Prior to publishing the first Welp! 10 Under 10, in the halcyon days of about a year ago, I conducted an unscientific poll on social media in an attempt to glean some of Louisvillian’s favorite eats under a Hamilton. I discovered that, like myself, lots of folks in this fair city love to seek out more international fare that’s also easy on the wallet, at least according to the admittedly skewed sample size (made up of younger, college-educated, friends with my dumb ass, who make fun of LEO but still reads it). In the previous piece, I wondered aloud why the response gravitated toward non-Western dishes. Do ingredients that make up cuisine from more southern latitudes taste inherently better while also costing less? Do LEO Weekly readers generally tend to appreciate more adventurous eating? Does it satisfy a sort of armchair-travel itch (without haphazardly lobbing out the phrase “exotic”)? Regardless, international fare (not ‘ethnic’ cuisine) dominated the inaugural list.
Between then and now, the rest of 2016 happened. And hoo boy… Certainly the intersection between the current political climate and the restaurant scene yields no dearth of interesting results. Beyond the gravity of the serious consequences in this new nativist landscape and a general anxiety lingering over diverse communities in our city and others, an aggressive crackdown on immigration will hit the dining economy hard — from labor to supply chain to talent to a (possible) stupid import tariff and, of course, the human cost of everything in between. It’s for this reason that I make a special effort to vote with my dollar and patronize businesses owned and operated by immigrant families as often as I can. It helps the community in a pragmatic way, as far as keeping money in the neighborhood, of course, but also offers a gesture: Yes, what you’re bringing to the table (pun unintended) is something I want here. Wherever you come from, you are my neighbor, and I want your food, your services, your art and your contribution much much more than a dumbass thousand-mile wall. So it felt natural to leverage this year’s 10 Under 10 feature to highlight some of my favorite dishes from our international friends in Louisville (which this year’s list does).
And yet, I don’t want to be that guy — the one LA-based restauranteur Diep Tran put on blast in her essay Cheap Eats, Cheap Labor: The Hidden Human Costs Of Those Lists for NPR. Her points are absolutely worth your consideration. “I watched my aunts and uncles work 16-hour days, only to charge cut-rate prices for their food,” Tran wrote. “Immigrant food is often expected to be cheap, because, implicitly, the labor that produces it is expected to be cheap, because that labor has historically been cheap.”
So folks, don’t get it twisted. This isn’t cheap food. This is great food, produced with love and shared with us like a family meal, while still affordable to all. The point of addressing the aforementioned ideas is not to turn a social media-ready shareable list of must-try dishes like this one into some eggheaded trial balloon in infinite wokeness, but rather to make sure we’re all on the same page re: the value the food. Cool? And this way, the comment section can remain preserved for everyone to squabble about how I’m an idiot, and I left such-and-such off etc., rather than provoking some legitimate spicy meatballs. Dig in!
Heart and Soy
Hue Spicy Soup ($6.90)
1216 Bardstown Road
CoCo Tran’s fast-casual concept has served as the Louisville vegan beacon since 2011, offering an array of hearty, meatless dishes, with locally-sourced tofu made in-house. Especially impressive, Heart and Soy’s soups concoct strong flavor profiles without adding enough sodium to give you heart palpitations. Its Hue Spicy Noodle (a vegetarian Bún bò Huế) is the best — a hot and sour that hits all the taste sensations. A balanced, savory broth with marinated tofu and generous heaps of vermicelli noodles topped with greens, cilantro and a lime wedge, the strong citrus-forward dish is both light and satisfying, and has been known to cure common ailments (Hue eradicated my Nagging Cough of 2014 one time).
Lunch buffet ($7.95)
554 S. Fifth St.
Generally, buffets are ill-advised. It’s like pigs at a trough. That your local health department allows this method of dining proves perhaps the laws are more lax than we thought.
There are a few notable exemptions to this rule, however. Like Ethiopian. If curry and awaze can kill dysentery, it’ll tackle whatever’s on your nasty, grubby little hands. And did you know there’s an Ethiopian buffet right downtown? One that’s really, really good? Meet Abyssinia, open for lunch every weekday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with a spread of lentil wots, curried meats, spicy cabbage and other Ethiopian staples that brings a tear to my eye when that first hit of berbere wafts through my nose (because of intense emotion, not because it’s too spicy). The kik wot (red lentil stew), gomen wot (collards) and curried beef are consistently great, but you’ll never go wrong with each and every trip to the lunch line.
