Juke Joint Sushi

Jack’s By The Tracks has 44 chairs and 40 bar stools, and on any given Friday night they’re usually taken.

On those evenings, the live music spills from open doors and onto Pascagoula’s historic Krebs Avenue. It’s hard to notice when the occasional train zooms past from the music and dancing shaking the floor.

This shotgun-style sushi shack, lovingly nicknamed a “five-star dive bar” by locals, packs in diners and revelers for entertainment and an evolving menu that combines Gulf
South cuisine with Asian delicacies and sometimes whatever brainstorm or request ends up on the blackboard.

“Our last menu had a fried bologna sandwich,” said owner Mark Garrison, whose dog Jack is the namesake of the place. “We do blackboard things when we start feeling crazy, and all of that comes from our staff.”

Walking into Jack’s is like stepping into another time. The building, Garrison said, was the only survivor of a 1921 blaze that gutted downtown. The original cypress siding from 100 years ago still lines the exterior.

“In the 1920s, Krebs was the main drag with hotels, a streetcar and a ferry,” he said. “A gentleman who had a washing machine repair shop down here since the ‘40s would tell stories about all he saw in those years, like cattle being unloaded in what’s now our parking lot. There was a wagon yard and cattle rental across the street.”

The bar itself has its own history — it was built with wood salvaged in the 1870s from a pier warehouse along the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Church pews from Sumrall, Miss., date to the first World War. With so much history, it’s easy to forget — like many places on the Mississippi Gulf Coast — time here is separated into before and after Hurricane Katrina.

That was 2005, and a paint store occupied the building where Jack’s is today. It didn’t reopen after the storm, and Garrison and his wife, DJ, bought the building about a year later. It took another year to figure out what to do with it.

The owner “decided he didn’t want to work anymore, so he flipped the sign and closed it,” Garrison said. “I could have just flipped the sign and opened as a paint store.”

But, Garrison previously had owned and operated a restaurant on Mobile’s Dauphin Street and hoped that someday he’d have an opportunity to do it in his hometown of Pascagoula. Inspiration finally struck on a trip home from New Orleans, when he realized that people
had to leave town to get sushi, and that seemed to happen quite often.

A Google search for “Southern sushi” turned up Marisa Baggett, an accomplished sushi chef and Starkville native who became the first female African American graduate of the California Sushi Academy. The Garrisons spent a week in Memphis training under Baggett. When they returned to open Jack’s, the menu was entirely sushi.

“She taught us to use the best and freshest ingredients and just relate it to our people,” Garrison said. “That’s how we came up with our roll that has fried shrimp in it. We also have one that’s wrapped and fried.”

Fittingly, the deep fried roll, called the Big Bayou, is the most popular menu item. The Jackimo, which combines fried shrimp, sautéed crawfish and tobiko, is the next favorite. The menu changes during the year and has grown from 10 sushi rolls to a diverse 43-item menu in four years. Garrison jokes that the menu reads like a list of his favorite dishes.

“We went down my favorite foods list,” Garrison said. “We started making fish tacos. I researched po-boys and started getting bread from New Orleans. We cook our own chuck roast every night, so it’s always fresh.”

Localizing an exotic item such as sushi by pairing it with more familiar fare has earned Jack’s a regular crowd in this city of 22,000 people.

“People here aren’t going to eat sushi five nights a week, but you can have the best po-boy one day, then a salad or fish taco. A lot of people show up more than one day a week.”

The most important ingredient in the Jack’s philosophy is consistency, Garrison said, every month of the year, with local sourcing preferred where possible.

“Growing up here, I know there’s nothing like Gulf shrimp,” he said. “We won’t sell shrimp that isn’t from the Gulf of Mexico. If they’re getting [grade 1 tuna] in the Gulf, which they are now, that’s what we use. We buy as much local produce as we can, and we use Mississippi-raised chicken.”

DJ provides much of the consistency to the operation, and the Garrisons are sticklers about stomping along to their own beat. They make their sauces and marinades from scratch, and their commitment to procuring fresh ingredients runs so deep that they don’t even have a walk-in freezer to store extras. It’s all made daily.

Although Pascagoula is known for shipbuilding and a refinery, there’s another side to its story that could be one of the secrets to Jack’s success. The city lies at the mouth of the Pascagoula River, the largest undammed river in the lower 48 states. That distinction — as well as the nearby uninhabited Horn Island, the muse of many Walter Anderson paintings — draws bird-watchers, canoers and kayakers. The watershed provides refuge for 327 species of birds, and one of the new draws to the area is ecotourism.

“Events like Paddlepalooza provide an influx of really great visitors,” he said. “They stay here, they spend money locally. People stop by who are going to New Orleans and find us on Yelp. We’re not advertised anywhere, so social media is the only way you find out about us.”

When such musicians as Cary Hudson, a Sumrall native who toured for years as the front man of Blue Mountain, or Loxely, Ala., resident Anthony Crawford, who’s played with Neil Young, Steve Winwood and Dwight Yoakam, stop in to play, Jack’s really starts hopping. A seat might not be available, but there’s always room to dance.

Originally published in The ‘Sip, Spring 2014