photographs by Justin Fox Burks
Chevy vs. Ford. Democrat or Republican. Dogs or cats. Just about anything is subject to a debate these days. But these topics are easy ones; each is an either/or choice, and if you still can’t make up your mind, just flip a coin.
The conversation gets a lot more complicated when it comes to food, because the options, it seems, are endless. Just ask who serves the best barbecue in town, or grills the best steaks, or even dishes out the best desserts, and you won’t get a quick answer.
So we make it easy on you with our annual readers restaurant poll, the only definitive survey in town. More than 2,000 voters gave us their top picks in 47 different dining-related categories, and with online safeguards in place (only one vote per person, for example) we are convinced the results are accurate. If our readers decided that Muddy’s offers the best sweets in town, you won’t be disappointed by their selection.
New this year is our method of announcing the winners. In the past, we presented gold, silver, and bronze medals to the top three finishers. That system works well for the Olympics, but we felt that some establishments were being shortchanged. Sometimes, as it turned out, only one vote separated the third-place finishers from others in that category. So for 2012, we present a grand prize to the top finisher (denoted with larger bold type), and then we name (whenever possible) four other finalists who also received enough votes to deserve recognition.
Some of the old standbys are here, as they should be, but you’ll see some new names taking home the top prize this year as well. It’s proof that the restaurant scene is alive and well in Memphis, and nothing could make us happier.
Congratulations to all the winners, and bon appetit!
BEST RestaurantRestaurant Iris Folk’s Folly Sweet Grass Erling Jensen Majestic Grille
BEST New RestaurantThe Elegant Farmer Acre Cheffie’s The Brass Door
Best PizzaMemphis Pizza Café Trolley Stop Market Mellow Mushroom Old Venice Pizza Co. Garibaldi’s
Best MexicanLas Delicias Las Tortugas El Mezcal El Porton Molly’s La Casita
Las Delicias, Best Mexican
It comes as no surprise that Las Delicias, open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, wins the prize for best Mexican fare in Memphis. The accolades for this family-owned restaurant’s authentic and affordable food are frequent and enthusiastic. Equally impressive are how many different dishes fans praise, starting with the restaurant’s corn tortilla chips that are crunchy and flaky at the same time. In fact, the chips are so popular that they are packaged and distributed locally at stores and farmers markets.
Happily for diners, they arrive in big heaping bowls at the restaurant’s two locations, so heed this warning: Hold back on the chips until the guacamole arrives, a big-enough-for-two serving of chunky fresh avocado, tomatoes, onions, jalapeño, and enough lime juice for a citrus finish with every bite.
Freshly squeezed limes are also the building blocks of the restaurant’s much-loved margarita, a cold and delicious complement to a menu of tacos served in small corn tortillas, chicken enchiladas rolled and baked, fried tortillas called flautas stuffed with shredded meat, fajitas like the all-in-one combination of grilled steak, marinated pork, and bacon, and charro beans (my favorite), a smoky, soupy mix of pintos, chorizo, ham, and bacon.
Pork rules at Las Delicias (no wonder Memphis loves the place) so don’t miss the Cuban torta, a warm Mexican sub with sliced pork, a spicy diced pork called “pastor,” ham, cheese, and pickled jalapeño. Add fast and efficient service and the charming personalities of owners Leila and Antonio Martinez, and this Memphis favorite wins high marks, not just for the food, but for the whole Delicias package. — Pamela Denney
BEST ItalianAndrew Michael Italian Kitchen Ciao Bella Pete and Sam’s Bari Ristorante Enoteca Ronnie Grisanti’s Frank Grisanti’s
Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, BEST Italian
Walk into Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen on Brookhaven Circle and the tang of garlic and herbs wafts toward you like a familiar friend — warm, memorable, engaging. The earth-toned walls and oak-stained floors only add to the Old World charm in this converted home in East Memphis.
The restaurant’s chefs, Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer, completed part of their training at the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, Italy, and once worked under Chef Jose Gutierrez at Chez Philippe before opening their own place in 2008. Both are of Italian descent, crediting their grandmothers with the inspiration to cook for a living, and with their love of family and food. It shows in dishes such as Maw Maw’s Ravioli and the herbs the two, who have been friends since the sixth grade, grow fresh in the restaurant’s backyard.
Many of their signature dishes employ pork and lamb in rich, authentic sauces, although beef, duck, chicken, and fish are offered as well. Even the appetizers are done up with flare. One of those is the A/M Breakfast dish, with poached egg, barbecued pork belly, golden polenta, and freshly made A/M pork rinds. Another is the truffled chicken livers cooked with white wine and shallots. Under the pasta heading, potato gnocchi is offered, complete with shrimp, pork belly, crowder peas, and basil.
Not to be outdone, the dessert menu is filled with temptations: mascarpone cheesecake made with maple caramel and almonds; pumpkin crosata fashioned with mulled wine gelato, pecans. and brown sugar; and even cannolis with chocolate chips and raspberry sauce.
