Times, they are a changin’, and one recent major change in Cape Girardeau has a lot of us here in the 573 super excited!
Meet Carisa Stark, an inspiring visionary, talented business woman, and amazing human being. Running and owning several businesses in the area, including JStreet BrewCo, several beautiful air B&Bs, and Mary Jane’s Burgers & Brew, Carisa has been a prominent figure in Perryville and the 573 community for quite some time now. With her hands this full, you’d think she’d be spent, but not this whirlwind of wow. Carisa’s newest venture has made its way down to Old Town Cape and is already changing the game.
I was blown away walking through the doors of my old neighborhood dry cleaners...
Mary Jane Bourbon & Smokehouse has made its new home in a very familiar location. The old Courtesy Cleaners on Broadway in Cape Girardeau has gone through some major changes, transforming it into a Major Destination.
I was blown away walking through the doors of my old neighborhood dry cleaners to see the massive renovations that were made to create the instant urban hit that is Mary Jane Bourbon & Smokehouse.
OMG...The dining room. The huge bay window cradling the front of the room and stretching up the entire two-story building let the amber light of dusk just stream in, flooding the whole restaurant with an emanating golden glow. But the sunset was completely out-shined by the room’s decor.
...I knew in that moment that I was going to LOVE this place...
Upon entering the dining area, my attention was immediately drawn to the luxurious velvet slope-backed booth seat that wrapped around the room. As I followed it with my eyes, I was surprised to see a truck bed smack dab in the middle of this decadent bench. The cool clash of urban class & industrial cunning instantly attracted me and I knew in that moment that I was going to LOVE this place.
I turned around and saw my colleagues going up the large staircase we’d passed on our way in and followed them up to the second story. It was amazing. It had all of the same glorious style as the downstairs dining room, but right in the center was an enormous open area that dropped all the way down to the first floor with hanging twinkle lights that hung down into the downstairs bar. There was a counter and seating wrapped around this, so naturally that’s where I wanted to sit.
While sitting at the upstairs bar I noticed that the clothing hooks and carousel were still there from the old dry cleaners giving the place a cool sense of nostalgia, and indicating the character of Carisa herself. Instead of erasing the history and significance of Cape’s beloved Courtesy Cleaners, Mary Jane Bourbon and Smokehouse embraced and preserved it, while simultaneously making a hot hang-out spot full of class and simple pleasures.
The selection was extensive...
Carisa asked us if we needed anything, always the gracious hostess, and ran off to the kitchen to speak to the staff. Our server brought us the bourbon menu so we could choose a drink to start. The selection was extensive, a large variety of some of the finest bourbons made, a multitude of cocktails, and an impressive collection of wines and beers.
The menu itself was something extraordinary. Custom handmade leather covers, made from buffalo hide. I later found out from Carisa that the artist who created these, Christopher Lee, was once a chef himself. After a tragic accident that changed his life, Christopher took to expressing himself through other forms of art including leather work. He handmade all of Mary Jane’s drink menus for Carisa and does a lot of custom work.
It wasn’t long before food began to arrive at the table, and not a moment too soon. The aroma in that place, of the smoked meats, herbs, spices, and rubs, was torture and had me absolutely ravenous from the moment I walked in!
Our first dish was the St. Louis Ribs served with broccoli salad and roasted potato salad. The ribs were perfectly smoked with a wonderful rub that had a south Texas kind of feel to it. The meat was tender and came off the bone as easy as butter and melted in my mouth just as quickly. The broccoli salad was loaded with fried almonds and craisins and covered in a homemade dressing, and felt like summer in a bowl. But it was the roasted potato salad that stole the show. It reminded me of family reunions at my grandma’s country home and had me reminiscing about some of my favorite childhood moments. Savory, with hints of sweet and heat (one of my favorite combos) it had elements of a German potato salad, with the Americana twist of roasted red potatoes and southwest seasonings.
