HIGHWAY 51 REVISITED: HAZLEHURST AND CRYSTAL SPRINGS

By Jesse Brooks

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THE START- The City of Hazlehurst has a memorial in honor of bluesman Robert Johnson, who was born in the town about half an hour south of Jackson, MS. Photo by Jesse Brooks

The stretch of highway spanning between Brookhaven and Jackson might be the most unassuming looking duration of Mississippi countryside before reaching the network of roadways the state’s capital city has to offer. There are trees and country roads for miles. The approaching neighborhoods are taking life one day at a time while it seems not much ever changes. Ask anyone on the street, and they might not know that the events that occurred in Hazlehurst and Crystal Springs, Mississippi, around the turn of the 20th century would change America forever.

Hazlehurst earned its name from railroad engineer Col. George C. Hazlehurst, who has another railroad town named for him in Georgia. Post-Civil War commerce along the train route served as the biggest period of growth for the city. By 1872, Hazlehurst’s growth eventually led to the city becoming the county seat of Copiah County, as it remains today.

Just as blues musicians like Bo Diddley in McComb and Little Brother Montgomery in Kentwood and later Brookhaven were mobilized by the railroad, the same effect was happening to the blues musicians of Hazlehurst and nearby Crystal Springs a little further north.

Though the blues routes in these towns were becoming common, there is one trait that separates them from the others: claims of the devil.

In African-American folklore around the turn of the 20th century there were claims in some rural areas that someone could meet the devil at a crossroads to gain anything they desired for a price: their soul.

Around the start of his career in 1914, an early blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson from Crystal Springs saw a marketing opportunity and started boasting that he had sold his soul to become a musical master. He often became “possessed” and put on a sinister persona, something very taboo amongst black and white audiences of the day. Johnson pushed the limits like an early version of a shock-rocker.

Years later a young African-American man born in Hazlehurst in 1911 named Robert Johnson would have the satanic myth attached to his name as well. However, unlike Tommy, the rumor was something Robert never asked for.

The details of Robert Johnson’s life are scarce, but he ended up becoming one of the most influential musicians of all time. Though largely unknown for decades, interest in his life and music rose after British rockers The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton all cited him as an important influence as a songwriter and guitarist.

Johnson was born poor in Hazlehurst and the search for work had the family on the move. As a young boy he was sent to Memphis where he received some primary schooling in his youth. It is said that Johnson loved music at a young age but didn’t have much access to formal instruments. As a young man, Johnson eventually did enough farm work to buy himself a guitar. Some rural African-Americans in the late 1920s believed it was a sin to play secular music, and when his first wife Virginia Travis died in childbirth when he was 18, some said it was a divine punishment. Travis’ family blamed Johnson for her death.

A conflicted Johnson, at a “crossroads” of life, made a choice to leave town. He wanted to become a musician. He loved music and hated low-paying, back-breaking farm work. He began making the rounds in the delta trying to impress established artists like Son House, who said Johnson’s playing sounded like “chicken scratch.”

Dejected, but determined, Johnson returned to his birth town of Hazlehurst to look for his birth father, Noah, whom he had never known. While Johnson was in Hazlehurst, he met a man named Ike Zimmerman at a general store. Zimmerman offered Johnson guitar lessons and a roof over his head in exchange for hired help. For months the two practiced at night in the Beauregard Cemetery just south of Hazlehurst near Highway 51. Today the cemetery is still there and sits in an undisturbed neighborhood with no tourist markings. The location was confirmed in 2008 when Bruce Conford discovered a daughter of Zimmerman’s and documented their story in Living Blues Magazine.

Johnson’s nights in the graveyard made him a unique talent. He returned to the delta a more sophisticated songwriter and guitarist than most of his peers. His playing was cleaner than most in the delta, and his songwriting was full of thought-provoking metaphors as he reflected on his conflicting inner struggle of good-vs-evil. Perhaps bitter, Son House, to the day he died, could only claim that Johnson was as good as he was due to a deal with the devil.

