Imagine Vegan Cafe in Memphis, TN. The place to go when you’re craving frozen vegan food from the grocery store and abominable service.
OK, to be fair I don’t know what the vegan scene is in Memphis. Maybe Gardein, Tofurky, Yves etc. are not as readily available in Memphis as they are in Charlotte. Maybe Imagine Cafe has to special-order all the vegan supermarket items I take for granted. In that case, this restaurant is a blessing and providing Memphis a valuable service.
Imagine is located in a trendy little neighborhood filled with small restaurants and bars. Parking is scarce, and mostly on the street. Lyfts and Ubers roamed the neighborhood, dropping people off and picking up new passengers. A. wound up dropping me off in front of the restaurant while he continued to search for parking.
The waitress told me to seat myself, so I chose a table by the window. Like most vegan restaurants, it’s very simple, spare, but had a cool industrial vibe. I particularly liked the Imagine sign surrounded by lights, even though the lights were probably only for Christmas.
The waitress brought a single menu, not asking if there would be more in my party. I told her there would be another person, and she brought me additional menu. And then – POOF! She vanished. No, “Can I get you something to drink?” or “Would you like to order an appetizer while you wait on your friend?”
Ten minutes later A. walked in.
A: “So what appetizer did you order?”
Me: “Nothing yet. I can’t even seem to make eye contact with the waitress.”
For the next ten minutes we both tried to make eye contact with her. It became almost like a competition, and one that she won. She was a pro, and we were basically just nice wimpy vegans.
Finally, she strolled over to took our order. Water and the sampler appetizer platter. $8.99.
After twenty additional minutes, she brought the platter to us and set it down in the middle of the table. She didn’t bring any small plates.
We took one look at the food and burst into laughter. See what is at two o’clock on the plate? Gardein Seven Grain Crispy Chicken Tenders! (You could also order six Gardein tenders for $6.99 – marked on the menu as “Southern fried chicken tenders“. A bit misleading since these aren’t fried, just heated up in the oven. Or you could just go to the store and buy a bag of 10 for $4.00. Of course, then you’d have to heat them up yourself. Bummer.)
The other items on the sampler platter included:
- Two small hush puppies. (Tasted frozen – if they were not frozen they were exceedingly dry and stale).
- Two “buffalo wings” which were also obviously a frozen supermarket food.
- Two “dogs in blankets” which I recognized as Lightlife Smart Dogs wrapped in canned crescent rolls. (Don’t we all do this at home?)
- Two potato skins, which we enjoyed. Even though they were highly processed – supermarket vegan cheese, “bacon” bits, probably McCormick’s – they were tasty. They also had plenty of potato still attached. This is the only item I would recommend from this platter.
We perused the menu a little more closely after this.
Being from Charlotte, I’m spoiled. I’m used to vegan restaurants which may use a few pre-made items, but also vary that with tofu and tempeh and jackfruit and house-made seitan and nut-based cheeses and just … you know, interesting veggie dishes. I was beginning to suspect that many of the menu items were of the “I’m too d*mn tired to cook so I’m just gonna doctor up something frozen” variety. For example, the Turkey Cutlets topped with a brown home-style gravy sounded suspiciously like … you know, the Gardein Turk’y Cutlets with the brown gravy. I checked the website on my iphone and found the Turkey Cutlets look suspiciously like Gardein as well.
Since there really wasn’t anything “fresh” on the menu and I saw they used May Wah products (there’s a long list on the back of the menu of all the supermarket products they use), I decided to go with the Fried Chicken Drumsticks, hoping they’d be similar to the May Wah “wings” we used to get from Zizi’s. It’s the one vegan frozen food that’s a bit hard to find in Charlotte.
The prices are relatively inexpensive (compared to Charlotte), so A. decided he would sample several items. Any leftovers we would take back to the hotel for another meal.
So we waited. And waited. Apparently our waitress’ conversation with another waitress was much more enthralling than waiting on customers.
“Did she think all we wanted was appetizers!” A. was getting hangry.
“I don’t know, but it looks like other people are getting impatient waiting, too.”
Now, I know waitressing (waitpersoning?) is a tough job. And if it’s a jumpin’ place I appreciate they are juggling multiple tables, customers, and orders.
But Imagine really wasn’t busy. Three tables and four people (including the two of us). Let me back up and show you a pic of the restaurant. The only table missing here is the window table where we were sitting.
A. finally walked up to the juice/smoothie bar and told her we were ready to order.
Interestingly, the food was brought out in increments – not all together.
First, A.’s hot dog – the “Shelia” – $4.99. He said it was good, but nothing spectacular. The standard vegan hot dog with toppings omni restaurants have as their token vegan offering. Hot dogs do not come with a side.
When A was halfway through his hot dog, the waitress brought out my “fried chicken” – $13.99. The drumsticks were indeed May Wah – complete with the wooden stick in the center – and they satisfied my craving.
The meal came with my choice of two sides.
Mashed potatoes – which were, literally, mashed potatoes. Like, someone boiled some potatoes and just mashed them. Not sure there was any “milk,” “butter,” or seasonings. They weren’t bad, though. I mean, it’s pretty hard to f*ck up a potato. Plus, I’m Irish. I’ve rarely met a potato I didn’t like.
The seasoned greens were another story! Not sure what kind of seasoning they used aside from a handful of bacon bits and maybe some jarred garlic? And I’m on the border on whether these were fresh or frozen (leaning towards frozen). There are some really great places to get vegan collards in the South (besides my house) – one is Bean in Charlotte and Asheville; another is Soul Good Vegan Cafe in Durham. Yet another is Veltree in Charlotte.
