The Memphis Flyer Dining Guide A to Z 

The good news: As seen here in the Memphis Flyer's Dining Guide, there's a lot of good eating in Memphis. (And to be honest, this guide only scratches the surface -- but what a delicious surface!) The bad news: If you're hungry, reading this guide could bring you to tears.

click to enlarge JUSTIN FOX BURKS
There's a secret system built into the menus of many Mexican restaurants across Memphis. For mysterious reasons, at Mexican restaurants with a numbered list of combination dinners, the #8 is a dish that cannot fail.
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The make-up of the #8 is different at each restaurant: During lunch at El Mezcal, a #8 gets you a beef enchilada, a tamale, Mexican rice, and fried beans, while at The Happy Mexican you get a tamale, rice, and beans, and they'll chip in tortilla soup and a chile relleno too. No matter your mood, the place, or time of day, you can always go with the magical #8.

What could this Latino Code, this conspiracy of calculus, mean? It's a riddle, wrapped in a tortilla, topped with sour cream. -- Greg Akers

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The patio at Las Margaritas (the restaurant inside the Artisan Hotel at the corner of Union and McLean) may be popular, but that barroom you walk through to get there? It's windlowless but no problem, because the décor (airport loungey) makes up for it. The booths: They're bright-red, high-backed, and extra cushiony for extra privacy if you want to get away from it all, and the bar itself looks like something they'd cook up in Europe: no barstools; rather, a row of comfortable, regular-height, backed seating (for your after-work aching back), because the bartender stands a few inches lower than the main floor. And if that maragarita-pouring, Spanish-speaking bartender isn't sure how to mix a Manhattan, tell him what's what. He's happy to oblige. In fact, there isn't a staff person at Las Margaritas, inside or out, who doesn't make you mighty welcome.

But back to "ambience" (non-restaurant division): Why should a milk factory cum truck depot be a welcome addition to the neighborhood? Well, it is, if that factory is Turner Dairy. The neighborhood is Overton Square. At night, the place can be downright spooky, but there you go, exiting the Blue Monkey or Molly's on Madison, and what you see is a mini industrial landscape, the air itself vibrating. But have you once seen a soul around this place? I like to think I have: Monica Vitti, wandering aimlessly, Red Desert-like. The soundtrack: the drone of a diesel engine idling.

And speaking of engines and idling ... I understand that fast-food workers aren't raking in big bucks. But maybe they are at Back Yard Burgers, because it's reflected in the service. A small thing? Not if you've promised yourself that you will never again use the drive-through at any of Back Yard's bigger competitors, who shall go nameless. But you break that promise all the time. You wait in line to order. You wait in line to pay at the first window. Then you wait at the second window. Nothing. That weird order you placed and paid for -- hamburger, French fries -- must have thrown the kitchen for a loop, because the next thing you know, you're being told to "pull up." And you wait some more. This does not happen at Back Yard. The half-dozen BLTs (cheap!) that you're having for dinner tonight and for breakfast the next day are yours -- brought to you by the man or woman in the window who actually acts like he or she is kind of glad you came. How's that for "ambience"? Give that man or woman a raise. -- Leonard Gill

GOTTA TRY: the Alternative Pizza at Memphis Pizza Café (amazingly, people eat pizza with no sauce!)

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As far as presentation goes, a basket is a bold statement of an open-door policy.
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It says that you are invited in to the food, no strings attached, no rules to follow. Enter, and leave your manners (along with your cutlery) at the door.

You're gonna be glad you can dispense with grace as you dig into your meal at Soul Fish. There the plastic-basket delivery system scores you "O-face"-worthy catfish, crispy hushpuppies, and two sides of your choice.

No matter where you are in Memphis, you aren't far from a Huey's. Many of Huey's items are served in baskets, and arguably the best is their basket of onion rings. The batter on the giant, hand-breaded rings is so thick and scrumptious, you'll be thankful there's deli paper lining the basket to catch it all. So, you can clean your "plate." It's finger food in the purest sense.

