Doe's Eat Place in Mississippi dishes up
tamales and steaks
Forget white tablecloths, fancy flatware, and a highfalutin waitstaff when dining at Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, Miss. At this 2007 James Beard American Classic pick, homemade Delta tamales and bodacious thick-cut steaks are the star attractions, yet one enters through the kitchen door for throwback dining at its best.
Inside, tables are bunched together, covered with printed vinyl tablecloths, and topped with clutches of ketchup and Tabasco bottles. Customers line up nightly and happily snake their way through the kitchen to their seats, where servers move as fast as possible to turn tables while shouting "whatcha havin'?"
Doe's is tucked into a residential area located about 15 minutes from Greenville's riverfront. It's housed in a white clapboard building that was originally a grocery store founded in 1903 by Dominick "Doe" Signa's parents. After struggling through a flood and prohibition, Doe Signa transitioned the family grocery store into a honky-tonk, catering only to black customers, although white patrons came to the honky-tonk's backdoor for meals. After a few years, the backdoor-eatery became more profitable than the honky-tonk, resulting in the "eat place" taking over the storefront.
About this same time (1941), Signa – better known now as Big Doe – was given a tamale recipe. He took it to his wife, Mamie, who doctored up the recipe and began making them to sell in the store.
"Back then, the tamales were all handmade by daddy and mama with their sisters' help," said Charles Signa, who operates Doe's Eat Place with his brother, known as Little Doe. "We've been making tamales ever since and sell them year round. However, in the summertime, we only sell about 250 to 300 tamales a week because it's hot and people don't eat that many. But in the wintertime, we'll sell 500 to 600 a week."
Doe's tamales aren't like any others you'll taste in the self-proclaimed world tamale capital of Greenville, where each shuck shack touts its own family recipe that's mostly made with seasoned beef pumped into a cornmeal-paste casing using vintage hand-cranked or electric stuffers. Traditional Delta tamales are generally wrapped in cornhusks, bundled, and simmered in a chili broth.
Doe's construction is similar, but its tamales are set apart by a special seasoning blend and a wax paper wrap. The wax paper seems to provide a subtle difference in taste and a slightly firmer texture that holds up better under a blanket of chili. This also allows for sturdier tamales, a perfect prelude to Doe's famous broiler-grilled steaks.
According to Signa, steaks were added to the menu decades ago when one of Big Doe's friends suggested that he put steak on the menu.
"Daddy went down to the store and picked up a couple of steaks to see how it would go. They went over good, so he kept cooking them. He than added French fries, which we cooked in an iron skillet."
Steaks and tamales represent more than half of Doe's menu, eliminating the need for fancy printed menus. Servers can rattle off selections in under 10 seconds: tamales, steak, shrimp, chili, fries, garlic bread, and salad. Shrimp, considered the latest menu addition added 30 years ago, comes either deep-fried or broiled in garlic butter. Steaks, which are pricey, are custom cut into thick bone-in rib eyes, barrel-cut filets, porterhouses, and sirloins sized to feed two to four. All are broiled in a mid-century, cast iron, gas broiler that still glows red-hot in the kitchen corner. Salads – dressed with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil – are made in wooden bowls worn from decades of use.
"Aunt Flo, my daddy's brother's wife, is 90 years old and is still making the salad using the same bowls we've been using since we started selling it. They're well seasoned, and I think they give the salad a little extra flavor."
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Doe's. And while this eatery has been franchised to a few other cities (Baton Rouge, La.; Paducah, Ky.; and Bentonville, Fayetteville, and Little Rock in Arkansas), Greenville is the only place where the hungry still enter through the back door and meander through the kitchen. It's a Mississippi must, not just for foodies, but for tamale fans and carnivores that appreciate down-home cooking dished with plenty of Southern hospitality.
Suzanne Corbett is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
September/October 2016 Issue
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