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  • The Commercial Appeal

    6 hidden gem Memphis restaurants you should check out + our tips on what to order at each

    By Jacob Wilt, Memphis Commercial Appeal,

    17 days ago

    Memphis has dozens of iconic and nationally recognized restaurants. From barbecue to burgers to steaks, there's no shortage of well-known spots that receive widespread praise.

    But there are even more lesser-known restaurants that deserve recognition too. Food trucks, dive bars and restaurants in generic strip malls can often get overlooked, or go unnoticed.

    So to give a little bit of well-deserved recognition to some of these hidden gems, we asked The Commercial Appeal team to share some of their favorite local spots. Here's what they had to say.

    Zen Japanese Fine Cuisine

    1730 S. Germantown Road, Suite125, Germantown;

    Need a break? Play the USA TODAY Daily Crossword Puzzle.

    One of the great crimes in recent history has been the lack of customers at Zen Japanese Fine Cuisine, which is found in the Thornwood development in Germantown. Oh, sure, Zen gets guests. But when a restaurant is regularly serving up terrific cocktails, appetizers, sushi and desserts, it deserves to be jampacked every night — and usually, when I go to Zen, it’s sparsely populated.

    Seriously, I don’t know what all you people have been doing. Do you not appreciate Japanese culinary craftsmanship? Do you have no interest in dishes that are both delicious AND beautiful?

    I can only imagine that you’ll be so moved by these words that you’ll visit Zen soon, so let me give you a few suggestions. When it comes to their cocktails, I’ve enjoyed the “Find Your Zen,” which contains Malibu coconut rum, peach schnapps, pineapple juice and cranberry juice. For an appetizer, you can’t go wrong with the Crab Cake Poppers, Cajun Guacamole Shrimp Cups or Crispy Pineapple Rice Coconut Shrimp Bites. All of Zen’s sushi is great, but on my last visit I enjoyed the Pacific Roll, which is deep fried salmon, cream cheese, and avocado topped with eel sauce and squid mayo masago. I’m still not quite sure what squid mayo masago is, but it is tasty!

    Then there’s the desserts. If you’re like me, you typically say, “No thanks; I’ll take the check please,” when the waiter asks you if you’re interested in dessert. But to make such a remark at Zen would be foolish. Do yourself a favor and order the Exotic Bomba, which is a bowl of tropical ice cream, white chocolate, raspberries and blackberries. Trust me. You won’t find a tastier or more refreshing treat in Memphis this summer.

    — John Klyce, education reporter

    The Haystack Cafe

    6560 U.S. 51, Millington;

    The Haystack Café sits along an industrial stretch of U.S. 51 in Millington, about 25 minutes north of Downtown Memphis. It is a classic dive, with no visible windows from the front and indoor décor that can be best be described as eclectic (think Big Boy statue and beer memorabilia).

    But you go to a dive for the food, not the décor. And Haystack doesn’t disappoint — or go light on the servings — in that category. The menu lists daily specials, from $2 wings on Wednesdays to a fish fry on Fridays. The operative word here is “fry," as in fried okra, fried mush, fried porkchop and fried potatoes.

    On a recent visit I had the generously sized fried pork chop, home fries and fried okra. The okra was on a separate plate, the serving size as big as the rest of the entrée. The price: $9.99.

    Haystack is open all day, but its menu suggests that it specializes in breakfast and opens at 5 a.m. It has a stage for live music, three pool tables, outdoor seating, a bar and a few big-screen TVs.

    But you won’t confuse this place for Buffalo Wild Wings or your favorite sports bar. It is a dive through and through. And that is best reflected in the affordable prices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The staff is friendly, too.

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    Pho Saigon

    2946 Poplar Ave.

    When it comes to Asian cuisine, everyone and their mother has tried authentic Chinese or Japanese at least once in their life. But have you ever had Vietnamese before? If not, then I urgently suggest, no, demand that you go to Pho Saigon.

    There's a wide range of options like pho (noodle soup), egg rolls or Cơm tấm (rice plate), but admittedly I almost always get the Mi Xao Ga — lo mein with chicken and vegetables. The light, soft noodles have a somewhat sweet flavor and pair perfectly with the crunch of an onion or green pepper slice. It's not oily, spicy or excessively salty — there's a reason Vietnamese cuisine is considered among the healthiest in the world.

    If you're looking for a new type of cuisine to try, then I promise you won't regret giving Pho Saigon a shot. Don't forget to say hi to their Buddha statue on the way out.

    Jacob Wilt, DeSoto County/food reporter

    Taqueria El Burrito Express

    286 N. Cleveland St.;

    If you like tacos (and if you don't, I have a lot of questions for you), you can't beat Taqueria El Burrito Express. Housed in a small, orange building on Cleveland Street — and with a food truck at the corner of Madison Avenue and Belvedere Boulevard — the joint serves up quick, affordable and delicious tacos, tortas and other tasty offerings.

    They can always be counted on to have lengua, my favorite taco filling. My typical order includes three tacos, one each of lengua, pastor and chorizo. A hot, delicious meal in under 8 minutes for under $8? Like I said, you can't beat it.

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    Chile Verde

    4971 Park Ave.; Chile Verde

    Now the first time I visited Chile Verde, I was skeptical. But the support from culinary colleagues I respect and a $10 price tag for a cheeseburger was enough motivation to see what the hype was about.

    The Chile Verde food truck is located next door to the BP gas station at 4971 Park Ave. It’s just south of the new Liquor Store location, Grey’s and Torchy’s in the Williamsburg Village Shopping Center. You can order at the food truck and post up under the customer tent. For those not wanting to stand outside, I’ve seen a few patrons order then stay in their vehicles until it is ready.

    Now two things happened before I even tasted the burger that first time that made me realize this was the right call.

    The owner (an older gentleman usually always on the grill) hand molded the beef patty before putting it on the grill and later I saw he tossed both the raw onion and the bun on the grill. For greasy grub, these are both clutch moves and two moves that will make any burger stand out from a traditional order. Fresh beef patty versus frozen is always noticeable and surprisingly few spots still make a fresh burger patty to order.

    Chile Verde easily has the best burger in Memphis, and for the $10 price tag I don’t foresee them losing that top billing in my rankings anytime soon. And listen before I get any hate mail for this, I live in South Main. I love Green Beetle and Earnestine & Hazel’s, but every time I’ve ordered Chile Verde, I get it to-go and drive 30 minutes back home and that puppy is still hot, fresh and perfect.

    The crinkle fries with paprika might not be everyone’s bag, but for me, it’s a perfect complement for a roadside burger.

    Neil Strebig, business/economic development reporter

    Slice Midtown

    1495 Union Ave.;

    Slice Midtown has some of the best-bang-for-your=buck pizza in Memphis. As a native St. Louisan, I have been looking for a great toasted ravioli in town since I moved here about a year ago.

    If you are in need of the classic St. Louis toasted rav, or want to try for yourself, Slice Midtown is the place to go.

    My typical order is the Margherita pizza, and toasted ravioli — only when I am feeling particularly homesick.

    — Brooke Muckerman, county government reporter

    Have a favorite "hidden gem"? Email and tell us all about it.

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