Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Family Tradition - Sidestreet Burgers and Evan's Cafeteria

Sidestreet Burgers on Highway 178 in Olive Branch has been on my radar for nearly a year now, but I hadn't stopped in until a few weeks ago. Part of the problem was catching the place open, since if I am in Olive Branch it is usually on either a Monday or a Thursday and the restaurant is closed on Mondays. And I have to drive past the Rib Zone on Lamar to get to Olive Branch, so I'm frequently not hungry by the time I reach Sidestreet. But the full parking lot on days that the restaurant was open convinced me the burgers were worth checking out.

It turns out that Sidestreet is a one-man operation run by a friendly young chef named Jonathan Mah. He keeps things simple with a short but well-thought menu. On the day I visited I noticed an enticing-sounding Sriracha steak on the specials board, but I'd showed up craving a burger so I stuck with the restaurant's namesake item despite my deep love for Sriracha sauce. I went all-out and ordered the half-pound cheeseburger topped with bacon and caramelized onions.

 The restaurant has a topping bar where I also added lettuce, tomato and pickle.

The burger was suitably huge and cooked to a perfect medium. Seth over at the Best Memphis Burger Blog frequently documents his troubles with getting kitchens to accommodate his desire for a juicy, medium burger so I'd highly recommend that he take a trip down to Olive Branch for a burger prepared by Mah.

While I was eating I was thoroughly entertained by a sign on the wall with the heading "Our credit card philosophy." Bring cash when you visit because the restaurant doesn't accept credit cards. Why not? The reasoning explained on the poster told a very long story from the era of the Ch'in and Han dynasties involving walking fish with magic bones, gold slippers, merchants, kings and people crushed to death by flying stones. The story had nothing to do with credit. At the end of it said, "And that's why Sidestreet Burgers doesn't accept credit cards." 

I was still thinking about the Sriracha steak on the specials board when I checked the Sidestreet Burgers Urbanspoon page and saw other customers mentioning how consistently good and creative the restaurant's specials are. So despite the excellent burgers, don't dismiss Sidestreet as just a burger joint. With a young chef bringing a strong sense of humor, creativity and general love of food to his establishment; Mah has made the little restaurant a place worth following.

I was working in Olive Branch on Monday and decided to swing back by Sidestreet just to see what kind of specials were available, assuming that if worst came to worst I could just order a big, juicy burger. I forgot the restaurant was closed on Mondays. But behind the restaurant I noticed I sign for a country-cooking place called Wray's Fins and Feathers. So I drove around only to discover that it is closed on Mondays too. And that I when I saw two familiar names sitting on Pigeon Roost Road in old, historic Olive Branch.

That is Evan's Cafe on the left and Blocker's Soul Food on the right.

I knew the Blocker's Soul Food on Winchester had closed recently, and with the Raleigh location converted to Lorenzo's Soul Food I thought the name had disappeared from the local soul food landscape. It turns out Blocker's is still open, just moved to Olive Branch. But Blocker's is also closed on Mondays, leading me to begin wondering if I was going to be forced to eat some sort of fast food garbage in the hideously soulless new section of Olive Branch over around Craft Goodman and Goodman surrounding the Super Wal-Mart.

I was saved from that fate by a name from even further in my past. During my days as a newspaper reporter for the Commercial Appeal I worked in the paper's DeSoto County office back in 2000. There were two country cooking restaurants on Goodman that I would frequent in those days -- the Magnolia Cafe in Olive Branch and Evan's Cafe in Horn Lake.

The two restaurants were owned and operated by a Southern-raised and accented Asian husband and wife team. He ran Evan's, she ran Magnolia. I knew both restaurants were long-gone from their original locations, but I didn't know Evan's had reappeared in Olive Branch. 

I remember a friend who used to regularly meet me for lunch at the Magnolia Cafe commenting once after the owner had just checked up on us and recommended getting seconds that, "it's sort of like a friend's mom cooked a bunch of food and invited you over to eat." It's a similar experience at Evan's, with a friendly owner, very low-priced buffet, and an extremely family-friendly atmosphere.

