Flat wallet, round tummy? Try these cheap eats

OK, we’re into 2008 now. The holidays are over. Your wallet is flat but your tummy is not. Fine dining and wretched excess are not in the picture, but we’re not really ready for a diet of raw carrots and soda water, either.

Let’s scout out some great cheap eats, the kind of fare that offers a quick and tasty meal that may not be diet food but isn’t a multi-course banquet, either.

To celebrate the New Year (if in fact there’s much to celebrate about a bleak Ohio Valley January), let’s take a quick look at a potpourri of recent quick and affordable discoveries on the local dining scene.

Oak Street Pizza, a tiny little storefront in Old Louisville, has been getting great reviews from the foodies on the LouisvilleHotBytes.com forum. We stopped in to check it out for lunch and found a tiny, walk-in spot — neat as a pin if still somewhat under construction, with a lot of hammering coming out of a side room with the pizza ovens.

There are no tables for dining in and no place to put them, but the friendly guys behind the counter — Adam at the pizza station, demonstrating what looked like a mighty practiced hand at pizza tossing and spinning, and Prentice at the cash register — seemed happy to see us, introduced themselves and forked over a menu. A good selection of pizzas is available from $7 for a small cheese-only pie to $16.95 for a five-topping rectangular, thick-crust Sicilian slab. Calzones are $2 more, and there’s also a selection of subs and pasta dishes.  

As noted, it’s takeout only, but hey, pizza at home seemed like a fine idea. We signed on for a large with sausage, green peppers and onions ($12.95) and came away with a big cardboard box that did a fine job of keeping the pie warm — even on a brisk January day in the teens — until we rushed it back to Crescent Hill. It’s close to a New York City pizza in style, sliced into eight large, foldable wedges with a very thin crust and a puffy, bread-like rim, baked to high, crust-charring heat with well-made, discreetly applied toppings — tangy, herby tomato sauce, melted mozzarella and long julienne strips of peppers and onions plus thick rounds sliced from a good, mild Italian sausage.
Oak Street Pizza
125 E. Oak St.

I love Mexican food, and I mean real Mexican food, the kind that challenges gringos to enjoy true ethnic flavors and preparations, even if you have to muddle through with awkward Spanglish and pointing at the picture of the dish you want. To my mind, one of the happiest trends of recent years in Louisville dining has been the arrival of dozens of tiny taquerias that take us a long step past Americanized “Tex-Mex.”

La Rosita in New Albany, run by the affable and thoroughly bilingual husband-wife team of Israel and Lidia Landin, has been a favorite since they first landed in a space the size of a walk-in closet nearly hidden inside a produce market on Charlestown Road a few years ago.

I was delighted when La Rosita moved into much larger quarters in a comfortably historic old building at 1515 E. Market St., just east of downtown New Albany. And I got a second dose of delight a couple of months ago when they opened a second New Albany eatery, a smallish but inviting strip-center spot that goes back to their taqueria roots, on Grant Line Road just south of I-265, within a stein’s throw of New Albanian Brewing Co.

As you’d expect in a taqueria, everything is on the cheap side of affordable. Drawing its inspiration from the cuisine of Mexico City, it offers some three dozen selections for lunch and dinner. Mexican-style tacos, tortas (Mexican sandwiches), burritos and many other Mexican specialties range in price from $2 (for a Mexican-style taco — bet you can’t eat just one) to $8.99 (for a meal-size Quesadilla Mi Pueblo stuffed with chicken, steak and shrimp, grilled onions, tomatoes and Mexican queso blanco cheese).

As you might not expect in a taqueria, La Rosita is vegetarian-friendly, with seven interesting meat-free options, including a veggie taco ($2.99) with beans, rice, lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, cheese and sour cream, and a grilled “Veggie Grande” quesadilla ($7.99). I expect they’d be glad to hold the cheese and cream if a vegan wandered in.

Mexican-style tacos are served open-face on two small, round and delicious fresh corn tortillas, topped with very generous portions of meat garnished with freshly chopped raw white onions and lots of cilantro. Lengua is tender, mild beef-flavored shredded beef tongue; if you didn’t know it was tongue, you wouldn’t think twice about it. Carnitas is the Mexican analogue to barbecued “pulled” pork, first roasted, then fried. Barbacoa, available on occasion, is dark and earthy shredded grilled lamb.

La Rosita’s chile relleno taco is an unusual treat: A whole, small chile relleno — a dark-green, mildly hot poblano pepper stuffed with queso blanco, lightly batter-fried — is gently placed on corn tortillas and topped with onion and cilantro.

Take your choice of three spicy salsitas from squeeze bottles kept in the drinks cooler box: creamy pale green-chile salsa is fairly mild; dark brown smoky chipotle salsa is medium — I like it best for its good smoky quality and its just-right heat — and scary looking creamy orange Habanero sauce is devilish hot but delicious.
With a Jarritos brand Mexican tamarind soft drink and a 500 ml. Mexican Coke sweetened with real cane sugar so it tastes like the old days, we generally get out of La Rosita for $15 or so, not counting a generous contribution to the tip jar.
Tacos La Rosita
113 Grant Line Plaza
New Albany, Ind.
(812) 948-7967

The metro is blessed with a surprising number of first-rate spots for a casual, comfortable soup, salad or sandwich lunch, and I try to make my way around to all of them regularly. One of my favorites is Meridian Café, and I’m apparently not the only person thus smitten — this place almost always has a big crowd.
Part of the draw might be its attractive setting, a pre-war suburban house just off Shelbyville Road in St. Matthews, across from Trinity High School. Even after extensive renovation to convert its cozy space into dining rooms, it still has a homey feel that makes me halfway expect to see Mom poke her head around the corner and yell, “Finish those peas if you want any dessert!”

Meridian has been around for a while, and after a rocky start a number of years ago, successive changes of management have kicked it up a notch, and then another, to turn it into a favorite. And now, within the past few months, they made a good thing even better by adding a bunch of appetizing breakfast dishes.

I’ve reviewed Meridian’s excellent lunch often, so today let’s stick to the new breakfast choices, just about any of which would suit me well when my fast needs breaking, whether I’ve been an early bird or a night owl. (Breakfast items are served alongside the lunch menu Mondays through Saturdays until 3 p.m. closing time.)
Most of the baker’s dozen breakfast selections are named after Meridian friends or family (ask your server if you’re curious). Meridian Cafe is quite vegetarian-friendly, with more than half the dishes meat-free, but carnivores can also find plenty to like.

Breakfast menu choices include “light breakfasts” (Alana’s fruit turnover or Leon’s grilled banana walnut bread, $4.25 each); and “breakfast sandwiches” from $5.99 (for Connor’s “gourmet” peanut-butter and banana sandwich with berries on whole wheat) to $6.99 (for Paul’s steak-and-egg sandwich or Maddy’s bagel sandwich with roasted salmon and spinach served open-face on a herb-egg frittata). “Meridian Classics” breakfasts are $5.99 (for Zan’s mushroom-potato hash, Mr. Brown’s pan-fried potato and bell pepper hash with jalapeños, or Big Dave’s pastrami hash).
A favorite just got better: What’s not to like? Happy New Year!
Meridian Cafe
112 Meridian Ave.

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