Think Global, Eat Local
Unique international restaurants add authenticity and new flavors to a founding mission of Memphis in May.
Justin Fox Burks
When Memphis in May honored Japan for its inaugural celebration in 1977, Edo on Summer Avenue, the city’s first Japanese restaurant, wasn’t yet open, and Jimmy Ishii’s sushi was still a dozen years away. More than three decades later, Edo still serves crispy tempura and Sakura sauce, and Ishii’s Sekisui restaurants stretch from all over Memphis to three more states.
The city’s collective appetite also has moved beyond Asian food, evolving along with the population’s changing ethnic diversity. Many Memphians now embrace more exotic fare, such as Ethiopian fuul made with fava beans and spices, Cuban empanadas stuffed with cream cheese and guava jelly, and Venezuelan tostones stacked into plantain sandwiches filled with cabbage, avocado, chopped tomatoes, and shredded chicken.
Along with the city’s smorgasbord of international restaurants, some of which are profiled here, Memphis in May also celebrates international cuisines, a goal the organization has had since the beginning. “The public tends to identify Memphis in May with the Music Fest and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest,” says Jim Holt, the group’s president and CEO. “But an international focus is a primary purpose of the organization.”
This year, Memphis in May salutes the Republic of Panama, a country most commonly known as the land bridge between North and South America and as a commerce conduit with the Panama Canal. The country’s role as a cultural crossroads also contributes to its renowned cuisine, showcased at Memphis in May this year with the culinary accomplishments of Panamanian Chef Charlie Collins, who will headline several downtown events during the festival’s International Week Salute. A show at the Orpheum called “Viva Panama” will salute the country’s jazz, dance, and cuisine May 8th. Two days later, Chef Collins will team up with the Peabody’s Chez Philippe for multicourse dinners and wine pairings May 10th and 11th.
A barbecue team called Panama Knockout and led by Giovanni Dorati, who competes in Panamanian barbecue competitions, also will join the Memphis in May barbecue cooking contest May 15th-17th. “The spices are a little different,” Holt says about the barbecue he sampled during a visit. “But otherwise, Panamanian barbecue tastes like American barbecue, which isn’t that surprising considering our involvement with the country.”
Here’s a quick look at six restaurants that have taken root in Memphis over the past few years. Savor what they have to offer, while celebrating our city’s ever-increasing ethnic diversity.
Arepa & Salsa
Vibrant Venezuelan food, mango smoothies, and Friday-night salsa lessons.
Love at first bite is an apt description for naked arepas, a Venezuelan style of nachos. Made in house, arepas in this dish are cut into triangles, topped with lettuce, avocado, tomato, shredded beef or chicken, and drizzled with house sauce, which tastes a little like horseradish. Popular throughout Latin American countries, arepas resemble an American pancake and are made of cornmeal and then grilled to serve.
Another Venezuelan specialty called cachapa is a thicker version of an arepa and could easily be eaten for dessert. At Arepa & Salsa, the cachapa almost takes up an entire plate, enveloping warm cheeses and choice of meat. It is served with a small side of chopped lettuce and tomatoes and a tangy, Latin-style sour cream sauce, which counters the sweetness of the dish.
An equally popular menu item, tostones are thick slices of green plantain that are fried, flattened, and then fried again. The shredded chicken tostone is made with two slices of fried plantain stuffed with shredded chicken, lettuce, tomato, avocado, and cabbage and flavored with Arepa’s delicious house sauce.
Overall, the menu at Arepa & Salsa is simple. A few appetizers join arepas, tostones, and cachapas, along with specialty items such as a Venezuelan hamburger and Pabellon Oscar D’Leon, a variation of the country’s national dish. The restaurant also serves several natural juices including mango, pineapple, and guava that are fresh pressed and blended with ice-like smoothies.
Nestled in a strip of buildings on Madison Avenue close to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Arepa & Salsa has been open for business since September 2012. Chef and owner Marguel Polania is from Venezuela and the menu items are authentic dishes that she ate growing up. Painted a lively orange color, the restaurant feels friendly and fun, especially on Friday nights when customers can take complimentary salsa lessons. — Natalie LeDoux
Spirited Ethiopian dishes and a side of friendly customer service.