Next up was the Hot Black Bean & Corn Dip. House made chips & freshly baked bread and a divine dip with a southern soul. Like the ribs, this appetizer was very southwest itself, with beans, corn, house made pico de gallo, smoked cheddar, all topped with a cheddar jack blend, it was a table favorite. The bread it came with was seasoned and salted to perfection and could almost be a meal all by itself, although, with a dip like that, not many would choose to!
I just found my go to menu item!
The next dish to arrive was also an appetizer, and one I never would have expected to love so much. Gizzards. Fried little pieces of awesome, more like it! Crispy fried and seasoned outsides with tender, hearty, almost dissolve in your mouth, insides served with a very complimenting tomato remoulade sauce, this dish is super indulgent and I could not stay out of them! It’s actually one of my favorites, which came as a major surprise to me. I later asked kitchen manager, Chef Rosebud Palermo, how they get their gizzards so tender. I mean every time I’ve had gizzards in the past, they’ve tasted like a gritty fried piece of shoe leather! Lol.
“We braze before frying to knock out the grittiness and make them tender.” She said. And man am I glad they do, because I just found my go to menu item!
Our next entrée to arrive was the New York Strip. Now, I usually like my steak still mooing, I mean, if I don’t have to wrestle it down, it tastes overcooked to me. This steak was cooked medium, and while I normally don’t have my steak that done, this one was exquisite! Tender, juicy, and perfectly seared, topped with herbed chevre cheese that added a savory salty bold flavor to the steak. Served with some amazing grilled mushrooms and red skin mashed potatoes, the New York Strip was yet another table favorite.
Next up was the Burnt End Mac N Cheese. Thick and tender chunks of pork with a strong smoky flavor served on a bowl of large al dente shell shaped pasta smothered in a cheddar jack blend and a bechamel base (traditional French white sauce), all topped with a chicharron crumble, it was an absolute delight!
“This is the best chicken I’ve ever had!”
Last, but certainly not least, was the Half Smoked Chicken. Soaked in brine for several hours the day before being smoked to perfection, one little poke with the fork makes the meat fall right off the bones. Served with broccoli salad and crispy sprouts, this meal was simply mouthwatering. After trying it for herself, my daughter Cakee said, “This is the best chicken I’ve ever had!” And I really couldn't argue. I seriously can't remember having better.
The food was delicious, but that was only a small part of the experience. The bourbon drinks themselves were worth the drive. The first one I tried was the Boulevardier and it about knocked my socks off. A delicious Rye whiskey twist on the classic Negroni, featuring Campari and vermouth. Sweet, yet almost spicy, the mixture of flavorings within this drink were almost shocking!
Now, if you like more of a fruity, sweet kind of cocktail I would highly recommend either the Brown Derby, the Delilah, or the Blood & Sand. The Brown Derby is a Bourbon based cocktail featuring Makers Mark, grapefruit juice, and honey syrup. Surprisingly sweet, with a fruity flavor, this would be the one I would recommend to anyone who just wants to “dip their feet in the pool.” Lol.
The Delilah is another one good for anyone new to Bourbon drinks. Made with Gin Cointreau, cranberry sauce, & lime juice, this cocktail is beautifully sweet with hints of oak and an almost vanilla like finish. The Blood & Sand isn’t quite as sweet as the Delilah or the Brown Derby, but still has a light sweet cherry flavor that really stands out with traces of orange and a smooth finish.
Of course, I couldn’t leave without trying a small glass of straight Bourbon. I chose to sample Zackariah Harris, and was not disappointed. Strong, yet smooth this 80-proof Kentucky Bourbon was warming and delightful with flavors of oak and an almost sweet finish.
As we were finishing up, we got the chance to meet and thank some of the amazing team that put all of this together. We were told that Lathan Barnett & Kenneth Davis were the heart & soul of the kitchen as we were introduced formally to Lathan. Although, we’d already had a chance to meet during the meal, as he came out multiple times to check how we were enjoying the food.
