood.
Another popular Greek eatery in Jackson is Keifer’s, which opened in 1981 and later added a second, downtown location with a similar menu. The restaurant is owned by Swede Rick Olson and his business partner Paula Coe, who quit their jobs in Atlanta and moved to Jackson to open a sandwich shop more than 30 years ago.
Keifer’s is known for fast, Americanized Greek, primarily gyros served with lettuce, tomato and tzatziki (a sauce made from Greek yogurt, lemon, cucumber and dill). Their larger location on Poplar Boulevard has ample outdoor seating on two wrap-around porches surrounded by trees which shade diners. Their most popular items include the falafel, chicken and classic gyros. The latter, a combination of beef and lamb, is a favorite of Iron Chef and native Jacksonian Cat Cora, who substitutes the usual tzatziki with Keifer’s feta dressing. The chef promoted the sandwich on Food Network’s program “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” with extra feta dressing on the side.
Keifer’s downtown location offers the same sandwiches, as well as burgers, like a Greek inspired mushroom mozzarella option. Housed in the Plaza Building, this Keifer’s is a quaint space with black and white checkered floors, plastic tablecloths and red vinyl chairs. Brick walls and high ceilings add a hint of sophistication.
Both locations are also known for their cottage fries – large russet potatoes sliced lengthwise into large pieces and served with one of Keifer’s house-made sauces. Also popular are their pita appetizers, served like a flatbread with melted mozzarella and various other toppings with feta dressing for dipping.
Aladdin Mediterranean Grill
For authentic Mediterranean cuisine, many Jackson residents turn to Aladdin Mediterranean Grill. Yusef Ali opened the restaurant 15 years ago and has since also added a Mediterranean grocery next door which sells ingredients otherwise rare in the region, including Middle Eastern spices, prepared spreads like baba ghanouj, Haloumi lamb cheese and Turkish desserts like baklava.
Diners often begin meals at Aladdin with Lebanese mint tea with pine nuts, a refreshing and almost savory drink. Many consider Aladdin’s hummus to be the best in Jackson, (it won the Jackson Free Press’ 2017 Award for Best Hummus), and the appetizer comes with warm pita and a large circle of hummus, indented so that a well contains bright green olive oil as well as jalapeño pesto and powdered sumac. The hummus itself is almost impossibly smooth, and flavored with just the right amount of lemon, garlic and tahini.
Unsurprisingly, Aladdin’s best entrees are the lamb dishes. The kebab plate features skewered balls of lamb, ground and seasoned, but the real star is the lamb chops: four large chops marinated in olive oil, herbs and spices, and then chargrilled and served over rice with hummus and a fresh vegetable salad.
“We make everything from scratch,” says Gadelkarim Mohamed, a Syrian immigrant who arrived in the United States seven years ago and began cooking at Aladdin in 2012. “This is Lebanese and Greek style food, which is different from what I ate in Syria, but there are similarities.”
As he speaks, Mohamed tends a large pot of red lentil soup, bright yellow from turmeric and served with crisp, fried pita chips. While they prepare food, several Middle Eastern men joke in the kitchen, speaking Arabic around him. The restaurant puts diners in the Mediterranean, with décor somewhat reminiscent of a hookah bar. The restaurant offers belly dancing lessons on the first Friday of every month from 7-9 p.m. Restaurants like Aladdin remind diners of the value (and deliciousness) found in appreciating new cultures, while the menu at the Mayflower illustrates that over time, immigrants dining habits tend to match those of everyone else in the region where they reside. Greeks become Mississippians, and as a result everyone benefits. It’s a valuable lesson in today’s charged political climate: immigrants bring richness to our culture, especially our culinary history.
WANT TO GO?
The Mayflower Cafe,
123 W. Capitol St., is open Monday through Friday from
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
For more information, visit mayflowercafems.com.
Keifer's boasts two locations, one at 710 Poplar Blvd., open Sunday through Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The downtown location, at 120 N. Congress St., is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
For more information visit keifers.net or keifersdowntown.com.
Aladdin Mediterranean Grill
is located at 703 Lakeland Drive, and is open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m to 11 p.m. For more information,