This blog is devoted to highlighting restaurants of Memphis, Tennessee.

Monday, January 26, 2015


Finally (Part 4)

It has taken me a long time in getting to it, but I am proud to present my review of Jasmine Thai and Vegetarian Restaurant. Formerly a residential property in the heart of Memphis' Cooper-Young neighborhood, the restaurant is a small and cozy place that feels like home. It reminds me of a restaurant that I visited often when I was in Italy. Located about ten kilometers from Aviano Air Base in the town of Montereale Valcellina, the Spaghetti House (yes, that is the actual name) was a family-owned restaurant that served some of best pasta I have ever had. This isn't hyperbole (using my big word of the day), but the "House" served spaghetti in many different sauces and meats such as rabbit and venison. But despite it being the Baskins & Robbins of spaghetti, what I liked most about the Spaghetti House was its hospitality. The owners made me feel I like a member of the family, something I appreciated. Since leaving Italy, I have long sought a restaurant with a similar family atmosphere. So far, the closest place where I have found that quality is Jasmine, my home away from home.

SIDE NOTE: In researching for this review, I've discovered that the Spaghetti House legacy lives on in America. At Dante's Bistro Bar & Grill in Barrington, New Hampshire, diners can get entrees that originated from recipes of the Meneguzzi family, my Italian "relatives" who I sorely miss.

When I returned to Memphis, I was at a loss in finding places to socialize. For a while, I hung out in Overton Square and Cooper-Young because of the neighborhoods' proximity to my house and for the convenience as stopover points after leaving work. Consequently, I found Jasmine as my new place for "home" meals. Although I don't get the same sense of family that I got at the Spaghetti House, I am always treated extremely well. That goes for both the matriarch (who's definitely not a "mama-san") of the house and its former waitstaff that it had before the economy went to crap in 2008 (but now slowly rebounding). In my opinion, I don't believe there are many restaurants in Memphis and elsewhere that offer a "home" environment like Jasmine, so I try to support the few that do.

SIDE NOTE: By the way, I don't want to imply that Memphis restaurants in general aren't appreciative of its customers. In particular, the places that I frequent the most are somewhat like "homes" too. For example, the Reillys and the staff at the Majestic Grille always welcome me with open arms and excellent service. Also, my relationship with Chef Brian Michael Patrick, going back several years when he was at Sleep Out Louie's, endures to this day. As the owner of Rizzo's Diner (who deserves huge congrats for recently moving to a bigger location at 492 South Main St.), Chef Mike makes it a point to ensure that all his patrons feel at home by personally greeting them and following up during their meals (unless he's busy in the kitchen). Chef Mike is a really good friend, as is restaurateur Aldo Demartino (aka "Aldo Dean"). As the owner of Bardog Tavern, Slider Inn and his namesake Aldo's Pizza Pies (with a new location opening next Spring on Cooper Street, a few blocks away from Jasmine), Aldo is loyal to both his "regulars" and employees who make his businesses gems among Memphis restaurants. On a personal level, Aldo and his people have taken very good care of me throughout years, even when I haven't been at my best (as in drunk). I want them to know that I'm appreciative and grateful for that and will always be loyal to the "Aldo brand."

In writing about service and loyalty, I almost forgot about the food. For that, I took a rare venture into vegetarianism. At Jasmine, I got the Yum Voon Sen, a vermicelli (grass noodles) dish with soy tofu, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and peanuts. Unlike Thai dishes that I'm accustomed to, this is a "cold" entrée that isn't fried, roasted or prepared in any other heated cooking method. The most noticeable thing about the Yum Voon Sen is its pungent aroma that tastes like sweat, stemming from the raw onions and cucumbers. To undercut that, I plucked out the onions and added a lot of heavily-seeded Thai pepper sauce. As I will explain later, using an ample amount of Jasmine's hot sauce is a big no-no for me. However, it was the only way I could overcome the aroma and finish my lunch. Rice and beer (Singha, Thailand's finest and much better and less ridiculous than a Bud Light) also helped, with the beer also helping me overcome the aftertaste. The vermicelli was bland, although it contributed to an interesting meal that was memorable. I would be lying if I said that I would order this again, but I don't want to discourage others from giving Jasmine's Yum Voon Sen a try if for no other reason than to experience something new.

