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Style : Restaurants : Hearty & Soul

November 05, 1995

Not far from South Coast Repertory Theatre, the neighboring cineplexes and sprawling malls, a skinny red neon arrow points the way to Memphis. A suburban bar turned hip roadhouse, this come-as-you-are restaurant is one of the more interesting spots to open in Orange County in a very long time.

At first glance, the low stucco building faced in rust and gray flagstone looks like a thousand other places. But the motley collection of cars in the dusty lot out front, including a long, black vintage convertible with bold tail fins one night, says this isn't your typical Costa Mesa hangout. The pale hardwood front door, inset with an asymmetrical window, opens onto a single room furnished with a wacky mix of dinette sets and designer-showroom castoffs. Young people in nerdy horn-rimmed glasses and short-sleeved nylon shirts or nose rings and skull hats lean into one another at the bar, talking loudly over tall glasses of copper-colored Red Hook ale from Seattle on tap. Soul music--old and new--throbs to a steady beat while servers in brown-and-black bowling shirts negotiate the 12 tables and a young cook juggles his pans at the one-stove kitchen at the short end of the bar.

The menu has quirky pen-and-ink drawings of a bowl of gumbo, a plate of chicken and mashed potatoes, salt and pepper shakers, a frying pan beneath five stars. That halo of stars is precisely what I'd give Memphis' beguiling, heartfelt food. It's the kind of good cooking that sneaks up on you, like the smoldering heat of the thick and delicious house gumbo, laden with okra, fat shrimp and cubed chicken and presented with a mound of rice and black-eyed peas dead center. The nuanced flavor of this recipe is no accident; it's built right in by chef Diego Velasco, who obviously picked up a thing or two when he cooked at Abiquiu in San Francisco.

Appetizers are among Memphis' best offerings. Order several to share, and that's a meal right there. Try the gumbo (order a couple of bowls because it disappears fast) as well as the excellent crab cakes. The latter are densely packed, sweet crab meat, lit up with a confetti of corn and peppers. Nicely breaded and browned, three cakes are served with a spunky fennel slaw. Velasco neatly sidesteps the cliche of gourmet pizza with his Zuni fry bread--an unleavened cornmeal dough that's crackling yet chewy at the same time and topped with molten Jack cheese, red onion and roasted poblano chiles. The intriguing herbaceous note is a smear of sage pesto underneath--sage where you'd least expect it.

Blue corn chicken salad is just as clever. Velasco dredges strips of marinated chicken in blue cornmeal and then fries them. These crispy nuggets are set to one side of a mountain of impeccably fresh greens crowned with a crunchy thatch of julienned jicama. The dressing is a tart lime vinaigrette. Mashed potato pancakes turn out to be beautiful, lovingly shaped disks of lumpy mashed potato, sauteed to a golden crust and served in smoked tomato sauce.

"Large plates" are heartier fare. The best is the thick center-cut pork chop, as perfectly cooked as I've ever had it in a restaurant. Rubbed with garlic and roasted chipotle chile paste, the chop comes with a tart-sweet balsamic vinegar and cherry sauce, braised red cabbage and creamy grits. Juicy roasted chicken breast runs a close second, accompanied by peppery, vinegar-doused mustard greens, one of those golden mashed potato cakes and a silky lemon and thyme sauce. New York strip comes flanked by mashed potatoes and earthy green beans that have been cooked with garlic and candied pecans.

There's also a fine "soul burger" (a third of a pound of lean, flavorful ground beef) on a shiny bun spread with a smoky chipotle aioli and pepper-studded Jack cheese. A heap of crisp shoestring fries spills over the sides of the plate, more excuses to dip into Memphis' own complexly spiced barbecue sauce.

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MEMPHIS

CUISINE: Updated soul food. AMBIENCE: Suburban bar turned roadhouse with a '60s theme. BEST DISHES: gumbo, crab cakes, Zuni fry bread, mashed potato pancakes, center cut pork chop, "soul burger." BEER PICK: Red Hook ESB. FACTS: 2920 Bristol, Costa Mesa; (714) 432-7685. Closed Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $24 to $44. Parking in lot.

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