Rich Man, Po Boy

In 10 years, Memphis has become the center of Orange County's hipperati universe

Chatting with Valdez, you begin to notice he likes to bounce back and forth between a few choice buzzwords: "community," "scene," "like-minded individuals," each one preceded and followed by what seems like an endless stream of we/our/us pronouns. He's a very likable guy—the nicest guy in nightlife, some might argue—a well-connected cheerleader rooting not only for Costa Mesa but also the county at large.

Valdez is also, in more than just one respect, the new face of the Memphis Group, an instrumental part of their continued success but also, in a way, its future. After teaming with Bradley and Velasco—who, for the record, are also joined by an additional silent partner, Ryan Bradley—shortly after the Memphis Group opened another restaurant, Memphis at the Santora, in Santa Ana's Artists Village in 2001, the men focused on two main goals: continuing to build Costa Mesa's reputation for nightlife and laying the foundation for similar community-building in downtown Santa Ana.

Valdez's excitement is as contagious as it is refreshing: "We're going to make this place the Troubadour of the OC," he told me outside Detroit Bar one night, referencing LA's famed quaint rock & roll venue, "and I won't stop until that happens."

It was a bold declaration at the time—proud, not cocky—but it also hit upon something that the 21- to 25-year-olds of what Valdez calls "the new guard" had perhaps not yet been capable of admitting: that Orange County was going to be okay, that it was fine to really, truly be happy living here, and that, for the first time in a long time, people were actually investing in a nightlife scene that they, too, were proud to be a part of.

At the moment, the Memphis Group is well on its way to reaching the first goal—"Big things are coming up," Valdez promises, not the least of which involves a possible gig by some Very Big Critical Darlings from Brooklyn at Detroit Bar, but also the reopening of the Tin Lizzie, a quaint gay bar located across the street from Memphis Costa Mesa that Valdez, Bradley, Velasco and other investors purchased earlier this year, are in the process of remodeling and—most important, given community and all—will continue to operate as a gay bar.

Still, Santa Ana remains a challenge. The city agreed a few months ago to let the restaurant/bar and its neighbors extend their hours until 2 a.m. on the weekends, but total attendance and bar sales still fall short of those reached every week by their Costa Mesa properties. Valdez and Bradley hope that "Future Days," a new residency on the second, third and fourth Fridays of every month (an anything-goes freeform night along the lines of similar residences at bars such as Kitsch Bar and Avalon featuring DJ Eyad—who, in the interests of full disclosure, also happens to be my boyfriend) will gradually attract people to the area, but Valdez notes it won't be easy.

"The city's courting of all the new businesses for downtown was a bit premature, I think," he says. "Right now the biggest hurdle we face is that we're the only destination for the downtown area. With the exception of Original Mike's and a Tejano pool hall, there isn't another bar, like how Avalon [is located across the street from Detroit Bar] in Costa Mesa."

Yet despite this hurdle, Valdez's enthusiasm remains constant: "Santa Ana is one of the only realistic places in the county for people [in their 20s and 30s] to buy housing," he says, "and I think there is so much potential there. It's like Berlin, in a way, with all kinds of influences converging, and artists and people are beginning to think on the same plane and come together.

"But as far as the redevelopment of downtown, it is just that—a downtown. It needs to be a downtown area, not a Starbucks."

Artists Village residents, such as OC/LA hair stylist/studio/gallery owner/DJ Chris Hall, agree: "[Santa Ana] needs to focus on the arts, but at the same time there needs to be an infrastructure in the Artists Village," Hall says. "Places to eat, places to drink—but it's an artists' village, not a Gaslamp [San Diego's downtown barhopping borough]. Anything that goes in [to the village] that is like Memphis would be infrastructure for it."

Indeed, 10 years on, it seems that, for a number of county residents, the phrase "like Memphis" no longer merely implies high-quality DJs, or affordable drinks—or even painfully delicious pan-fried chicken—but rather something far greater: what it means for you—and your neighborhood—when Bradley, Vasquez and Velasco move in.

"They've been very active and involved in what happens in the Artists Village," remarks Hall. "[Bradley] has been working with the Business Improvement District and the Artists Village Association. He lives and owns a business in Costa Mesa and yet spends a lot of time [in Santa Ana]. He's not just throwing a restaurant down there just to make mad cash."

* * *

"I personally would love to do a small hotel," Valdez continues matter-of-factly when elaborating on the Memphis Group's plans for the future. "I'd like to continue to just give back, to challenge ourselves and challenge the area—scoop up an Ali Baba [motel, along the 55 in Costa Mesa] and turn it into a 25-suite, three-rooms-to-a-suite boutique hotel."

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