In Memphis, the alpha male of the basket set is appropriately named: the Basket of Plenty, at East End Grill. The description is like an infomercial: "But wait, there's more!" The basket boasts breaded and deep-fried jumbo Gulf shrimp, breast-meat chicken tenders, corn-flour-battered catfish strips, fries, slaw, and three sauces for dipping. -- Greg Akers

GOTTA TRY: bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp at Café Ole; big burritos at Swanky's; bibb salad at Encore; beef salad at Bhan Thai or Sawaddii

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If you're one of the many who have taken Julia Child's memoir My Life in France to heart, you might consider enrolling in The Memphis Culinary Academy for 300-plus hours in the kitchen with Chef Joseph Carey, who delivers the ultimate cooking challenge. Can't devote yourself to a serious course load? Drop into the new Viking facility at Park Place Mall for lectures and hands-on workshops in fish cookery, basic knife skills, and other scintillating scullery subjects. Viking's "Girls Night Out" courses provide the backdrop for guilt-free socializing, while its free noontime lecture series, scheduled to start this fall, will have you shouting "Bon Appetit!" in no time. -- Andria Lisle

GOTTA TRY: crabcakes at Mortimer's; crispy orange bean curd at Jasmine

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Many go to Quetzal for an organic, fair-trade caffeine buzz, but if you're looking for a different kind of high, try their cocktails.
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Not only are they amazingly delicious, they're also gorgeous works of art. The delightfully tangy Sangria Margarita comes served in an oversized fish-bowl glass rimmed with extra-chunky salt. Soaked fruit from the homemade sangria offsets the deep-purple liquid. Try the smokin'-hot Bloody Mary, if you dare. It comes with calamata olives and celery stick.

Forget herbal teas, the Majestic Grille has herbal martinis. The Strawberry Basil Martini features chopped basil leaves, strawberry pieces, Strawberry Stoli vodka, and raspberry liquor. Or try the Lavender Cucumber Martini: Hendrick's Gin with bits of fresh lavender and cucumber pieces. -- Bianca Phillips

GOTTA TRY: Dorado omelet at Brother Juniper's -- the egg is served flat and round, almost like a tortilla, and is piled high with fresh avocado, black beans, cheese, tomatoes, and sour cream

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Oxford resident John T. Edge is spreading the gospel of Southern food one mouthful at a time: He's the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an offshoot of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, a contributing editor at Gourmet, and a food columnist for the Oxford American and The New York Times.
click to enlarge The coffee is not the only offering at Quetzal that will give you a buzz. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • The coffee is not the only offering at Quetzal that will give you a buzz.
Tune into NPR's All Things Considered, and you'll hear Edge deliver mouthwatering edicts on fried chicken, barbecued ribs, and meat-and-three restaurants; turn on the Food Network, and you'll see him sitting in the judges' booth for Iron Chef America; hit the bookstore, and you'll see his volumes on apple pies, hamburgers and fries, and donuts occupying the cookbook shelves.

Winsome, erudite, and as doggedly dedicated as was late food writer M.F.K. Fisher, Edge seems to spend every spare moment stomping the backroads of the American South, searching for that perfectly seasoned catfish filet, shucked oyster, or soul-food dinner that beckons from just beyond the horizon. The translation of that quest, which surfaces in his own essays and in his work at the SFA, is revolutionizing the restaurant industry as well as the kitchen table. -- Andria Lisle

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Fish tacos, once considered an unusual dish, have been popping up on menus all over town. A fast, fried version can be found at Blue Coast Burrito that features cod filets, fresh cilantro, and tangy mayonnaise. Bluefin and Café 61 offer tasty versions with fresh fish and pico de gallo with varying degrees of heat. At Las Tortugas, customers have a choice of red snapper or tilapia and get to watch Pepe, the very friendly and talkative owner (who goes shopping for fresh ingredients before opening each morning) gently grill it up behind a glass window. The fish is then wrapped in four separate corn tortillas and dressed with fresh avocado and salsa tayde, an avocado-based spicy green sauce. For extra zip, add the crazy fresh salsa mexicana that comes on the side. -- Stacey Greenberg

