I recently posed the question of the best meal under $10 to social media, and I found that the majority of responses gravitated toward categorically non-Western fare from authentic, hyper-local joints dotting the South End. Friend and former LEO Weekly contributor Kirsten Schofield beautifully described the Third Street corridor in the Iroquois neighborhood as “six decades of American foreign-policy decisions all crammed together.” It made me wonder though, because we all curate our friends, is the sample biased and my friends are simply the type of people who appreciate adventurous eating? Or is it true that cuisine closer to the equator, robust with exotic spices, tastes better? Most large cities in the Western world boast a good doner kebab or Indian diner on almost every corner, made especially true in a nation of immigrants like America. As a matter of fact, when I think of cities I’ve travelled domestically and abroad, most of the food I’ve encountered tends to not resemble the cuisine of the region. Is it because we know Indian and Turkish and Thai food is inherently better? I’d venture to say, to an extent, yes. If you had to choose between a cheap noodle soup and a cheap burger, which one would most likely turn out tastier and not make you feel awful?
The 10 Under 10 aims to highlight great eateries throughout the city, not just in the food-journalism-magnet-slash-rich-people-playground known as Nulu. We dig deep into the constellation of globe-trotting, family-owned South End spots, then head out to the far West End for an authentic Jamaican meal before jettisoning to the heart of Theatre Square for a taste of the eastern Mediterranean, then off to a stealthy New York-style deli with an alleyway entrance and another one hidden by the airport — not to mention a couple of worthy spots in familiar dining destinations like The Highlands and St. Matthews.
Yummy Pollo — Quarter White ($7.50)
Though hidden from eyesight by the mistake of civil engineering known as the Newburg/Watterson interchange, new addition to the food scene Yummy Pollo never seems to have difficulty capturing a crowd any time of day. And even if the line slithers to the door, the staff makes time to strike up friendly chat, even giving visual tours of the charcoal rotisserie where the birds sizzle for hours. Similar to most South American cuisines, Peruvian Pollo a la Brasa is beauty in simplicity — succulent chicken slow-cooked, allowing every molecule of smoke to permeate each bite, seasoned with only salt and a balanced pinch of spices. No experimental gastronomy or deconstructed plates, just hearty and healthy food.
Go with the quarter white and pair it with the chickpeas and cilantro rice for a delicious and nutritious meal. For just a little extra, ask for extra green sauce (not too removed from a traditional jalapeño cream, but a bit more complex).
El Molcajete — Burrito Mojado ($8)
Nestled between campus and the track, El Molcajete offers the experience of authentic Mexican food and virtually no gringos in sight without schlepping too far outside the Watterson. Their Mission-style Burrito Mojado “wet burrito,” slathered in your choice of roja, verde, or queso (go with the roja), is roughly the same size and weight of a newborn human baby. It tastes better too, which we know because the conservatives are correct in claiming that the LEO staff eats babies. Hey, but what about this burrito, eh? This is the Brobdingnag of lunches, paired with complimentary chips and a deep, cilantro-forward salsa served warm.
Safier — Veggie Platter/Chicken Shawarma ($9 each) — Downtown
When I posed the aforementioned question on Facebook, Safier seemed to be the most recurring player, proving the hoppin’ downtown lunch spot is a uniter. I used to work in an office building on Fourth Street and enjoyed lunch here at least twice a week for two years. In tandem with my visits since, I can confidently say, based on this large of a sample size, that you will not get a bad meal here, ever.
Carnivores should head toward the shawarma. For the uninitiated, shawarma is similar to a gyro — seasoned meat cooking in its own juices on a conical spit — but offers more flexibility in its dressing and protein. The chicken shawarma plate comes with juicy strips of balanced, spicy chicken strips atop a bed of basmati rice, salad tossed in red vinegar, pita bread, with garlic sauce on the side. Make sure you pump the breaks on the garlic sauce, lest you want your breath kickin’ like Bruce Lee for the remainder of the afternoon. Herbivores will dig the vegetarian platter, in which you can choose four of eight meat-free options. You should go with traditional falafel, mujadareh (lightly spiced lentils and rice in olive oil), spinach pie and stuffed grape leaves.
