Have you heard? Downtown is back. Over the last 15 years, while the population of Memphis has essentially remained flat, downtown has grown by a staggering 25 percent. And as the people have come back, so has the food. Lately two new restaurants and a gourmet grocery have opened along South Main.
The first is Maciel's Tortas & Tacos, just across the alley from DeJaVu. It's a tiny restaurant that serves up big flavors, perfect for a casual lunch. Owner Manuel Martinez is from La Michoacán, and family recipes comprise much of his menu.
One of my favorites is the chicken tinga tacos ($9). In Memphis, so much meat is oversauced, from pulled pork to jerked chicken. But these tacos strike the right balance; they are smoky and earthy with just the right level of spice. I also like the guacamole ($3.50), which resembles pico de gallo in that everything is chopped — nothing pureed or mushed.
Martinez says he wants to grow his dinner service, and the food is certainly there. But if he wants to appeal to a downtown dinner crowd, he may have to soften his décor. In its current incarnation, Maciel's is a symphony of gray, with hard surfaces barely relieved by hand-drawn butcher diagrams.
Moral of the story? Office workers may not mind a no-frills lunch, but in the evening, they long for a little romance.
Maciel's Tortas & Tacos, 45 S. Main, 526-0037
Now, I'm all for fine dining, but most of us can't afford to eat at Erling Jensen every night. That's why restaurants like South Main Sushi & Grill are so welcome. The food is tasty, the ambiance is inviting, and you won't need a second mortgage to pay the check. Owner Ian Vo says he learned that lesson at Ryu Sushi Bar on Summer, which he has managed since 2010.
Vo is Vietnamese, but he has been cooking Japanese food since age 18, when he started flipping shrimp on the grill at Benihana. ("I incorporated magic tricks into my act," he brags. "I could make an egg stand up all by itself.") He was recruited into the business by his father, Van Vo, who today rolls all the sushi at the new restaurant on South Main.
This is one good reason to order the sashimi sampler ($9). In typical Japanese fashion, it's sculptural and minimalistic, a feast for the eyes and the tongue. From there, graduate to gyoza (steamed dumplings, $7), because no one ever regretted a dumpling. If you're sharing, round out the meal with the spicy seafood udon ($19), which is everything I want in a noodle dish: savory, spicy, and full-bodied.
South Main Sushi, 520 S. Main, 249-2194
For those who haven't had the pleasure, Stock & Belle inhabits an ultra-chic, minimalist space near the National Civil Rights Museum. They sell a bit of everything: clothes, furniture, cut flowers, fancy haircuts, local art. That may sound chaotic, but it works because it's so well-curated.
In the words of founder Chad West, "It feels like home, and everything's for sale."
That same aesthetic applies to the ensuite grocery, 387 Pantry. Here you can find artisan sugar cubes, almond-ginger nut butter, fancy cured ham, Norwegian cream cheese, honeycomb, heirloom grits, Jamaican ginger ale, barbecue pickles, and (of course) bottle openers made in-house from recycled skateboards.
All right, it ain't Kroger, but you can definitely build a meal here. For example, at the urging of curator/general manager Josh Conley, I picked up a north Georgia Candy Roaster squash ($8) from Hanna Farm. A hard-to-find heritage vegetable, it's like the Incredible Hulk to a butternut's Bruce Banner.
Back home, I baked it in the oven with salt and olive oil, then served it with a fig and balsamic butter ($6) from Banner Butter and sauteed pancetta ($10) from Pigasus. The squash had a nutty flavor, which was beautifully complemented by the salty pancetta and the tangy butter. Best part? Everything was local.
"Cities are judged by their food," Conley says. "So how cool is it to point at something in the grocery store and say, 'You know, we made that?'"
387 Pantry, 387 S. Main, 734-2911