Chef Diego Velasco On Why He Can’t Kick The Classics

Spring Into Southern Cuisine At Memphis Cafe

Brunch 8 a.m. – 3 p.m., Dinner 5 p.m. – 9:30 p.m., Happy Hour 3 p.m. – 6 p.m.


Chef Diego Velasco of Memphis Cafe in Costa Mesa lives the chef’s dream. He’s a classically trained chef who cooks refined cuisine in an unrefined setting, proving that you don’t need the stuffiness of white-tablecloths to have a memorable meal.

Find his restaurant in a cool, mid-century modern building near the ever-so-hip LAB Anti-Mall in Costa Mesa. The shape of the restaurant reminds me of a Palm Springs’ diner; the inside is neat and functional in a Brady Bunch sort of way, but at night the low light and velvet curtain accents make it feel moody and cozy — like the perfect type of place for a first date.

This small corner on Bristol Street in Costa Mesa wouldn’t be the same without Memphis Cafe. It’s a neighborhood mainstay that’s awarded and critically acclaimed since it first opened in 1995. Patrons celebrate Chef Velasco’s unique riff on classic, southern, home-style-cooking; Southern-food is not by nature refined, but Chef Velasco approaches it with a refined hand. Proper technique and artfully plated dishes grace the menu for brunch, happy hour and dinner.

And like any good chef, Chef Velasco cooks to the season. However, his loyal following at Memphis makes it hard to make too many dramatic changes. Take off his Buttermilk Fried Chicken or Gumbo, and a riot might ensue. So instead, Chef is tasked with keeping the classics and re-imagining everything else. The inspiration for his new spring menu rewinds to the beginning of Memphis Cafe — when it was an idea, not a concept; a dream, not reality. When he was 19, he lived with a Southern rock band from Louisiana while they were touring California. In that time he learned about gumbo and how to cook black-eyed peas. He’s not Cajun, but he’s a self-defined Francophile, and this characteristic influenced his studies at The California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 1994— straight to the grand opening of Memphis Cafe in 1995. He was only 23.

“My inspiration for the new dinner menu came from Memphis Cafe’s humble beginnings, over 20 years ago, as a food, drink and community destination. You will see seasonal interpretations of our classics alongside new dishes focused on presentation and fresh flavors that highlight the various regions of American cuisine.” – Chef Velasco

Lucky me, I sampled his spring menu and rolled out wondering why it had taken me so long to find my way to Memphis. The so-called California cuisine that defines our region can be tiresome after awhile. How many avocado/ahi-tuna combinations can we stomach? Hence, why taking a trip south to Memphis Cafe is so eye-opening. That and $10 Buttermilk Fried Chicken on Tuesdays. Get ‘um while they’re hot!

Here are some highlights from the new Spring Menu at Memphis Cafe

Boudin Balls

Ground, smoked pork, seasoning, rice, and vegetables, rolled into meatballs and roasted, then coated with corn flakes. Served with collard greens, pancetta, hot pepper-honey sauce and grilled bread

Fried Green Tomato and Lobster Salad Tarragon

smoked paprika vinaigrette, dandelion greens

Roasted Beet Poke Sesame

scallions, fried beet chips, hazelnuts, gorgonzola

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

collard greens, mashed potatoes, famous country gravy

Sticky Toffee Monkey Bread

bourbon caramel, whipped cream, toffee crumble

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