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.
What could this Latino Code, this conspiracy of calculus, mean? It's a riddle, wrapped in a tortilla, topped with sour cream. -- Greg Akers
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!)
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
GOTTA TRY: crabcakes at Mortimer's; crispy orange bean curd at Jasmine
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
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
GOTTA TRY: Godzilla Roll at Sekisui; Gustav Roll at Sakura; Grilled-shrimp cobb salad at Automatic Slim's
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
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
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
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
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
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.
GOTTA TRY: the Newport at Café 61
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
But for other treats, there's no place quite like the Big Foot Lodge, whose entire menu seems designed to please Paul Bunyan.
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