Memphis Cafe’s new menu showcases Chef Diego Velasco’s talent for Southern culinary innovation.
Passing by on Bristol Street in Costa Mesa, Memphis Cafe might look like an unassuming roadside barbecue house. Locals, however, know it’s a place that holds 24 years of culinary history. Although it first gained popularity with its famous fried chicken and barbecue platters, the restaurant has earned a reputation akin to Southern hospitality. Crowds of people fill the space nightly for the friendly, family-like vibe, consistently great service, authenticity and hip yet cozy setting. And then there’s the food — oh, yes, the food. Chef Diego Velasco challenges stereotypes by cooking up gastronomic gems. His background as a trained chef is evident through his creation of seasonal menus that showcase innovative twists on Southern cuisine and New Orleans classics. I had the pleasure of tasting his new summer menu in the restaurant’s vintage trailer parked out front, decked out with sunflower yellow walls, prairie-like floral curtains and retro touches reminiscent of a set from the ’60s. Here are some of my favorite bites.
Chef Diego’s Take on Red Beans and Rice
This dish combined an essence of mornings out at sea on rickety fishing boats with the smoke of family cookouts in humid late-afternoons. Red beans and rice danced with smoked pork belly and soft zucchini mignonette to create a savory bed underneath an array of fried Washington oysters. Each of the oysters was dipped and battered in a cornmeal crust that provided a satisfying crunch in contrast with the cooked and salty interior. The effect was delicate and light, with a citrusy zest that ignited the pallet without making you feel heavy or full.
Not Your Typical Crawfish Boil
This was certainly an inspired take on a Southern crawfish boil. It held all of the essentials one would expect, such as the overwhelming pile of big-headed prawns cooked to soft, meaty perfection. But it had a few added twists that made it a dish unique to the fusion cuisine of Memphis Cafe. A pile of New Caledonian prawns lay atop a sautéed frenzy of roasted baby corn and queso fresco. To bring the two elements together, a creamy green tomato conserva sauce drenched the prawns and coated the baby corn. This is a house-made specialty made from preserved green tomatoes, poblano chiles, oregano, cilantro and a dash of cumin. Per Southern crawfish boil tradition, we were all encouraged and instructed on how to suck the heads of the prawns to properly savor every last drop.
Do Not Throw Out The Skin
A blend of transformative flavors embraced undersea delicacy in the fish course. Chunks of spice-crusted bass tossed with baby bok choy and sautéed in a soy-lime glaze tumbled onto soft scallion crepes in this Pacific West take on fried chicken and waffles. The seabass crunched from a baked crust seasoned with an array of Cajun-like spices.
The Memphis Sampler
This plate of barbecued delights presented an endless array of sweet and sticky meats that even a room of eager hungry mouths couldn’t polish off. The gourmet sampler consisted of burnt ends tough on the outside but moist and chewy within, roasted chicken, and succulent baby back ribs with meat that fell effortlessly off the bone. Mountains of classic sides with accompanied the sampler, and cornbread was served up in the shape of petit madeleines baked to a light brown and paired with creamy roasted jalapeño coleslaw.
The final course fulfilled any lingering hunger in one fell swoop. This night’s sweet ending came in the form of a blackened rib cap steak cooked rare and accompanied by a thick lip-smacking glaze. It was served atop corn cheese, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and homemade steak sauce. The burgundy sauce served as an attention-grabbing contrast to the rich yellow corn cheese. Salty and sweet fought a glorious battle in every bite, and made for a perfect ending to a night of truly impressive eats.
Memphis Cafe | 2920 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, CA 92626 | (714) 432-7685
Late Night Menu
Thursday – Saturday: 10pm-Midnight
Monday – Friday: 3pm-6pm
Saturday & Sunday 3pm-5pm