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Forget the flaccid hotdog that revolves, endlessly, under the heat lamps at the Circle K. If push comes to shove, you can actually stuff your belly with honest-to-goodness food next time you fill your car with unleaded. In East Memphis, stop at the Citgo at Poplar and Ridgeway for a taste of Lee's Sushi, one of the best bargains in town, made on-site by a bona fide sushi chef.
click to enlarge John T. Edge - KYLE HOOD
  • Kyle Hood
  • John T. Edge
(The sign, which proclaims "Fresh Sushi," is impossible to miss.) Savvy late-night diners swear by the all-white-meat chicken-on-a-stick offered at the downtown Chevron station in Oxford, Mississippi. Topping off the tank at a Dodge Store? Add an order of potato logs, egg rolls, and pizza sticks to your tab. And food snobs take note: Midtown faves Payne's BBQ and Petra Restaurant (which replaced the much-mourned Hattley's) both occupy former grease-monkey pits. Back in the day, the request for an oil change didn't involve switching canola for olive. -- Andria Lisle

GOTTA TRY: Godzilla Roll at Sekisui; Gustav Roll at Sakura; Grilled-shrimp cobb salad at Automatic Slim's

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If sirloin is king, ground beef is the epicurean emblem of the working class: Pounded into a patty, sprinkled with spices (a liberal application of onion flakes, A-1, or Worcestershire sauce can work wonders on tough meat), and grilled to perfection, a juicy burger rivals even the thickest steak. In Memphis, the best burgers are often found at the humblest dives. Try the short-order varieties at the Lamplighter Lounge, the Kwik Shop Grill at East Parkway and Central, and Wiles-Smith Drug Store. Gourmet chowhounds prefer the array of extra ingredients offered at time-honored institutions such as Huey's, Alex's Tavern, and the Belmont Grill. Dyer's deep-fried hamburger is the greasy measuring stick that all other Memphis burgers are evaluated against. Or head south, to Holly Springs, Mississippi, for Phillips Grocery's heavenly burger, a ham-hamburger-bacon-and-cheese combo that, frankly, is a heart attack waiting to happen. -- Andria Lisle

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At Viet Hoa, you can get a peek into the basket of Encore owner/ chef Jose Gutierrez. He shops here. ("Because I always find something different. Sometimes it's good, other times I spit it out and try again," he says with a laugh.) This afternoon he's eyeing lychee, a fragrant, plum-like fruit, but settles instead on sugar cane, coconut, tamarind (a spice used in Asian cuisines), and cilantro.

At Food Hunter on Highland, owner Susan Somboonna carries an impressive assortment of Thai products. Today she recommends the mor gang, a baked taro custard made with coconut milk. Warm from the microwave, it's a sweet, satisfying comfort food, similar to pumpkin pie filling.

For all things Middle Eastern, the Jerusalem Market on Summer fills the bill. In addition to a bakery and restaurant, this may be one of the few places locally where you can purchase fresh lamb and goat meat. Several Mexican markets also bake their own traditional breads and sweets. At La Espiga at Summer and Graham, you can shop at the supermercado and panadería (bakery) and then enjoy homemade tortillas at the adjoining restaurant. For fresh spices, drop by the Regal Indian Grocery on American Way. They offer a tasty assortment of Indian products. -- Jane Schneider

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Japanese has become synonymous with sushi, but there's a lot more to this country's cuisine. Drive down Summer and visit Edo, Memphis' oldest Japanese restaurant. Edo specializes in traditional dishes and is quaint, rather than sleek, and the service is superb. Try the tonkatsu (a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet served with cabbage), yakitori (chicken kabobs), or a heaping pot of shabu shabu (a traditional soup of thinly sliced meat, tofu, and vegetables). For dessert, don't pass up the tempura fried ice cream.

