Now Open: Midtown Crossing and Maui Brick Oven. 

In recent years, Memphis has seen the resurgence of several neighborhoods that most people had written off: places like Overton Square, South Main, and Broad Avenue. Inevitably, those comebacks have been preceded by ferocious bouts of murmuring. Did you hear that Overton Square is coming back? I heard it's coming back.

Now people have started murmuring about a new neighborhood: Crosstown. Buoyed by the redevelopment of the old Sears building, this formerly disinvested district is starting to show signs of life — and nowhere is that more apparent than at Midtown Crossing.

click to enlarge Midtown Crossing’s Octavia Young - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Midtown Crossing’s Octavia Young

This friendly neighborhood pub was started by chefs Jeremiah Shields and Octavia Young. Both cooked at Harrah's in Tunica; both lost their jobs when the casino closed. But in this case, Tunica's loss is Memphis' gain.

"I love it here," admits Young. "I was all set to move to North Carolina, but I wasn't feeling it. It's not my scene at all."

Shields and Young want Midtown Crossing to be a center for the local community. Which is easy enough to say, but they actually seem to be following through on it. When I visited, there was a ukulele night going on in the main dining room.

The concept is simple. Take people who can play the uke and people who want to learn. Get everybody together in a big room — parents, children, hipsters, weirdos — and let them figure it out. All right, it gets pretty noisy. But it's actually kinda cool when you think about it.

As far as food goes, Midtown Crossing serves an upscale take on pub grub: pizzas, sandwiches, nachos, cheese sticks. I say "upscale" because they do most of it in-house: They smoke their own meat and cure their own bacon. They pickle their own onions and make their own tomato jam.

The best thing I tried was the Wild Mushroom Pizza ($11). Although the mushrooms likely weren't wild — they were too big, too unblemished — it was nonetheless quite tasty, served with crumbled bacon, caramelized onions, and topped with a fried egg.

Although many of the dishes lean heavily on meat, Young says she is interested in developing more vegetarian and vegan offerings. And she's got time: Midtown Crossing just opened in December. For now, it seems to be hitting the right note. When I visited, it was crowded with a mix of twentysomethings, neighborhood regulars, and families.

When people talk about Maui Brick Oven, they tend to mention two things. First: gluten-free. Second: Germantown. And while both are technically correct, they also miss the point. Yes, Maui is out past Saddle Creek on Poplar. Yes, the restaurant eschews gluten, which is another word for wheat products.

But no one's talking about the food, and food is the real story. It's light, loaded with local vegetables — and actually pretty affordable. In a city swimming in greasy barbecue nachos, Maui is a breath of fresh air.

Take the Barefoot Bowl ($11). Beautiful portobello mushroom slices are arranged in a fan across the top of this hearty vegan dish, which includes pickled carrots, onions, and cauliflower, garlic kale, mandarin orange slices, and crispy garbanzo beans. It's served over a bed of quinoa and brown rice and drizzled with Thai coconut sauce.

More to the point? It's delicious.

"Sometimes these big burly dudes come in here for lunch," says general manager Dana Doggrell, "and I can tell, they don't know it's gluten-free.

"And you know what?" he continues. "I don't tell them. Because they're enjoying it, and I don't want to mess with that."

Maui's is owned by restaurateurs Taylor Berger and Michael Tauer, who launched it in partnership with the original Maui, in Hawaii. Tauer says he got the idea while vacationing with his wife, who can't eat gluten.

In addition to pathbreaking grain bowls, the menu also features more traditional fare: things like crunchy coconut shrimp and brick-oven pizza. I particularly liked the Paradise Pesto Pizza ($14), loaded with artichoke hearts, roasted garlic, Greek olives, and feta.

If I had tasted that pizza without knowing it was gluten-free, you know what I would have said? Dang, that's a good crust. Thin and crispy. Germantown or not, I'll be heading back to Maui.

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