And given the lighter fare of Mediterranean, it’s a great meal before catching a show in the Theatre District (do not under any circumstance call it SoFo for Christ’s sake, that’s gross) without feeling too full.
Rooftop Grill — Jerk Chicken ($8)
The first time I picked up my order at the counter of Roof Top Grill, I laughed. The to-go container weighed about the same as a bowling ball, with comically large steaming hot portions of authentic family-style Jamaican food inside. The amount of food you get is absurd.
Located at Broadway and Lewis Coleman in the Chickasaw neighborhood, you shitty East End dwelling self-identified foodies would do well to put the kibosh on your latent classism and preconceived notions of what the West End has to offer. Despite the name, no, Roof Top does not boast any cooking or seating on the roof, nor much in the feng shui department at all for that matter outside a couple of scant Bob Marley posters — just like your college bedroom, am I right?
Decor be damned, they can rest on their laurels of cooking up an incredible meal. The jerk chicken is absolutely revelatory. Roof Top serves up succulent, juicy white and dark meat chicken with a perfectly crispy baked skin, doused in a healthy coat of spicy Jamaican Jerk rub and palpable smokiness saturated in every bite, bolstered atop a bed of fluffy and buttery brown rice. In and of itself, that’s enough food for one grown-ass adult. Oh, but as luck has it, you get two sides included — sweet plantains and Jamaican cabbage are musts.
With a staff of only a couple of friendly folks and a modest dining area, you feel like you’re invited into the home of a family you just met, and they’re about to feed you a meal that will shift your consciousness and light up your chakras.
Havana Rumba — Cubano ($8.99)
I generally will not eat pork. Living in Butchertown and watching the trucks drive by packed with adorable little buddies about to meet their demise … it upsets me. Hey, did you know pigs purr like a cat? Also watch lil’ homie solve this dang puzzle!
One of the few times I’ll forfeit my scruples is Cuban pork. Havana Rumba is the most known purveyor of it in town, and they also happen to be the best too. The Cubano is the classic cuban, so you know the score — slow-cooked roasted pork, ham, swiss, pickles, and mustard, hot pressed on panini bread and served with lightly salted sweet potato fries and their remarkable smoked honey. It’s nothing new, but rather, the Rumba Cubano is a familiar classic done impeccably each time. There’s comfort in that.
Frank’s Deli — Turkey Sandwich ($3.50)
As proven with a number of dishes on this list, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, nor deconstruct the sandwich, nor add some haute cuisine twist. Frank’s is deeply old school and the most traditionally “American” (whatever that is) dish on the list.
A small market and deli, Frank’s offers cold cuts, salads, and sides by the pound, not to mention fresh produce and an immaculately curated inventory of hot sauces, marinades, barbecues and relishes — many of which are Kentucky Proud products. Frank’s understands that food is sometimes merely a vehicle for sauce. I load up on chimichurri, a parsley and garlic based Argentinian dipping sauce and marinade I’m convinced reverses the aging process, every time I stop in.
Ah, but the deli sandwiches. For $3.50, you can get a stacked turkey sandwich roughly the same thickness as the original edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, packed with pickles, onion, spicy mustard, and all your favorite fixins. The quality and flavor profile runs parallel to a really good New York bodega sandwich, kicked up a couple notches. Of course, they serve hot foods too — barbecue, hamburgers, chicken breast, chili and more. For an extra two and a half bucks, you can make it a plate with two sides. Before making that decision, please refer to the size of the sandwich in the photo below. No, I don’t have mutant baby hands.
Addis Grill — Ethiopian Vegetarian ($8.49)
How did Donald Trump get so far in his presidential bid? The same reason why, even in the presence of an existence-shattering lunch, people will still continuously flock to Panera. Panera! It’s because people are knuckleheads. I shudder to think about eating Panera. Good gravy.
