Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Real Meal Deals


There is no shortage of creative and classy dining in Louisville, but it's the unheralded diners and dives that keep us fed, day in and day out. Here's to the unsung heroes of the local dining scene.

I've never read a travel magazine story about Louisville that didn't insist that you must eat at Lynn's Paradise Café. Our local chefs have competed on "Iron Chef America" and "Throwdown with Bobby Flay." Gourmet magazines frequently cite high-end eateries like 610 Magnolia, Proof on Main, the English Grill and Corbett's - An American Place as evidence of this city's culinary ambitions.

But for every seared scallop with English pea flan or Wagyu ribeye that is served at the city's more notable establishments, there are dozens more unsung (and much more inexpensive) hash houses keeping our bellies full and satisfied.

Like the corner bar — a beloved icon around here — Louisville's diners and dives do the heavy lifting when it comes to keeping the majority of us watered and fed.

I'm not a chef or a professional food writer, but food is a whole lot more than mere sustenance to me; a great restaurant turns me into a tween at a Jonas Brothers concert, yelling and begging for more — which becomes easier when I know that dinner for two won't cost $100.

Here, then, is a sampling of some of Kentuckiana's best places to go for cheap eats.

This Vietnamese restaurant is not as legendary as the nearby Vietnam Kitchen, but that just makes it much easier to get a table on a Saturday night. The pho — a traditional dish of thinly sliced beef in rice-noodle soup — is hard to forget, and the service is excellent. Rebecca Dennison, a programmer at UPS, likes that she can order something spicy off the lunch menu and get a dinner-sized portion for less than $6. “Fabulous!” is her one-word review. The vegetarian options are equally satisfying and affordable.

Lebowski Fest co-founder Will Russell introduced me to some of the best fish in the region here. But what really stands out for him are the onion rings. “They are to die for,” Russell said. “They are technically not rings, but more like onion shrapnel dipped in a delicious batter and fried to high heaven.” The wood-paneled dining room is far from glamorous, but fish lovers don't care when the food is this good (and cheap). They keep odd hours, so call first.

Located in the Eastland Shopping Center in Fern Creek, DakShin specializes in fare that is slightly more exotic that most local Indian joints, and the variety of offerings is enormous. “There's a huge vegetarian menu, unusual ingredients, everything tastes new and fresh and exciting,” raved Carrie Neumayer, a Louisville musician and middle school art teacher. The buffet lunch is a real bargain ($6.99 weekdays and $7.99 on weekends) and I'd be remiss if I didn't rave about the décor — the interior is like a log cabin, but filled with TVs playing MTV-India.

Go here for the Korean BBQ, advises Summer Auerbach, vice president of operations for Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets. “You choose a meat and they bring it out raw, usually in thin slices, to your table and you grill it yourself on a tabletop grill,” she said. “They also bring out a tray of 12 different Korean condiments in the kimchi realm, and a plate full of lettuce leaves to make lettuce wraps.”

Bison burgers aren't that exotic anymore. But have you ever had an Elk burger? The Native American-inspired offerings are far from the mainstream, and far and away the best place to have the lunch of your life. This eatery is a room in the Creekside Outpost Health Food Store, adjacent to a wellness clinic (where you can get ear candling done). Located just down the road from Indiana University Southeast, it's open for lunch Tuesday through Friday. 614 Hausfeldt Lane in New Albany, 948-9118


People get excited when they talk about this Mexican restaurant in New Albany. “I love, love La Rosita,” gushed Tandee Ogburn, community engagement coordinator at Volunteers of America. “It is as affordable as any other Mexican joint, but it's authentic, fresh and delicious! Their green salsa is amazing.” Foodies cross the river for what they consider the most authentic Mexican grub in Kentuckiana. “Seriously cheap, seriously amazing,” said UofL med student Genny Carnero.


