With the possible exception of “smog alert,” no two words say summer better.
For the inveterate foodie, no road trip would be complete without stopping to sample roadfood, a concept that the writers Jane and Michael Stern made famous, defining it as “memorable local eateries along the highways and back roads of America.”
With summer finally blazing at its peak, we’ve done some road time lately, visiting a few old friends on the highways around Louisville, and discovering a bright new face on a roadfood-style inner-city eatery that has lifted itself from a dive into an inviting diner. Let’s start there.
Burger Boy loses Juanita, washes its face
For 50 years or so, one of the city’s most noteworthy dives has been housed in this little brick building at the corner of Burnett and Brook streets, where Old Louisville meets the edge of gentrification near the University of Louisville.
Built as Orthober’s Market back in the 1930s and converted to a diner as Greg’s Place in the 1960s, it was taken over by the eponymous Juanita in 1980 and quickly developed a reputation as a place where late-studying U of L students and late-partying revelers could drop in at any hour for a cheap, greasy burger. Emphasis on the “greasy.”
About this time last year, Juanita retired, and new owners Dan and R.J. Borsch took over the operation. Bit by bit, operating on a limited budget, they’ve steam-cleaned the place, scrubbed most of the grime out of the grout in the terra-cotta tile floors, ripped down plywood that had covered some of the windows, and repainted the interior in bright colors of cafe au lait and tomato soup.
The menu hasn’t changed much, offering a modestly priced selection of burgers, sandwiches and plate-lunch dinners, as well as breakfast all day. It’s still open 24 hours daily, and it’s still cash only … don’t even ask about credit cards.
But the food is much, much better, and service is friendly, courteous and quick. That’s quite an improvement.
I couldn’t resist ordering the burger named after the eatery. The Burger Boy features two all-beef patties, special sauce on a … um, regular bun. Yep, the manager said it’s based on the Big Mac, but it’s better: A real, homemade bar burger with two small but flavorful hand-formed patties on a double bun with lettuce, tomato and a mayo-based sauce. One regular Burger Boy ($2.49) is plenty. I don’t think I could have finished the Super ($3.49). The bison burger ($2.99), fashioned from Kentucky Bison Co. meat, was fine, too.
The only throwback to the old Juanita’s I could see was the short-order cook’s dress, which she apparently used for hand-wiping in preference to the more customary towel. Not good. Nevertheless, there’s a Health Department “A” on the window, and the food was excellent. Cheap, too. With standard-issue onion rings, iced tea and a diet cola, our two-burger lunch came to just $12.99, and I tossed about three bucks into the tip jar.
1450 S. Brook St.
Robin Garr’s rating: 84 points
Coffee with your gyros? Get ’em both at A.J.’s
A road trip through Floyds Knobs and into the rolling southern Indiana farm fields west of Louisville prompts a difficult decision when you hit the Indiana Hwy. 64 exit from I-64 at Georgetown, Ind. Turn right and go to A.J.’s Coffee ’n’ Cream, or turn left and go to Polly’s Freeze?
My solution is simple: Both.
These roadside food stands share much in common: They’re small, free-standing white cottages just large enough to hold a kitchen and a couple of people working inside, with hand-written menus plastered all across the sides and front of the building. Walk up, call your order through the screen window, and hang around. In a few minutes, someone will shove good things to eat through a similar window a couple feet down. You can drive through, but we like to choose a shaded picnic table and watch the cars whiz by as we eat.
A.J.’s does indeed offer not merely coffee but a selection of lattes, cappuccinos and other espresso drinks, and the customary soft-serve ice cream. But the real draw here is something completely different: This roadside stand has a Kronos Chicago gyros grill, and it turns out a Greek-style gyros ($5) as good as any you’ll find in Louisville. A roadside stand proclaims they’ve sold 20,000 of them; I’ve accounted for a few of those.
The traditional lamb-and-beef model was generously portioned, with plenty of thin-sliced meat right off the grill, fresh green leaf lettuce and creamy, yogurt-based tzatziki sauce folded into a warm, tender pita and tucked into a paper envelope.
To find A.J.’s, turn right at the foot of the exit ramp and follow the highway for a couple miles, alongside a railroad track. Just past the center of the village of Georgetown, you’ll spot A.J.’s on the right.
Last week, A.J.’s Gyros Cafe, a second property, opened at Highlander Point in Floyds Knobs. We’ll get back over to check it out soon.
A.J.’s Coffee ’n’ Cream
9280 Ind. 64
Robin Garr’s rating: 86 points
Drive back to the ’50s at Polly’s Freeze
Looking for Polly’s? It’s also off I-64 at the Georgetown exit, but turn left at the foot of the ramp and drive less than a mile, looking for the large parrot-shaped sign on the right. Back in the days when Highway 62 was the main road from Louisville to Evansville, Ind., and points west, Polly’s must have been a welcome oasis.
Now the highway is a rural byway, patronized mostly by locals and cognoscenti from Louisville; and the grounds have grown into a shady, pleasant place for a picnic.
Over some 50 years dishing up creamy summer treats, burgers and sandwiches, Polly’s has built a loyal following. The namesake Pollyburger ($2.99) is a decent burger, and there’s a good selection of other sandwiches, nachos, corn dogs and such, topping out at an affordable $4.79 (for fish and chips). Still full with A.J.’s gyros, though, we made Polly’s a dessert stop. A small Brown Derby cone ($1.55) and a small but thick and creamy chocolate shake ($1.89) took our taste buds right back to childhood.
5242 State Road 62
Robin Garr’s rating: 80 points
Linnig’s shady grove is its greatest asset
This popular spot has been luring Louisvillians way out to the end of Cane Run Road for many years, and the massive trees that shade its picnic-grounds setting look as if they may have been mature before the restaurant came. The eat-in facility has grown and seen considerable modernizing in recent years, but for most of us, a ride out to Linnig’s remains a summer adventure, and the white-painted concrete picnic tables (and scattered screened-in booths) demand al fresco dining.
It’s a nostalgic place, and it would be easy to wear a pair of rose-colored glasses in for lunch or dinner. In all honesty, though, I can’t rate Linnig’s close to the top in Louisville’s strong competition. The Fish Plate ($11.85) consisted of two large pieces of breaded, golden-fried white fish. Sadly, the fish was light on flavor and chewy in texture, and the leathery breading pulled free from the underlying fish in large, unappetizing chunks. Pan-fried oysters ($11.95), carelessly ordered during a month without an R in it, were fishy and strong. Onion rings ($5.25), billed as homemade, were pretty good.
Lunch for two with soft drinks came to a fairly hefty $28.65 plus tip.
Mike Linnig’s Place
9308 Cane Run Road
Robin Garr’s rating: 75 points