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PRACTICE SPACE- The Beauregard Memorial Cemetery located north of Wesson is where Ike Zimmerman gave guitar lessons to Robert Johnson. Photo by Jesse Brooks

Johnson became a mythical legend. He had the type of fame that would have eventually pulled him out of rural poverty, but shortly before he was set to make his New York City debut at Carnegie Hall in 1938, he mysteriously died in Greenwood at age 27. Some accounts say it was a possible poisoning, and others claimed it was the final divine punishment for selling his soul.

Johnson’s legend inspired generations of music and he is credited as the “Godfather of Rock-&-Roll” for his complex music and mythical presence in history. The legend lives on through the Mississippi Music Museum, organized by the state’s leading music historian Dr. Jim Brewer, at Hazlehurst’s Amtrak station and the Robert Johnson Museum in Crystal Springs, run by his remaining heirs. The admission for both museums is free to the general public, and they start with Johnson as an inspiration. What’s left of Johnson’s birth home can be found behind the Copiah County Economic Development Center. There have been plans to renovate the home, but the city currently does not have the funds for the project.

ONE FOR THE ROAD- The Skeetburger Snack Shop just outside of Wesson is a little place with a big menu. Specials change daily and constant favorites are their big sized burgers and all meat potatoes. Photos by Jesse Brooks

Hungry travelers on the way in can enjoy food near Johnson’s old haunts at a neighborhood joint called Skeetburger Snackshop. In a tiny wood building in between Wesson and Beauregard sits a beautiful place that offers up chicken, ribs, chili-cheese fries, but most importantly the skeetburger. The recommended double skeetburger with cheese features two types of cheeses between two juicy all-beef patties made on an old-school flat-top grill. Skeetburger is an amazing roadside stand like the kinds that used to cover miles of highway.

Close to home along the same highway sits the location of a magical place that launched so much of America’s music. It is important that we don’t let that connection go and make this highway our own as Johnson did.

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Hwy. 51 Revisited: Brookhaven, Mississippi

By Jesse Brooks

When traveling through Brookhaven, Mississippi, it is easy to see why the town claims its official slogan as “A home seeker’s paradise.” When approaching the city limits on Highway 51, the first view in is that of stunning and beautiful old homes filling up block after block of neighborhoods just before reaching the downtown area. It is simple, quiet, and clean. Driving through Brookhaven, there’s a gained sense of elegance, not to be confused with a more arrogant term like “luxurious.” Many of the homes look like they have been perfectly preserved since the day they were built.

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Lincoln County Historical and Genealogical Society Museum

Brookhaven was first established as a trading post in Choctaw Indian territory the year after Mississippi received statehood, which was in 1818 by businessman Samuel Jayne, who named the settlement after his hometown of Brookhaven, Long Island, New York. The railroad arrived by the 1850s and launched a new economy based on lumber like many communities now residing on the circuit that connected New Orleans with cities of the North.

As the lumber industry prospered through railroad expansion, so did Brookhaven. The town’s population around the beginning of the Civil War in 1860 was around 996 and experienced a 62 percent increase ten years later in 1870 for a total of 1,614 after the railroad reopened after wartime. The Nalty family rose during this time as John B. Nalty ran two Brookhaven sawmills: Pear River Lumber Co. and East Union Lumber and Manufacturing Co. Nalty invested many other sawmills along the route, including the Hammond Lumber Company of Hammond, Louisiana. As the businesses were passed on through the family, the Nalty’s invested and settled in the communities where they were located. If Brookhaven appears similar in city planning or home architecture to Hammond, the fact that the Nalty family built the original homes in both towns would be one of those reasons.

The lumber industry is also what would eventually give Brookhaven its place in American music history. Lumber towns were a place that African-American musicians of early jazz and blues could tour and find an audience, as well as work at sawmills themselves.

