Fans of “Seinfeld” will remember “Crazy” Joe Davola as an ominous character, a violent psychotic who threatened to “put the kibosh” on people he didn’t like, which meant pretty much everyone.
So who’d name a restaurant after that scary guy? The odd shtick works for partners James Tyler and Christopher Stockton, who push the Crazy Joe concept to the ragged edge with menu names like “Belligerent BLPT,” “Psychotic Savory Roast Beef” and “Violent Veggie Meat Loaf.”
But there’s nothing belligerent about Tyler or Stockton, who welcome visitors with smiles and even a hug for friends. They are drawing crowds thanks to a battery of oversize salads, savory soups and sandwiches made from quality ingredients. You’ll find no mere deli beef here, but meats roasted daily by the chefs. The bread? A thick-sliced loaf of wheatberry grain from Nebraska. The tuna? Albacore. And so it goes. This Joe Davola’s won’t put the kibosh on you.
The building, long ago a Democratic clubhouse, is on the corner of Barret Avenue and East Breckenridge Street. They’ll deliver to offices downtown; in fact, management says they’ll deliver anywhere in town.
The interior is simple, but a bold eye for color has turned the walls into a bright mix of shades that evoke food — from guacamole to lemon ice, heavy cream, tangerine and bright tomato soup. One wall carries large abstract paintings (they’re for sale). A half-dozen small tables, plus a bar-height counter lining the front windows, allow seating for maybe 30, not counting a comfy sofa and low table on a platform in the front window.
Enter and walk past a chalkboard menu to the counter, where you’ll generally find Stockton and Tyler ready to serve. (If you were a regular at the popular drive-through Jackson’s Organic Coffee, you may recognize Stockton, who was one of its founders and often worked the drive-up window with his ready smile and British accent; since his departure, the coffee shop on Lexington Road is still going strong as Red Hot Roasters.)
The blackboard menu details the amusingly psychotic Davola-ized selection of salads and sandwiches. The soup menu, which changes daily, is posted behind the counter.
Salads are $6 or $7 for generous, meal-size portions. Sandwiches are all $5.25, generously proportioned to make a full lunch for a hungry person or enough to take half home for dinner or to share. (I think they’re too good to share, but getting two with a friend and sharing half of each is a good way to try more than one.) You can also expand the sampling range by combining half-sandwich and soup for $6.
We’ve worked our way through about one-third of the menu so far and look forward to sampling the rest. The soups come in attractive plastic bowls that resemble Japanese lacquer serving ware; the sandwiches come in disposable, recyclable butcher’s paper and the soups in cardboard cups.
One favorite that has pretty much gone viral on LouisvilleHotBytes.com and Facebook is the Belligerent BLPT ($5.25), which assembles a stack of green leaf lettuce, attractively ripe fresh tomatoes (Tyler uses Roma plum tomatoes to beat the bad winter-tomato phenomenon) and crisp rashers of bacon to build a traditional BLT on that Texas toast-size wheatberry bread, then slathers on a thick layer of roasted garlic pimento cheese.
Another keeper is the Gnarly Pacific tuna salad ($5.25). Stockton admitted that the guys don’t hand-catch the tuna on long lines and roast them over mesquite on a backyard grill, but it is the best water-packed albacore money can buy. It’s flaked into a rich salad with a tangy lime aioli loaded with capers, chopped celery, red onion and parsley.
The Psycho Savory Roast Beef sandwich ($5.25) offers thin-sliced home-roasted beef, still pink-rare on request, dressed with lettuce and tomato and a gently spicy horseradish mayo, topped with a dollop of caramelized onions.
The I Art-ti-choke-ya salad ($6) is a Mediterranean-style combo of artichoke hearts, ripe Roma tomatoes, capers, black olives, cucumber slices and grapes with feta cheese and a tart-sweet balsamic dressing.
Mushroom soup was a big winner, a steaming hot, buttery broth swimming with plump, tender button mushrooms (and possibly some reconstituted dried mushrooms as well) in a simple but perfect blend. Creamy potato soup with a dash of herbs, and a French onion soup with wheatberry croutons and a blanket of molten cheese weren’t too shabby either.
On repeat visits, various combinations of soups and salads and fine Louisville tap water have set us back around $13 for two on each visit, and you can’t help tipping these friendly, committed guys well. When you reach for the tip jar, consider that 25 to 30 percent isn’t ridiculous for fine food and service on a tab that barely reaches into the double digits.
Crazy Joe Davola liked to say, “I’m gonna put the kibosh on you. You know I’ve kiboshed before, and I will kibosh again.” We think a hearty soup and sandwich lunch at his namesake eatery might put the kibosh on his psychosis and mellow the guy right down.
901 Barret Ave.
Robin Garr’s rating: 90 points