Just across the road from Edo is the Nagasaki Inn, which specializes in Teppanyaki, a type of Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook food, also known as hibachi. The chef performs a small show for the customers while preparing your choice of beef, chicken, or shrimp. Each item is served with fried rice, mung bean sprouts, and grilled vegetables. You can't beat the kitschy Summer Avenue feel. -- Stacey Greenberg

GOTTA TRY: Jacksonville Roll at Sekisui (spicy crawfish with seared tuna on top -- fajita seasoning is the secret ingredient!); Joyce or Jillian Roll at Sakura

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Take the kids out to restaurants to expose them to new foods and to have an enjoyable family experience. (And chicken tenders on the kids' menu and butcher paper on the table do not equal kid-friendly.) Seek out places with fast, friendly service, a menu that boasts fresh and nutritious foods, and a vibrant atmosphere. Particularly good is Pete & Sam's for their ability to handle large groups (where the kids sometimes outnumber the adults). The assortment of bread, crackers, and butter on the table helps keep the kids busy until the food comes. Hit menu items include mini pizzas, ravioli, and Italian spinach. El Porton's got speedy service and ample chips and dip. Plus, the volume from people talking and enjoying their meals is always loud enough to mask the ruckus going on at you table. -- Stacey Greenberg

GOTTA TRY: Ella Kizzie's peach cobbler (the best on the planet) or her greens and hot-water cornbread served at the Center for Southern Folklore

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It's 1:30 on a Saturday, we're talking a.m., and after a long night of weekend-prompted debauchery, you've got the munchies. If you're still on Beale, head for Blues City Café to prevent your looming hangover. The institution stays open until 3 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 5 a.m. on weekends. You might not be able to stomach the crab au gratin after a diver from Silky's, so go for a sausage-and-cheese platter or try the "World's Best Tamales." Get a plate of 12 for you and your entourage, order a side bowl of chili, and you might even feel good enough to get 40s at Raiford's afterward.

If you've been partying in Midtown, swing by Alex's Tavern, the local dive that stays open until the wee hours of the morn serving cheeseburgers and chicken tenders hot out of the fryer. Added pluses at this hole in the wall are the shuffleboard table and the big-screen TV -- happy diversions to keep the drinker and the driver entertained until 3 a.m., when owner Rocky closes shop. Just be sure to check your attitude at the door and share the facilities, and your food, with the regulars. -- Sarah Galpern

GOTTA TRY: lasagna at Pete & Sam's; lasagne at Café Toscana -- superb

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The meat-and-three diner may be a dying breed of restaurant, but this staple of Southern cuisine is firmly entrenched in the Bluff City. While trendy bistros come and go, the Cupboard marches on, dishing up steaming piles of eggplant-and-cracker casserole, perfect fried green tomatoes, fresh-sliced cucumbers, and a wide range of main courses. People who think Memphians are fussy about their barbecue have never tasted Gus's spicy fried chicken or visited Ellen's Soul Food. They have certainly never heard a fan of the heaping plate lunches at West Street Diner explain at length why Germantown may be the dining capital of the universe. For great greens, stop by Alcenia's in the Pinch and be sure to drizzle a little habenero vinegar over the top.

Fried corn? Fried pickles? Fried okra? Mac-n-Cheese? All the major vegetable groups can be found in Memphis diners, served with greasy cornbread muffins, thick biscuits, fluffy yeast rolls, and maybe even a couple of vegetables that aren't either fried or slow-cooked with ham hock.

Although many of Memphis' famous meat-and-threes, such as Ferguson's and the Leech Family Restaurant, have closed shop, fans of country-fried steak, baked ribs, and chicken-and-dumplings are still well served by comfortable neighborhood eateries like the Barksdale, the Cottage, and Audubon Cafe. For an Italian twist (with a hint of New Orleans), Dino's Midtown diner is as quaint as they come, and folks who don't want their lungs tainted with secondhand smoke while hardening their arteries with gallons of creamy sausage gravy can always visit Blue Plate.

One meat and three vegetables isn't enough, you say? Then stop by the Gayhawk on Danny Thomas some Sunday afternoon for their after-church buffet. God is good indeed. -- Chris Davis

GOTTA TRY: Monte Cristo at Fresh Slices; Memphis Po'Boy at Soul Fish (a pork sandwich with bacon!); muffaletta at Dino's -- old-skool

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If the great culinary axiom of the South is that everything tastes better battered and fried, then the Memphis-centric corollary is that everything tastes better with the addition of a little barbecued pork: pizza, spaghetti, salads, baked potatoes. And, most definitely, nachos. Yes, Memphis turned a shabby snack of tortilla chips and processed "cheese" goop into a full-fledged meal by heaping slow-cooked pork, sauce, and spices on top. In the decade or so since barbecue nachos debuted as Bluff City ballpark food, it's become a dish that defines us. AutoZone Park is still the finest place to feast, but barbecue nachos have invaded restaurant menus as well. They're particularly satisfying at Central BBQ.

