Mississippi's southern spin on sushi

Larry Olmsted, Special for USA TODAY1:14 p.m. EDT August 11, 2016

Jack’s by the Tracks occupies an original nearly century-old

Jack’s by the Tracks occupies an original nearly century-old “single shotgun house” in Pascagoula, Miss.  Larry Olmsted, for USA TODAY

Jack's serves fresh Gulf seafood southern-style

The scene: Jack’s by the Tracks started its life as what is known in the South as a “single shotgun house,” a narrow, linear architectural style that is just one room wide, and you walk through every room from the front door back to get to the next. It has since been expanded from its original tiny 16 by 20-foot layout, but still has the long narrow feel, with a classic bar down the left, a few high top bar tables on the right, and a small stage in the front window for live music. The expansion has all been in the back, where a second bigger room beyond the bar is now the main dining room with the bulk of the seating. But from the outside, Jack’s still resembles a small storefront, which is exactly what it has long been.

Pascagoula, Miss. had one of the nation’s first electric trolley systems and was once a major tourist attraction on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. A jeweler lured by burgeoning opportunities opened in the former home in 1924. It has since been a florist, hardware store, furniture store, and in its last incarnation, a paint store, before the current owner bought it and opened Jack's by the Tracks in 2011.

Pascagoula fell on harder times but has always had a major shipbuilding and naval industry, and is home to Ingalls Shipbuilding, Mississippi’s largest employer. The town has recently started to be reinvigorated by the growing tourism appeal of the greater Gulf Coast and nearby Biloxi and Gulfport, which are full of casinos, museums and other attractions. The founder originally planned on calling it The Third Rail, hobo slang for liquor, but his daughter took a photo of their rescue dog, Jack, standing on the nearby railroad tracks, and when she showed her dad the shot of “Jack by the Tracks” the name immediately resonated. It is likely one of the very few bar and restaurants named after a dog, but it may be the only one specializing in a trinity of po’ boy sandwiches, tacos and sushi.

Reason to visit: Mississippi-style sushi

The food: “We do sushi with a twist — a redneck twist,” explains a waitress. Jack’s by the Tracks has become locally famous for its pioneering take on southern influenced “Mississippi-style sushi.” But in a bigger sense, the whole place is really a mash-up of owner Mark Garrison’s passions. He likes bars, great music, sushi and southern cuisine, so he put them all together in a way that surprisingly works. Garrison became enamored by the cooking of Marissa Bagget, an acclaimed Memphis chef who was the first black woman to graduate from Los Angeles' prestigious California Sushi Academy. Bagget is known for trying to demystify sushi and expand the vinegared rice-based cuisine beyond simply raw seafood, and Garrison consulted with her and followed suit, knowing that Pascagoula would not support a traditional Japanese sushi eatery. Jack’s on the other hand describes itself as a “Southern Sushi Juke Joint Fish Taqueria Neighborhood Pub Deli.”

“First you have to learn how to make really good sushi rice, which is not easy," says Garrison. "Then anything you roll up in that rice is sushi. If you pay attention to what people in your area eat, and then make that, but only using the best and freshest ingredients, it works. It sounds too simple but it really works.”

What people were eating on the Gulf Coast was local seafood, especially crawfish, crab, shrimp, and tuna — but all of it cooked. Jack’s sushi menu has two kinds of rolls: In the Raw and Jack’s Style, where all the fish is cooked “with a little Mississippi color.” Depending on the roll it may be fried, sautéed, steamed, seared or griddled on a flattop. Bestsellers include the Big Bayou (crawfish with cream cheese that is deep fried and then rolled in spicy mayo and tobiko, or fish roe), Red Widow (fried softshell crab and cream cheese with green onion and spicy mayo), and Jackimo (fried shrimp combined with sautéed crawfish, tobiko, green onion and cheese). There are a lot of unusual sushi ingredients like asparagus, hearts of palm, bacon and even prosciutto, and a heavy reliance on added flavor from spicy sauces and textures from coatings like tobiko, crunchy fish flakes, bacon crumbles and sesame seeds.

The rolls are complex and interesting, but what make the food standout is the insistence on local Gulf seafood, some of the best commercially available. About three quarters of wild caught domestic shrimp comes from the Gulf, which is known to be sweet and so loved it commands top dollar overseas, resulting in most of it being exported. “We’ve always sworn we will use only Gulf shrimp and crab, and we make all our sauces from scratch in-house," says Garrison. "We use only yellowtail tuna because blue fin is too close to being endangered and what we import is all wild caught, Mahi from Central America and Hamachi from Japan.”

The same ingredient driven but eclectic approach is applied to the tacos, with lots of local shrimp as well as a Korean-flavored take on a southern staple, barbecue pork shoulder. Po’ boy sandwiches are far more regionally traditional, including a Jack’s Special (slow roasted USDA prime chuck roast with gravy), and fried Gulf shrimp, though they offer the interesting option of the bread turned inside out and griddled panini style.

The final notable part of Jack’s menu is the starters, a unique blend of local flair and Asian influences. The shrimp and grits is a classic southern specialty, and uses local wild caught Gulf shrimp, but here the shrimp is breaded in panko and fried, an unusual move, then tossed in a spicy sauce before being served over stone ground grits. Crawfish balls are dough encased fritters coated with wasabi coulis, spicy mayo and tobiko. The exceptional spring rolls are jammed with visible chunks of real shrimp, and most importantly, use actual goat cheese, rather then the weird cream cheese paste typically used in dishes like crab Rangoon. The result is a very homemade take on a ubiquitous and usually disappointing appetizer that elevates it considerably, which is basically business as usual at Jack’s by the Tracks.

Pilgrimage-worthy?: No but well worth seeking out when on the Gulf Coast

Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)

Price: $-$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)

Details: 709 Krebs Avenue, Pascagoula, MS; 228-334-2337; jacksbythetracks.com

Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at travel@usatoday.com. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.