Kentwood born jazz and blues pioneer Little Brother Montgomery (born in 1906 as “Eurreal Wilford Montgomery”) found a home in Brookhaven for a period as he passed through sawmill towns. Montgomery was self-taught in New Orleans style jazz and blues and created his own “lumber circuit” in the cities of Vicksburg, Canton, Gulfport, New Orleans, Jackson, and McComb before he decided to make Chicago a permanent home.
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A Mississippi State Blues Trail Marker in honor of Little Brother Montgomery is placed outside of the sawmill where he worked. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

In the 1930s Montgomery wrote an instrumental called “Crescent City Blues”, and twenty years later the melody was borrowed for a song of the same name written by Gordon Jenkins and Beverly Mahr. In 1955, Johnny Cash reworked the song in a country and rock-&-roll manor as a new artist at Sun Studios in Memphis as “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Montgomery’s role in the evolution of American music is undeniable, and should not be ignored. A Mississippi Blues Trail Marker is placed at the Godbold Transportation Center (Amtrak station) honoring Montgomery’s life. Behind the station is the lumber yard where he used to work.

Anyone wanting to come face-to-face with Brookhaven’s rich history can visit the Lincoln County Historical and Genealogical Society Museum. It is open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday and admission is free to the general public. The museum’s home is the former site of the B’nai Sholom Jewish Temple, founded in 1896. The museum documents the history of the town and the history of Jewish settlers in Brookhaven.

In a nod to two of Mississippi’s biggest staples, blues and barbecue, Magnolia Blues and BBQ in Brookhaven offers up everything that is Mississippi barbecue. Pulled pork, chicken, baby back ribs, burgers, everything you can name and more is found here. Many crowd in on weekends for the live music and bar food to get their fill on grooves, locally brewed beer, and loaded BBQ nachos. The bar even hosts an open mic night on Wednesdays for anyone brave enough to bare their soul.

Brookhaven’s two biggest periods of growth were immediately after the Civil War and at the peak of the lumber age in the early 1900s. Remarkably the small city has mostly held a steady period of growth since that time. Brookhaven is as steady as the trains that still make their daily trips through town. It is self-reliant. More importantly, for dwellers of the past and present, it is home.

Hwy. 51 Revisited: McComb, Mississippi

By Jesse Brooks

McComb, Mississippi is the kind of town that seems to get by on day-to-day business. It doesn’t beat its chest to declare that it is better than somewhere else or decorate itself as something flashy. However, the best way to describe McComb is welcoming. You can walk into a public place or a locally owned business, and people smile and greet you. They ask you how you’re feeling and talk directly to you like they’ve known you for years.

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Though McComb may sound like a typical sleepy Southern town, history suggests that it wasn’t always that way. Like so many towns that reside on Highway 51, it exists because of the expansion of the Great Northern Railroad, known today as the Illinois Central Railroad. The city was founded in 1872 after Henry Simpson McComb decided to move the railroad’s maintenance shops to the area. Railroad employment caused a city to form and blossom.

Over the turn of the century, McComb at times went through periods of unrest. The Illinois Central Shopman’s Strike of 1911 brought violence to the city over a period that lasted nearly a year, and the strikes were eventually disbanded due to a lack of success. McComb suffered extreme violence against African-Americans throughout the 1960s, including 11 bombings after the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 the following summer and African-Americans in the South finally received protection at the polls.

However, in eras of great struggle often something beautiful is born. The railroad became a facilitator for the exchange of great ideas, and musicians and artists from McComb began to make their mark on the world.

A Mississippi blues trail on Highway 51 begins in McComb, and it starts in a big way with “The Originator” himself, Bo Diddley. Born in McComb in 1928 and named Ellas Bates, Diddley’s songwriting is considered a key element in the popular transition from blues to rock-&-roll. Diddley introduced a five-accent Afro-Cuban rhythm to blues and country music known today as the “Diddley Beat.” The beat is a cornerstone in modern rock, pop and hip-hop music. A blues trail marker in his honor is located at the city railroad station.

McComb is also the birthplace of New Orleans gut bucket bluesman Lil Freddie King. The guitarist, who still performs regularly in the Big Easy at age 77, is mentioned on an official state blues trail marker near the railroad station.

McComb’s railroad station also serves as its official railroad museum. Inside is a full explanation on the town’s founding and development, as well as documentation of railroad life. The museum is open on Monday through Saturday at 12-4 p.m., and admission is free.

