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Changing Tastes: New businesses coming to downtown

STORY BY BEN HILLYER & SABRINA ROBERTSON

NATCHEZ — Three new businesses will be bringing new flavors to the downtown Natchez food scene this spring, each with its own unique delicious offerings for locals to enjoy.

Long-time chef and Natchez police officer Bryan Smith started NX Level Cooking as a local food truck operation with his wife, Lynette.

The two of them ventured into a permanent restaurant location two months ago after Taste of Chicago on Martin Luther King Jr. Street closed down, Smith said.

The restaurant just opened up to customers last Friday and is now open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“We’ll be serving all different kinds of entrees and every day we’ll be doing lunch specials,” Smith said. “Every day of the week we’ll have different things like mustard greens, fried fish, sweet potatoes and cornbread.”

The restaurant offers a wide variety on the regular menu as well, including wings, chicken strips, grilled or fried catfish, shrimp, burgers and sandwiches, wraps, po-boys and salads. Exclusively on Fridays and Saturdays, NX Level adds barbecued options to the menu, including ribs, pulled pork, chicken and brisket.

The prices range anywhere from just under $7 for a burger and fries to $24 for a full slab of barbecue ribs.

The restaurant has two entrances — one door opens into a dine-in restaurant where customers can enjoy a sit-down meal, Smith said, and the other leads to a takeout window connected to the kitchen, where customers can order take-out meals.

Smith said his vision includes opening up the take-out area to the less fortunate or the homeless to walk away with hot meals once every two months.

“We wanted to bring something positive here with good food, great customer service — and, of course, I’ll be doing the cooking,” Smith said, with a laugh.

On the other side of downtown, the delicious aromas of Mediterranean cuisine will begin to drift into the streets when The Guest House opens its new restaurant in early March.

Headed up by chef Hakam Abuhakmeh, the restaurant will offer classic Mediterranean dishes, including gyros, lamb kabobs, shawarma and falafel.

The food will be served in The Guest House’s dining room and courtyard on Pearl Street.

For more than two decades Abukakmeh owned and operated Sammy’s, a clothing store in The Natchez Mall.

When he closed the store, Abukakmeh said he decided to try cooking and selling some of the dishes from his native Jordan and other surrounding countries.

“The idea hit me after I closed the store in the mall,” Abukakmeh said.

He first started selling his food via social media and by word of mouth.

“When I started cooking, I had great success,” Abukakmeh said. “Everybody loved it.”

After building a loyal clientele, Abukakmeh contacted Sean Casey, the owner of The Guest House, to inquire about opening a restaurant in the inn’s dining space.

Open for more than a year, Casey had already considered opening a restaurant. Casey said he was excited about the Abukakmeh’s suggestion.

“I had been looking for the right person and the right opportunity,” Casey said. “It seemed like the right fit.”

The restaurant plans to open to customers in March and will offer breakfast, lunch and dinner. The restaurant will also have a bar, Abukakmeh said.

Meanwhile, the social media world is buzzing about an up-and-coming hangout in the heart of Downtown Natchez that is perfect for those with a sweet tooth, said

Jenny Hinkle, the mother of a songwriter and cookie dough artisan, Hannah-Grace Hinkle.

Hannah mixes up batches of cookie dough, made to be eaten right out of the tub without baking, using an eggless and safe recipe and nearly 20 flavors she invented herself.

She introduced her product to the public eye at the Natchez Farmer’s Market last October, and in less than six months she and her family started a brand that they now package, deliver and ship across the nation.

Now the family is touching up a new storefront at 413 Franklin St., which they aim to open by the end of March, Jenny said.

“We were not expecting the anticipation to be as big as it has been when we posted online that we leased the building,” she said. “(Hannah) has found interested stores out-of-state that wanted to carry her cookie dough. In order to do that, we had to go to a brick-and-mortar location and have a commercial kitchen.

“That was the whole purpose initially, but the response locally has been to the extent that we’re having to consider looking at it as a sort of cookie dough bar, where people can come, sit-in and be served right there at the shop.”

Hannah said she was blown away by the local response on her social media page, called Rolling ‘N’ the Dough, since posting news about the storefront last week.

“Our page has grown by almost 300 people since we’ve posted that we were getting a building downtown,” Hannah said. “It’s been crazy, but we’re really excited about it.”

Hannah said her goal is to have a hangout spot where visitors can satisfy their cravings with a half pint of cookie dough for $7 or a single serve scoop for $1.50 each. Hannah said some of her mother’s artwork would also be on display as decoration, but can be purchased as well.

“We want it to be a really cozy, family environment,” Jenny said, “where mamas can bring their little kids and adults can go too — as if you were going to your own home kitchen to sit down and have a dessert.”