Cover photo: Marilyn and James Kithuka are partners in life and in Gumbo Girl restaurant. Marilyn is the Gumbo Girl. Photo by Sherry Lucas
Gumbo Girl Marilyn Kithuka was 23 when she made her first version of the signature stew, helped along by a box of Zatarain’s and driven by the desire for seafood she’s had since childhood. In the years that followed, she moved beyond that box, stirred in her own ideas, perfected the recipe for tasty, from-scratch goodness and built a catering business as Gumbo Girl.
Soon enough, that Gumbo Girl goodness needed a brick-and-mortar outlet. She and husband/partner James Kithuka will reach the restaurant’s third anniversary November 22, 2018. Located next to a Citgo gas station on Mississippi Highway 18, the quaint spot has become an in-the-know spot for locals and a discovery for travelers, enticed there by Yelp reviews.
Marilyn was pursuing her master’s in mass communication at Jackson State University when her Facebook post about taking gumbo to a professor and staffer whet the appetites of many more. “People starting hitting me up … ‘Can I get that?’ ‘Omigod, that looks so good!’” she says.
“It was like a domino effect,” adds James, with folks clamoring for a cup of that good-looking gumbo.
“A lot of people didn’t even know that I catered,” Marilyn says. “My friends didn’t even know that I really liked to cook like this.”
She was already busy, working on her master’s, catering here and there and caring for their young son, Solomon, then a toddler. James was running a full-time business, and had to step in and build her a website to take orders online.
“People were coming to my house to pick up. … It was like an everyday job!” she says. “Between school, my son and Gumbo Girl, it was crazy.”
“Then, when people started calling, trying to make reservations, I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to get out of this house!’”
The little Gumbo Girl restaurant was born — a cozy spot perked up with eclectic touches that echo the savory, melting pot goodness of gumbo itself. There’s a lot of heart and soul in every square inch of the place, they say. Muscle, too. Just ask about that “reclaimed” brick counter and wall.
“It’s truly a business of passion and dedication,” James says of running a restaurant. Growing up in Kenya, he watched his mother, “THE original entrepreneur,” he says, run several cottage-style businesses. He worked with her in those enterprises.
“He taught me everything I know about business, and he really gave me the confidence that I could do it,” Marilyn says.
Her love of people, entertaining and cooking all come together at Gumbo Girl. She’d studied to be a journalist and briefly worked at WJTV, but “When this came along, I really, truly knew what I was meant to do, because I’m very passionate about what I do in serving others.”
So passionate, James teases, that she worries if plates come back with food still on them. “She’ll be all concerned, ‘Why did they not eat? Did they not like it?!’” he says, laughing because the wait staff reports, “They loved it!” and the real culprit is likely Gumbo Girl’s generous portions.
“I love to see a smile on people’s faces,” Marilyn says. “Food is just that thing that connects all of us. … It just makes everything easy.”
The House Premium Surf-n-Turf Gumbo — an award-winner with dark Cajun style roux, fresh Gulf shrimp, optional blue crab, pulled chicken, Cajun sausage and okra — tops a quartet of gumbos in a quest to have one for everybody. There’s also all-seafood gumbo, chicken and sausage gumbo and vegetarian gumbo.
The Surf & Turf “Pot,” another popular pick, boasts spicy, seasoned turkey necks with potatoes, corn, sausage and shrimp. Shrimp and crab platters, red beans and rice, tacos, gourmet burgers and main-dish salads round out the selections.
Gumbo Girl opened with the same food the Kithukas regularly cook at home. “The concept of our restaurant is kind of like being invited into our home,” James says, chuckling as they both acknowledge, “That’s why it looks like this.”
Cheerful charm is borne out in colorful curtains, cozy seating, a profusion of greenery and a welcoming vibe. That comfort goes a long way. Those spicy, tender turkey necks? “A truly hearty meal,” James says. “It’s one of those, you’ve got to put your fork down and just …”
“Eat with your fingers, honey!” Marilyn chimes in merrily. “Eat with your fingers!” And, don’t leave any of that goodness behind.
Gumbo Girl, located at 5681 Highway 18 W in Jackson, is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.