Beyond the barbecue: Memphis's plant-based take on classic southern cuisine

Barbecue may be king in the Tennessee city, but meat is only half of the story. Inspired by regional produce and the city’s love of soul food, creative chefs are putting new, plant-based spins on classic Southern fare.

Plant-based eateries are shaking up Memphis’s meat-heavy food scene.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Jacqui Agate
Published 2 Sept 2022, 13:00 BST

At Plant Based Heat, owner Ralph ‘RJ Groove’ Johnson is chuckling over a spitting fryer. “Twenty-plus years ago, I owned a [branch of] Crumpy’s Hot Wings,” he tells me. “And now my first vegan restaurant is next door to one, so we laughed about that.”

One of more than 200 wing joints here in the ‘hot wing capital of the Deep South’ (an epithet I’ve heard three times in as many days), Crumpy’s is something of an institution. The rib-sticking, finger-licking wings it’s been slinging since the early Nineties — served up red hot or sweet with honey — are as Memphis as Elvis Presley, barbecue and the blues. Here at Plant Based Heat, however, things are done rather differently. 

The all-vegan restaurant opened in June 2021 and is one of several plant-based spots shaking up Bluff City’s meat-heavy food scene. The vegan wings — known as ‘vings’ — are a top seller, made from a mix of soy and pea protein, shaped into flats and drumsticks and then fried in rapeseed oil. “Then we sauce it up and you’ll be back tomorrow,” says RJ with another belly laugh. 

Diners eat zucchini noodles at Raw Girls.

Photograph by Justin Burks

I get my wings with ‘agave gold sauce’ — a riff on Memphis’s signature ‘honey gold’. They’re sticky and sweet with a low, slow heat, and turn my fingertips yellow. “Food is a passion in Memphis,” says RJ. “Folks like Mr Crump [of Crumpy’s] just know how to cook. It’s in their blood. And if your food’s not good, the people will tell you. Memphis is a tough crowd.” 

Happily, RJ’s offerings have been crowd-pleasers from the get-go. Having first trialled his recipes at pop-ups around town, it was soon clear that Memphians had an appetite for plant-based food “My favourite piece of equipment is my chargrill,” he says. “It just gives you that immediate smoke flavour.” 

That heady smoke and spice is distinctively Memphis, and the mushrooms, jackfruit and cauliflower on RJ’s menu are vehicles for those Southern flavours. For born-and-bred Memphian RJ, though, it’s about more than just great-tasting food. “I wanted to bring healthier food options to my community,” he says. 

It’s a sentiment shared by The Vegan Table 901, a collective of four Black, female vegan-business owners: Ayesha Collier, of Sun of a Vegan; Daishu McGriff, of Shroomlicious Meals; Donnesha McKinney, of Thicc Ass Vegan; and Francesca Kinsey, of LiveYaLife Juices. According to the women, the pandemic inspired Memphians (and particularly communities of colour, here in this majority-Black city) to search for healthier, plant-based food options.

The Big Smack with sides at Imagine.

Photograph by Justin Burks

We meet in Fourth Bluff Park, in earshot of the buzz of Beale Street. In the distance, the M-shaped Hernando de Soto Bridge rises over the Mississippi.“The last time I was here was for the festival,” says Donnesha. “And I couldn’t tell you what this park actually looked like, because people were just everywhere.” 

The event in question is Memphis’s first ever plant-based festival — the 901 Vegan Festival — which debuted in June last year. On a sizzling summer afternoon, vendors packed out this little park, hawking vegan versions of birria tacos, mac and cheese and shrimp and grits. Memphians came out in force, and the proof was in the plant-based pudding: the city is partial to a meat-free feast. Such was the festival’s success that it returned in 2022, alongside a Vegan Block Party in spring. 

“Memphis is so big on soul food,” says Ayesha Collier, who’s gearing up to open a bricks-and-mortar restaurant at Memphis’s Hickory Ridge Mall. “I wanted to bring Memphians something they’d love, and that’s comfort food.” 

Alongside their own ventures, the four women collaborate with pop-ups across town. And today, they’ve cooked up a feast just for me. There’s a mighty, meaty smashed-mushroom patty wedged between hunks of Texas toast from Shroomlicious, while The Sun of a Vegan lasagne is heavy with almond ricotta and herby marinara sauce. I’m offered a supremely sweet red velvet ‘chezecake’ cookie from Thicc Ass Vegan and a zingy Green Glow juice from Live Ya Life Juices. It’s Memphis like I’ve never tasted it before.

South Main, a vibrant entertainment district.

Photograph by Justin Burks

“This is a barbecue city,” says Daishu, “but Memphis’s food scene is pushing beyond what’s expected. It’s exciting to see what we can do.” Indeed. Across the city, all-vegan spots are springing up like mushrooms, while well-loved omnivore joints are adding meat-free dishes to their menus. But one place has been on the scene for over a decade.

