Down an open-air passage, one block off the Square, Oxford Canteen claims a hidden cleft between masonry storefronts in Mississippi’s literary citadel. Framed by two-story redbrick walls, illumined by a crisscross canopy of light bulb strings, the jerry-rigged alley space makes the place. It helps, of course, that the owner, Corbin Evans, cooks food that’s frank and fresh and compelling, from breakfast tacos stippled with salsa verde to peanut-sauce-bathed noodles tossed with chicken and scallions.
The approach is peculiar. Walk east from Square Books toward the Lyric theater, Oxford’s best live music venue. (Intruder in the Dust, the 1949 film based on the Faulkner novel, premiered there.) Past Amelia, the brilliant whatnot closet, spy a bright red table-and-chair set, seemingly spirited from a Duchamp installation. Just beyond, take a hard left into a corridor that recalls a cattle chute, and move toward the order window, punched in the Lyric’s west wall.
I’ve long patronized alley bars and restaurants. In college, I walked the plank through a Dumpster juice–drenched gangway to drink rotgut and watch the cage dancers at a New Orleans bar called the Dungeon. During the early stages of my infatuation with New York City, I wended through Chinatown bootleg DVD vendors and dodged Lower East Side skateboarders to reach the dogleg alley home of Freemans Restaurant, a postmodern colonial tavern, famous for well-garnished Bloody Marys and mustardy deviled eggs.
Open since March, Oxford Canteen takes the odd location concept to its illogical conclusion. Those other bars and dining rooms were reached by alleys. At Canteen, the dining room is the alley. And the dining room is charming and temperate. Even in the stifle of summer, the alley often conducts a breeze. When the potted ferns on the far end bob and weave on buffeting morning currents, breakfast is especially pleasant.
But the alley would be just a clever conceit—a smart use of a found space in a city where skyrocketing rents have lately dissuaded the creative class from taking big chances on small budgets—were it not for the food. Evans, who boasts the bemused and scruffy look of a good-natured bass player in an indie rock band, made his name in New Orleans cooking dirty rice tumbled with roasted mushrooms and other radically delicious dishes. Back then, he was known for his way with vegetables. This time out, he ranges wider.
Here, Evans works a cubbyhole kitchen that looks too small for his lanky frame. What emerges from this wormhole in the college town sausage-biscuits-cheeseburger-chicken-wings continuum are dishes like bacon-and egg-gorged breakfast bread puddings, hatted with griddle-toasted cheese. And sandwiches of house-roasted turkey, smeared with bright tomato-ginger jam. And cardboard Chinese lunch pails, packed with vermicelli, tossed with Gulf shrimp, and brightened with green harissa.
Most Oxford folk eat breakfast and lunch at one of three wooden counters, bolted to the wall and fronted by high-top metal stools. A few scurry to the benches that ring the nearby courthouse, where they dig in to sandwiches of roasted vegetables and balsamic onion marmalade, stacked on farmer-cheese-smeared sourdough. Or thick-cut bologna sandwiches, bound with American cheese and crowned with fried eggs, popular as hangover helper lunch specials after big acts like Jason Isbell and Neko Case play the Lyric. The smarter lunch customers double back to carry home bowls of banana pudding budino capped with salted caramel. Or squares of Ooey Gooey Cake.
Evans is more than a good cook. He’s also a good provisioner. At breakfast he and two colleagues serve single-estate coffees, brewed pour-over style and presented with the aplomb of a sommelier. Meanwhile, the house-made aguas frescas taste like the blendered contents of fruit bowls, piled high with everything from blueberries to mangoes to muskmelons. At lunch, he peddles bottles of Swamp Pop, a Louisiana line of soft drinks sweetened with sugarcane.
Oxford Canteen is a new sort of restaurant. Serious in its purpose. Dedicated to local sourcing and righteous ingredients. But absent the folderol of its more traditional brethren. Food trucks, speakeasies, Twitter-fueled supper clubs, and pop-up restaurants share a similar attitude and approach. For the past decade, chefs have been ditching fine dining. In the process they have redefined what restaurants are, what sort of space they require, and how they serve communities. Inspired by the impatience of youth, the earnest intent of local food activists, and the rash spray-can strokes of street artists, they foretell a moment when “Good food, served fast” won’t sound like an oxymoronic marketing slogan from a multinational.
By the time you read this, Evans may have punched another hole in the Lyric wall to access the elegant gothic-wallpapered vestibule, which he will use as a sometime dining room. He plans to swag the walls with drapes, add evening service, and curate an honest wine list. But Evans says he won’t lose his indie cred. “We’re trying our best to fit in,” he told me one recent morning as I scarfed a chorizo, egg, and cheese torta. “And to stand out, too.”