If a restaurant could tell a story, Memphis Cafe’s would be scribbled on a crinkled roadhouse napkin with southern gravy dribblings, speckled whiskey stains and grits, and it would be just one word: home. I’m sure every OC food-chaser has swung through the crooked-windowed squeaky front door at some point to brunch on the back patio, pony up to the tiny bar, or take a seat in the dimly lit dining room. If you’re lucky enough, you’ve dined in the classic trailer in the gravel parking lot.
“We’re coined as a southern place, but our original intent was to be regional American,” says chef Diego Velasco, his voice sounding remarkably like Charlie Day on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Velasco also offers seasonal specials, and among the handful of summer dishes and cocktails recently unveiled, surprisingly only one hits the plate with a steel slide guitar and southern drawl. The new items include a full hickory barbecue sampler spread and a blackened rib-cap steak.
I wasn’t shocked to see cornmeal-breaded, fried Washington oysters, complete with red beans and rice, topped with some cool summer zucchini mignonette. Add a few squirts of Red Rooster hot sauce, then chase it with the cubes of smoked pork belly sitting on the plate as though they’re crashing a party.
If you’re a fan of shrimp and grits, definitely give the Caledonian prawns a spin. This Baja California-inspired version is probably the only style of a shrimp dish not mentioned in the movie Forrest Gump. Tiny young corn are converted into convenient mini elotes, while beady-eyed prawns flex in a pool of green tomato conserva, daring you to rip off their heads and suck out the sweet, fatty bits as if you’re playing a kazoo. Mama always said not to play with your food, but damn this is some fun dining.
A must-get is the spice-crusted sea bass that sits atop bok choy and a scallion-ginger pancake. It eats like the pork of the sea, bursting with juices beyond the finely crusted tail fluke towering above the plate. Everything but the bones are edible; our table fought over the crispy, glazed tail fin that eats like umami chips.
Three new drinks join the list of classics: Retirement fills that Negroni void, and Melt Banana has a tiki vibe. But my pick for the summer drink of 2019 is Chai On Fire, in which mezcal, coconut rum, lime, honey, and chai-spiced tea come together in the most refreshing way. Bartender Phil Greyshock seemingly creates easy drinkers out of unlikely combinations. No fancy, clear, hand-chiseled cubes here; just well-crafted drinks worthy of getting a napkin dirty.
Memphis Cafe, 2920 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-7685; memphiscafe.com.
Greg Nagel has been writing about beer since 2011, is an avid homebrewer of wine, cider, and beer, is a certified Cicerone Beer Server, level 1 WSET in Wine, a podcaster with the Four Brewers Show, and runs a yearly beer festival called Firkfest happening on June 29th in Anaheim!