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The Tao of Tapas

A trip to Safari, and a dinner of deep thoughts.

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The dictionary tells us that a safari is a journey for hunting, exploration, or investigation. Faatimah Muhammad hopes that her Safari, Memphis' newest tapas bar on South Main, isn't merely a journey but a destination.

Safari is spartan, moodily lit. A giant paneled portrait of Warren Beatty greets guests at the door, a gesture of the eclecticism throughout the restaurant in its atmosphere and its menu. The tapas hop hemispheres: Caribbean jerk chicken, Southern-fried chicken, Thai shrimp curry, and falafel with hummus. A number of wraps are available, including chicken shawarma and fried tilapia. Everything's home-made, courtesy of Chef Alvin Duplantier.

The lunch menu shifts focus away from the tapas and toward the wraps, pita pizzas (including deluxe chicken and veggie), and smoothies such as the "Wake Me Up," a mix of soymilk, bananas, ginseng, bee pollen, and honey.

And yet one of the most interesting and affecting ingredients found in Safari are those in its story — how it came to be and what Muhammad hopes that it can be for her community.

The safari that led her to her current vocation began in 1991 with the accidental death of her 4-year-old son, Jabril, and the end of her marriage shortly thereafter.

"Even though tragedy happens in your life, God has another plan," Muhammad says. "And God doesn't make mistakes. The legacy of Jabril was, 'Out of one comes many.'"

In 1999, Muhammad earned a degree in psychology from Christian Brothers University with an emphasis in grief counseling. From there, she spent time as a funeral home owner and director before working as deputy director of the Memphis Urban Family Ministries, an outreach organization that helps people with drug or alcohol problems or HIV/AIDS get back on their feet and lead better lives.

"The lesson I had to learn from things crumbling around me was that no matter how bad things look, it can always be worse," she says. "I pulled myself up from my bootstraps and devoted my life to service for my community and for those less fortunate than me."

Consequently, a portion of Safari's profits go to Urban Family Ministries. It's a feat made easier by the support of Muhammad's friends and family: son Siddiq is general manager; daughter-in-law Angela serves as sous chef; and grandson LaDarius is a server.

As Muhammad and I speak on this slow-moving Monday night, a customer wanders in to place a carry-out order. I overhear him extolling the virtues of Safari and his love of tapas, so I invite him to sit with us for a man-on-the-street perspective. A jovial gentleman in his early 60s clad in sandals and Hawaiian shirt, Carlos has nothing but wonderful things to say about the restaurant.

"I've lived across the street for 17 years, and this is my favorite restaurant in the area. Reminds me of New Orleans. Ha!" he exclaims. Carlos ends many sentences with a "ha!," not a laugh but as happy punctuation. I ask what he does for a living. "I eat. I'm a plumbing contractor with a $1.8 million-a-year business, so all I do is eat. I try to eat healthy, which is why I like this place," he says. "I don't want to get any bigger. Ha!"

Carlos' order arrives. "You don't serve wine here, do you?" he asks. Muhammad tells him that Safari will have a liquor license soon. "No wine? Then I'll have to hurry home! Ha!" He does but not before announcing, "Tapas is the answer to life and everything!"

Safari is open Monday through Saturday for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for dinner from 5 to 11 p.m.

Safari, 414 S. Main (545-9000)

safaritapas.com

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