Spice of Life

Ethnic eateries find their niche in the local dining scene.



Over the last decade or two, Memphis has built up a respectable lineup of ethnic restaurants. There's Salsa for California-style Mexican, Saigon Le for Vietnamese, Sekisui for sushi and other Japanese fare, Bari for the seafood-based cuisine of Southeastern Italy -- just to name a few.

But in recent years, that proliferation has been particularly dramatic, especially downtown. For a long time, Pancho's on Second Street was the only Tex-Mex option. (Many Memphians remember when Pancho's was about the only place to get an enchilada or chile relleno.) Then in 2006 five new Mexican restaurants opened within months of each other: Sgt. Jalapeno's Tortilla Factory, The Happy Mexican, Rio Loco, Quinto Patio, El Pollo Grille and Mexican Cantina.

Of course, downtown Memphis is a strong market, given all the convention-goers and tourists from out of town, the ever-growing number of downtown residents, and area suburbanites who venture in for basketball and Redbirds games, festivals, Beale Street, and other amusements. But importantly, it demonstrates how the Memphis restaurant scene is a prime beneficiary of the city's growing ethnic population: All are operated by Hispanics who've settled in Memphis from either south of the border or just north.

Downtown isn't the only part of town boasting a restaurant boom. In general, so many eateries have opened in the last two to three years in the Memphis area that it's hard to keep up with them all. In addition to the Asian, Italian, and Mexican places we describe below, others abound. To wit: Meditrina (operated in the former Café Samovar by Tsunami's Ben Smith), The Majestic (where Gordon Biersch used to be), Inn at Hunt Phelan, and Encore (Chef Jose Gutierrez's bistro) in Downtown Memphis; Tower Room American Grill (atop Clarke Tower), River Oaks (bistro at Poplar and I-240), and Fleming's Prime Steakhouse in East Memphis; and in the suburbs, Bittersweet (New England seafood eatery in Cordova), Boiling Point Seafood & Oyster Bar (Southaven), and Christopher's (fine dining turned bar and grill in Millington).

New establishments also serve other ethnic fare. Caspian Persian restaurant in East Memphis introduced the cooking of Iran to Memphis diners, while Blue Nile brings Ethiopian cuisine to Collierville. For Middle Eastern, Al-Rayan has opened on Cleveland Street in Midtown, while Casablanca Café in Cooper-Young represents the return of restaurateur Aimer Shtaya, who had operated the former Morocco Café.

MEXICAN:

The Mexican restaurants around here seem to fall into three categories, the first of which is Hispanic home-cooking such as Taqueria Guadalupana and El Pollo -- cheap, filling, and no-frills decor. At others, such as Rio Loco and Happy Mexican, El Porton or Molly's La Casita, diners order mainly Tex-Mex fare from the menu. (Some restaurants have elements of both types.) Third are the casual built-to-order places such as Swanky's Taco Shop and Fuego's Fresh Mexican Grill. Here you go down a cafeteria-type line and pick what you want in your burrito, salad, or other choice. The last few years have seen incredible growth in all three categories.

El Pollo actually operates out of The Complex, an alternative nightclub on Madison Avenue that recently added a kitchen, from which it serves basic Mexican fare all day long. Opened in 2004, Los Compadres in Midtown is a popular place where the booths quickly fill up with young families and students.

As for the traditional sit-down type of Tex-Mex restaurant, The Happy Mexican (on Second Street behind the National Civil Rights Museum) prides itself on food that's freshly made, even to the point of mashing the avocado for guacamole and chopping the salsa ingredients to order. Fajitas and quesadillas are best sellers, and its margaritas are handmade. Rio Loco opened in the former Buckley's restaurant on Union Avenue in January 2006, featuring a large menu of authentic fare and jumbo margaritas at the bar. The owners also operate El Patron in Bartlett, which serves a similar menu.