For weary travelers looking for a feeling equal to coming to a grandmother’s house on a Sunday afternoon, The Dinner Bell is perhaps McComb’s biggest attraction. Since moving to its present location in 1959, the restaurant has held an esteemed reputation in producing all of the essentials in Southern cuisine. Remarkably, though the business has changed owners over the decades, everything seems virtually unchanged. Dining is set up family dinner style, and several dinner parties share a place at a revolving Lazy Susan table that features mainstays like fried chicken, green and lima beans, yams and banana pudding. The table’s choice of food already seems endless enough, but weekends offer even more options. The Dinner Bell is a lunch only institution that opens on 11 a.m. on Tuesday-Sunday and closes at 2 p.m. It’s best to arrive early and not procrastinate on the opportunity.

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HOME COOKIN’- The Dinner Bell in McComb, MS is more than a restaurant. It’s an institution. Photo by Jesse Brooks.  

 

McComb has other dining options available in downtown such as Topisaw General Store for lunch and The Caboose, a more upscale restaurant and steak house.

New businesses are coming to McComb’s downtown, and the streets can be pretty busy mid-day. Economists say that America is going through an “urban renaissance,” and McComb seems to be set on being a part of the movement as former city buildings like the Palace Theater are being renovated for the purpose of regular multi-use. For the first time, the Palace Theater was used as the venue of the McComb Blues Music and Arts Festival in 2016.

McComb doesn’t demand your attention but it appreciates it. It may not be loud, but it fights and it has fought forward through times of unrest and economic ups and downs. What McComb can teach the rest of small town America is how to hold on to your local identity. In McComb, there are some things that will never change, and that is what makes it strong.

Hwy. 51 Revisited: A roadtrip experice

By Jesse Brooks

Welcome to Highway 51 Revisited. From now through the course of the next couple of weeks I will take you on a journey on Highway 51 that starts in Tangipahoa Parish and ends in Memphis. This is a chronicle of summer trip I took in 2016. This highway tells a story, and each week I will tell you the story of various stops along the way.

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I have a confession to make: I have only been to Walt Disney World once in my life, and that is something I am more than okay with. Growing up, all of my family’s vacations were taken in the summer since both of my school-teaching parents would be home with us for the next three months. We didn’t grow up with a ton of money, and Disney World became one of those ultimate vacations goals that maybe we would reach “one day.” Don’t worry. One day, when I was a teenager, we made it to Disney World. It was okay.

While we put long lines and mouse souvenirs on hold, my parents became masters in the art of the short-run road trip many summers before.

Whether we were exploring or going through routine, Highway 51 was always essential in our lives growing up. I remember trips to come face-to-face with living history at Confederate Camp Moore in the Village of Tangipahoa and special dinners at Middendorf’s on the highway far South in Manchac. I also remember going to Sullivan’s Drive-In in Amite for malts for a moment’s escape from the abuse of the Louisiana summer heat. When the wanderlust hit us hard enough we went into Mississippi to drive through towns we had never heard of before when we were kids. There was a feeling of discovery we gained watching the landscape and local cultures change right before our eyes. We would stop at every roadside attraction and read every historical marker. Little by little, we were picking up pieces of the story of America.

Even on longer trips where we travelled by interstate, we would be sure to take detours toward the highways so we would not miss the main-streets of the towns we passed. If we purchased anything, particularly food, it had to be local. I remember my father telling me that it was the local diners, butchers, department stores, and groceries that were the original personality of America. If any of it still remains in this age of corporate interstate commerce then we should never ignore it. These institutions are the pride of their communities.

I’ve always applied that philosophy to my own communities. I’ve felt connected to everything along Highway 51 as if it were more than road and the histories of each town were pieces of a puzzle. The road has been like a vein carrying the life blood of my existence.

I named this series similar to Bob Dylan’s famed album Highway 61 Revisited because he must have shared a similar emotional attachment to the highway that connected his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, to New Orleans. Like Dylan chronicling the mystic of blues legends, writers, and historical events of his highway through his music on the album, I will attempt to do the same on my highway that shares a similar, yet mildly advertised, history through this series.

