Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sylva Rena Grocery & Bait Store: Sylva Rena, Mississippi

Over ten years ago, when visiting Mississippi for our second time, dear friends took us for a drive out into the countryside north of Water Valley.  It was a quintessential southern day; the low rolling hills were lush and the sun was golden.  We pulled up to an old filling station that looked like a movie set.  As we approached the wooden plank on the ground that led to the front door, the sign became clear, "Lawler's Grocery and Bait Shop".  We entered and were surprised to see a half dozen locals, mostly older men, chatting over breakfast, surrounded by bait, tackle and hunting supplies.  Warm greetings from the patrons welcomed us, as we took our seats to order eggs, country ham and biscuits. 

That visit stuck with us, long since relocating to the south.  It was quirky, yet charming places like Lawler’s that drew us to the hill country of Mississippi.  Strangely, on a few occasions we looked for Lawler’s, but could not figure out where it was.  Then a few months back, Mark heard about a place out in the county near Water Valley that served up a mean burger and sure enough, Lawler’s had since become “Sylva Rena Grocery and Bait Store”.  Despite the name change and new owners, the original decor seems to be intact, down to the plank over the mud puddle leading to the front door.

Now that we have found our long lost haunt, we regularly take my Dad’s old Mercedes convertible out for ride along those beautiful country roads.  We park in amongst the trucks, which this time of year, all have attached trailers with hunting ATVs.  Every time we are warmly greeted by the staff and by the other guests.  They always ask if we want menus, as most people don't bother, and even though we know what we are going to get, we look anyhow.  Then moments later, without hesitation we order the burger, sometimes the regular, sometimes the mushroom Swiss -- always with the salad bar. 

The first time I visited as Sylva Rena, I took one look at the sad little contraption tucked at the back of the restaurant, sitting uncomfortably under a deer head and quickly refused what had to be a wilted iceberg lettuce spread.  But I have since learned to embrace the salad bar as part of the experience, and load my bowl up with surprisingly fresh lettuce, and pickled okra and smother it all in ranch dressing.  No awards will be won for this part of the dinner, but I promise you will feel left out if you don't partake. 

The burgers arrive shortly and remind us of why we travel here.  The best way I can describe the burger is that it reminds me of those that my family would have grilled back in the 80s but even better, before the foodie revolution became a thing.  The meat is flavorful, and a little charred and crispy on the outside from the griddle.  The lettuce and tomato are cool and the bun is heavenly.  Small and doughy and sweet, it completes the burger. The potato salad and other sides are all good but without a doubt we drive 60 miles round-trip for the burger.  

There is no alcohol and no brown bagging.  If you ask for a lemon for your water, you get a plastic packet of lemon juice.  Your silverware is served in a plastic bag.  Camo is welcomed, and while you are waiting on your food, you can pick out a new lure.  A real burger, "dressed" as they say in the south, and served on an outrageously perfect bun is the antithesis of the 15 ingredient small plate with a foam gastrique and I think that is part of what makes it so good

We later learned the original Lawler's Grocery was indeed owned by the kin of the Jerry Lawler, the wrestler best known for battling Andy Kaufman.  We met Jerry last year at his art opening in Water Valley and watched that Andy Kaufman footage with him in the back.  Going on seven years in Mississippi, what originally attracted us here, places like Sylva Rena, the warmth of the people, a feeling of home, random and special moments like the one with Jerry, continue to delight us.  Sometimes it is nice to just put your hair back in a pony tail, throw on some old jeans and boots and head south for a long country ride and a down home burger. 
Sylva Rena Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato