Pontotoc — For Cajun food, Northeast Mississippi isn’t the first location that comes to mind. However, for about a year now Boondocks Grill has been serving Cajun and Creole dishes much to the delight of local diners. There are spicy dishes, such as crawfish lasagna and etouffé, Creole eggplant Napoleon and garlic shrimp. For many of them, it’s a new experience in dining.
“It’s different for people here, and they can’t pronounce some of the dishes, like crawfish etouffé, but they like it,” said chef Brock Robbins. “People hear Cajun and think hot, but we’ve toned it down and laid off the cayenne pepper. Still, we try to make it as authentic as possible.”
In addition to the Louisiana-style food, Boondocks has some more familiar dishes for local diners such as fried seafood platters.
Boondocks Grill is on North Main Street in downtown Pontotoc next door to the library. It’s a family affair, opened by Tom and Eugenia Pope, their son, Brock Robbins, and Brock’s girlfriend, April Emmerick.
Tom, originally from Tuscaloosa, Ala., is a retired postal worker whose career was in southern Louisiana. After his retirement, he and Eugenia, who’s from Okolona, moved to Pontotoc 11 years ago to be near elderly parents. “We thought the school system would be good for our daughter who was in high school at that time,” he said. “It was a growing community, and it’s home now. We’re not moving.”
He and Robbins say business is good and they’re pleased with its growth. With just 10 tables, the only complaint is that it’s too small.
That’s about to change. Their present building, only 1,000 square feet, is 75 to 80 years old and has been a barber shop, soda shop and other businesses. The family has purchased an adjoining building of 3,000 square feet and is beginning renovations this week. The additional space will allow them to have 15 to 20 more tables, a stage for live entertainment and a banquet room with a 50- to 75-person capacity.
“This will triple the size of the dining room and everybody’s excited about it,” Robbins said. “The restaurant has been well received.”
Tom has heard rave reviews about the food, especially from local people who’ve never experienced anything like it before. “We even have people come from 100 miles away just to eat at our restaurant,” he said. “I feel like when we open the space next door it will make a difference.”
For one local diner, Shelly Johnstone, the food at Boondocks Grill isn’t a new experience but more like going home to Biloxi where she was raised. “I eat there often, and I just love it,” she said. “There’s one dish I particularly go for all the time. It’s eggplant Napoleon. It has crawfish in it and a good cream sauce. It’s so rich, I just get an appetizer portion and a salad.”
A city planner who operates Johnstone & Associates, she feels the Boondocks Grill owners were wise to start out small with a few tables and expand. “The restaurant is a good value and a wonderful addition to dining in this area,” she said.
The restaurant business is new to Tom, who’s general manager, and he finds it very time consuming but satisfying. “I love it — interacting with customers and meeting new people,” he said. “I have no regrets about starting it.”
He says he also loves the location. “People have tried to get us to move, but we like being on Main Street,” he added.
Robbins says he wants to bring life to downtown and is trying to give people something special to bring them there.
“There are not many places in town that make things from scratch,” he said. “We put a lot of love in it and try to give the menu a Creole flair.”
Robbins feels the food is a way to share his heritage. He grew up in Louisiana and worked part time as a chef while attending Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La. He was in college when the family moved to Pontotoc. He visited them there and liked it although he thought it was the ‘boondocks.’
“We brainstormed about a name when we decided to open the restaurant, and Boondocks Grill captured what I wanted to do with it,” he said. “I tracked down the owner of an empty building on Main Street by going through the phone book and calling everyone with that last name.”
After the family purchased the old building, Robbins set about giving it some Cajun character. He ripped out three ceilings to expose big cedar rafters. He also used some rough cut lumber from an Amish mill in the area. The walls are painted red with stained beadboard wainscoting all around the room.
“It has a rustic feel,” he said. “I want to put some Louisiana art on the walls to make it more authentic and maybe a stuffed alligator above the door, although my parents aren’t too crazy about that.”
Robbins was a music performance major in college and plays drums. He’s especially hopeful of bringing entertainment to the stage in the expanded dining room to give downtown Pontotoc an added kick. He may even be able to sneak out of the kitchen long enough to play, too.
The restaurant employs 15 to 20 people and is open for lunch and dinner. Emmerick is the day chef, and Robbins cooks at night.
“It’s hard work, “ he says of running a restaurant. “I thought it would be easier. When something needs to be done, you do it. It’s a learning experience for our family, but we don’t regret doing it.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.