Biting into OC Brunch - Memphis Cafe

"We’ve got that southern hospitality where everyone’s a friend. We’re all family around here. We like to put that not only in the atmosphere, but also the food." - Diego Velasco, Co-Founder and Executive Chef
How curious it is that we heard about Memphis Cafe first from its Santa Ana location (which has since closed) and not the original Costa Mesa spot. In fact, when I first came across the one next to The LAB Anti-Mall in Costa Mesa, I was surprised to see it. We went into to the small building after looking aggressively for parking in the area to meet Co-Founder and Executive Chef Diego Velasco who opened Memphis Cafe in August 1995 with partners Dan Bradley and Andy Christenson. One look at the menu and you'll get a sense of the South in Orange County. The restaurant is endearingly small and dimly lit with the barest hint of an enclosed, wood-slatted patio out back (though you have to pass through the kitchen to get to it). We were there to wolf down some southern-style brunch, and Chef Diego was eager to share.

We could almost tell right away that the clientele in for brunch (and apparently the other mealtimes) were generally loyal followers who have been chowing down in the restored 1953 building since it started serving up Southern treats. Ever since a raving review by famed Los Angeles Times Magazine food critic S. Irene Virbilla just a few months after their opening, Memphis Cafe has been constantly packed at all tables with hungry customers. Their brunch features Southern classics and though there is no bottomless brunch option, you can snag mimosas for just $3 or two-for-one Bloody Marys if you're not already picking up something from their revamped cocktail menu. To start off with the basics, we had a stack of Buttermilk Pancakes with mixed berries but knew that there was also the option of topping with cinnamon apples or baked bananas. These were gorgeous to look at and fluffy. The use of actual buttermilk was apparent from the signature slightly-sour taste in each bite. Digging toward the South, a plate of Fried Buttermilk Chicken and Waffles appeared with beautiful poached eggs and a crunch like no other. The maple syrup and country gravy were substantial in themselves but could not beat the heaviness that comes from a savory bite of fried chicken. This was Duc's favorite dish for the meal, and easily one of the best fried chickens I've ever had.

Speaking of poached eggs, we were honored to get Chef Diego's secret on how to make the perfect poached egg (he should know a thing or two about eggs since brunch on the weekends results in more than 1,000 eggs being cooked!). Here are his tips:
"The pan is important. It can’t be too deep like a pot. You have to use a sauce pan with sides almost like a braiser to gently scoop the egg out and gently drop it in. Vinegar is key. A little vinegar in the water helps it coagulate when it hits the water, so it doesn’t spread out too much. I like to season my water with salt and a little vinegar. Once they're in, make sure to watch them until they are just done."

Curious to see just how southern the menu was, we delved deeper and found a dish that would take some getting used to - the Crawfish Omelet. You almost have to be from the South to crave this kind of entree since it not only has crawfish meat but the tail and fatty innards (from the head) are mixed in with the egg before being turned into an omelet. I am not the biggest of fans when it comes to crawfish boils but it fit Duc's fancy with its robust seasonings and strong shellfish smell. My pick for the morning in terms of best plates was the Southern Eggs Benedict, an impressively tall stack of the main components of an eggs bendict but atop crisp potato hash. I have always been a fan of eggs benedict but this southern spin on one had my eyes rolling back in happiness. Poached eggs with finely chopped chives were on top of sliced corned beef and grilled brioche while a base was made from the fried potato hash. Hot pepper hollandaise finished off the creation nicely and gave it just a little bit of the kick needed to push everything together. I really enjoyed all of the textures in this dish, and it was no surprise that this particular one was what supposedly won over Santa Ana city officials when the second location was being considered.

With those four dishes down, you'd think that we'd have a comprehensive idea of the brunch menu but to be honest, there is a lot more than four choices when it comes down to it. However, the food is executed pretty well, and I'd advise that you be ready to wait for tables since the restaurant gets packed quickly. Chef Diego's commitment to his food definitely shows by the popularity Memphis Cafe has gained (find them at 2920 Bristol St, Costa Mesa, CA 92626) and since he did learn for years under the unofficial tutelage of folks that grew up in the South (just learning by experience), the menu has a fair representation of southern classics. Don't hesitate one bit about choosing to brunch here!

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.

NOTE: This brunch article is a part of a series that we will be running through to April, the month when the full editorial will appear with a multitude of more articles and informational pieces in the Orange County edition of LOCALE Magazine. Make sure to check stands when the issue drops so you can get the full scoop on brunch in OC!

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