I have known about Plehn’s Bakery for years. Once, circa 1998 or so, my bosses at LEO sent me down the street one morning to pick up some donuts. It was the one and only time I was ever inside the place. Well, until last week.
You see, I’m really not a pastry guy. So, I’ve driven by Plehn’s at 3940 Shelbyville Road in St. Matthews a bajillion (give or take) times over the years without really even giving it a glance. But last week I noticed a chalkboard sign out front that said: “Special: Chili and drink, $4.95.”
Chili? Wait, is it a chili donut? Surely that can’t be. I mean, it’s Plehn’s Bakery for crying out loud, not Plehn’s Deli.
And this is how I found out what most of you likely already knew: Plehn’s has a freaking deli, with meat and everything. The place is a deli/bakery, and I never knew it. It’s the kind of thing that makes me wonder if other iconic places in Louisville have secret side attractions that get overlooked. You know, like if Slugger Museum also had a mani-pedi salon, or if the Ford Assembly Plant also sold men’s pants.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the chili. I figured, hey, a $5 lunch is a $5 lunch, and I really need to try this out, just because. Apparently 17 years ago I was so focused on picking up donuts that I completely missed the smell of cooked meat. So I returned.
To be honest, the deli counter wasn’t exactly popping out in the throwback bakery space, with elaborate cakes and pastries lining glass display case after glass display case, but there was indeed a chalkboard on the left side of the bustling bakery trumpeting various deli sandwiches, spreads and soups. Heck, you can even get a PB&J at Plehn’s.
Sandwiches were generally between the $4 and $7 range, and there are three or four soups available along with the chili, such as chicken noodle and beef barley. I placed my order — and it was an unusally cool day, which made chili the obvious choice — and got it to go.
Back at my workspace, I opened the plain white Styrofoam container and saw that Plehn’s chili is as Louisville as you can get: thick, hearty, brown-red broth, chunks of tomato, ground beef, beans and, of course, spaghetti noodles. It felt like I had gone home just for a moment. The friendly woman who had waited on my also slid three packs of crackers into my bag along with a plastic spoon, so I had all I needed.
The chili was every bit as tasty as its aroma indicated. It was predictably mild on spice, but more than made up for it with freshness and simply how obvious it was that it was scratch-made stuff and not just poured into a warmer from a giant Costco-sized can. Nope, this chili is the real-life Louisville style stuff on which so many of us here grew up.
Just like what I remember from my youth, there were random giant hunks of tender ground beef (one of which I dubbed “Meat-berg”), unexpected big bites of mildly sweet tomato here and there, and just plenty of belly-warming tastiness. You can get it as a small, 10-ounce order, a lunch with or without drink (it’s just $3.75 sans soda), or by the quart.
And if you aren’t craving chili, you can get sandwiches made with Boar’s Head turkey, roast beef, salami, bologna and other meats, as well as Berger’s country ham and plenty of Boar’s Head cheeses. For lighter fare, check out spreads like chicken salad, Benedictine, country ham salad and more, which I can only assume are homemade like the chili.
And yes, you can get trays of the stuff for parties and events.
All I could think about, however, as I enjoyed my tasty, hot lunch was that just days earlier, famished and having no time to get anything but fast food, I stopped in at Burger King and got a Whopper just to fill the crater in my stomach. I wound up feeling like I had swallowed a cinder block, yet all I had to do was walk a few extra steps to Plehn’s and I could have had something far more wholesome — and local, to boot.
That’ll teach me to judge a bakery by its cover.