SIDE NOTE: I believe that I now know the difference between an egg roll and a spring roll. After looking up both "rolls" in Wikipedia, I finally found clarity. The difference is in the wrapping, for egg rolls use flour dough that is thicker and flakier than a thinly wrapped spring roll. Adding to my confusion, Vietnamese spring rolls (such as the ones I had at Pho Binh) come wrapped in rice paper. Well, now that I know better, I will no longer use the two terms interchangeably for the same thing. That said, Jasmine's spring rolls are quite good although they don't top those of Shang Hai, in my opinion.

After having a taste of Vegetarian Thai, focused on something that is more appealing to me. Before I start, I have an admission to make: my favorite Jasmine entrée is the Kung Pao Three. Yes, I know this is a Chinese dish but I love eating it with a glass of Yellow Tail Chardonnay. For this review, it wouldn't have been smart to write about it (and get clowned by certain individuals for it) so I decided to go pure Thai. To make sure that I was getting something legit, I sought the advice of the matriarchal owner who suggested the Basil Curry Paste Tofu with beef. When I ordered it, the lady (whose name I should know) asked me if I wanted it spicy or mild. Forgetting my past experiences, I foolishly chose "spicy" without giving it a second thought. However, my memories quickly came back when I dug into my plate. Despite the vegetables and seasoning, the biggest thing that stood out in the curry/tofu dish was the level of the spiciness. It was so hot that it overwhelmed everything else on my plate, including the curry. When compared to other foods, it wasn't the spiciest thing that I've had. It certainly doesn't come close to Kooky Canuck's Holy Smoke! Wings that made me tap out after the first bite (by the way, "Kooky" owner Shawn Danko is another great guy who is loyal to his customers). Still, the curry/tofu had me drinking copious amounts of water in order to nearly finish my meal. After finishing the curry/tofu and rice on my plate, I took the rest of it home and ate it the next day with Ramen noodles. With only a small amount, I was able to enjoy it better because it wasn't as spicy. Overall, I liked the Basil Curry Paste Tofu in spite of the spiciness but will definitely get a milder version the next time around. If there's a lesson to take from this, it is to respect the spiciness of Thai cuisine.
Now that I've finally written about the only restaurant among my Urbanspoon Favorites that hadn't been reviewed by me (for the few desktop users who visit my blog, the list is on right side of the screen), I can start this year on a positive. Jasmine has been and will always be a special place to go to whenever I need to chill in a homey environment. Since my first visit that happened over a decade ago, I have established allegiances with many more restaurants in Memphis, particularly with Downtown establishments. While I lean slightly more to Memphis' safest neighborhood, it doesn't diminish my love for my favorite Thai restaurant. Granted, there may be other places that serve better Thai food, but none do it with the hospitality and enthusiasm that Jasmine does. For that, I will always be loyal to it.

Jasmine Thai & Vegetarian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Labels: Asian, Chinese, Commentary, Midtown, Thai, Vegetarian/Vegan

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Where Are You From?"

From a "foreigner"

Despite living in Memphis for most of my life, I feel like an outsider socially. Even among people who I have known for a long time, I find myself struggling to fit in. I believe part of the reason for that (other than my overall social ineptitude) is in how I talk. With an accent that isn't either "Southern" or "black" enough by most standards, most people hit me with the question "where are you from" when sizing me up. Even after affirming my Memphis roots, many locals perceive me as not being like them. Maybe my inability to fit in is a consequence of being perceived as foreign or weird (or to use a term that a vapid waitress has bashed me online with, "creepy"). I would be lying if I said that it doesn't bug me, but I do my best to assimilate in spite of it. Still, being me is a hard row to hoe in Memphis, especially when doing it alone.

