Memphis Soul Cafe & Bar - Costa Mesa
Housed inside a windowless structure that looks like a seedy roadside truck stop, Memphis is as anti-Orange County as it gets. Appropriate, since its next-door neighbor is that supposed anti-establishment shopping center, The Lab, otherwise known as "The Anti-Mall".
While The Anti-Mall shuns the Italian marble and snootiness of South Coast Plaza, opting instead for rusty industrial metal siding and grungy chic, they still manage to sell essentially the same overpriced merchandise sold over the freeway at the mall.
Memphis, thankfully, does not follow suit. Rather than squander its eclectic setting, the restaurant embraces it by serving food that's different than the usual and at prices that are ridiculously affordable, at least during Happy Hour, which lasts from 3:30-6:30 pm.
During this golden three-hour period, everything on the Bar Menu is $4.
Arriving with growling stomachs, we channeled Elvis and ordered almost every single item we saw on the list. These are appetizers. Small plates to share. But as we soon found out, five of them summed up to equal more food than two normal humans can consume in one sitting.
The Pizza was made from a thick focaccia bread -- chewy and toothsome. A dusting of cilantro, cheese, tomato, and sauce played up the andouille sausage, which was roughly cut-up into chunks as big as thumbs and then baked on top of the dough. This smoked pork sausage was so assertively spiced, it bit back -- a New Orleanean kick-in-the-pants on the classic pepperoni pizza pie.
Consisting of bread, meat, and cheese, the Meatloaf Sandwich was a substantial meal on its own. It was easily the singlemost gut-filling dish we ordered. Our hunger pangs were immediately squelched as soon as we swallowed our first hefty mouthful. The richness of the cheese stood up well against the beefy meatloaf, making it a winsome if not an overly-decadent combo. The meat harbored a touch of sweetness and fruity tang from the tomato sauce glaze.
My favorite of all was the Zuni Frybread. Frybread is simply deep fried dough, made from wheatflour bound together with lard. Memphis disguises the inherent unhealthiness of its origins by covering the frybread with fresh white corn salsa and melted pepper jack cheese. The result? Utter deliciousness. The frybread, crumbles like flaky pie crust; the kind made with Crisco. And the veggies did its duty, making me believe, if only for a second, that all this was good for me.
The Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels and Manila Clams came in a murky red tomato and white-wine broth, studded with diced andouille sausage and celery. Planks of toasted garlic bread crowned the bowl. The mussels and clams, tender morsels of the sea, swam in that caustic brew, which might as well have been lava. I was foolish enough to sip a spoonful of the soup straight up and almost choked from the intensity of the spices. A smarter thing to do would've been to dunk the toast in the broth daintily, like dipping a toe into bathwater.
Dusted with cornmeal, the Fried Shrimp came on the plate doing summersaults. Curled and crispy, with the granules of the cornmeal breading acting like crunchy, edible armor, I took them for dunk in the zesty remoulade dipping sauce. Soon they were dancing in my mouth and then all the way down my gullet. A little overcooked if I was really being critical, but how could I? It's $4 for a generous serving of shrimp fer cryin' out loud!
In the end, we had enough food left over for an "Anti-breakfast" the next morning.
Memphis Soul Cafe & Bar
2920 Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626