However, the menu isn’t static. It changes frequently to accommodate seasonal or new items. Meat, especially pork, is locally sourced from Newman Farms. Prepare to be nourished in body and soul. — Lindsay Jones
BEST ChineseA-Tan Wang’s Mandarin House Formosa Royal Panda Wang’s Downtown Bistro
BEST JapaneseSekisui Sekisui Pacific Rim Bluefin Sakura Do
BEST IndianIndia Palace Bombay House Golden India Mayuri Maharaja Cafe
BEST VietnamesePho Saigon Saigon Le Lotus Jasmine Pho Vietnam
BEST ThaiBhan Thai Bangkok Alley Thai Bistro
BEST Cajun /CreoleOwen Brennan’s Restaurant Iris Bayou Bar and Grille Pearl’s Oyster House Dejavu
BEST DeliBogie’s Delicatessen Young Avenue Deli Fino’s Lennie’s McAlister’s
BEST Burger (non-fast food)Huey’s Belmont Grill Earnestine & Hazel’s Interim Kookie Canuck
BEST Fries (non-fast food)Huey’s Young Avenue Deli Houston’s The Majestic Grille Belmont Grill
BEST SteakFolk’s Folly Ruth’s Chris Steak House Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse Texas de Brazil The Butcher Shop
BEST Seafood (non-fast food)Bonefish Tsunami Half Shell Restaurant Iris Bluefin
BEST OystersPearl’s Oyster House Half Shell The Cove Restaurant Iris Owen Brennan’s
BEST Barbecue SandwichCentral BBQ Corky’s Germantown Commissary Bar-B-Q Shop Tops
BEST RibsCharles Vergos’ Rendezvous Central BBQ Corky’s Germantown Commissary Bar-B-Q Shop
BEST Fried ChickenGus’s Fried Chicken Jack Pirtle Uncle Lou’s Blue Plate Cafe
BEST SaladTexas de Brazil Sweet Grass Boscos The Elegant Farmer Jim’s Place
BEST BrunchOwen Brennan’s Restaurant Iris The Peabody The Beauty Shop Paulette’s
BEST BreakfastBrother Juniper’s Blue Plate Cafe Bryant’s Café Eclectic The Arcade
BEST Coffeehouse (non-chain)Republic Coffee Café Eclectic Poplar Perkin’ Otherlands Coffee Bar Memphis Brew
Republic Coffee, BEST Coffeehouse
When Republic Coffee shuttered its Midtown location on Madison in 2005, it was cause for disappointment from its many loyal customers. The large coffee shop served good coffee and food and had plenty of room for people to spread out and study, work, read, or visit with each other.
When Republic emerged from oblivion in 2008 with a new location on Walnut Grove at Racine, it was cause for celebration. Equally spacious and with the same reliable selections of coffee beans — imported from far-flung domains such as Brazil, Columbia, Sumatra, India, Ethiopia, and Costa Rica and roasted and brewed in-house — at this point, it must be admitted: The new Republic is better than ever.
Open early and late, Republic is almost always hopping. And not just with caffeine fiends. Republic serves delicious breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch items, including ingredients such as meats, cheeses, and mushrooms the restaurant smokes itself.
Repast offerings include the Maximus (smoked beef brisket, cheddar, horseradish, and lettuce on ciabatta), Pedro (smoked tofu and slaw with chipotle sauce on ciabatta), and De Niro (toasted-everything bagel with smoked bacon, scrambled eggs, and sharp cheddar). You simply must try the cheese grits, made with parmesan and sharp and mild cheddars, as well. Another favorite, the Ahab (smoked salmon on toasted-everything bagel with cream cheese, chopped onion, and capers), was recently renamed the Calkins after Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins, apparently an Ahab aficionado.
Scores of patrons chat and nosh and utilize the free wi-fi, lending the building a collegial atmosphere. Add to it the intoxicating aroma of coffee permeating the building, and old customers return and new ones are drawn to Republic like a magnet. — Greg Akers
BEST DessertMuddy’s Bake Shop YoLo Frozen Yogurt Cheesecake Corner Gigi’s La Baguette
Muddy’s Bake Shop, BEST Dessert
Nestled in the little shopping center next door to the Racquet Club, Muddy’s Bake Shop has become the darling of Memphis for all things sweet. The small neighborhood bakery has taken the top prize in desserts for three years running, since Kat Gordon launched her budding business in February 2008. Gordon named the shop as a tribute to her grandmother, Jayne Bond, a.k.a. “Muddy,” who was known for spreading good cheer through cake to friends, family, and strangers alike.