Imagine Vegan Cafe is in Midtown, in the trendy Cooper-Young neighbourhood. It shares a street with a veteran record store and a comic book shop and it was the only fully plant-based restaurant in the city when Kristie and Adam Jeffrey opened it in 2011. 

The list of patrons is impressive: big names including Stevie Wonder, Chrissie Hynde and Bill Clinton have wandered through the doors, to be greeted — as I was — by a painting of John Lennon gazing into the middle distance. The late Beatle’s ode to peace inspired the restaurant’s name. 

The extensive menu is centered on Southern comfort food. A highlight is the huge barbecue sandwich — the ‘meat’ (a wheat- and soy-based protein) coated in sweet barbecue sauce and piled into a pillowy bun. I order it with a side of nutty mac and cheese, and baked beans punchy with smoke. It’s the South on a plate.

It’s exciting to see creative restaurants breaking open the city’s dining scene and placing vegetables at the fore. Another trailblazer is Dory, Memphis’s first tasting menu-only restaurant. It’s in Brookhaven Circle, an area known for its stellar dining options, and is owned and run by Tampa-born chef Dave Krog and his wife Amanda, a fourth-generation Memphian. They describe their venture as a “farm-driven, ingredient-driven, intentionally sourced restaurant”, and they offer bespoke, plant-based tasting menus. 

Historic Beale Street, known as the ‘Home of the Blues’.

Photograph by Justin Burks

“We want to support local farms, have beautiful menus and drive imagination in the kitchen,” Amanda says. Indeed, their near-zero-waste policy forces Dave and his sous chef, Brandon Burke, to be creative. They pulp, powderise, dehydrate and ferment everything from beetroot to surplus satsumas. “It’s opened up this incredible world of spice for us and it’s all created from ingredients like carrot tops,” says Dave. “It’s all vegan, too.”

Punchy fermented beetroot powder features in my amuse-bouche: a delicate concoction of pea shoots, parsley oil and fig puree. After that, it’s shaved and roasted golden beets, with a salty peanut gremolata and more of that magic beetroot powder. Everything is made from scratch with a pulled-right-from-the-earth freshness. “If Brandon had his way, we’d ship in seawater and make our own salt,” jokes Amanda.  

Earthy mushroom grits are served next, before a round of citrussy sorbet. There are flashes of the South in the penultimate course: baked squash finished with carrot barbecue, a fermented tomato paste and dehydrated sprout leaves that vanish on the tongue. I close with a tart apple jelly topped by three orbs of satsuma sorbet and ribbons of candied citrus peel. 

“The Memphis food scene is different from when I got here in 1992,” says Dave. “Every year there are new concepts in this space.” One thing’s for sure: whatever bright minds enter Memphis’s dining scene next, plants will be firmly on the menu.  

Chef de tournant John Johnson puts the finishing touches to the ratatouille at Dory.

Photograph by Justin Burks

Where to eat in Memphis

Raw Girls
Founded by married couple Amy and Hannah Pickle, Raw Girls began life as a food truck, before a bricks-and-mortar version opened in Downtown in 2021. The food ranges from dahl, bursting with turmeric, ginger and garlic, to fresh-sprouted hummus with tomato bread. From around $14.50 (£12.15) per person.

Imagine Vegan Cafe
An institution of over 10 years’ standing, the family-run restaurant dishes up meat-free takes on classic Southern plates, from gumbo to fried chicken and waffles. You can expect a welcoming, down-to-earth vibe and friendly staff. From around $14 (£11.70) per person.

An upmarket spot with a mission to champion high-quality local produce and reduce waste in the kitchen, Dory caters to meat-eaters, too, but its plant-forward plates are the star of the show. In summer, there’s a dedicated plant-based night on the third Monday of the month, or diners can opt for a bespoke vegan menu at any time. The sleek, low-lit dining room is decorated with local art and diners can see right into the open kitchen. From $78 (£65) per person, with wine.

Guests toast with a ‘nojito‘ and sake martini at Dory.

Photograph by Justin Burks

Five foods to try

1. Wings: A Memphis staple, vegan wings are whizzed up from soy proteins, cauliflower and mushrooms. Go for the ubiquitous honey-gold sauce. 

2. Barbeque: Classic pork is swapped out for tofu or soy-based proteins, which are doused in sweet sauce, piled high with coleslaw and stuffed into a bun.

3. Burgers: Few things scream American comfort food more than a burger: plant-based patties are chargrilled for extra smoke and layered with vegan cheese.

4. Southern sides: Vegan versions of cornbread, mac and cheese, hush puppies and baked beans are moreish additions to a meal.

5. Fried chicken and waffles: Oyster mushrooms are a popular substitute for chicken in this traditional Southern dish. 

Published in the September 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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