Photo by Steve LoweryThe older and wider-of-waist I get, the more I enjoy returning to the South periodically for short stays. Lord knows I hated Deliverance country when I was stuck in it as a youth with seemingly no means of escape. Of course, Deliverancewas set in Georgia, and I'm from somewhat-more-genteel North Carolina. Nevertheless, if you get yourself lost in some parts of the Tar Heel State, you're bound to come across a few retard rednecks playing the banjo, spittin' “chaw” and ready to “rassle” you for the chance to make you “squeal like a pig” à la Ned Beatty.
Arkansas is less populated than North Carolina and more likely to garner you that free cornholin' on some back road near the Delta, but I confess I found my visit a couple of weeks ago to Bill Clinton's homeland a refreshing break from SoCal. The weather was cooler than normal while I was there—enough to give me a taste of a Southern summer without the oppressive heat. The environs were lush, with dragonflies and hummingbirds all about, and the air was thick with honeysuckle. Like something out of Faulkner or Carson McCullers.
It was the memory of all this that hit me harder than a Bible belt on a wayward child's buttocks as I was passing through Santa Ana and spotted the banner for the restaurant Memphis hanging from a corner of the Spanish-revival Santora building. Suddenly, I was overtaken with the unhealthy desire for a tall mint julep in a frosty glass. Surely now, a place called Memphis would have one to slake both my nostalgia and my thirst.
Most of you are familiar with Memphis' older, slightly grungy cousin next to the Lab, but I've always found the Memphis Café a little too tattoo-friendly for my taste. The regulars there have slouching down to an art form, and I've never been convinced that those of us without nose rings are welcome. Memphis at the Santora has a breezier ambiance, with high ceilings, plenty of light, and a clean pistachio-and-burnt-orange interior that's marred only by the eatery's name on the walls in big letters. Just in case you forget where you are, I suppose.
My mint julep didn't exactly meet with my expectations, especially considering the $7 price tag. First off, it was served in a lowball glass. Technically, they are to be served in chilled silver tumblers, but that's a little too much to demand, I reckon. Still, a mint julep should be in a taller, fuller receptacle, just a bit smaller than a bucket—at least that's how we serve them where I'm from. But I'd forgive the size of the glass if my drink had been sweeter and greener. The word “julep”—passed down from an Old Persian word meaning “rose water”—refers to the mint sugar syrup created through the magic of mixology. Ideally, this should mask the harshness of the bourbon.
Forgive my persnicketiness. After all, I could have sent it back with instructions to the barkeep, but I chose to order some iced tea instead. Plus, the meal that followed made up for the drink.
Memphis' menu is more Southern-inspired than actually Southern but quite good. I nearly inhaled the four small, neatly circular crab cakes that were wading in a tangy, tomatoey sauce. I followed it up with one of the better house salads I've ever had: mixed greens bathed in a sherry vinaigrette with candied pecans. Why, I'd swap my grandmother to the Mormons for a can of candied pecans!
For the main dish, the buttermilk fried chicken breast with country gravy accompanied by potato pancakes and mustard greens sank me into a state of overengorged bliss. Why mustard greens, though? I wondered. Collards would taste better. But, of course, with collards comes the aroma, not unlike a drive through Chino with the windows down. So that could be it.
After all this, I felt like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life just as he's about to eat that wafer-thin mint. Didn't stop me from ordering a chocolate-and-pecan tart for dessert, which was light on the pecans and heavy on the brownie mix. I ate it all and miraculously didn't explode. (Well, not until later in a Chevron station on the way home.) For the folks at Memphis, may I suggest pecan pie for your dessert menu? My grandmother has a terrific recipe, and if I ever get her away from them dang Mormons, I'd be happy to share.
Memphis at the Santora, 201 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, is open Mon.-Wed., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Thurs. N Fri., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 5 p.m.-11 p.m. (714) 564-1064. Full bar. Lunch for one, $34, food only. All major credit cards accepted.