Then again, if you're more of a nachos traditionalist, you have to start with the built-for-two Mr. Bruce's Nachos at Molly's La Casita, where a combination of spicy cheese dip, the city's tastiest refried beans, and the restaurant's chili gravy make up the zestiest nachos you'll ever eat.

click to enlarge BBQ sandwich from Payne's BBQ - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
And with assembly-line Southwestern joints all the rage, there's no better place to watch your nachos getting made than Swanky's, where better, fresher ingredients make all the difference. -- Chris Herrington

GOTTA TRY: the Newport at Café 61

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Once upon a time and not so very long ago, going out for Irish in Memphis meant trotting down to Murphy's, Silky's, or some other neighborhood hooch-and-blarney palace to drink a cold pint of Miller, chow down on a good old-fashioned American burger, and (if you're lucky) get into a fight with your brother-in-law, the flaming idiot.

Now, thanks to two relatively new eateries in downtown and Midtown, Memphians can settle in to a plateful of shepherd's pie and soda bread served by somebody who sounds suspiciously like a leprechaun (or a pirate) any night of the week. The Dan McGuinness Pub in Peabody Place Mall gets props for being a chain in a mall that doesn't feel anything like a chain in a mall. The pints are cold, the Bushmills flows, and the menu is a mix of souped-up Irish classics and bistro fare. The fish and chips are fine at Dan's place, but nothing on the menu beats their sausage-wrapped scotch eggs.

Like Dan McGuinness, Celtic Crossing in Cooper-Young takes traditional food and tops it with stout Irish beer sauce. It's an eclectic but homey place where you can start with Galway Bay mussels and potato wedges, then move on to a main course of not-so-Celtic jerked chicken. The fish and chips smell like the end of the rainbow and are easier to finish than Finnegans Wake.

Don't feel like driving? The T.J. Mulligan's franchise mixes an Irish theme with live music and classic bar food in every corner of Shelby County. And if you've got to have something Irish while you're there, the hearty stew laced with potatoes and turnips is O' so good. -- Chris Davis

GOTTA TRY: oatburgers at Square Foods (original Squash Blossom recipe); Olive and Almond Cake at Meditrina; Ocean Pyramid at Sekisui

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For a traditional short stack and other enticing varieties, including butter pecan or cinnamon raisin, you can't go wrong at the city's veteran breakfast place, the Blue Plate Cafe. Pancakes here come with a generous pat of butter and a hot carafe of maple syrup. Like many traditional diners, breakfast is served all day long at the East Memphis and downtown locations; if you can tough out the weekend wait, you won't be sorry.

Any comfort-food connoisseurs must try the sweet-potato pancakes at the Arcade on South Main. A delectable twist on the original, these huge cakes are of the moist, rich variety, but they still maintain their fluffiness. Let them soak in some maple syrup while you're eating the grits and eggs that accompany the dish, and they'll taste, if possible, even better.

If you really want to try something different, go for the potato pancakes, traditionally called "latkes," at Cooper-Young eatery Buns on the Run. Fried crispy on the outside yet still soft in the middle, these German specialties arrive dusted in powdered sugar and with a side of the restaurant's homemade Red Hot applesauce to dip them in. -- Sarah Galpern

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It's funny to read stories about Memphis' contentious barbecue culture written by Yankee journos beamed in for an off-the-wall food feature in Urban Hunting Quarterly. The story is always the same: "wet v. dry," or "Corky's: awesome or awesomest ever?" Locals know that's nothing like what you hear on the brutally hot streets of 'Cueville, where a man's rib, like a man's faith, is respected, or at least not talked about in good company.

