Diversified dining: Unique dishes, tableside cooking and mariachi bands

July 2, 2009

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Eating out in Columbus and Starkville is less and less about wolfing down Southern staples. 

 

Three recently established restaurants in the cities offer food or experiences that may be new to people. 

 

At Umi Steakhouse and Grill, which moved from a location on Stark Road to a strip mall on Highway 12 in Starkville in May, diners who eat in can watch a chef flip and push food around on a stainless steel grill before their eyes. The style is known as hibachi.  

 

At the restaurant''s old location, the selection was limited to sushi, said its owner, Billy Wang, who is a longtime sushi chef. Business had picked up so much in almost four years, and Wang was considering moving to a bigger location. Toward the end of the time Umi was on Stark Road, people began suggesting Wang expand his offerings to include food from hibachi grills.  

 

He heeded the suggestion. Now the availability of hibachi in Starkville is the talk of the town, according to some recent customers.  

 

"Everyone''s always talking about it, and we''ve been wanting to go. It''s just always so busy," said Kelly McCollum, a junior public relations major at Mississippi State University who, along with a friend, got her first exposure to Umi''s hibachi grills on Tuesday night. 

 

After seeing hibachi chef David Li spark a temporary fireball and fling fried rice toward the mouth of each person sitting at her table, among other antics, McCollum said, "You wouldn''t think Starkville would have something like this. It blew my mind."  

 

She sees the hibachi-grilled food as an alternative to the extensive "traditional Southern food." 

 

Rebecca Studdard of Columbus said she was thrilled when she heard hibachi had come to the Golden Triangle.  

 

"I''m just so happy that Starkville has it. I don''t have to drive so far," said Studdard, who has eaten food cooked on hibachi grills in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Tupelo and Birmingham, Ala.  

 

Studdard''s friend Misty Scott, who had never eaten food cooked on a hibachi grill before Tuesday night, loved everything she saw and tasted. It was so good (that) I''m bringing my 2-year-old back," said Scott, of Caledonia, who along with Studdard is a teacher at Caledonia High School.  

 

Not far away from Umi, a Peruvian restaurant named Gordo''s, on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, offers food with which Mississippians may not be familiar. 

 

Owner Iliana Uribe, who is originally from Lima, Peru, moved to Starkville to be closer to her two sons, Eduardo and Bruno, now 24 and 20, while they studied at MSU.  

 

She opened the restaurant in April 2008, relying on family recipes for the bulk of the dishes, including yucca fries, platanitos, a spicy shredded chicken and potato stew, and charcoal rotisserie chicken.  

 

One of her employees, a fellow Peruvian named Charles Rodriguez, distinguished the restaurant from others offering "Hispanic" food in the area.  

 

"Is there anything representing the Hispanic community besides Mexican (in Mississippi and Alabama)? Only Gordo''s," he said Tuesday, over the sounds of Spanish music videos about women playing on a flat-panel television with Spanish subtitles. 

 

"It''s just as good as Mexican," he added. "They just need to come and try it and enjoy the experience." 

 

Fans of fast-food hamburgers might like the charcoal rotisserie chicken Gordo''s sells, Rodriguez said, since it can be ready in a hurry -- perfect for take-out and dashboard dining. 

 

Meanwhile, Felipe Hernandez, who owns Mexican restaurants named Mi Hacienda in Starkville, Columbus and Decatur, Ala., is reluctant to let them be pigeonholed. After all, the ones in Starkville and Columbus feature entertainment from a live mariachi band every other Tuesday night.  

 

Many of the dishes available at the restaurants, such as tortillas, refried beans and chicken mole, can be found elsewhere. But it''s difficult to find a mariachi band, let alone a good one, in Mississippi, even in Jackson, said Hernandez, who was raised in the Mexican state of Guanajuanto.  

 

Hernandez opened the Mi Hacienda on Highway 12 in Starkville in 2003. About two years ago, the band, Mariachi Cabos, walked into the restaurant and dropped off a business card. Hernandez, who had grown up listening to mariachi and nowadays travels with mariachi CDs in his car, knew he wanted their business. 

 

Mariachi Cabos, based in Montgomery, Ala., is composed of four musicians: two guitarists, a trumpeter and a violinist. As part of their routine, they go up and down the aisles in the restaurant serenading diners. Their repertoire is not limited to Spanish songs, though; they know English songs too, and they take diners'' requests.  

 

In December, Hernandez opened the Mi Hacienda in Columbus, just off Highway 45 North. The mariachi band performed at the grand opening. But Hernandez did not invite them back. He thought he would have the band play only at the Starkville location.  

 

But for the next few weeks, customers at the Columbus location asked where the band was. By then it was January. The band would have to play at the Columbus location too, he decided.  

 

"If people like them, then we''ll keep them," Hernandez said. "And people do like them."