I realize this is, technically speaking, an “Arkansas” blog, but our state’s centralized location, in proximity to a number of truly fantastic food cities, is a rather unique aspect of Arkansas. Within a short day’s drive, Arkansans can quickly be in any number of exciting locations, within Arkansas and without. Perhaps more than any other place, Memphis shares more connections to Central Arkansans than any other city in the country. Recently, I joined up with a group of food-loving scalawags for a weekend road trip to Memphis. We were determined to make this unlike any other foodventure ever attempted in this city. We researched out the culinary scene for months in advance, attempting to get a good idea of where the city’s food scene was at and what it had to offer. It quickly became clear to us, through inquiries made to many of our Arkansas friends, that Memphis is a exciting and enticing food town—indeed, nearly every person we talked to had a laundry list of restaurants that we needed to try. This was to be my first time visiting Memphis, and I was determined to make the most of the experience, wanting to leave the city with a decent grasp on some of the important things going on in this neighboring city. It was important for us to delve into some of those iconic Memphis experiences, but also to dabble in some of the exciting things recently popping up, pushing Memphis cuisine to another level and helping put some of its chefs on the national culinary playing field. Sure, it may not be Arkansas, but there’s a good chance that most central Arkansans will be heading east of the river before too long…and if you’re not planning on doing so, I’ll tell you right now, you are missing out on some splendid things.
1. Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen: A place that only barely squeezed itself onto our list at the last minute, Andrew Michael was, without a doubt, the greatest dining experience for the entire trip—every person in our party, four very persnickety food lovers, agreed. This place was something special. Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman’s Italian restaurant entered the Memphis scene in 2008. Having already spent time learning the old world cooking techniques in Italy and France, they brought an exciting approach to Italian cooking as well as a passion for innovation and quality product. Their skill has not gone unnoticed. This year alone, they were semi-finalists in the “best chef” category by the James Beard Foundation and brought home a “best new chef” award from Food & Wine magazine. I’ll attest to the fact that they deserve every accolade they’ve received—and they probably deserve more.
Bottom line: do not pass up Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen any time you are in Memphis. It’s not only the finest restaurant we sampled in the city, I’d easily put it in the upper echelon of dining experiences in the entire country.
2. The BBQ Shop: Ask anyone where to eat in Memphis and, nine times out of ten, you are likely to get at least one suggestion for barbecue. Rightfully so, the city has a rich history in smoked pork. You’re likely to hear Rendezvous at some point, and Central BBQ will probably turn up in the conversation as well. But know this, until you’ve tried The BBQ Shop, you’re in no position to determine who’s got the best ‘cue in Memphis. If you go for nothing else, stop in and sample a slab of their dry-rubbed ribs. They are fall-off-the-bone tender, with a bright red smoke ring evident on the meat’s cross-section. The salty, sweet, slightly spicy dry rub is a thing of beauty. You probably wouldn’t want to lick the stuff right off the cap of the meat, but when paired with their rich, tender pork, sweating with flavor, it makes for the finest bite of barbecue we sampled on the entire trip. No other joint really even came close. They call it the “home of the dancing pigs,” but we four piggies were darn near close to dancing as we walked out of the restaurant, knowing we had finally found the best ‘cue in Memphis.Brother Juniper’s: In all my dining explorations, I’ve never put too much emphasis on breakfast. But having heard wonderful things about a small café in the University district of Memphis, we figured there was no better way for us to spend our Sunday morning. We were all recovering from the prior night’s gluttony, and this being restaurant number 15 on our list, it was probably going to take something exceptional to top some of the experiences we’d already had. Brother Juniper’s was just that, and hit us with a jolt of flavor like lightning from the sky, waking us up from the despondency of restaurant overdosing. Perhaps more than anything else, the place is known for their “open-face” omelets. One omelet in particular was featured on a Food Network program hosted by Rachel Ray, a fact which they proudly advertise on the menu. The dish in question it the “San Diegan” omelet—and I’m sure Mrs. Ray thought this dish was “really yumm-o,” but you don’t need to take her word for it. I rarely get excited over omelets, but this was probably the most spectacular version I’ve ever wrapped my lips around. The dish started with soft, fluffy eggs—which formed the “open-faced” base of the omelet—which everything was piled upon.
For central Arkansans, the relatively short jaunt over to Memphis is definitely worth making. There are many more restaurants I’m excited to get to in this city (Restaurant Iris being one that immediately comes to mind, which we foolishly neglected to get reservations for), but I’m happy to say we found a good number of spectacular eats on our last trip. Get in your car this summer and hop over the bridge to sample some of the best eating to be found on the other side of the state line. I know it won’t be long before I find an excuse to make the return trip to Memphis.
(See the above links for locations, hours, etc. If you’d like to read about all our stops on this tour, check out my co-conspirator Kevin Shalin’s blog, The Mighty Rib)