I will bring you to towns that gave America the expansion of the railroad through blood, sweat, and tears. I will bring you to drive-ins that refuse to fold up shop. We’ll see the birthplace and the grave of a man said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical abilities. We’ll also visit the home of a literary genius that changed American literature as we know it. I will tell you about a place that expanded three American-made genres of music and set the soundtrack of the world.

These stories are the story of America, thriving on the life-vein we call home. Most of all, these stories make up the story of us.

Our first chapter starts in McComb, MS. Click here to travel further down the road with us. 

Why I go to Waffle House on bad days

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ALWAYS OPEN- When life feels out of control, the Waffle House is a center for consistency. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

Last week, after a couple of days of dreary weather, I was not feeling at my best mentally, physically and emotionally.  Hours past a period of procrastination, I eventually forced myself to leave my home for a cure.

I went to my nearest Waffle House.

If you are a resident of the The South, you are more than likely familiar with the yellow roadside glow radiating from the signs of a diner that promises to always keep their lights on. If you’re planning a visit and you’ve missed your exit, don’t worry, you’ll have another opportunity at the next exit on your road trip. Chances are, another one will be there.

Aside from jokes that may refer to Waffle Houses reproducing like peaches on the branches of Southern trees, the chain is classically American. Waffle House, created in 1955, is like taking the classic diner experience and matching it with the industrial nature of the assembly line. They are food factories. Always in operation and always in flow. Feeding fuel to the road runners.

Waffle House seems to have the mightiest presence in transient or college towns. Hammond, Louisiana, in the center of the I-55 and I-12 cross-section, and home to Southeastern Louisiana University, is both of those things. Naturally, Waffle House is well represented here in my hometown.

Today, there is five franchise locations in our town with a population of 20,019, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. There is a sixth location in the neighboring town of Ponchatoula. So my personalrelationship with Waffle House is a close one.

Normally, I am not a regular consumer of chain restaurants that are not locally owned and operated, but there is a certain reliability that comes with a one or several Waffle Houses in your community. They offer a menu that has mostly gone unchanged since their beginning and they keep their prices relatively low no matter what era of time we are currently in.

The set up is simple. You can order items individually or order a breakfast meat, or sandwich, that comes with some kind of combo of eggs, grits, hash-browns and toast. The All-Star Special costs $7.50 on average, and it includes everything mentioned before, plus a waffle. The whole meal process, including the service, is fast, friendly, efficient and fulfilling.

Familiarity is comforting. That’s why I find it reassuring that no matter how much our world may seem out of control and overwhelming, operations at Waffle House are usually pretty much the same. The food is hot and made to order in a process that unfolds before your eyes.

My father introduced me to Waffle House for while I had to be held out of school for a visit to the doctor for the first time in grade school. In the early 1990s, breakfast locations were limited as this was a time period before hipsters gentrified the concept of brunch. Being mostly a novice to breakfast restaurants, Waffle House was about to blow my mind.

Upon entering the establishment as a child, I immediately experienced a sensory overload. The sound of the chatter, the clinking of the dishes stacked together and the smell of bacon from the grill made me forget about my ear infection. It was the first time I saw cooks in a restaurant make meals professionally without the petition of a wall. It made me conscious of creation. The truckers planning routes with their maps, business folks in suits and accents from other regions I had never heard before…what were they all doing here?

From a young age, it was apparent to me that Waffle House is more than just a food joint. It’s a place where you rest, reset and make plans. I like to think when our younger selves chose this place after a night out on the bar scene that it’s not only because we craved buttery and savory comfort food. We went there to navigate and discuss the journey of life and its social pressures.

As you get older, the situations change but trying to understand your role in existence does not. On days when I am not at my best, I find myself alone at Waffle House. Not alone in the gloomy sense, but physically alone to mentally focus on the inner self. Like the fellow truckers and travelers in the same establishment, I am on a road also.

How long will I live in this town? What’s next in my career? When are we starting a family? Do we have enough money for rent and utilities? 

The coffee, in the same style of diner mugs they have always been, is bottomless and it gives me life.  The wheels turn in my mind and I can solve my problems here, sipping on real hot coffee in a mug to warm my insides. No frappes, mochas or foam art placed on top of a bad blend here. Just a warm cup of joe that refills itself as many times as I need it to.