Many people might not know about Derae Restaurant’s enjera, a spongy Ethiopian flatbread for scooping up lentils, cabbage, and kale. But African truck drivers who pass through Memphis most certainly do. In fact, they call in orders, pull into Love’s Truck Stop on Lamar, and wait for owner Mohammed Omer’s prompt delivery. He charges $2.
“It’s two miles from here,” Omer said about the drive from his modest Ethiopian restaurant, located on Highland a short block south of Park. “I’ll deliver six meals at a time, or if they want to come to the restaurant, I put them in the car, drive them here, feed them, and then take them back.”
Other customers can expect similar attention from Omer, who lauds the culinary talents of Chef Zenub Abdurhaman, who is also his wife, with the same enthusiasm he uses to describe such dishes as fuul, an irresistible bowl of simmered fava beans topped with a foursome of Ethiopian chili powder, chopped serrano peppers, diced red onions, and creamy plain yoghurt that melts into the beans like a lazy cloud on a bright summer day. Eaten in Ethiopia for breakfast, fuul also works any time of day as a stand-alone dish or a side to the menu’s other spirited entrees.
Try spicy garlic chicken over basmati rice, a stew of sorts made with bell peppers and chopped chicken breast marinated in rosemary, pepper, and “secret spices.” Drizzle pureed cilantro chutney on the dish and finish each bite or two with a sip of Ethiopian spice tea, a blend of cardamom and cinnamon softened with milk and sugar.
Open for almost two years, Derae’s name is the phonetic pronunciation of Omer’s native city Dire Dawa, and the menu with its signature goat meat might seem too adventurous for some. But don’t hesitate. New guests will recognize Mediterranean flavors and ingredients, and Omer’s personable guarantee (“If you don’t like the food, I will pay you”) will put anyone at ease. — Pamela Denney
Evelyn & Olive
Jamaican spice, Southern flair, and a kiss of the Caribbean.
The laidback feel of island life and the comfortable ease of Southern culture come together seamlessly at Evelyn & Olive, where Jamaican spice and Southern tradition create a fresh taste all its own.
When Tony Hall and Vicki Newsom met in New York City, the kitchen was where they went to solve their problems, serving their favorite dishes to friends and neighbors during frequent parties at their home. When the two moved back to Memphis, their therapeutic hobby became a full-time job. Now open for two years, the restaurant brings together Hall’s Jamaican roots and Newsom’s native Memphis sensibilities, while paying tribute to each of their mothers — Evelyn and Olive.
A wide variety of menu options include traditional Jamaican favorites like jerk chicken and Kingston cabbage, and Southern tastes shine through in dishes like fried asparagus with horseradish sauce, an irresistible appetizer that won’t stay on the table for long. A variety of seafood choices also showcase the restaurant’s island influence, including elegantly served grilled jerk shrimp with a sweet mango barbecue sauce. Rotating weekend specials widen the scope of customary choices, with featured dishes from Southern fried catfish to Jamaican delicacies like oxtail and curry goat.
Hall frequently orders ingredients from across the country to ensure that selections at Evelyn & Olive are true to the Jamaican dishes he knew in childhood. An authentic strawberry puree used in many of the restaurant’s drink options makes his effort well worth the trouble, notably in the mango rum punch, a dangerously sweet cocktail reminiscent of Montego Bay beaches.
The laidback atmosphere and unique food at Evelyn & Olive make it a good fit for casual lunches, dinner dates, or happy hour with friends. Adventurous but not intimidating, Hall and Newsom create a menu that puts the focus on the most important things about dining: delicious food and good company. — Katherine Barnett
Savory Chinese comfort food in the shape of pretty crescent moons.
Commuters who travel the busy Poplar corridor just east of Kirby Road are likely to zip past 4Dumplings, but that would be a shame. Tucked in a strip mall, the restaurant’s apple green signage and casual American décor belie the restaurant’s signature dish: healthy Chinese dumplings made fresh every morning.
Filled with minced meat and vegetables and crimped at the edges into crescent moons, the house-made dumplings are steamed to order and served with tangy Asian slaw and owner Yalin Chang’s spirited explanation (for first-timers): “Move those two dumplings to the other side of the box,” she says, scooping up a bottle of rice vinegar and filling a section of the container with a pungent puddle for dipping. “The vinegar is most important, but people in Memphis like to add a little hot sauce or soy.”