In Memphis, there are things everybody seems to agree on (like Willingham's WHAM rub), and when people argue, they argue over the relative merits of picking up drive-through at the Top's on Union or the Top's on Summer. Real evangelicals -- and we have our share -- tend to preach the holy gospel of side and specialty items:

"I love the Cornish game hen at Cozy Corner, but when it comes to the slaw -- and it is about the slaw -- the Rendezvous mustardy cabbage is better than a whiskey shot on Sunday."

That's how it goes down on the bluff.

Here converts rave like AA members about how they used to crave the pulled pork at the Bar-B-Q Shop or Payne's, lost 20 pounds since discovering Interstate's smoked turkey. Zealots swear that Neely's spaghetti cures their psoriasis and makes you want to be a better person.

Every neighborhood has a barbecue gang who pimps their corner joint as the total package. In parts of Midtown, people stand by Central BBQ like Tammy Wynette stood by her man, and the wicked desserts and choice of vegetables at the Germantown Commissary give the suburbanites a good reason to crow.

So, to edify the hordes of out-of-town writers who'll Google "Memphis Barbecue" next May, it's not all about "wet v. dry." It's about wet and dry, the sweet and the spicy, gospel, country, and the blues. The City of Good Abode is a dining utopia built on negatives, where magnificently roasted pig is as inescapable as Memphis' inclusion on semiannual lists of "America's fattest cities." That's our blessing, our curse, and the story.

(RIP: Blues City Café Chef Bonnie Mack. A finer rack there never was.) -- Chris Davis

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Is a good meal really worthy of being a road trip's goal? Of course it is, and there are tons of great restaurants within a couple hours drive of Memphis. John T. Edge's Southern Belly and Jane and Michael Stern's Roadfood are terrific guidebooks to the kind of authentic eateries worth seeking out, but we've got a few suggestions too.

If you're a carnivore, you may never have a better meal than at Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi, which has been operating out of the same little white house in a rough residential neighborhood since 1941. Opening the front door, you step immediately into the kitchen, where two-, three-, and four-pound steaks are coming off the broiler and fresh-made tamales are being pulled from a steaming pot. Pop the latch on the cooler and help yourself to a cold beverage. Finally, weave through the serving area where potatoes are being skillet-fried and salads are being soaked in a lemon-juice-based dressing. Take your place at a simple dining table, probably with mismatched chairs. Pay no attention to the ceiling that looks like it's about to cave in. Don't bother looking for a menu, because there won't be one. Just feast.

The drive to Greenville is a haul, but Doe's is worth it. If you want something a little bit closer, another Doe's location -- the oldest of the restaurant's franchises -- is in Little Rock, where much of the charm and amazing food of the original have been retained. Or, en route to Little Rock, allow yourself to be pulled in by a couple of ace barbecue restaurants: Craig's in DeVall's Bluff, where the peppery sauce is a different world from the sweeter varieties that dominate Memphis, and Gene's in Brinkley, where local color is almost more enjoyable than the good 'cue and better catfish. -- Chris Herrington

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Even though this list is all over our favorite dishes and restaurants, there may come a time when you want to eat at home.

Or maybe it's not that you want to but that your wallet demands it.

Either way, it's time to cook. And that means supplies.

Lit, a restaurant-equipment and supply company near AutoZone Park on Union, is a cavernous space full of everything you would ever need to prepare, cook, or serve food. Though open to the public, Lit's prices seem downright wholesale, so it's perfect when you're planning a party.

For the self-proclaimed foodie, that special species of upscale diner well-versed in food and drink, the Williams-Sonoma outlet on Spottswood is the place to be. With beautifully designed dinnerware, brightly colored cookware, high-end gadgets, and elegant cookbooks, Williams-Sonoma lets you bring the ambience of fine-dining home. Actually, it will make your kitchen look good even if you rarely go in it.

If you're a seasoned chef, Forty Carrots on Sanderlin is a treat. The store sells gourmet kitchen accessories and tools, pots and pans, peppercorn blends, exotic olives, and we hear they have a great new garlic mincer that actually minces garlic instead of crushing it.

