Photo by Steve LoweryIf the new Memphis restaurant in Santa Ana's Artists Village were actually in Memphis, Tennessee, there'd be a lot more "black food," like pigs' feet and okra and grits and luscious, grease-soaked flesh falling off neck bones and oxtails.
But Diego, Dan and Andy, who opened the original and much-venerated Costa Mesa version of Memphis seven years ago and just doubled their love with a new satellite (after years of permit and construction hassles), aren't black. And it would be unseemly of them to pretend that they were. (Are you listening, Eminem? Jim Rome? Will Smith?) What the boys dish out in their new Santa Ana restaurant is the equivalent of blue-eyed soul: while a place like Mossville in Long Beach is pure, empowered Aretha, Memphis is cool, kittenish Dusty Springfield. And there ain't nothing wrong with Miss Dusty Springfield, God rest her.
Diego's the chef (the menu's the same at both locations), and he has chops—no, he really does; their pork chops are quite good. The food is inventive and detail-oriented (salads have jicama and candied pecans and a sweet-and-tangy vinaigrette; the blue corn chicken salad is outstanding) without trying to slavishly imitate Southern soul cooking.
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The gumbo's hearty and spicy, but it's not nuclear, so it won't blow your lid off in teary-eyed pain. The catfish po'boy is a solid, golden fave—a thick slab of crusted fish on a fat roll, with crunchy onions and sweet tomato. I, as a big Jew, always get it without the horseradish mayo, and you can, too! But the apple-smoked BLT? You don't want to eat that dry, as I found out sadly the other day. There's nothing more pathetic than a dry BLT—and there's no regular, un-horseradished mayonnaise to be found in the joint, as that would be just plain wrong. Be a man. Eat the horseradish. The pulled-pork sandwich is a thing of gloppy, sloppy beauty, falling out of itself like a hooker in a tube top. It's home.
The new Memphis is a lunch-time fave for the handsome, clean-cut, office-dwelling geeks at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building down the street (and the soul-patched creatives from nearby ad agency DGWB), but they've all headed home for Irvine by the time dinner rolls around. That leaves the glorious dinner menu—pork chops and ribeye steaks and catfish and some kick-ass meatloaf and a hella good beet-and-goat-cheese salad—for the bohemian types who need to vary their diets once in a while from the Gypsy Den across the promenade. (You know, come to think of it, the Gypsy Den probably could have given me a little scoop of mayo had I scooted over there and asked. Need . . . to . . . think!)
More delicious even than the beet salad, though (seriously, it's really good), is the glam-kitten feel of the place. Dan, Andy and Diego are design snobs who care as much about vibe and mood and sense of place as any other element—and every element is perfect. Bathed in tangerine, rust and avocado (when did avocado come back, anyway?), the restaurant has light globes dropping from the ceiling like starbursts. The bar is impressive; it's massive, like my idea of God. And the booths in the windows are lit up at night like theatrical tableaux. Who's the star? You're the star! Being good isn't always easy, no matter how hard you try. But the boys of Memphis can knock out the meatloaf in their sleep. And damn, you'll look good eating it.
Memphis, located at 201 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, is open Mon., 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. & 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. & 5-11:30 p.m. (714) 564-1064. Full bar. Dinner for two, $40-$50, food only. All major credit cards accepted.