Photography by Justin Fox Burks
Tomato Tartar at Acre
For a food writer, compiling a top-ten list of best dishes is exhilarating and daunting. At first, I was flooded by possibilities, each demanding inclusion. Then I started worrying about criteria. Is dessert a dish? What about out-of-town bests like the grilled hot dogs and chocolate egg cream at Walter’s in New York or the impromptu chicken curry pulled together in my own kitchen?
Ultimately, I went with my instincts, writing down in random order the standout dishes I remember with affection from Memphis restaurants. To be fair, I ran the list by my husband, who is lucky enough to eat out often with me. Reviewing the list one last time, I found that many of my picks were simple and uncomplicated, reaffirming my belief that the very best food comes from the fortuitous blending of skill, people, and place.
Tomato Tartar at Acre
I haven’t had dinner at Wally Joe’s new East Memphis restaurant, but I have watched a summer evening settle in from a patio table at Acre with drinks and small plates. While I loved the soft-shell crab (it was crusted with root vegetable tapioca!), the star of the evening was tomato tartar. Joe likes to fuse international flavors with locally sourced food, and he does just that with this colorful picture on a plate: Chickpea panise fried in the shape of Lincoln Logs frame a mound of cubed tomatoes, Berber spices, goat cheese, and microgreens. Warmed by the panise, the goat cheese melts a little more with every bite, turning this pretty appetizer into a mini taste-trip to Morocco.690 S. Perkins (818-2273)
Trolley Stop Burger at Trolley Stop
“Know your farmer, know your food.”
Jill and Keith Forrester operate Trolley Stop Market as an extension of their mantra, “Know your farmer, know your food.” The restaurant’s eclectic home-cooked menu of wraps, pizzas, and plate lunches proves that farm-to-table cooking can be tasty and affordable. Nothing says this better than the restaurant’s signature beef burger, a hearty meal-on-a-bun. Turkey and veggie burgers are also available, but I can’t resist the grass-fed beef patty cooked to order and topped with lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, avocado, and two strips of crunchy bacon. Instead of chips, ask for a side of homemade potato salad, cooked with the skins on and lightly dressed.704 Madison (526-1361)
Banh Xeo at Lotus
I’m part of a dinner club of sorts that meets only at Lotus restaurant on Summer near Mendenhall. I love the restaurant’s funky feel and its charming proprietors, Joe and Hanh Bach, who have operated Lotus for more than 25 years. Ordering is easy, because I always eat the same thing: a specialty of the house called Banh Xeo, a crêpe that favors the French side of Vietnamese cooking. Baby shrimp, ground pork, green onions, and crunchy bean sprouts are stuffed into a paper-thin, rice-flour crêpe fried extra crispy. Dipping each messy bite into the Lotus fish sauce is essential, because the sauce’s freshly squeezed limes turn the savory crêpe filling into a lovely, harmonious whole.4970 Summer (682-1151)
Tuna Niçoise at Circa
John Bragg’s new Circa in the Regalia Center is a pleasure for all the senses, so settling on a single favorite dish was not easy. Initially, I picked Circa’s quail stuffed with polenta and chorizo, but I switched at the last minute to the restaurant’s tuna salad Niçoise, because I appreciate that a salad common to many lunch menus can have a unique personality. Served on a simple, square white plate, a mound of greens is anchored on each corner by tomatoes, pickled red onions, black olives, and potato salad flavored with chives and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Slices of seared tuna and a quartered hard-boiled egg rest on the salad’s top, forming a delicious crown of protein for a light drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette.6150 Poplar (746-9130)
Rum Raisin Paleta at La Michoacana
Made only with fruit and cream, paletas are refreshing and natural. They also are a great deal: $2 for a regular paleta or get one dipped in chocolate, sprinkles, or chopped nuts for an extra dollar.
