Greenville — During the 1950s, word about the steaks and hot tamales at a dilapidated restaurant in a decidedly downscale section of this Delta city spread all over the Mississippi Delta and was beginning to reach people beyond that. Doe’s Eat Place it was called and customers shoved open the screen door of the kitchen at the back of the clapboard and cinder block building, walked across a sagging floor and sat at a table near the stove.
The T-bone, sirloin and porterhouse steaks were uncommonly good after being cooked on an old Garland stove by Dominick “Big Doe” Signa. Word-of-mouth filled up the dining-room kitchen night after night.
Doe’s in Greenville is still in the same building and customers still take a beer from the cooler — there’s also a BYOB policy — and select the cut of steak they want. The steak is weighed and sold by the pound and “Little Doe” Signa still does the cooking.
“The only change from the 1950s is a couple of different pictures on the wall,” according to Charles Signa Jr., who, with his father, runs a branch of Doe’s Eat Place in Oxford and cooks there.
Spreading the flavor
These are the only Doe’s owned and operated by the Signa family, but, a few years ago, Doe’s became a franchise operation with restaurants in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana.
The first non-family-owned Doe’s opened in Little Rock in 1988. Restaurateur and pilot George Eldridge had been flying clients and friends over to Doe’s in Greenville and finally contracted to take both menu and name to Little Rock.
Seven additional franchised Doe’s have opened in Hot Springs, Ft. Smith, Bentonville and Fayetteville, Ark.; Tulsa, Okla.; Bryan, Texas; and Lafayette, La.
“We started franchising because people contacted us about owning their own Doe’s,” Signa said. “We let them use the name and we train them. They get the exclusive rights to be a Doe’s in their area.”
Signa said that all of the Doe’s franchises feature steaks and hot tamales and that other menu items vary from location to location.
“We don’t like for them to add too much to the menu, though some of them do.”
What about that signature quality?
Quality control is maintained. “We’ve got people we pay to help do that, maintain Doe’s standards. They eat there, see how things are going, let me know how it is. And there are things I do from here. Our Web site. Customers can send us comments.”
Signa said that his father, Charles Sr., and uncle, Little Doe, cooked at and ran the original Doe’s for some 30 years until his father moved to Oxford four years ago. Little Doe still operates the restaurant in Greenville.
“We relocated from our first Oxford site about three-and-a-half months ago because it was off the beaten track.”
Doe’s is now in the Downtown Oxford Inn and Suites. “It’s a good location, on the Square, a good fit for us and for them.”
Signa indicated that he and his family chose Oxford because “It’s a nice, friendly town. And Ole Miss is here.” He added that he still goes back and forth to Greenville.
In addition to the famous steaks and hot tamales, Doe’s in Oxford serves lobster tails and broiled catfish. “It’s not an extravagant menu.”
Unlike the Greenville original, which is open for dinner only, the one in Oxford is also open for lunch. As for the atmosphere, Signa said that there was no way that they could replicate the Greenville “decor” in Oxford. “It would cost too much and it would never pass today’s codes.”
About that Greenville decor and those steaks, a writer from Life magazine said: “Who cares if the place is a dump? It happens to serve some of the the juiciest, most mouthwatering steaks in the U.S.”
An article in Men’s Journal entitled “The 100 Best Things to Eat in America” named Doe’s porterhouse steak as No. 1 in the country and said: “America is overstuffed with refined restaurants serving dry-aged steaks so unassailable they remind me of Bach. This slab [at Doe’s] is an Otis Redding — 2.5 pounds of joy dripping with beast essence.”
Travel Magazine reported that “easily the most idiosyncratic establishment on this list, Doe’s…depending on your feeling about declasse atmosphere…the setting is either a nightmare or the Holy Grail. But oh, those steaks, hulking porterhouses, T-bones, sirloins, as regally upscale as the setting is downscale.”
Signa said that all the praise is the result of “lots of hard work and lots of hard years.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.