Absolute belief in the powers of baked, warm goodness has carried on in Gordon’s talent for creating an ever-changing array of treats like the amazing Tollhouse Jack Pie (imagine if a pie ate a cookie), scrumptious banana and Oreo pudding, and a vast selection of cookies and cupcakes of all kinds. Flavors and goods change from day to day, lending to the homelike atmosphere of the place, but the offerings are endlessly delectable. They also provide vegan options for the truly food-conscious sweet tooth. By using eggs strictly from cage-free or free-range hens, organic whole milk, and no preservatives whatsoever, anyone can enjoy guilt-free, quality goodies from Muddy’s.
Gordon likes to keep things on the home front, selling hand-made aprons by local company Love for Sale, and substituting a “refill our community with positive change” jar for tips, which are donated to a different nonprofit in town each month. And Muddy’s doesn’t advertise; their delicious desserts sell themselves through word of mouth, completing Gordon’s vision for a small, family bakery that’s about as far away from most modern, mass-produced industries as you can get. Specializing in fresh, yummy desserts, Muddy’s bakers measure their own flour, roll their own pie dough, and break their own eggs, ensuring a homemade goodness that you can definitely taste. — Ashley Johnston
BEST People-WatchingThe Peabody Lobby Bar The Flying Saucer Young Avenue Deli Mollie Fontaine Lounge Huey’s
BEST LunchThe Woman’s Exchange Huey’s Houston’s The Grove Grill The Elegant Farmer
Woman’s Exchange Tea Room, BEST Lunch
It’s only fitting that an establishment celebrating its 50th anniversary should earn our top prize for “Best Lunch.” The organization behind this unique and charming eatery has been around even longer than that. Founded as the Crafts Exchange way back in 1885, the group changed its name — and mission — in 1935, dedicated to “helping others help themselves.” As a fundraiser for some of their projects, the Tea Room opened in 1962, tucked into a rambling old house on Racine.
Several expansions over the years have given the Woman’s Exchange room to operate their well-known gift shop, where some 800 consignors sell an astonishing collection of wares — baby and children’s clothes, quilts, blankets, jewelry, note cards, pottery, toys, cookbooks, and more.
The Tea Shop fills two rooms in half of the building, and as you might expect, it’s not your typical restaurant. For one thing, they only serve lunch. There’s no menu at each table. Instead, upon entering you scan a whiteboard above the register and take your pick of three or four specialties of the day. After paying for your meal, you select a table in the main dining room or the sun-filled patio, and hand your receipt to the waiter — one of a cadre of volunteers who run the tea room and gift shop — and your meal arrives in a jiffy.
The small menu changes daily. On a recent visit, we enjoyed a tasty platter of fried catfish, served with hash-brown potato casserole, cole slaw, muffins, and especially fine peach cobbler. My dining companions had the chicken salad plate with fresh fruit, pasta salad, while another had the vegetable plate (on this day the selection was northern beans, turnip greens, squash, yams, and muffins).
It’s delicious food, prepared daily under the watchful eye of chef “Rev” Bailey, and served in a delightful setting, as you dine surrounded by colorful artwork and crafts. We extend a “Happy Anniversary” to the Tea Room, and offer congratulations to the Woman’s Exchange for all they do in our community. — Michael Finger
Worth the DriveCity Grocery (Oxford, MS) Bozo’s (Mason, TN) Ajax Diner (Oxford, MS) Bonne Terre (Nesbit, MS) Blue and White Café (Tunica, MS)
BEST Late-Night Dining (after 10 p.m.)Huey’s Belmont Grill Earnestine & Hazel’s Half Shell Alex’s Tavern
BEST Patio DiningBoscos Bhan Thai The Majestic Grille Celtic Crossing Café Olé
BEST AmbienceRestaurant Iris Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous Folk’s Folly Mollie Fontaine Lounge Chez Philippe
BEST ServiceRestaurant Iris Houston’s Huey’s Folk’s Folly Erling Jensen
BEST Place to Impress Out-of-TownersCharles Vergos’ Rendezvous Restaurant Iris Texas de Brazil Gus’s Fried Chicken Folk’s Folly
BEST Business Dinner LocaleFolk’s Folly Restaurant Iris Jim’s Place Houston’s Grove Grill
MOST Missed RestaurantJustine’s Jarrett’s Jim’s Place East Anderton’s Steak and Ale
BEST CateringAnother Roadside Attraction CFY Catering Draper’s Wade and Company Fork It Over
BEST Chain RestaurantHouston’s Bonefish Grill Texas de Brazil Panera Bread Ruth’s Chris Steak House
Kelly English (Restaurant Iris), Best Memphis Chef
The “Best Chef” designation is always one of our annual restaurant issue’s most hotly contested categories, and this year was no exception. Restaurant Iris’ Kelly English topped the polls for the third year in succession, but our readers are super-loyal to their other favorites as well. The Memphis dining scene has become ever more robust in recent years, with the result that it’s quite easy to pick a local Top Ten of culinary stars, chefs who would shine just as brightly in any other city in America. Fortunately, this group calls Memphis home, and our city is much the better for their presence!