I also appreciate that Waffle House stays true to a successful model and doesn’t try too hard to adopt modern trends. While some customers see it as a retro business, I do not. It bothers me when new diners try to look old.

Why is it that everyone that attempts to start a diner any year after 1959 runs their business model as a 50s nostalgia theme with a tacky flea market memorabilia feel? Waffle House doesn’t do this. They simply set a standard when they began and never changed anything. This doesn’t make them nostalgia driven. Their business model is simply timeless.

There is an argument to be made that Waffle House has been detrimental to the true original American diner, killing off those locally owned and operated. As a diner fan, I sympathize with the concern, but the town diners were dying off long before the arrival of Waffle House in your community due to the interstate systems driving traffic away from the main streets of towns.

Waffle House, aimed to please in road efficiency rather than ambiance but the funny thing is, they indirectly succeeded in both. That’s why it works. I am glad there is one, or several, where I live.

It’s always been ready and available for all lost travelers to find their way back on the road again.

I tried Cameron Jordan’s new favorite New Orleans restaurant and it was worth the hype

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THE HUXTA BOWL- The Gert Town restaurant Kin is a ramen joint on the rise, and the city’s stars are taking notice. Photo by Jesse Brooks.  

By Jesse Brooks

Recently in a MEET THE CITY piece for UPROXX, Pro Bowl New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan listed his Top 10 favorite hangout spots and activities in the Crescent City.

Many of Jordan’s selections are staples locals and visitors are familiar with, but his declaration of gourmet ramen restaurant Kin as his “Favorite Dinner Spot” may come as bit of a surprise. As Jordan notes, it’s typical to call a local creole or Cajun spot as your favorite restaurant in New Orleans, but something about Kin just captures his attention.

As a personal fan of anything involving hot bowls of Asian noodles, Jordan’s endorsement put me on a path of purpose on a cold winter’s night in early January.

In what is arguably one of the greatest food cities in the world, it is still easy to see how Kin stands out in a crowd. Sitting in a triangle cross-section in Gert Town on the streets of Cilo, Clark and Washington, a small restaurant owned by Hieo Than resides.

When the restaurant opened in March of 2015, it was a fine dining Asian-fusion establishment. It was converted into full-time ramen shop two years ago with the goal of making the Japanese dish in their own image.

In my observation, Kin was the type of place that is easy to get excited about because it quickly became apparent after entering the door the food served up is as much about artistry as it is just great down home cooking.

The dining area is a small room with a couple of tables and there is a bar in front of the kitchen area so immediately you are face to face with the sights, sounds and smells of your dinner being prepared. The space is warm an invite and fits an atmosphere of anywhere between casual to semi-formal, an ideal place for a desired intimate setting.

The menu is minimal with some appetizers and about 4-6 bowls of ramen to choose from. The menu is constantly in flux so the living nature of what’s available provide a certain thrill for an adventurous eater.

For their starters, dumplings or chicken wings can be ordered. How they are prepared is determined by daily selection. In general dumpling may have pork, beef, veggies or creole shrimp on any given day. On the night I visited, the “Fat Boy” wings were available, chicken smothered in pork and beef fat.

When it comes to ramen, Kin has been criticized for not being “authentic”, an attribute the establish is quite proud of. Regardless of whether their ramen is experimental or not, the quality and craftsmanship is undeniable. The food is always fresh, and it is just flat-out delicious.

A mainstay at Kin, is The Huxta Bowl, a pork based broth in a bowl full of ground pork shoulder, miso corn, greens, a soft boiled egg, roasted garlic, cream, bok choy and lemongrass. What I find remarkable about a dish like this as evolving as it is supposed to be I find it incredibly American, Deep South even. Yes, its full of fine flavor but it also has this quality of what I like to call “grandma food”. It was created simply, but what superior instincts based on available resources. The vegetables are earthy, broth is rich and there is plenty of meat to go around.

Also regularly available for ramen there is chicken fried with a panko crust, brisket, pork belly and a vegan option. As I stated before, the menu is constantly changing so it is best to dine with an open mind.

The surprise element Kin offers will leave you hooked and awake curiously and creatively.