Opened in 1984 as a fruit stand, Shady Acres Village has seen a lot of changes through the years.
And while the family business has modernized with the times, you can still find long-standing recipes and traditions within its walls. Located just north of Hattiesburg on Highway 49, Shady Acres is worth the drive, especially considering that the journey is practically red-light and traffic free, which is a novelty in the Pine Belt these days.
As a little girl, Martha Mixon fondly remembers selling her family's fruits and veggies by the road of their Highway 49 homestead. She spent her summer days peddling fresh green beans, watermelon, peas, tomatoes and other homegrown treats to passersby and locals from Sanford and Union Church communities. Martha's parents would allow her to keep the crop money to buy clothes and other supplies for school, which made the work all the more enjoyable.
Years later after marrying her husband, Tommy, the couple decided to turn the school money gig into something a little more permanent with a simple roadside fruit stand, and so began Shady Acres. From there, the operation grew beyond the young couple's wildest dreams.
After a brief hiatus from the business from 2006-2011 during which time the original structure burned to the ground, Martha and Tommy still sell fresh vegetables today. In addition, they now serve lunch to an average of 300 customers a day, run a full-service garden center, sell an assortment of gifts in their shop, cater events, and run a bakery, among other tasks. The work wouldn't be possible if it wasn't a labor of love, just as it was when the meager fruit stand began nearly 35 years ago.
The cafe component of the operation began with one item – barbecue. We could smell the smoky aroma as soon as our car doors opened, and it's the one staple that never changes on the Shady Acres menu. The ever-present chicken and ribs are smoked on-site daily and we found the hickory flavor to be spot on. It wasn't overpowering, but you could definitely taste the smoke, which left a nice ring around the outside of the meat. Our ribs were meaty, juicy and somehow perfectly tender without falling apart and the dry rub seasoning added a little bit of spice while allowing the hickory to shine. Personally, we enjoyed the meat just as it was served, but for sauce lovers there are several varieties from which to choose.
Like Mama Made It
If there is one thing that butters the bread at Shady Acres, it's likely their well known cafeteria-style line of home cookin', which is what admittedly drove us up the highway to begin with. On Monday there's pot roast, Tuesday it's fried or smoked pork chops, Wednesday brings their famous fried chicken, Thursdays are reserved for hamburger steak. On the Friday we visited there was fried catfish as always, and that leaves chef's choice for Saturday. We've already begun to plan our calendars around days to make it back to try different items, with pot roast and hamburger steak at the top of our priority lists for the New Year!
On this Friday, the friendly staff stacked our plates high with meat, veggies and starches and we couldn't wait to dig in. The portions were generous and every item we tried tasted like mama made it, although there were a couple of standouts for us. The fried catfish was perfectly crisp and well seasoned, the butter beans melted in our mouths, and the jalapeno cornbread was heavy on the cheese with just enough spice.
We arrived early enough to breeze through the line but by the time we left, the queue of waiting diners nearly reached the door. We believe that their wait was worthwhile and hope they tried the turnip greens, which is the only veggie to make the cut every single day in fear of protest from the restaurant's regulars.
Fresh from the Earth
Soul food and barbecue aren't the only things cooking in the Shady Acres kitchen. As a restaurant that derived from fresh-from-the- earth produce, we shouldn't have been so surprised at the crisp and healthy offerings aplenty on the menu. We started with a classic club served alongside sweet potato fries, a sauce that looked suspiciously like honey mustard, and a big wedge of dill pickle. While the thick sliced ham and turkey, well-toasted wheat bread and crunchy bacon would have scored this sandwich an “A” to begin with, the fresh produce was a game changer! Tomatoes that should have been pale from a dreary and cold winter were actually bright red, juicy and flavorful, and the lettuce had a sharp bite that was far from stale. Not Dijon mustard after all, the “sassy sauce” served alongside the fries had a sweet flavor that almost turned our meal into dessert. We debated whether we were tasting a hint of marshmallow or coconut, but Martha wasn't sharing her secrets. Whatever it is, we think it should be bottled and sold, but for the time being we'll just have to go back for more during our future visits!
The theme of freshness continued with another of our favorites, a salad of mixed greens, fresh strawberries (did you know they still make them sweet in the month of December?), mandarin oranges, pecans, goat cheese, and grilled shrimp tossed in house-made poppy seed dressing. Once again, it was apparent that much of this produce was recently plucked from the vines and the dish served as a refreshing bite during a time of year when heavy dishes are the norm. We imagine it'd go down pretty well on a sweltering summer day, too.
Let them eat cake
As if our stomachs weren't already full with the mouth-watering meals we'd sampled, a trip to Shady Acres isn't complete without a treat from their full-service bakery. All of their cakes are made from scratch, many with decades-old family recipes. The most popular is the Italian Crème Cake, which is baked five days a week right there in house.
You can try the variety of flavors by the slice to finish off your meal, but we recommend that you purchase the whole thing to bring home and share with your loved ones or hide in the cabinet to savor for yourself. There are three staff members dedicated to making these cakes daily, along with other sweet treats, if cake isn't your thing. We have visions of their pralines, divinity, gourmet apples and cookies the size of a small baby still dancing in our heads, and the Blue Bell ice cream is waiting to be scooped.
Just about any dish that we've mentioned can be ordered in advance and waiting for you to pick up, along with a veritable smorgasbord of other goodies. In the summertime, shelled peas and beans are a hit and there's often a waiting list to get these specialties as they are sold as quickly as they're grown! All of their desserts as well as a full meal of smoked ham and Southern sides can be ordered for holidays, and they'll even cater off-site events September-November and in January and February.
It's finally crawfish season in South Mississippi and we're told that some of the biggest and best boiled or live mudbugs can be ordered from Shady Acres. And don't forget where it all started – beautiful fruit baskets can be made into gifts, or even a cookie or cake tray for a twist.
Whether it was to purchase one-of-a-kind gifts from their shop, buy specialties for the road, like boiled peanuts or fresh-cracked pecans, pick up a fresh ingredient for the night's dinner from the produce selection, peruse plants and decor in the garden center or fill up on signature dishes, we visited alongside folks of all walks – young children, retired couples, laborers pooling out of their power trucks, businessmen in suits, and even a traveling dance troupe all there to enjoy this little haven that the Mixons have built. We even spotted a guest book with visitors signing in from places as far away as Australia and Germany.
Whatever brought them there, it'll be hard to find a place that represents Mississippi better than this roadside stop named after the big oak trees that once grew in front of a little girl's soil-rich sanctuary.