“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.” In other words, keep an open mind as I provide a recap of some of the best dishes served at one of Mississippi’s favorite restaurants. With 14 locations from the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee line and from east to west, it's been a staple in our state for decades. If you haven’t visited it, let me just say that you’re missing out.
I’m referring to Cracker Barrel, known for its down-home, delicious food served in a homey, quaint setting. But don’t let the name fool you. Cracker Barrel serves up excellently-prepared breakfast foods and old-fashioned dishes rivaling your grandmother’s Sunday dinner. Best of all, their prices won’t bust your dining-out budget.
First, a little history about the popular restaurant that is, admittedly, part of a national chain, but seems as if it’s a friendly, neighborhood eatery. The first Cracker Barrel Old Country Store opened in 1969 in Lebanon, Tennessee. The restaurant and gift shop became famous for its made-from-scratch biscuits, corn bread, fried chicken and other Southern favorites. The restaurant soon expanded to nearby states. Today, there are 645 Cracker Barrels in 44 states, making it one of the most popular chains in the country.
Besides delicious, home-cooked food and hearty portions, Cracker Barrel is known for its vintage-style décor, rocking chairs on the wide front porch inviting diners to sit for a while and adjacent country store filled with a little bit of everything.
Packed into almost every inch of available space are unique cooking and home décor items, clothing and a wide array of seasonal items and gifts. In addition, bacon, hams, deli meats, baking mixes and more are available at grocery stores under the restaurant’s CB Old Country Store brand. A trip to Cracker Barrel and most definitely, the country store, is in order if you’ve never been.
Novelty and shopping aside, the hearty, Southern-style food is what draws legions of fans to the restaurant. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, vegetables, burgers and sandwiches and daily specials are a just a few of the menu categories. Under each one is a list of so many different dishes that it’s impossible to list them all.
Instead, I’ll list the top Cracker Barrel dishes recommended by me and by friends, several of whom dine on fine cuisine at four-star restaurants around the country. But when they return to Mississippi, they head to Cracker Barrel. Here’s why:
1. Momma's Pancake Breakfast ($8.59). If you love pancakes, you simply must try this dish. It’s actually my favorite Cracker Barrel item. Three buttermilk pancakes are crunchy on the outside, soft and delicate on the inside. In short, they’re some of the best pancakes I’ve ever tasted. With a side of eggs, thick-sliced bacon or sausage, and a bottle of maple syrup and cup of coffee nearby, it’s an affordable and delicious breakfast.
2. A few of my friends insisted the Old Timers Breakfast must be part of the list. At $8.49, it’s as affordable as it is delicious. It includes two eggs and grits, fried apples or hash brown casserole (more on the hash browns further down) and choice of turkey sausage, thick-sliced bacon, or smoked sausage patty. The crowning touch is thick sawmill gravy, homemade buttermilk biscuits, butter, and preserves.
3. Chicken and dumplings ($7.99 for a serving and two sides; $9.79 for three sides) - I didn’t overstate when I said Cracker Barrel’s version of this Southern staple rivals your grandmother’s. There’s really no easy way to mass-produce this dish, yet Cracker Barrel manages to make each one of the hundreds of bowls of chicken and dumplings served daily taste like it was made especially for you. Tender chicken pieces are simmered in perfectly-shaped, lightly-seasoned dumplings. With a side or two of vegetables and a homemade biscuit or corn muffin, you’ll be transformed back to the Sunday dinner table of your childhood.
4. Country fried steak ($11.49) – A generous portion of steak is breaded and deep fried, then topped with homemade sawmill gravy. With three sides selected from a list of over 20, along with a buttermilk biscuit or corn muffin, it’s a country meal even the most “citified” diner will enjoy.
5. Meatloaf - Like chicken and dumplings, it’s hard to make a meatloaf that suits all tastes and preferences. Cracker Barrel manages to do so with its moist, meaty “special recipes” meatloaf ($10.49). Packed with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, and green peppers, the star of the meal comes with three sides and choice of biscuit or corn muffin.
6. One thing Mississippians know is fried chicken. The fact that it’s one of Cracker Barrel’s best-selling meals in our state says a lot. For $10.49, you’ll be served a generous portion of fried chicken breast fillet topped with sawmill gravy, three sides, and biscuit or corn muffin. It’s the perfect Sunday dinner recreation - or any meal, for that matter.
7. Side dishes can be a make-or-break aspect of any meal. Cracker Barrel doesn’t disappoint, offering over 20 delicious sides ranging from fried apples to mashed potatoes and gravy to a plethora of fresh vegetables. Two standouts are hash brown casserole and unbelievably, the baked potato. The first is a creamy combination of hash brown, sautéed onions, cheese, and other delicious ingredients. The internet is full of copycat versions; that’s how popular it is. Cracker Barrel’s baked potatoes are coated with a special seasoning that’s sold in the nearby country store. They’re spicy, crispy, and delicious.
8. After viewing the seemingly-endless number of entrees and sides, it’s surprising to see Cracker Barrel has narrowed down its desserts to six. However, the ones they’ve chosen (all in the $3 to $5 range) are outstanding. One of my favorites is buttermilk biscuit beignets drizzled with butter pecan sauce. However, my favorite is baked apple dumpling. A crispy apple dumpling is covered with pecan streusel and vanilla bean ice cream with apple topping. It’s the perfect ending to any Cracker Barrel meal.
Prices may vary according to location. Cracker Barrel offers takeout service and catering. For more information about Cracker Barrel and its locations and menus, visit www.crackerbarrel.com.