One problem with dining out in 21st-century America is that we don't feel connected to our food. A plate of picture-perfect avocado toast with fried egg and cracked pepper lands on the table in front of us. But who grew it? Who cooked it? For all we know, it may have come from outer space.
Happily, the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction. In Midtown, two new restaurants focus on reconnecting Memphians with (respectively) their neighborhoods and their bodies, and this food writer is happy to recommend them.
The first is Mardi Gras Memphis, just across the street from Crosstown Concourse. This comfy Cajun restaurant is owned and run by Penny Henderson and her large, extended family. Walk through the front door, and you may feel as though you've just married in.
"In South Louisiana, we celebrate everything with food," explains Henderson, with a wry smile. "If you put up a ceiling fan, everybody's coming over for gumbo."
Originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana, Henderson moved to Memphis last year for work. (By training, she is an addictions therapist.) In March, she made a pot of gumbo for an office party, a casual move that turned out to be serendipitous. Her coworkers licked their bowls, and by June, she had opened a restaurant.
"Seven weeks ago, we had not cooked for anybody but our families," Henderson confesses. "We didn't know anything about anything. We just jumped in."
Taste Henderson's Crawfish Corn Chowder ($4.95), and you'll be glad she did. It boasts a near-perfect balance of sweet and savory, with a full-bodied corn flavor that's as rich and deep as a Louisiana sunset.
Henderson says she learned to cook for her five kids, cobbling together recipes from friends, family, and fellow churchgoers.
"There's a huge reward in seeing people get better, live better, feel better," Henderson reflects. "And that's the same feeling I get when I cook for people. For me, it's about sharing. It's about fellowship."
The other stand-out menu item is the Étouffée Stuffed Po'boy ($10.49). It starts with the bread — French rolls from Gambino's Bakery in New Orleans — which has been flash-fried for extra crispiness. Then it's sliced, scooped, and loaded up with Henderson's signature étouffée, expertly prepared from a gorgeous, dark-brown roux. The crisp crunch, the hearty stew — this is the kind of food that warms you up inside.
Every hard-core juice fan has a come-to-Jesus moment. For Scott Tashie, it happened on Manhattan Beach, outside of Los Angeles. At the time, Tashie was a professional golfer playing in the Long Beach Open. Then a friend handed him a glass of green juice, and his life changed forever. Describing the experience, his voice drops to a reverential whisper.
"It was so ... fresh," Tashie recalls. "But it also had the flavor to it! I just couldn't believe it. I knew I had to have this stuff in my life."
The day he flew home to Memphis, Tashie acquired a Breville juicer, and the rest is history. In 2012, he bought the Cosmic Coconut, a vegetarian café in East Memphis. A couple of weeks ago, he opened I Love Juice Bar, a juice bar in Cooper-Young.
Why juice? For Tashie, it's more than fresh flavors. It's a way to eat healthy that also happens to be affordable and quick.
"I had my juice this morning," Tashie recalls, "and I was thinking. There's a cup and a half of kale in here. There are two stalks of celery, a whole carrot, and an apple. It's ready in a few minutes, and you can take it in the car with you. That's pretty good!"
I should confess: Before last week, I was leery of green juice. Because if God had meant for us to drink vegetables, he would have made them taste like oranges. Right?
Wrong. After some hemming and hawing, I agreed to taste the Ginger Greens Juice ($5.50), and I have to tell you: It's delicious. Made with ginger, apple, kale, spinach, cucumber, parsley, and lemon, it's like a big wallop of happiness — sweet and spicy and bright green. Try it, and you just might have your own come-to-Jesus moment.
I Love Juice Bar serves a lineup of grab-and-go food items, including Quinoa Kale Salad ($4.50) and Spring Rolls ($5.95). Enjoy one in their trendy café space, or pick it up at a festival. The "Green Machine" is a lime-green 1979 Volkswagen van that functions as a food truck, bringing Tashie's gospel of juice to the heathen hordes.