In Midtown, Garcia Wells Southwestern Grill opened in spring 2006 on hallowed ground: the former location of TGI Friday's at Overton Square. Also new to that part of the city is Las Margaritas, which operates at 1839 Union Avenue.

The casual build-your-own style restaurant was made famous in the industry by Chipotle Mexican Grill, a highly successful chain. In fact, the first of this type to open in Memphis was Chipotle competitor Moe's Southwestern Grill. In Memphis, Swanky's Taco Shop, opened in 2005, is known as much for its fresh pick-your-own-ingredients food bar as for its to-order platters, and its selection of 80 tequilas. Fuego's Fresh Mexican Grill and Blue Coast Burrito are other locally owned manifestations of this build-your-own cafeteria style of Mexican cuisine.

Even before all these new choices popped up, Memphis diners already had some great options, including Taqueria Guadalupana, Taqueria Guadalajara (great burritos, iffy neighborhood), and Los Reyes for Hispanic cooking. Molly's La Casita is beloved for its neighborhood friendliness, sublime red snapper, and founder Molly Gonzales' interpretations of Mexican classics. Salsa is a good-looking place with good food to match, making it a perennial favorite. Kid-friendly local chains such as El Porton and La Hacienda also have their fans.

ASIAN:

The idea of choosing your own ingredients is also a hot trend among Asian restaurants. While P F Chang's introduced this trend locally, lately Mosa Asian Bistro, Pei Wei Asian Diner, and Mama Fu's have joined the crowd with hip décor and menus where you pick the noodles/rice, vegetables, meat, and sauce you want for your made-to-order meal.

Mosa, tucked away in a Germantown shopping center, is owned and operated by Eddie Pao and his family, who know a thing or two about the Memphis market. Pao is also the proprietor of Formosa Chinese restaurant, which for 19 straight years was voted Best Chinese in Memphis magazine's readers' poll. In its heyday Formosa introduced many Memphis diners to spicy Asian fare, and one of the locations still operates on Quince.

As for Mosa, which opened in summer 2005, "we knew that in Miami, Los Angeles, and everywhere in California this style of restaurant is popular. So we were trying to get one into Memphis early," Pao says. His son Alex Pao manages the restaurant.

The chains have weighed in here, too, with their build-your-own, pan-Asian concepts: Mama Fu's Asian House was opened in East Memphis in early 2005 by the purveyors of Moe's Southwestern Grill, and Pei Wei Asian Diner in Midtown by the P F Chang's folks in 2006.

As for other Asian restaurants, Collierville has added STIX, a Japanese hibachi restaurant at Carriage Crossing, and Lee Kan's Asian Grill on New Byhalia Road, which features nontraditional Asian dishes such as pan-seared sea bass with soy sauce and white wine and the unspeakably hot "Fried Rice for the Brazen Fool."

In Midtown, Cleveland Street between Madison and Poplar Avenues has developed into a favorite destination for those seeking authentic Vietnamese fare. Recently, My Thanh Oriental Market expanded its restaurant offerings and a newcomer, Lobster King, opened in the same strip center where Pho Pasteur used to be. (Pho Pasteur has moved to larger digs on Poplar and renamed itself Pho Vietnam, but the soups and spring rolls are as delectable as ever.) Gussied up in time-honored Chinese restaurant style, Lobster King is an authentic Cantonese eatery that features a huge menu of fresh lobster and other seafood prepared in myriad ways as well as other dishes. The menu includes some not-for-every-palate fare such as fish bellies, so it's worth taking the time to communicate clearly with the staff. Lobster King and Lee Kan are certainly the most intriguing of this recent crop of Asian places.

On the other side of Cleveland, the old standby Saigon Le continues to serve up green mussels with French butter, crispy Saigon egg rolls, ginger-infused entrees, and other savory Vietnamese favorites to its many regulars.