Your overhead doesn't get much lower than when you're operating your restaurant out of a large van parked in a suburban shopping center. Thus, the folks at Las Gorditas, who sling tacos on weekend nights outside the aforementioned Eastland Shopping Center, can pass the savings onto you. “My favorite dish is the tacos with pastor, which is pork meat that has been marinated in a secret recipe and then cooked in a rotisserie with pineapple on top,” said graphic designer April Fultz. “You can also get Mexican Coke and other soft drinks with real sugar, in the glass bottles. A meal and a drink costs about 10 bucks — cash only.”

“Eating at Little Chef is comforting, kind of like hanging out in your mawmaw's kitchen and watching her cook — except it's not your mawmaw, it's 2 in the morning, it's a little grimier and you're with your friends who are pretty much like your family,” said Hillary Harrison, editor of Bejeezus magazine. The diner has stools for no more than 10 or so. (If it were an apartment in New York, it would rent for $1,200 a month). The air quality reminds you that smoking is still legal in New Albany establishments. The food is as all-American as it comes, and it's open 24/7.

“Lotsa Pasta has a surprisingly cheap deli, which is very good for sandwiches,” notes musician Joe Manning, who leads the Louisville band King's Daughters and Sons. There's nothing musical about the deli inside this international food shop in St. Matthews, but composer and music teacher Jeremy Podgursky agrees. “This is one of the best deals in town,” he said. “Huge, made-to-order sandwiches and hearty soups.”


Erica Rucker, the energetic grad student who organized last year's Terrastock music festival in Louisville, is a fan, then and now: “I hadn't had an Ollie Burger in over 25 years, and my boyfriend, Rob, insisted that they were still worth eating,” she said. “He was right. It is a good burger and the staff is super efficient.” Ollie's doesn't offer much in the way of seating, but the burgers are worth the inconvenience. 978 S. Third St., 583-5214


Mark Bacon hosts “Jazz Journeys” Sunday afternoons on WFPK-FM and, true to his name, loves some smoked pig. “Good barbecue is never about the sauces, it's about smoking the meat,” Bacon said. “Pig City is a Vatican of smoked meat. Unparalleled in Louisville. Despite a suburban, soulless interior, the food transports.” Head out to Middletown and ponder your soul, Memphis-style. 12003 Shelbyville Road, 244-3535

UofL professor Jonathan Haws knows what he wants at this place, located just up the street from Churchill Downs: “One-dollar Mexican tacos. Always. They are the best in town because they are authentic and taste great.” Bring cash, and enjoy some horchata, a sweet, milky drink that's wildly popular in Latin America.


The terms “barbecue joint” and “vegetarian-friendly” are rarely used in the same sentence. But this funky eatery, located between Old Louisville and the Highlands, has an array of tasty side dishes that can go with or without a heaping mound of pulled pork. “Anywhere that has tasty barbecue, plus I can bring my vegetarian friends, is pretty cool,” said UofL med student Elizabeth Matera. “Try the cabbage salad and the mac and cheese. Yum.”

If they aren't into the offerings at Lotsa Pasta, Manning and Podgursky stroll a few doors down to Stan's. “The fish sandwich is good because you can get it on a hoagie-type bun, which accommodates the long fish pieces, unlike, say, a piece of rye bread, which leaves you with fried fish spiking out of the side,” Manning said. And even though he always walks out “smelling like a longshoreman,” Podgursky said he appreciates the magic behind a good fried-fish sandwich. “Great green beans, as well.”


Local character Mike Welch went here on a recommendation from a friend and was astounded by the amazingly low prices. “I then ordered their steak, which was complete perfection,” he said. “I will even go out on a limb and say it is the best steak in the city. I was pleasantly baffled by this eatery, and it will remain one of my favorites for a long time.” This Schnitzelburg newcomer has only been open since last summer but seems to be doing boffo business. 1036 E. Burnett Ave, 365-3551

A big bowl of Bun Dac Biet at Annie Cafe. (Credit: John Rott)

c. 2009 Velocity Weekly

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What about Juanita's Burger Boy at the corner of Brook and Burnett? The Big Man Special can't be beat for value. It's under new ownership.