But even if you're a complete novice in the kitchen, Forty Carrots is worth a look. The staff all cook -- and cook well -- so they can answer any questions about what exactly you need and how exactly you use it. -- Mary Cashiola

GOTTA TRY: sticky rice and mango dessert at Jasmine; spinach and artichoke dip at Boscos; shrimp and grits at Paulette's or City Grocery in Oxford

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Spaniards tend to eat a late dinner, typically between 9 and 11 p.m. To pass the time, they often go bar hopping (ir de tapas) and, while there, usually munch on a few tapas. Tapas are little bites of food sold in bars. Sometimes they are included in the price of the drinks, in which case the tapas might just be a few olives or a piece of cheese.

In Memphis, you can enjoy this Spanish tradition at Dish, which offers an extensive tapas menu and cheese selection. However, other restaurants such as Tsunami and Meditrina offer a "small plate" menu with tasty bites that can easily make for dinner. Also available at those two restaurants is a mezze platter with enough goodies to share with you bar-hopping friends. Mezze is similar to tapas, and it is a tradition that extends from Turkey into the Balkans and as far as the Middle East. -- Simone Wilson

GOTTA TRY: Tuscan Sun panini at Miss Cordelia's; tempura fried ice cream at Edo

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Sweet, sour, bitter, and salty are four basic tastes our tongue can detect.
click to enlarge Mr. Bruce's Nachos from Molly's La Casita delivered by waitress Carie Newton - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Mr. Bruce's Nachos from Molly's La Casita delivered by waitress Carie Newton
However, in recent years taste experts have said that the matter isn't that simple. When eating, taste buds are helped by the sense of smell, by the feel and texture of food in your mouth, and even by the noise that food makes when you chew it. So master tasters decided to add a fifth taste called umami, a word and concept that has been known in Japanese culture for a long time. It's hard to translate: Suggestions include savory, essence, pungent, deliciousness, and meaty. Umami is about the perfect balance of the four tastes and the engagement of all the senses.

Does umami exist at the Southern table? Peaches, grits, tomatoes, barbecue? "Tomatoes, yes. A perfectly ripe tomato has umami, and a barbecue sauce that's not too sugary could have umami too," says Jorge Noriega of Meditrina, who, during his tenure at Wally Joe restaurant, created a dessert called Umami. "You can pretty much find umami in every cuisine because the ingredients have it." Noriega suggests a tomato sauce made with some umami-rich tomato paste and peak-of-the-season tomatoes, a bit of parmesan cheese, a glass of good red wine, and a well-done mole that comes in many variations but almost always boasts umami-rich chocolate as a signature ingredient. -- Simone Wilson

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It may be the barbecue capital of the world, but Memphis is home to plenty of animal-free eating options. Try the vegan tacos at Precious Cargo Coffeehouse, made with veggie-burger crumbles, casein-free soy cheese, banana peppers, and other veggies on a whole-wheat tortilla. They also offer vegan lasagna, faux-chicken quesadillas, and more.
click to enlarge Burger from Huey's - JUSTIN FOX BURKS

R.P. Tracks is famous for vegetarian and vegan barbecue tofu nachos, but the menu also features tofu and veggie burritos, a barbecue tofu sandwich, a veggies and rice entrée, and delicious roasted-pepper hummus. -- Bianca Phillips

GOTTA TRY: vermicelli with spicy beef and lemon grass at Pho Vietnam; the veggie plate at Zinnie's East, especially the fried okra and Mac-n-Cheese

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So you just noshed on a 14-ounce rib-eye steak at Buckley's in East Memphis, and you're not exactly feeling supermodel thin. Just visit the ladies' restroom and its special "skinny mirror" will have you feeling slim again in no time.

Receive an education in foreign culture while you pee at the Romano's Macaroni Grille. A tape plays over the bathroom's P.A. system with common Italian phrases, like "Oops, I forgot my passport."

The formerly not-so-fresh girl's room at the Young Avenue Deli was recently re-vamped and painted with an artsy flower motif. Now the place could probably win the award for cleanest bar bathroom in Midtown. -- Bianca Phillips

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Extra-large: Feel like a hot dog? Drive across the river to Big John's Shake Shack in Marion, Arkansas, where they serve a meaty hotdog that seems as big around as your arm. Slather some onion, relish, and chili on that thing, and you'll spend half an hour chomping it down.