And across the street from that Panera, where half of Humana dines, is a diamond in the rough called Addis Grill. Unlike Panera, they cook food with discernible flavor — phenomenal flavor, at that. Addis combines two of the holiest cuisines on the planet — Mediterranean and Ethiopian — and serves ‘em up in this hole-in-the-wall along a small block of nondescript office buildings you’d easily pass by en route to the Yum! Center or the museums if you weren’t looking. It’s the textbook definition of no frills à la the atmosphere — lovers of the color brown will have a lot to like here. While I’ve tried both sides of the menu, I recommend the Ethiopian over the Mediterranean. You’ll certainly leave with leftovers lest you possess some sort of unhealthy appetite. The Ethiopian Vegetarian platter is a marvel of gastronomical architecture, plating Misir Wot (hot split lentil), Kik Alicha (split peas), Gomen (collard green), Atkilt (cabbage) and Fasolia (beans) on a giant bed of injera. This dish is aesthetically beautiful, full of protein and unequivocally decadent.
An aside: generally speaking, Queen of Sheba is still the best Ethiopian in town by a short margin. However, the go-to there are the tips (either the doro or sega), which disqualifies Queen of Sheba from this list by 95 cents. So, hit up Addis for a quick leftover-laden lunch, Queen of Sheba for a more hearty dinner.
Stevens and Stevens — 80th and Broadway ($7.95) — The Highlands
When I ruminate on the first time I ate at the famous Katz’s Deli, the blueprint for the American Jewish deli, I think of two things: first, the dangling “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army” icon because it’s perfection in signage, and, then, how a sandwich with only three ingredients can achieve culinary preeminence. For the traditionalists, Morris Deli serves the best reuben in town. But for those interested in a twist on the traditional rye-and-meat, the Stevens and Stevens 80th and Broadway (presumably an homage to kosher emporium Zabar’s) never disappoints, adding melted provolone cheese, Russian slaw, and Honeycup mustard atop a mound of pastrami. Get it as a whole sandwich or a half paired with a side. Obviously that side is matzo ball soup because your mother did not raise a fool.
Vietnam Kitchen — Pho (Starts at $8.40)
This should be an obvious one. Vietnam Kitchen is the anchor of the aforementioned Third Street International Strip of Wonders and catalyzes the redistribution of the city’s population from throughout Greater Louisville to the Iroquois Manor shopping center on any given day of the week except Wednesday when they’re closed. And if you or someone you know frequents The Kitch’, you know the agony of defeat after trekking all that way to forget it’s Wednesday and there shall be no soup for you.
And soup is the star here. Vietnam Kitchen serves their pho southern style — beef bones simmering in broth for presumably a few days, with an oodle of noodles and choose-your-own adventure sides of bean sprouts, sweet basil, and jalapeños. Oh, and you wouldn’t forget the chili garlic sauce too, because you’re not a noob. The B1 and B6 are both winners and both float between eight and nine long greens. If you don’t eat red meat, don’t get the substitute phos. Without beef, pho loses character. Pick the K8 spicy sautée with white meat or tofu.
Dakshin – Vendai Puzhiko Zhambu ($8.99)
Someone recently tried to persuade me that some other restaurant served the best Indian in town. I immediately unfriended them. I shan’t suffer treachery.
Dakshin offers a multi-faceted menu with northern Indian, southern Indian, and Indo-Chinese cuisine. I prefer the Southern Indian fare, which tends to rely on coconut milk more than butter or ghee. You really can’t go wrong with anything on that side of the menu … or the other side for that matter. The Vendai Puzhiko Zhambu is a particularly exotic item, and one that doesn’t resemble the more familiar fare of, say, tikka masala or korma common at the typical (and decidedly northern) Indian restaurants found throughout the United States. This dish highlights flavorful garlic-imbued okra in a gravy of tamarind and notes of sourness from light yogurt. In contrast to the heaviness of many Indian dishes, this one won’t make you feel like the server will have to roll you out the front door like a boulder.
Option two, of course, is the lunch buffet served everyday. Normally, I discourage anyone eating at a buffet and evoking the imagery of pigs at a trough (even though I love pigs, see the Havana Rumba entry above). But if curry can kill dysentery, I wouldn’t be concerned about any errant what-have-yous on the steam table. Just make sure you pump the brakes after the second plate, the human body isn’t designed for such curry-fueled endurance.