Unfortunately, Imagine is not one of those places.
A. had also ordered the special of the day – a taco and chimichanga. It eventually came out – long after the hot dog and drumsticks! We both thought these were good – however, the filling was clearly a crumbled black bean burger patty.
His side was black beans – did not get a picture of this. The beans actually tasted and had the texture of being made from dried, not canned. But once again, seasoning was lacking. (OK, I thought the beans sucked and he thought they were passable – so for all intents and purposes of this review we are going with “lacked seasoning.”)
At some point he managed to get his water glass refilled; mine sat sad and empty on the table. I had to share his water. We kept trading the glass back and forth.
Would I Recommend Imagine Vegan Cafe?
I would say Imagine is a case of “caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware! What we had wasn’t necessarily “bad” – and some of it was “good” – but still, it was for the most part highly processed convenience food most of us can buy for ourselves at the grocery. There’s not a lot that is fresh or creative or house-made.
However, like I said I don’t know the vegan situation in Memphis. If it’s hard to get access to frozen vegan food – or if you are brand new to mock meats – you may well love this. (I remember when Earth Fare first opened in Charlotte and I saw Vegenaise and Tofurky for the first time – I just stood there in the aisle and cried.) If you’ve never had Gardein before – yeah, go, try Imagine, it will blow your socks off.
Imagine Vegan Cafe is 100% vegan. Not one of those wishy-washy “vegetarian with vegan options” or “vegan with vegetarian options” restaurants.
Prices for a meal are reasonable, at least compared to Charlotte.
On The Flip Side Of The Coin:
If you have easy access to vegan frozen foods, you are probably not going to be impressed. You’ve probably already made yourself a frozen veggie burger, a Smart Dog, a chicken sandwich made with Gardein tenders or scallopini; crumbled and stuffed a black bean patty into a tortilla or taco shell; made yourself a Rueben with deli slices; boiled some vegan ravioli and poured marinara sauce over it. Personally, when I go out to eat, I’m looking for something different – something I do not make at home. Especially not the stuff I make at home at 10:00 PM.
It’s also not the place to go if you are into more of a whole foods lifestyle.
One way Imagine could easily up their game is by elevating their side dishes. The four we had (mashed potatoes, seasoned greens, black beans, and hushpuppies) were mostly meh. If the sides were rockin’ – like at Bean, Soul Good Vegan, Veltree, Joya – that would help balance out all the frozen food.
Interestingly, although the service was bad, it was more disinterested than hostile, so that would not necessarily deter me from going again. As long as I had plenty of time. During the course of our dinner, we learned to roll with it. We asked for the bill and assumed it would be 20 minutes. We handed over our credit card and assumed it would be an additional 20 minutes. That saved us a lot of stress on our part, and also gave us time to discuss the things we loved about Memphis. Delta Blues, Beale Street, Sun Records, all the sad and rich civil rights history regarding the amazing Dr. King, the gold mosque dedicated to Danny Thomas at the St. Jude Hospital, the Peabody ducks, and last but not least Elvis Presley and our kitschy little hotel.
If you DON’T have a lot of time, definitely DON’T go. In reading Yelp and Trip Advisor reviews after our dining experience, it appears slow and lackluster service is common.
One More Thing – #Buttholegate
My procedure when writing a review – I write a first draft, to capture my original impression and thoughts. Then I google for news and other reviews, to make sure there isn’t something I’m missing and should be commenting on.
And, oh Lordy. I came across Baby #buttholegate.
Apparently, in 2017, a woman posted a Yelp review. She was dining and a toddler ran nekkid in front of her, jumped up on a table, and bent over to show her its butthole. Meanwhile, its older sibling came to her table and yodeled at her. Other Yelp users chimed in with stories of children running amok and babies defecating on the floor.
Wait – it gets better. It appears to have actually happened. The owners admitted they had a potty-training toddler who occasionally undid her velcro diaper and ran around the restaurant nekkid.
(What’s the difference between naked and nekkid? Well, if you’re naked you have no clothes on, but if you’re nekkid you not only have no clothes on, but you are up to something – like mooning customers.)
More significantly, the owners launched a full-out attack against the Yelp reviewer and anyone else who dared to comment. The story went viral – making it not only to the Memphis nightly news but all the way to the UK.
Of course, Yelp immediately took down the review (Yelp is ALWAYS on the side of the business owner, never forget that when you are reading reviews). And the owners of Imagine deleted their Facbook comments. But, you know what, y’all? The internet is forever. And forever is a mighty long time. Someone is always out there, taking screenshots or snippits. And if you’ve got time to fall down a very entertaining rabbit hole, it is all still out there, and worth visiting.
SIDE NOTE: If anyone wants to know about rabbit holes, you’ve come to the right place. Why my bestie Lynn calls me “bunny”.
I mention #buttholegate only bcause, had I known about #buttholegate, I might have been concerned and chosen another restaurant. But we didn’t encounter any buttholes on our visit. No yodeling, either – although we might have appreciated a little yodeling to help while away the time we spent waiting on the waitress.
And the place seemed clean. I forgot to check the sanitation score (have to remember to do that!) The table, the floor wasn’t sticky, the silver was clean, the restroom clean.
So whatever happened here several years ago, you should not let that deter you from visiting today.