Locavore critic confesses and repents

OK, let’s just lay this out there as a true confession: I’ve reviewed a few national corporate franchise chain eateries lately, and I’m not sorry. Well, not very sorry. 

Let’s be real: Noodles & Company (LEO Weekly, Oct. 22) operates 330 properties in about three dozen states. They just got to Louisville, and they’re drawing happy, buzzing crowds who tell me that I’ve got to try this. How could I not go sample its wares and write it all down? 

Sometimes I do this. I’ve said nice things about Chipotle (1,724 units), Zoe’s Kitchen (114, um, kitchens) and all manner of corporate pizza, including Jet’s (300-plus properties), Mellow Mushroom (150), Uncle Maddio’s (25 pizzerias but growing fast), and recently just about raved over Blaze Pizza (315 eateries). 

And why not? Find good food. Eat it. Tell you about it. That’s what we do here!

But I don’t feel particularly good about praising the work of a corporate entity that ultimately feeds the moolah back to stockholders in faraway places. The experience usually prompts me to turn back — literally, repent — and go eat something locally made by, and for the benefit of, your neighbor who owns the business.

Behold, then: a memorable noodle stir-fry from Yang Kee Noodle! And one of the city’s top pizzas from Caffe Classico, a lovely Clifton bistro not usually thought of as a pizza destination! 

 

The build-your-own stir-fry at Yang Kee Noodle

When I told a friend I had lunched at Yang Kee Noodle in penance for my Noodles & Company visit, he asked, “But isn’t Yang Kee a chain, too?”

Nope! This 11-year-old spot has become an Oxmoor Center institution. I’ll rarely brave the mall traffic for anything but Yang Kee or the Apple Store (insert angelic chorus here) — and it does have a chain-ish feel, with its slick and colorful menus, professionally designed Asian street-food-look decor and quick counter service. 

It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to learn that its founders had a Wild Eggs trajectory in mind at the beginning, too. But no, it’s the sole property and local, the creative work of Chef John Castro of Sullivan University’s culinary program and Winston’s.

Yang Kee, like Noodles, signals its focus on, er, long pasta by its name, and most of its 15 main dishes ($7.59 – $9.99) are mostly noodle-based, plus a few built on rice. I’m down with the “create your own stir-fry” deal, though, which brings a pizzeria concept to Asian street food: Pick your meat, poultry, tofu or veggie; add your veggies a la carte (three free, plus a small charge for more); take your pick of white or brown rice or a half-dozen kinds of noodle; and finish it off with your choice of any of 15 sauces.

I made my tummy happy with a stir-fry loaded with firm tofu, snow peas, broccoli, mushrooms and peanuts, kicked up with fiery, Sriracha-based “firecracker sauce.” Noodles? D’oh! I was seduced instead by the appeal of steaming, perfect white rice. Sorry. 

A full bowl set me back only $7.49, and a tall glass of strong, sweet Vietnamese iced coffee and condensed milk was worth every calorie.

 

Almost-Italian pizza at Caffe Classico

Over the past dozen years or so, this Clifton favorite has grown from a stylish coffee shop into an attractive bistro with a delightful Argentinian-European vibe in the venue and its eclectic bill of fare.

It may not be quite as well known for its pizza, though, and that’s a shame, as the shareable single-serving pies built here are among the city’s best. Without benefit of such frippery as wood- or coal-fired ovens, Caffe Classico nevertheless turns out delicious, thin-crust pies that skip New York to come very close to authentic Italian pizza. 

This pizza train arrived by a somewhat circuitous route: Owner Tommie Mudd told me, when he added pizza to the menu several years ago, that the recipe and technique came from Sarajevo via a Bosnian friend. This is not as wacky as it seems, as the Balkans lie just across the Adriatic from Italy, and share more culture — including pizza — than you might expect. I enjoyed one of my best pizzas ever in a basement pizzeria in Ljubljana, Slovenia — and that’s not a joke.

There are only four pies on the menu, all memorable. The traditional red, white and green Margherita ($13) is always a favorite; Pizza alla Bobo ($14) is a meat lover’s favorite at $14; and the name of the spicy Thai shrimp pizza ($15) provides the description. This time, though, Mary and I shared the hearty-yet-healthy eggplant Parmesan pizza ($13), an artful display of thin-sliced, dark-roasted eggplant rounds arranged atop herbal tomato sauce and crowned with diced tomatoes and grated Parmigiano. 

Nibbles

Dine Out. Fight AIDS.

All day Wednesday, Nov. 19, when you dine at participating restaurants, 25 percent of your check will be donated to House of Ruth to support those with or affected by HIV/AIDS. For a list of participating restaurants, visit houseofruth.net/2014-dining-out-for-life.