For the best Ethiopian experience in town, Queen of Sheba is still the GOAT. But Abyssinia’s lunch special and friendly service is the most secret deal.
Brat with Sides ($8-$10)
1840 Lincoln Ave.
Like that planet from Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” the German-American Club’s Biergarten night has to find its way into your orbit. Unlike the other entries on this list, Biergarten is open only occasionally — usually every other Saturday night from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., unless otherwise noted. (Be sure to reference their Facebook page — it’s worth a Google calendar alert, though.) Not only is the cafeteria-style German fare authentic and delicious, Biergarten is technically a dinner theater, too, as groups such as Prost play real German jug (their polka version of Fastball’s “The Way” is completely trenchant), while grandparents and their grandchildren alike chicken dance throughout the night. It’s so great that I might be kicking myself in the ass by writing about this night because you and all your shitty friends will come out and ruin it for me. But still, I would be remiss to not inform you, dear reader, about their brat on rye, sweet and tangy red cabbage, chunky flavorful potato salad and the GAC’s signature dish, saurkraut balls — its take on a German-style hush puppy stuffed with that famous fermented cabbage, cream cheese and mushrooms. One entree with two sides will run you about $8. Add an apple strudel dessert for an even $10.
Well, the burger. With fries. ($9)
3334 Frankfort Ave.
Hopefully you didn’t need Tr*mp’s approach to a well-done steak to understand ketchup is bullshit. Because it is. Ketchup is gloppy, viscous, high-fructose corn syrup colored red. It’s the Crocs of condiments. Ketchup is the sandwich dressing of grown children, and it’s gross. Fuck ketchup.
Now when the itch for some burgin’ strikes, there are a few options in town for a really delicious one. And there’s more than one spot that serves up locally-sourced meats for their perfectly seasoned ground patty.
Two words: toppings bar. A veritable Valhalla for those of us who know the truth about ketchup.
While Bluegrass Burgers’ toppings bar is not as extensive as W.W. Cousins’, it contains multitudes. And it serves a better burger to boot. Bluegrass Burgers’ Kentucky Proud black angus, or the turkey burger for the health-conscious, clocks in at $9 with the value-added treat of access to its beautiful spread of toppings and sauces — since we all know food is simply a vehicle for sauce. I like going California style with it — avocado (add $1), pico de gallo and the creamy cilantro aioli. But, you’re a full moral agent, if you want to get deontological about things, so do what you want. The possibilities are endless. Get the fries as your side. They’re thin cut, perfectly seasoned, and the right option for exploring the 20-plus sauces available. Expand your palate beyond ketchup.
Lest we forget, Bluegrass Burgers will serve your entree on a gluten-free bun to respect that allergy you think you have.
Follow their Facebook for the food truck’s location
At the polar opposite of Heart and Soy’s healthy and wholesome vegan noodle soup that might break 500 calories if you dollop some Sambal Oelek up in that dude, the Veg-Out from food truck Red Top Gourmet Hot Dogs is a sloppy and decadent meatless dish. Red Top sources its fake meat tube from another food truck, V-Grits, and it’ll please carnivores as much as the plant likers. Chewy, peppery, toothsome, Red Top/V-Grits’ meat analogue ticks all the boxes of a quality sausage experience. (I honestly tried to reword that, but that’s the best I can do right now.) Topped with vegan cheese, oily and spicy giardiniera, caramelized grilled onions, and a ground mustard, it’s the best food-truck dish in the city since French-Indo Canada left us with a gaping void in the bahn mi scene. If you see‘em in a food-truck coral, that’s the move. Unless you’re on a first date. Messy as all hell.