“We only use the best cuts of meat,”
Chef Rosebud Palermo, the kitchen manager, gave us a brief rundown on how they run their kitchen. “We only use the best cuts of meat,” She said, “and we’re smoking everyday fresh. We don’t serve from the day before.” She went on to explain how they source locally, which Carisa had also talked to us about. They find it important, not only for making amazing dishes, but also for their community’s economy to purchase locally as much as possible. “We always check out the farmers markets and local produce to be sure our ingredients are as fresh as possible.” And as far as the local environment? They consider that as well with biodegradable to go containers!
Executive Chef Matt Ruesler, the artist behind the menu, sat down with me to discuss his process and inspiration, and how he came to be an Executive Chef at Mary Jane Bourbon & Smokehouse. He started in the restaurant/hospitality business at 16, with his first job, throwing rolls and frying potatoes at Lambert’s. After getting his diploma, and then a traditional college education at Missouri State, he transferred to OTC Culinary Program in Springfield, MO where he earned his Associates Degree in Culinary Arts.
“I worked in the high end of dining after school, so once I started working at Mary Jane Burgers & Brew I just took that experience and attention to detail and applied it to burgers and bbq.” He told us.
"...we would go to eat at Mary Jane’s..."
He then went on to explain how he ended up at Mary Jane’s. “My wife was going to school here at the Satellite College (SEMO Extension), and we would go to eat at Mary Jane’s with another buddy. My friend got a job there and started trying to get me to come too. He introduced me to Carisa and told her about me being a chef.” Chef Matt wasn’t looking for anything at the time, happy where he was, but as his friendship with Carisa blossomed and his situation started to change, they grew closer together and by 2014 he was part of the Mary Jane family.
And speaking of family, that’s exactly how Carisa came up with her epic restaurant name. “I named it after my grandmother, Mary Jane, and she’s my biggest supporter.” Carisa went on to tell us about this amazing woman, saying that she’s so much fun, super cool, and behaves as if she’s still enjoying her 20’s. “Would you like to meet her?”
.Wow. I didn’t realize I’d be meeting a local legend today. We walked over to the bar and just like meeting your idol or a beloved celebrity I knew who she was the moment I saw her and in true blustering awkward-fan fashion, I blurted out, “You must be Mary Ann…” Oh my no… I just said Mary Ann instead of Mary Jane…how utterly embarrassing.
“Mary Jane,” She corrected with a kind smile. How could I have seriously done that. Good job AJ…smooth.
“I’ve been on Apple Creek for over 80 years,”
I sat and listened to her amazing story. She told me about how she used to ride around in her old jalopy singing songs with her grandchildren. And how she and Carisa had always been so close.
Quite the renaissance woman herself, Mary Jane is very artistic, enjoying an array of creative skills including singing, oil painting, and writing. “I used to write for Perryville Newspaper,” she said, “Wonderful, flowery stuff, things people loved to hear.”
Mary Jane did many things in the area, including owning a flower shop where Carisa would often come to help out, and spend time with Grandma. “Carisa did a VHS interview of my flower shop when she was a senior in High School. We’re alike in that way. Very creative.”
They are very much alike. Like Carisa, Mary Jane has hospitality and being a visionary down pat. An Old Appleton native, Mary Jane has been making waves in the area for quite some time. “I’ve been on Apple Creek for over 80 years,” She told me as she began to reminisce about the good old days. Mary Jane would help organize and host parties, parades, and picnics and loved socializing and meeting new people. “I’d like to write a book about the time we spent on the creek.” She said.
…We love making people happy, and it’s working.
“Wow. It sounds like you’ve done quite a bit!” I said.
“I never got rich, but now Carisa’s doing it for me!” She laughed. “She might not be quite there yet, but she will! …We love making people happy, and it’s working. Carisa loves making people happy too, I guess she gets that from me.”
“Your grandmother is an amazing woman,” I said to Carisa.
“I know,” Carisa said with a proud smile. And then suddenly the metaphorical clock struck 12 and our Super Cinderella was out, and on her way to host another awesome event at J Street Brew Co…a very busy and impressive woman indeed.
Well, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more from Carisa Stark. She’s already made a huge impact here in the 573, and something tells me she’s just getting started.