About 20,000 people live in the vaunted former residence of William Faulkner, now a bustling university town only an hour and twenty minutes from the Memphis airport. Oxford is also home to the Southern Foodways Alliance, a nonprofit organization that “documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.”
The SFA, as members call it, held its annual conference in the city last weekend. The academic, free-wheeling, eats-and-drinks saturated, four day sympmosium was open to anyone interested in becoming a member (including this writer), and was a fine opportunity to check out Oxford's food scene.
Here, soup to nuts, is a selection of the best places to snag fried chicken, catfish, cocktails, burgers, and the South’s unusual hot tamales in Oxford right now.
Big Bad Breakfast
It’s nearly impossible to visit the city without dining at one of John Currence’s restaurants. He owns five local spots, including Snackbar, Bouré, and City Grocery, but Big Bad Breakfast is where you want to go first thing in the morning. From a killer dish of shrimp and grits (generously drenched in gravy) to a crawfish-and-andouille scramble, these hearty items are the perfect antidote to any bad behavior lingering from the night before.
While meandering through the beautiful, iconic square in the center of Oxford, look down a tiny alley next to the Lyric Oxford: You’ll spy a little window, and a pair of hands delivering everything from breakfast tacos stuffed with peppers, potatos, and spicy chorizo to a brisket grilled cheese slathered with Sriracha mayo—both are great. This former storage closet-turned-breakfast-and-lunch-window is an excellent stop for quick bites on-the-go.
Delta Steak Company
Sometimes you need a slow-moving sit-down meal of fried green tomatoes, fat steaks, and Delta hot tamales. Here’s where to go—the sort of place you can take your parents, and their parents. It’s not the lightest food, so bank on a meander around the Square afterward.
Gus’s Fried Chicken
With 11 locations and eight more in the works, Gus’s is a Southern institution—and for good reason. With its checkered tablecloths, fried pickles, and (of course) juicy, crisp, wonderfully-salty fried chicken, Gus’s is an inexpensive crowd-pleaser. Best of all? It's an easy place to take the kids.
Catfish doesn’t have the most elegant reputation among fish, unless you're at Taylor Grocery. Here, the regional specialty is breaded, perfectly seasoned, hot, and fabulously flaky. This is some of the best catfish in the South. Be prepared to drive 15 minutes out of Oxford to get it, and to wait some more, but it’s worth it. Note: The website, awesomely, recommends that you BYOB to tailgate while you hold out for a table.
Another John Currence hotspot, City Grocery serves fine meals both downstairs as well as up, but the outside porch is a fine way to see the sunset, to listen to local gossip, and to get a feel for the town. Stick to the classics—daquiris, margaritas, and bourbon—and make yourself comfortable.
Handy Andy Grocery & Market
On the opposite end of the price spectrum is Handy Andy's, a place that nearly conjures the atmosphere of a mom-and-pop New York bodega. Bare-bones, with a TV playing in the background and little by way of décor, its sign promises “real pit BBQ,” but locals in the know come here for crisp-edged double cheeseburgers and deep-fried hot dogs.