Other established Asian favorites include Asian Palace on Covington Pike for incredible, varied, and authentic Chinese cooking. The Emerald in southeast Memphis is the original Thai restaurant in Memphis, but nearby Chao Praya is my favorite. Sawadii in downtown Memphis, Bhan Thai and Jasmine in Midtown, and Bangkok Alley and Ja-Ja's in the suburbs all have loyal followings for good reason. For sushi and other Japanese fare, the restaurants owned and operated by Jimmy Ishii have long been favorites. These include Sekisui (particularly the Humphreys Boulevard location) for more traditional Japanese, as well as Sekisui Pacific Rim or BlueFin for a more creative, pan-Asian menu. Other options include Fuji Café in Collierville and Mikasa in East Memphis.

Fans of Indian cuisine can find what they crave at India Palace in Midtown, Bombay House on Germantown Parkway, or Mayuri on Quince Road. All of them feature buffets as well as a full menu, depending on when you visit.

ITALIAN:

Memphis has always had plenty of old-fashioned Italian-American restaurants, thanks to immigrants who settled here early on. While Grisanti is the classic Italian restaurant family -- as Ronnie Grisanti & Sons, Frank Grisanti's Italian Restaurant, and Bolla Pasta continue to thrive -- the Coletta, Bomarito (Pete & Sam's), and Lucchesi families have made sure local diners would never want for pizza, homemade lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, or Italian salad. Some Midtown favorites include the Madison Avenue deli Fino's, and Marena's Gerani, a pretty but quirky neighborhood place.

Apparently, a city can never get enough Italian restaurants, judging from the steady stream of new places opening around town. Most of this activity is taking place in East Memphis and Collierville.

In East Memphis, Café Toscana has made its home in the former Aubergine location, with such dishes as shrimp with polenta and marinated bricked chicken, and management know-how that owners Lea and Giacomo Ciabattini gleaned from years of working at the chains Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden. The food is fresh and affordable, the atmosphere comfortable and upbeat. Just around the corner is Carrabba's Italian Grill, a chain that specializes in grilled meats and fresh seafood (a second location has been added in Collierville). Nearby on Perkins Extended, Old Venice Pizza Company serves 28 specialty pizzas plus a selection of 60 pizza toppings. Old Venice got its start on the Square in Oxford, Mississippi, nearly a decade ago, and lately has been adding locations in other cities. Among these three, Café Toscana is the brightest star.

In Collierville, Fino Villa opened at Poplar and Byhalia, bringing Italian fine dining to its suburban clientele. Its owners, the Sarwar family, also operate the Mexican chain La Hacienda and recently opened Grill 901, a casual steak and seafood place, next door to Fino Villa. Collierville's town square now has two excellent restaurants that specialize in from-scratch Italian cooking. Café Piazza by Pat Lucchesi operates in a restored house just off Collierville's town square and features house-made breads, pizza, pastas, and salad. It's a full-service restaurant, in contrast to the owner's previous enterprise, Lucchesi's Ravioli & Pasta. Across the square from Café Piazza is Pasta Italia. It is owned and operated by Michele D'Oto, a native of Modena, Italy, whose Biloxi, Mississippi, restaurant was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It features house-made ravioli, a marinated seafood salad, and daily fresh fish specials.

Conte's Italian restaurant, which opened on Madison Avenue in December 2005, is addressing the dearth of Italian restaurants in downtown Memphis: In recent years, we've seen none in that category, unless you count Spaghetti Warehouse or Cappriccio Grill Italian Steakhouse at The Peabody. Owner Pam Conte serves up the New York-style Italian cooking of her Staten Island childhood in the grocery and restaurant business, including details such as making sausage in-house and ordering pasta from the same Brooklyn company her family used back then.

Even all these new choices are not likely to appease those who complain that Italian-American is the only game in town. Bari in Midtown, Café Toscana, and Pasta Italia are good bets for diners of that mindset, since both are spaghetti-and-meatball-free zones where fresh ingredients are the focus. 

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