I’m going out on a limb to say that the rum raisin paleta is the best Mexican ice pop at La Michoacana on Summer near Graham, but I’ve only tried three other flavors: lime, kiwi, and strawberry and cream. On any day of the week (52 weeks a year!), about 60 flavors are in rotation, and owner Rafael Gonzalez is happy to run through the list: cream pops like butter pecan, mocha, and pine nut, or icy pops like watermelon, pineapple, and cucumber and chili. Made only with fruit and cream, paletas are refreshing and natural. They also are a great deal: $2 for a regular paleta or get one dipped in chocolate, sprinkles, or chopped nuts for an extra dollar. La Michoacana, 4109 Summer
Beef Sashimi at Do¯ Sushi
Perhaps you think sushi is a food group that needs to disappear. If so, it’s time to give such fears a rest and head for Do¯ in Cooper-Young, where the sushi is friendly for folks who think they don’t like it. My favorite nonfish dish is the remarkably tender new-style beef sashimi, especially when paired with a Do¯ martini mixed with sake and vodka. Five slices of pink tenderloin are lightly seared around the edges and plated with grated ginger, chopped scallions, garlic, and fried shiitake mushrooms. The tenderloin floats in a pool of house-made ponzu, which is the best ponzu in Memphis thanks to its generous use of three different citrus juices. 964 S. Cooper (272-0830)
Turkey Club at Frank’s Deli
Frank’s Market and Deli is located on South Main and Vance, a few blocks from the offices of Memphis magazine, so each of my co-workers has a favorite sandwich. For Susan, it’s the egg salad. Greg is crazy about the Italian Businessman. For me, it’s Frank’s house-smoked turkey breast, a two-inch wonder of turkey, lettuce, tomato, apple-wood smoked bacon, and chipotle mayonnaise on white, wheat, or rye, toasted on the deli’s grill. Smoked in Frank’s basement every day (along with chicken, brisket, and ham), the turkey is moist and plentiful. In fact, the meat is stacked so generously that I pull off a few slices before I start eating, so I can taste tomato, bacon, and turkey in every bite.327 South Main (523-0101)
Crab Orzo at Bari
If foreign languages aren’t your forte, don’t worry that the menu at Bari is printed in Italian. Just remember two words: crab orzo.
If foreign languages aren’t your forte, don’t worry that the menu at Bari is printed in Italian. Just remember two words: crab orzo. The first time I ate this dish, I was convinced that some exotic mix of seasonings was at play. Paired with a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, the dish lingered in a rich and satisfying marriage of taste and texture. Turns out, Bari’s crab orzo is made with only five ingredients: orzo, garlic, oregano, lump crab meat, and slow-roasted tomatoes. The finesse of the dish comes from Chef Jason Severs’ affinity with the Puglia region of southern Italy and his skill at coaxing big taste from simple fare. Bari, 22 S. Cooper (722-2244)
Osso Bucco at Sweet Grass
Chef Ryan Trimm starts with Berkshire pork shanks from Newman Farm, but from there he adds his own magic: grits made with Mississippi shiitakes, smoked collard greens, and a mushroom jus that turns each flavorful forkful into a blissful sigh of contentment.
A few months ago, I served osso bucco at a dinner party, and a friend proclaimed with gusto, “This is the best osso bucco I’ve ever had.” I was flattered, but I knew the compliment meant he had never eaten osso bucco at Sweet Grass, a neighborhood bistro in Cooper-Young that features low-country cuisine from South Carolina. Like me, chef Ryan Trimm starts with Berkshire pork shanks from Newman Farm, but from there he adds his own magic: grits made with Mississippi shiitakes, smoked collard greens, and a mushroom jus that turns each flavorful forkful into a blissful sigh of contentment.Sweet Grass, 937 S. Cooper (278-0278)
Peach Beer Float at Grill 83
Combining Lindemans Peche Beer with a syrupy mix of peaches and cherries and a scoop of peach sorbet, Alen turned a summertime staple for children into a delicious adult treat.
The peach beer float I devoured at Grill 83 is the wild card on my top-10 list, included as a show of appreciation for innovative culinary gusto. Sadly, you won’t be able to try the float unless you recreate it at home or travel to Brussels, where Belgian chef Felix Alen headed after his two-day stint as guest chef at Grill 83. Alen’s Memphis in May dinner featured Belgian beers as beverages and ingredients in each course. The float was the dinner’s surprise finale. Combining Lindemans Peche Beer with a syrupy mix of peaches and cherries and a scoop of peach sorbet, Alen turned a summertime staple for children into a delicious adult treat.Grill 83 (inside the Madison Hotel), 83 Madison (333-1224)