One of the most glaring examples of my "foreigner" status was an encounter last June at a convenience store in West Memphis, Arkansas. I went there for lunch because it was down the street from where I was working as a "temp." The 7th Street Food Market (also known as "Seven Food Mart") is a typical Southern gas station and convenience store that serves takeout Soul Food to working class people who prefer a fresh meal over fast food. Among the things that I ate at the 7th, the most impressive was the macaroni and cheese mixed with ground beef. A likely version of Hamburger Helper, the beef in it was well seasoned and very tasty. The cheese was thick and creamy, complementing my roasted chicken well. Speaking of that, the chicken and greens were okay and the cornbread was so-so (to be honest, I'm not much of a cornbread person). Given what I ate, I'm safe in saying that the food at 7th Street Food Market is decent but not worth a twenty-minute trip from Midtown to get.
Overall, it was an average meal on its own that wasn't worthy enough to blog about. However, what made it noteworthy was the ladies working the lunch counter who reminded me of my outsider status. After waiting behind two black guys (apparently "locals") before placing my order, I got hit with a "where are you from" blast after uttering my first words. Whether it was something in my voice or the manner that I spoke, those ladies seemed a bit put off by me. So, despite being a black Southerner (with a patriarchal grandfather born in Arkansas), I came off as a peculiar outlier to those African-American women. Usually in these types of situations, this kind of reaction isn't that blatant, but I rolled with it without any fuss. I'm not sure what to make of it, for the service itself was good but the ladies' reaction kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Although I'm sure it wasn't intentional (after all, they were courteous), I didn't feel completely welcomed at the 7th. As someone who seeks to be a part of the community, encounters like this are discouraging and make me less inclined to go out. However, I don't have the luxury to live in a cocoon so I have to persevere despite being an oddity.

SIDE NOTE: I want to stress that my encounter at 7th Street Food Market isn't strictly a "black thing." I get similar reactions from Asians, Hispanics (including a guy who glossed me as "Benson") and even white people.

It seems that no matter what I do, I will always be the odd man out in Memphis and possibly other places. Fortunately, I have friends who accept me as I am and are very supportive. With them, I can be myself without worrying whether I come off as an oddball or something distasteful. As for everyone else, stop asking me where I'm from.

NOTE: I apologize for this unconventional review. This was more about getting something off my chest than anything else.

LabelsCommentary, Gas Station/Convenience Store, Soul Food, Southern, West Memphis

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Friday, November 28, 2014

Oshi Burger Bar

Faux Gourmet?

Recently, another restaurant has entered the Memphis burger scene. Located on Main Street, Oshi Burger Bar serves hamburgers with an Asian flair. That alone would have been enough to warrant a visit, but the fact it's owned by the same person who also owns Local Gastropub, home of one of my favorite burgers, made it a must-see for me. For those of you who follow this blog, you know that Local Gastropub ranks high on my list of favorite burger joints because of its signature burger that someone on Foursquare... er, Swarm said was "amazing" (I miss my "mayorships"). Given Local's past success, I was confident that I would have a great experience at the Japanese-themed burger bar.

For my first visit, I intended to get Oshi's namesake burger but changed my mind after looking over the menu. Instead, I chose the 50/50 Burger whose name derives from its half ground bacon, half ground beef blended burger patty. Despite its composition, the 50/50 wasn't much different from a typical burger that anyone can make. The burger comes with cheddar cheese, onions (as in "onion jam") mustard and pickles contained in a nice artisan-style bun. Overall, it was a decent cheeseburger with pork belly/bacon flavor that was somewhat impressive. Fortunately, the 50/50 tasted better when I dipped it in Oshi's spicy house ketchup. Although it isn't detailed in the menu, I believe the ketchup has a bit of Sriracha sauce in it (or maybe wasabi). It definitely livened up an otherwise small, mediocre cheeseburger. I hope that I'm not being harsh, but the 50/50 burger didn't bowl me over.
To go with my burger, I got a side of Kimchi, Bacon, Beer Cheese Fries. The fries were spicy, although I couldn't determine if it was from the kimchi or the cheese. The kimchi slaw was tasty because it was sour without the pickled tartness. I didn't taste the bacon until I was halfway through the fries (it was near the bottom). The fries cost $4.50, although menu list it as "+$2" (as in $2.50 for the Skinny Fries plus two dollars for the kimchi, bacon and beer cheese). The Kimchi, Bacon, Beer Cheese Fries are really good with burgers, hot dogs and as a snack. When I paired it with the 50/50 Burger, the fries were its saving grace.