A traditional comfort food in China popular for family celebrations, dumplings are not fried pot stickers, a misnomer Chang and her husband Gordon Wang intend on changing with dumplings stuffed with pork and Napa cabbage, chicken and celery, shrimp and squash, beef and bell peppers, and an unusually delicious vegetarian mix of corn, carrots, tofu, mushrooms, and chickpeas.
Already the restaurant, open since November, sells almost 400 dumplings a day, along with noodle bowls topped with braised pork belly, a unique red bean tapioca pudding, and an extraordinary meatball soup from Wang’s native Jilin Province. Overall, family recipes direct the kitchen at 4Dumplings, an unlikely venture for Wang, a pathologist, and partner Shelley Cui, a research physician for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Cui’s husband, Bo Tang, is also a restaurant partner.
“Shelley and I are both physicians, but we also love to cook,” Wang said. “With 4Dumplings, we want to serve healthy food, but we also want to do something good for other people.” — Pamela Denney
Cuban food and bold Caribbean flavor in downtown Memphis.
Caribbean flavor has found its place in the heart of downtown Memphis at Havana’s Pilón, where husband and wife team Marialys Gonzalez and Pedro Peña create a diverse menu influenced by the three places the couple has called home before settling in Memphis: Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
Fresh vegetables, herbs, and spices create a bold Caribbean taste for dishes at Havana’s Pilon without the heat of other Latin American fares. The menu features a wide variety of traditional favorites such as ropas viejas (translation: old clothes), a dish of shredded beef in a light tomato sauce with vegetables, and arroz con pollo, yellow rice with chicken. True to its island roots, selections also include authentic seafood delicacies such as shrimp mofongo and baked tilapia. For red snapper, call ahead to the restaurant’s Ali Almatrood, who will make sure the dish is ready for your arrival.
Few other restaurants in Memphis can claim sides like boiled yucca or fried plantains, served savory or sweet as amarillos, ripe plantains that are sweet and spiced, or tostones, green plantains mashed to perfection in a pilón, the wooden mortar and pestle that serves as the restaurant’s talisman. For a true island feel, choose from a drink selection of natural juices, tropical smoothies, milkshakes, or coconut water served straight from a split coconut.
After only a year of operation, Havana’s Pilón has garnered a dedicated lunch crowd of regulars who come back for its tropical dishes and wide offering of flaky pastry empanadas, made with ham, cheese, chicken, beef, or shrimp. The restaurant also makes a guava and cheese empanada for dessert, served hot and filled with cream cheese and fresh guava jelly.
Havana’s Pilón on Madison Avenue is open from breakfast until 8 p.m. and delivers to Midtown, Downtown, and Mud Island. — Katherine Barnett
Mayuri Indian Cuisine
A fine introduction to Indian food with an owner who is happy to share.
It’s easy to invent all kinds of wild reasons to justify visiting Mayuri Indian Cuisine at Quince and Kirby, be it lunch, date night, or cooking inspiration. Co-owned by Executive Chef Krishna R. Chattu and his business partner Srinivasa Reddy Malireddy since 2004, Mayuri offers a mix of specialties from Northern and Southern India. Chattu’s from Hyderabad in South India, and he worked his way up in restaurants in India to become an accomplished chef. Nowadays at Mayuri, he’s a natural host in the dining room, and his wife and his brother’s wife take care of much of the cooking.
Ordering at Mayuri is simple, especially if you order the same way every time: a dosa, a korma, a special naan, and a dessert called kheer. Under the “Madras Specialties” heading, the masala dosa description is innocuous at best. But order it, and two feet of thin, crisp rice crepe dwarfs a regular dinner plate. Tear off a piece of crepe with some warm curried-potato-and-pea filling and dip it into the cup of sambar, a pungent lentil vegetable soup, that comes alongside.
The vegetable korma entrée features a spicy, creamy curried coconut and yogurt sauce with mixed vegetables over rice. Garlic naan, stuffed with minced garlic, soaks up the sauce and complements it nicely.
Rice kheer is an absolute must for dessert. The creamy pudding dessert includes a jumble of raisins, rice, cashews, noodles, and tapioca in green cardamom-scented warm milk, and it cools and calms the palate.
In addition to serving up impressive meals, Chattu can be persuaded to share valuable cooking secrets, so novices can understand the nuances of the dishes he’s been perfecting his whole life. He’s generous like that, and his personable sharing elevates each meal at Mayuri. — Amy Lawrence