When I say family-friendly atmosphere I mean that the restaurant has a tradition of aways showing family-friendly older movies on a big TV in the dining room and all the tables use butcher paper as placemats with crayons available for anyone who wants to draw on them. The walls of the spartan restaurant are decorated with crayon art created by kids who have dined there in the past.

The lunch buffet was only $4.99 plus an additional $0.75 for a glass of water. I actually applaud a fast-food-priced restaurant for charging a small fee for water and giving me a full-sized cup. As someone who works outside in the Memphis heat, I hate ordering a water with my food somewhere and being given the equivalent of a child's sippy cup. I don't order water to be cheap. I order it because I'm thirsty and it's what I want to drink.

At the buffet I got pulled pork, a baked chicken thigh, turnip greens and broccoli. I mean "broccoli" in the purest Southern sense; swimming in a sea of Velveeta. The Federal government actually played a major role in making Velveeta a staple of country and soul food by distributing Velveeta-like government cheese to people on public assistance for several decades from the '60s through the '90s. Government cheese is gone these days but countless recipes created around it live on with items like Rotel chicken and Rotel spaghetti appearing on soul food menus throughout the South. Despite the Velveeta-soaked broccoli Evan's bakes most of its meat items and doesn't have any fryers, so don't worry about it being a restaurant where everything is greasy.

Evan's definitely veers more towards country cooking than soul food. The baked chicken thighs I ate packed a lot of seasoning but most of the items are the more blandly season style generally preferred by older white people in the South. My greens were very mildy seasoned, and I didn't see any of the mandatory hot green pepper sauce sitting around for me to season them myself.

The pulled pork was tender and juicy, but the lack of smoke flavor and slightly mushy consistency makes me pretty sure it was prepared in a slow cooker, not a pit. For pulled pork on a $4.99 buffet I can't complain. In fact I had seconds of both it and the greens. The food at Evan's isn't going to be fancy or exciting. But it will be consistently good enough, affordable, quick, and come with service that makes you feel like an old friend.

While I was paying for my meal when I finished eating I mentioned that I used to eat at both the old Evan's location and the Magnolia Cafe. Evan's owner Galvin Mah said that his wife closed the Magnolia Cafe to go manage a restaurant in Germantown due to struggles with arthritis and steadily increasing rents in the shopping center where she had been located. Then he hit me with the question, "Have you tried my son's restaurant up the street; Sidestreet Burgers?"

I laughed at the obvious realization and answered "yes." Husband, wife, son; over the course of nearly 15 years I've never had a bad dining experience at any restaurant owned by any member of the Mah family. 

The section of Pigeon Roost where Evan's is located is another example, like the Collierville Square or old Millington, of attractive and inviting design in a town that has since abandoned the principles of dense, walkable development and retail stores built out to the street in favor of rubber-stamping future blight like that seen in Hickory Hill and on Stateline Road.

UPDATE: Since I mentioned to pay attention to the specials board at Sidestreet Burgers; a couple weeks after this post I stopped back by Sidestreet and Chef Jonathan Mah had this creation that I was lucky enough to eat:

Mah called this the Hott Pigg. It's ground pork stuffed with applewood bacon and rosemary then topped with pepperjack cheese, jalapeno slaw and apple butter barbecue sauce. It was exceptional. If you stop by it may not be available, but don't hesitate to ask what the best special available is that day.

SideStreet Burgers on Urbanspoon

Evans Country Buffet on Urbanspoon


  1. Wow, Blockers' new spot is where my dad had a clothing store back in the 70s and 80s. That's kinda surreal. I have to go try it out when I go back home to visit!

  2. Great write up......Interesting note about the Rotel cheese dishes. The connection with gov't cheese never crossed my mind, as it's usually country-ass white folks trying to serve me Rotel spaghetti.

    The buffet at the Blue & White in Tunica is quite impressive. Unfortunately, I didn't catch it today until after I had downed my DBLFGT sandwich (double bacon, that is).

    Let me know the next time Alcenias might be on your radar. I'll be happy to join you. You have to call a day or so ahead of time anymore so she can get the stuff for meatloaf. It's not a regular item anymore.

    1. Plenty of poor, country-ass white folks ate the government cheese.

  3. Both of the restaraunts in OB wether home style cooking or juicy burger are great places to eat at with your family

  4. some fotos looks realy tasty! I would like to try it