Diners love to gobble up small plates, but for years the Spanish word for these delights has drawn puzzled looks from Memphians, who are apparently more accustomed to hearing "topless bar" than "tapas bar."
Try it. Tell your neighbor you found a great new tapas bar, and see what happens.
So kudos to East Tapas & Drinks for giving the word its due. There's not a Spanish dish on the menu,
but the reasonably priced selections of small plates and specialty cocktails, beer and wine seem to capture the right spirit.
East is next door to Wang's Mandarin House, linked by a lobby-to-lobby hallway, and owned by the same family. You can even order from the Wang's menu if you're in the mood for a full meal. But while I like Wang's food, I say you should definitely stick with East when at East.
The menu is divided into cold small plates, hot small plates, pizza and desserts, and several of the dishes are heavily Mexican- or Asian-influenced. While that might sound a little peculiar, the taste profiles of the dishes are strikingly similar, with the tang of lime a unifying element: Thai lime chicken wings and chili lime shrimp make it clear that the zingy citrus will stand out, but it's just as evident in the ceviche and the guacamole.
The latter is a stellar example of what guacamole should be, even if this is an East-meets-West version. A finely diced avocado is mixed with shallots, tomato, garlic, cilantro, plenty of lime -- and a barely noticeable touch of ginger. It's slightly creamy, and served with a bowl of thick but crunchy fried won tons that you won't be able to resist (and that your server will kindly replenish).
The ceviche is a mix of chopped shrimp and scallops with tomato, onion, tiny but fiery bites of minced pepper and plenty of lime. Start with these two dishes and you won't go wrong.
The tempura vegetables from the hot plates menu are mushrooms, onion, cauliflower, broccoli and so on. They came with a small bowl of a ginger sauce that was thicker than expected for the lightly battered vegetables, though tasty and a good dip for those chips.
The food is pretty, too. The honey fire shrimp is garnished with an edible "tree" of delicately fried dough (though ours didn't come with the cilantro leaves as pictured), and limes with carved rinds decorate many of the plates. The shrimp come nestled on top of a tangle of lightly marinated, thinly sliced cabbage, with a creamy sauce in between and squiggles of Sriracha around the plate.
Better, though, is the chili lime shrimp. Four good-size shrimp (maybe not the jumbo, as stated on the menu) are threaded on skewers, grilled and served simply with a thin and delicious dressing of soy, lime, pepper and green onion.
All the food is flavorful, yet even the spicier dishes are not going to hurt anyone (well, the pepper in the ceviche might challenge the tender of tongue).
Two items that were recommended on both our visits were the Asian sloppy joes and the 3-cheese mac 'n cheese. It was just too hot to try the latter, though I was impressed, if only by sight, with the bubbling bowl I spotted on another table. The sloppy joes were not my cup of tea -- I found them salty and plainly messy -- but that left more for the others at my table, who were happy to have my share.
A surprise hit was the Buffalo chicken pizza. The "wing" sauce was right on target, delivering a tangy and spicy punch in place of traditional pizza sauce. Blue cheese adds a kick, and while the chicken really doesn't matter, with all those flavors on a tender little round of pizza dough, there's plenty of it.
The bar features more than a dozen specialty cocktails. Dude brand vodka lends the opportunity to play with names: The traditional screwdriver with a splash of Sprite is a Dude Driver; the vodka with Sprite and grenadine is called Dude Looks Like a Lady. I guess it's the pink color? (When the server told me it tastes just like Mountain Dew, I passed.) We tried the Ginger Pear Martini, which I found too sweet, and the La Boheme, a slightly bitter and delightful mix of gin, St. Germain and grapefruit.
Service is friendly and attentive, even eager to please. ("There's a whole guacamole in there," one told us when she delivered our dip, and then confessed to one of a large group at the bar: "Oh, my god, I just told that woman that was a whole guacamole.")
East is a pretty and inviting place. There's a bit of soft seating in front, and the high ceilings, concrete floors and chic-industrial decor lend an urban elegance to the strip center restaurant (not that there's anything wrong with that).
East Tapas & Drinks
Address: 6069 Park.
Telephone: (901) 763-0676.
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday from 4:30 p.m. until at least 10 p.m., which is when the kitchen closes. The bar will stay open later if busy.
Reviewer's choices: Honey fire shrimp ($8); Buffalo chicken pizza ($8); chili lime shrimp ($8); guacamole ($6); ceviche ($7).
Alcohol: Full bar; specialty cocktails $9; drink specials most days.