But for other treats, there's no place quite like the Big Foot Lodge, whose entire menu seems designed to please Paul Bunyan.

click to enlarge Olive and Almond Cake from Meditrina - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
Most people have, by now, probably heard of the Sasquatch burger, a whopping four pounds of meat served on a bun the size of a catcher's mitt. With all the fixings, the whole thing weighs more than seven pounds -- about the weight of a newborn. Eat that thing -- the burger, not the baby -- in less than an hour, and not only do they refund the $19.99 price, you get your name and photo added to the Hall of Fame. Since it opened more than a year ago, however, nobody has met the challenge. Instead, more than 500 contenders -- whose eyes were bigger than their stomachs -- have their names listed on Big Foot's Hall of Shame. -- Michael Finger

click to enlarge dg_X.jpg
The Internet might seem to go together with food like, well, Natural Light during dinner at Frank Grisanti's. But where Memphis, food, and cyberspace meet is actually quite a busy intersection.

The Internet is great at making our lives easier, and one of the Web's niftiest amenities can be found at OpenTable.com. There you can make reservations online weeks in advance for some of Memphis' finest restaurants, including Texas de Brazil, Yia Yia's, and Bari.

Hungry but don't know where you should go? Check out MemphisDining.com. The name says it all, and the site breaks down restaurants into categories such as cuisine type and location. There's also a bit of online democracy with diner ratings and comments.

A successful dining experience depends on much more than the taste of the food. Nobody knows that better than a parent. Stacey Greenberg, a Flyer contributing writer, chronicles her experiences -- good and bad -- eating out in Memphis with her kids on her blog Dining with Monkeys (diningwithmonkeys.blogspot.com). Not every restaurant is child-friendly, or child-accessible, or even child-survivable, and Greenberg is happy to take one for the team to determine that information for more timid parents. She parses kid's menus, tests the waters of bar/restaurants (good experiences at R.P. Tracks and Young Avenue Deli), and endures the wrathful stares of put-upon waitstaff. And writes about it, of course. She's deserving of a civic award, for sure.

Most people eat fast food on a regular basis, but it seems like few want to talk about it. Good information on the taste and quality of fast food is hard to find. Thankfully we have Back Yard Blogger (backyardblogger.livejournal.com). For her, no value meal goes unturned. Back Yard Blogger (civilian name: Chrissy White) is one part Pauline Kael, one part Veronica Mars, and one part Birdie the Early Bird. Back Yard Blogger has written a stream-of-conscious description of trying for the first time Taco Bell's Chicken Caesar Grilled Stuft Burrito. She's weighed in on the issue of whether or not Steak n Shake is fast food (her opinion: yes). And she has pronounced that "if I was a steak sandwich from Jack Pirtles, I'd eat myself."

So would we. -- Greg Akers

GOTTA TRY: Yum Tofu or Yellow Curry Tofu at Jasmine; the Yeti (18 scoops of ice cream) at Big Foot Lodge; Young Avenue Deli fries

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They're able to clear up sinus cavities with a single swallow, possess the power to melt your brain with the tiniest nibble, and can take you from 0 to 100 mph in a heartbeat: We're talking about the red-hot spices that put the zing, zang, and zowie into a Memphis meal. When ordering a plate of ribs at Cozy Corner, stick to the mild- or medium-temperature varieties, unless you've got a cast-iron stomach -- otherwise, the amount of toothpicks piercing your order will neatly correspond to the number of Tums you'll be downing after lunch. At Gus's Fried Chicken, of course, heat and beak go hand-in-hand, particularly when red pepper tops the list of secret spices that create the perfect mahogany-hued bird. Perusing the menus at the Vietnamese restaurants that dot the Cleveland Street corridor? Beware of the lemongrass, which turns the volume up past 10, even on innocuous-sounding tofu dishes. RIP: Royal Dragon and its Thai larb, which, as the menu poetically explained, was guaranteed to make you "cry silently." -- Andria Lisle

click to enlarge Sasquatch burger from Big Foot Lodge carried by Megan Millican - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Sasquatch burger from Big Foot Lodge carried by Megan Millican

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