This article first appeared in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of eat. drink. MISSISSIPPI magazine.
By Tina P. Dill
Vicksburg sits high on a bluff overlooking the Mighty Mississippi River, richly steeped in civil war history, where antebellum homes still stand and monuments are around every corner. Growing up in Vicksburg surrounded by history, hardworking people and wonderful friends and family made a lasting impact on me. As is the case with many cities, food can often become a focal point for family time, hanging out with friends, meetings and a variety of other activities. Some of my favorite memories from my childhood are often linked with the unique culinary offerings that Vicksburg had and still has to offer.
When I moved to Vicksburg as a six-year-old, I remember crossing the Mississippi River bridge for the first time, I remember the unique terrain and layout of the city and I remember spending time exploring the city with my dad, my mom and my sister. As memories often fade with time, my recollection of those early years in Vicksburg come in fleeting moments of time that I greedily snatch and commit to memory. One of my earliest memories is the old Battlefield Mall, which has now become an office building. At the mall was one of my dad’s favorite places to eat – Taco Casa. Taco Casa is an institution to anyone who grew up in Vicksburg. Their taco burgers, tostadas and enchiladas were always some of our favorites. Their chips and queso is my personal favorite and I swear they have the best sweet tea anywhere in the south. To this day, my stomach growls and my mouth waters when I drive by Taco Casa.
Sitting on one of Vicksburg’s bluffs overlooking the river stood one of my favorite restaurants called Top of the River. I swear everything in that restaurant was fried and delicious. The fried catfish melted in your mouth, we always fought over the hush puppies, and I could eat fried pickles until my stomach was about to explode. Food was served in tin pie pans, drinks in mason jars and I can still smell the grease and fish when I close my eyes. When Top of the River closed, I am pretty sure I cried.
I remember going with my dad to the Pizza Inn on East Clay Street for their pizza buffet. The all-you-can-eat pizza buffet was a child’s wonderland. I can still remember walking in to a mix of wonderful smells and the employees calling my dad by name. They knew his name and knew exactly what pizzas to throw in the oven when we walked through the door.
As life moved on, my family changed dramatically as my parents divorced and remarried. In what seems like an instant, I was part of a blended family with five children instead of two. My mom and stepdad were working class, supporting five children and money was tight. Eating out became more infrequent and as I was getting older, I was spending more time with friends. I, however, cannot forget my mom’s tamale casserole which was actually more like a dip (see recipe at bottom). Fresh homemade tamales from The Tamale Place on Frontage Road are like no other and to this day all other tamales pale in comparison.
We ate out on occasion as a family, but always for a special birthday, graduation, anniversary or other accomplishment. Bringing home KFC was a treat and when my grandparents visited, we would often eat at Ryan’s steakhouse or the Golden Corral buffet. I remember one particular birthday celebration at one of the newly opened casinos in town. This particular casino opened a restaurant as well which was an all you could eat buffet. My siblings and I were not yet old enough to gamble, so I remember being escorted through the casino as we made our way to the restaurant. When we walked into the restaurant I could not stop looking around in awe and wonder. Room after room after room of tables and buffets with every food you could imagine. The restaurant was like this winding maze with sights, sounds and smells all around. I remember thinking that it would take me hours just to decide what I wanted to sample. In one room I discovered a soft serve ice cream bar with every topping a person might want. I think we may have stayed there for two hours eating to our heart’s content.
My best friend introduced me to another town favorite, Sun Koon Restaurant (sadly, no longer there). Walking in for the first time alerted my senses to new smells, sounds and sights. Everything I tasted was delicious, but my favorite quickly became the chicken fried rice. I still miss Sun Koon’s chicken fried rice today. Sun Koon became one of those places where I felt special and very grown up. The restaurant holds many memories for me including pre-prom dinner, birthday celebrations and fun times with my best friend.
After high school graduation, I left for college in Starkville and eventually landed in Nashville as I started my own family and career. I go back to Vicksburg often and love to see how the culinary offerings have changed over the years. Every time I visit, we go to El Sombrero and I always see someone I know from high school. My mom’s favorite restaurant is 10 South Rooftop Bar and Grill. You can dine on some great cuisine while enjoying the best view in the city. My step-dad’s favorite restaurant is Billy’s Italian which stands right in the middle of the outlet mall. In fact, Billy’s has been one of the constants at the outlet mall while other establishments come and go.
When coming back to Vicksburg to visit, I love showing my own children the city where I grew up. I love taking them downtown to explore, I love taking them shopping at the Levee Street Marketplace, I love teaching them about the town’s history and I love taking them all around the city to enjoy the vast dining options. I feel that we have come full circle in a way as my children have their favorite restaurants now as well. Of course they love Chick-fil-A and El Sombrero, but they have come to love Taco Casa just as I have. They love when we order pizza from Fox’s Pizza Den and they are always up to trying something new. I think their favorite meals, though, are when our family gathers at my mom and step-dad’s house and all cook a meal together.
Spend time with family and friends, plan a meal with family and friends and explore with family and friends as often as you are able. For a city steeped in so much history, Vicksburg might surprise you with the vast culinary options. Whether you are driving through or visiting, take a moment to sample some of the many choices Vicksburg has to offer. I know you will not be disappointed.
Mama’s Easy Tamale Dip
1 can of Wolf Brand chili - no beans
1 jar of chili queso - medium
Spray a 9x13 pan with cooking spray. Place the tamales in the pan. Spread chili on top of tamales and then pour the queso on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until bubbly.