Underwhelmed in my first visit, I wanted to give Oshi another chance at impressing me with its burgers. For the second visit, I got the Oshi Burger featuring Wagyu American Kobe Beef. Until then, my only experience with Kobe beef (or so I thought) was with a burger at the former Stella Restaurant, a Downtown location that's currently occupied by Flight. If the beef in the burger was raised by traditional Kobe standards, then it should have been rich in unsaturated fat that comes from marbling. From what I read about it, the rich content of fat in Kobe beef makes it very tender, to the point that it literally melts in your mouth. I can't remember if the so-called Kobe burger that I had at Stella did that when I ate it, but I'm certain it wasn't the real deal because it only cost fourteen dollars. A genuine Kobe burger (something that very few American restaurants serve) should cost fifty dollars or more. Putting that aside, my faint memory of the Stella burger was memorable because it tasted different from anything that I had before. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the Oshi Burger, for its "Kobe" ground beef didn't taste any different from a typical burger. Even after taking into consideration that the meat was "American Kobe" as opposed to its Far East counterpart, the beef was indistinguishable from most burgers that I'm familiar with. After paying twelve dollars for the Oshi Burger, I don't believe that I got good value when compared to other places that serve better burgers for less money.

SIDE NOTE: If you noticed in the last paragraph, I correctly spelled "Wagyu" (which translates as "Japanese cow/cattle") when referencing the meat in the Oshi Burger. However, the burger bar spelled it as "Waygu" seven times in the menu that I got from the restaurant (Oshi's website spells it correctly). As someone who a) typesets for a living and b) has gotten clowned in the past for poor spelling, I believe that misspelling the name of one your feature menu items can undercut your credibility. I know this seems like I'm giving the Oshi guys a lot of shit (a word that shouldn't get confused with "Shiitake," another word that the burger bar misspelled), but "Waygu" is a glaring mistake that people who are more knowledgeable than me will notice. Speaking of that, check out this article in Forbes that goes in-depth about Kobe beef and how not to get duped by restaurants that claim to have it.

With Oshi's burgers being a bit of a disappointment, I decided to try some other items on its menu. The Rajun Asian Wings are decent appetizers despite lacking qualities that belie its name. Like the Thai Meatballs that I had at the Silly Goose, the wings (aside from the sprinkling of peanut crumbs) don't have much in terms of Asian-defining seasoning. Ditto for the "Rajun" tag, for the wings don't have anything (Cajun or otherwise) that I could sense as spicy. I was hoping for something similar (but better) to what the Flying Saucer served when it had Asian/Thai wings on the menu. Those wings were more "Rajun Asian" than Oshi's. On the positive, most people won't get messy while eating Oshi's wings that come in a Japanese bento box that separates the drummies and flappers. Like I said earlier, the wings are a nice appetizer/snack to have with beer or (given the restaurant's Japanese theme) sake.
Another non-burger item from Oshi's menu is something that I really like. The Seoul Patrol is a beefy hot dog with kimchi slaw, Korean barbecue short rib, chili aioli and cilantro that really nails it in terms of taste. The best part of it is the hot dog itself (made with Wagyu American Kobe Beef) that is very good and on par with noted hot dog restaurants like Chiwawa and Bardog Tavern (the latter serves a broader menu so it isn't strictly a "dog" place). The tangy kimchi slaw and short rib were good toppings that nicely complemented The Seoul Patrol for a genuine gourmet experience.
After a few visits, I can say that Oshi Burger Bar didn't impress me. Although the hot dog, fries and ketchup were very good, the burgers were a huge disappointment. Even after putting aside the debate about the authenticity of Oshi's Kobe-style beef, the burgers are good but not worth the money. For what I got, I can go to restaurants like the Majestic Grille or Huey's for a bigger and better burger that is somewhat cheaper. In a bit of irony, I can also go to Local (Oshi's sister restaurant) for its signature burger that is far superior to the Oshi Burger for about the same price. While it's not a likely burger destination for me, Oshi's service is very attentive and friendly. For those who like to stay out late on the weekends, Oshi stays open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. I can see myself hanging out there on a late Saturday night, trying one of its non-traditional burgers like the lamb-based Mo-Rockin or one of its burger or hot dog specials. I believe that Oshi Burger Bar has a lot of potential, but it needs to step its game up if it wants to appeal to burger lovers like me.


