My City, My Soul – Dr. SunAh M. Laybourn

In our city, “soul” isn’t just a word. It’s a feeling, it’s a movement, it’s a vibe. As Memphians, we wear soul with pride. Our city isn’t just the birthplace of musical icons or the city where food, music, and culture come to life.

Our city’s soul is described by generosity that knows no bounds and the thousands of Memphians building community with each other on the daily. It’s the activism that stirring in our hearts, pushing each other and the world to see better and do better. It’s in the limitless innovation fueling insatiable curiosity and so, so much more. Memphis has always been a place of big hearts and even bigger ideas, where the spirit of soul finds its home. So, when you’re seeing your fellow Memphians’ faces across the city, you’re seeing a mirror reflecting our collective pride.

We’ll be sharing stories of how your fellow Memphians connect with our city through food, fitness, music, and so much more! Be sure to keep an eye out for billboards across the city featuring some familiar faces!

Meet Dr. SunAh M. Laybourn

She’s the powerhouse behind Memphis’ very first official Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebration that’s centered around empowering Asian Americans and spreading the love for their contributions to our city. She’s not your average sociology professor at the University of Memphis; she’s dedicated to uplifting Memphis’ Asian community–one that has had roots in our city for more than 150 years. She’s also the host of “Let’s Grab Coffee” on WYXR, where she “catches up with experts from across the country, who are investigating our most pressing social issues and common curiosities.”

“You can tell a lot about a city by the food it’s known for, the cuisines that characterize a part of town, the ingredients that are hard to find or simply aren’t available locally.

In Memphis, BBQ has become so synonymous with the Bluff City that it can be easy to forget that our city’s claim to BBQ was the result of an intentional decision to add the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest to the second celebration of Memphis in May in 1978. Like Memphis in May itself, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest was part of a plan to draw visitors back to Memphis and especially back to downtown. The first grand champion, Mrs. Bessie Louise Cathey, an African-American homemaker from Mississippi, beat out a couple dozen other competitors. Now the competition boasts around 150 teams from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico as well as international participants.

While food can craft a city’s future, there’s also the food that may be lesser known but no less central to a city’s story. On Beale Street just west of South 4th Street, there’s a historical marker memorializing the Chop Suey Café. The marker notes that it is “believed to be the longest operating Chinese restaurant in Memphis,” operating from 1920 to 1967. Though its longevity is impressive, Chop Suey Café and the other businesses that Chinese immigrants operated on Beale Street as early as 1873 are part of our city’s past – and present – that expands Memphis’s typical narrative of who has been here and who belongs.

Food bridges the past, present, and future. When we explore a city’s food culture, we are quite literally feasting on the legacies of the people who made that place home, who have been invested in a city’s survival, and who have been committed to creating community. It is through locally owned restaurants that we also have the opportunity to connect with a city’s residents and learn where a city may be headed.

It was an impossible task to narrow down my favorite restaurants – and our city’s ever-expanding food culture and community – to just five. Undoubtedly, there is much that this short list couldn’t cover, but may this be a part of your food adventure in the city I call home, whether you too are a lifetime resident or just passing through.

Anti Gentrification Cxffee Club

I love coffee. No sugar, no cream. Just coffee. And, the Anti Gentrification Cxffee Club is brewing some of the best coffee in the city. There’s their signature Guji Mane (gotta love the double entendre), which you must try, but it was a pour-over of their Basha Bekele that changed my life. It’s not hyperbole to say that Cxffeeblack is changing lives – not only through exposing folks to the natural flavors of a cup of coffee but also through their commitment to the local neighborhood, to creating an all Black supply chain of coffee from Ethiopia to the U.S. and Memphis specifically, and to training baristas in cultural and coffee knowledge through their transnational Black Barista Exchange Program.

Kinfolk Biscuits

It wouldn’t be the South without some scratch-made biscuits. Before they moved into their brick-and-mortar, Kinfolk Biscuits had a weekend residency at Comeback Coffee (another favorite). Each weekend the line would be down the block before the doors even opened. While the biscuits are noteworthy on their own, it’s the delicious biscuit sandwich combinations that make it impossible not to include them in my Top 5. There’s the chicken biscuit – because how could you not? – and then there’s the lox biscuit. I have strong opinions about lox bagels, so trust me when I say I approached this selection with deep skepticism. Ultimately, I was delighted to find out that lox and biscuits are a yummy pair. In addition to the savory options, there are also various combinations of fresh fruits, jam, and even Nutella.

La Michoacana

There are few things I enjoy more than a cold treat on a hot day. Memphis has plenty of hot days, which means more time to work your way through all of the paletas and hand-made ice creams on La Michoacana’s menu. Whether you choose one of the water or cream-based paletas with chunks of fruit or opt for ice cream flavors you won’t get anywhere else – like elote, Mexican cake, or chili mango – you will certainly find more than a few new favorite sweet treats.

Mosa Asian Bistro

I can’t quite remember the first time I ate here, and I certainly couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve grabbed some Mosa to go, popped in for lunch, or recommended them to a friend. But, what I can tell you is that Mosa’s commitment to fresh ingredients, making everything in-house from the sauces to soups and everything their menu offers, and training young people in hospitality so that customers feel like part of a delicious food community will keep you coming back. In fact, people have kept coming back to this family-owned and operated restaurant since 1978 when Mr. Eddie Pao opened what would eventually become the Mosa Asian Bistro that we know today.

Petals of Peony

This authentic Sichuan restaurant opened in late summer 2023 and immediately made it to my Top 5 Memphis eats. Its opening speaks to our city’s expanding food palate and growing population. The menu is extensive, and if you’re still learning Sichuan cuisine (like I am), then the sparse descriptions give you little to go on, making this the perfect place to get out of your restaurant routine and explore. The flavors are truly phenomenal. You cannot go wrong… unless you limit your order to one or two items. Yes, everything is that good. Grab a friend, try a few items that pique your interest, and if you need an extra epicure, I’ll meet you there!”

A huge thank you to SunAh for sharing just a few spots that connect her to the city’s soul and allow her to express her own! Ready to share yours? Be sure to tag us at @wearememphistn as you show off your city and soul!

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