Oshi Burger Bar on Urbanspoon

Labels: Appetizers/Bar Food, Asian, Burgers, Commentary, Downtown, Hot Dogs, Korean, Wings

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Taqueria Express #5

A New Beginning

Now that I'm working in a new job, I'm getting acquainted with my new dining options. While I will eventually get around to reviewing popular eating spots like Elwood's Shack and Bryant's Breakfast, I first want to talk about a taco truck on the corner of Summer and Perkins. Its location is very convenient for me because it's only a half a block from my job so walking to it is easy. In addition to that, one of my Flying Saucer drinking buddies highly recommended the food truck because of its tacos, so it was hard for me to resist. So, I found time to check out some of the offerings from "#5" that proved to be very tasty, for the most part.

Burrito al Pastor

One of the first things that I got from Taqueria Express #5 was a burrito with pork ("con pastor" in Spanish). Although the menu labeled it as spicy, I didn't get any sense of that but it was good nonetheless. Given the lack of spiciness, I added some of the food truck's salsa verde that made the burrito much better. With onions, lettuce, refried beans, rice and cheese, this turned out to be an excellent burrito that is much better than anything offered by Taco Bell. At $5.45, it's a great value that I hope more people learn about.

The torta (a Mexican sandwich) I got with beef tongue didn't quite measure up. My biggest beef (no pun intended) with it was the amount of mayo in the sandwich. There was so much of it in the torta that I wasn't sure if it had meat in it. Speaking of that, the tongue wasn't as seasoned as I'm accustomed to. I could be wrong about that, for it was difficult to ascertain due to the excessive mayonnaise. Still, it wasn't terrible, especially after putting some of the food truck's delicious salsa verde on it. If I get a torta again, I'll make sure to get it without the mayo.

For those looking for a more formal Mexican meal as opposed to street food, Taqueria Express #5 has that covered. One of my favorites is the carne asada that comes with traditional refried beans, rice and corn tortillas. Despite the skirt steak not being tender, it didn't matter once it was in huge tortilla wraps with the entrée's other components that made aggressive chewing a must. In the end, it was worth it, for it was a very good meal at an affordable price ($7.65). Compared to a Double Whopper that I can get at a nearby Burger King, the carne asada is a superior meal that I look forward to getting often.

SIDE NOTE: I got the carne asada in spite of my original intention of getting the "#5" from the menu (given the food truck's name, I thought about having some fun with it.) The "5" consists of mulitas (a variation of quesadillas) that are cheesy and easy to eat for those on the go. In choosing the meat for the filler, you can't go wrong with chorizo sausage. By the way, whether you're getting mulitas, carne asada or anything else from Taqueria Express #5 (including aguas frescas such as my favorite Mexican beverage, the horchata), you will be wise to phone in your order as opposed to initiating it at the food truck. The carne asada takes twenty minutes to prepare, time I can't afford to waste on a thirty-minute lunch break.

The best product offered by Taqueria Express #5 is its salsa verde. I like it because it is made with fresh jalapeños, cilantro and a wonderful mix of other ingredients. Unlike those from other Mexican restaurants, I can really taste all the elements of a jalapeño in the spicy sauce, including the seeds. The sauce goes well with just about anything, including soups, chili, cheeseburgers and salads. Its only drawback is its short "shelf life" of about a week. I didn't find this out until recently, when a plastic cup of it exploded inside the refrigerator that I use at work. One thing's for sure: it doesn't have preservatives in it. Without that, the natural chemicals (whatever that is) in the sauce produces gases as it spoils. So my advice is use the salsa verde as soon as you get it for an experience that is worth the trouble.

By the way, the tacos are pretty good, too. My favorites are (clockwise from the top) lengua (tongue), chorizo, tripa (tripe) and chicken. "Pollo" (aka chicken) is a word that I usually screw up when I say it in Spanish because the "ll" is used as a "y" (Italians pronounce it the "right" way).

Overall, just about anything (other than tortas) from Taqueria Express #5 is a good bet for delicious eats. It is obvious that the owners of the food truck know how to put together great Mexican food for people on the go. In my limited experience, I will go out on a limb in saying Taqueria Express #5 is one of the better places in Memphis to go for good Mexican food. Of course, given the number of Mexican restaurants in Memphis' Berclair neighborhood (including four within walking distance of my job), any restaurant serving Mexican food has to be on the top of its game if it wants to succeed. That said, I see a lot of success in the food truck's future.


Taqueria Express #5 on Urbanspoon

LabelsFood Truck, Mexican, Nutbush/Berclair, Sandwiches, Steaks, Summer Avenue, Tacos