Beef Suqaar or Ugali ($9)
328 W Woodlawn Ave.
Enjoying dinner recently at the casual Beechmont restaurant, I had to ask the woman who served us at Safari Grill to repeat the total for our order because I didn’t believe her. With nods to both Kenyan and Somali cuisine, the (massive) platters make brilliant use of the less-is-more principle — the menu is modest, and the ingredients are simple and recognizable. But the balanced, zesty flavor of the vegetarian Ugali — a mix of collard greens, onions, and assorted veggies over chewy and scrumptious cornmeal — or the spicy and succulent Beef Suqaar, for the carnivores, comes saturated in deeply-complex flavors that demand slow, mindful eating. Having opened just late last year, the world has quickly spread — this is the best new offering in The South End, perhaps even the best new spot in town. Get ahead of the curve.
Germany’s #1 Food
Doner kebab ($8.50)
Follow their Facebook for the food truck’s location
I really hate what I’m about to type here. It’s the type of lede often spouted by food writers and it makes me cringe. I call them Home Depot features, since the writers come off as total tools, but it’s necessary for context, so here it goes: When I was in Germany (I know how douchey that reads, Mr. Anthony Bourdain bad boy travel man over here), I enjoyed a few of the country’s trademark street foods. Like Britain’s tikka masala, Germany adopted a dish from immigrants as a sort of national food, in this case, the Turkish Doner kebab. Unlike a Greek gyro wrap, the Donner kebab resembles more of a sandwich — round pita enveloping a meaty bed of chicken or lamb cooked on a vertical spit, topped with veggies and taziki sauce. Louisville’s newest food truck totally nails it, which makes sense given proprietor Samuel Caklo hails from Gütersloh, moving here two years ago on an investor visa after discovering that Louisville’s food scene had yet to produce real doner kebab. He even uses the wax wrapping paper standard with most European street vendors — the fat man hovering over the rotisserie wielding what totally looks like a sword. It’s one of my favorite images, and that that graphic didn’t catch on for T-shirts and swag like the Sriracha rooster is most unfortunate.
The truck offers Kinder bars as a dessert too. Good luck saving room though — saying the portions of doner that pop out of this truck’s window are generous is like saying the origin country’s trains are efficient. Foregone conclusion.
Chopped Chicken Salad ($9)
909 E Market St.
Most of the time, restauranteurs piecemeal a salad together, just to throw a bone to the herbivores without putting any real inspired thought or creativity into a presentation of greens. Since the closure of Joe Davola’s, the city has experienced a dearth of spots with a destination salad. Whoda thunk a barbecue joint would fill that niche? With a foundation of organic greens, the massive Feast Chopped Chicken Salad comes topped with tortilla strips, pickled red onions, scallions, cotija cheese and its house-made lime ranch. Oh, and, of course, its succulent smoked chopped chicken, best experienced with a light smothering of the Carolina-style hot vinegar. For the vegetarians out there, sub the chicken for crispy smoked tofu and, baby, you got a stew goin’.
Slice of the Day ($4)
1045 Goss Ave.
The Post stays packed because of two truths. The first is that it has figured out a very easy scenario — Germantown is a growing neighborhood with a palate more diverse than fried food and sausages. New restaurants that continue to open in the neighborhood simply rehash the same formula of traditional blue-collar Germantown cuisine, elevate the dishes slightly and mark the price the hell up. Those folks have not fared so well. Concepts offering fresh ideas that still match the tableau of the neighborhood, like Lydia House, or eateries executing simple cuisine really well, like The Post, tend to be rewarded with glowing reviews and full tables. The second truth is that The Post does the best hand-tossed in the city. Providing some much needed New York-style pizza since the closure of Papalino’s, The Post’s rotating three-topping SoD (that’d be slice of the day) remains the perennial best item on the menu — no matter what it is. Previous SoDs included roasted red pepper, feta and basil and specialty concoctions like the taco slice with fajita chicken, sour cream, cheddar and a taco sauce base. Do a trust fall with The Post and ask for the daily slice. Check their Instagram for a heads-up. Disappointment is never a topping.
Bodega Mi Sueno
Cuban Chicken and Rice ($10)
3415 Bardstown Road
How do I know that our God is a loving God? Well, that She had the foresight to open the path for a Cuban fast-casual to exist across the street from the new Costco. As such, you can grab a hearty meal beforehand and not allow your stomach to dictate you accidentally purchasing 20 pounds of whatever Kirkland Signature brand food you don’t need in bomb shelter volume. Bodega Mi Sueno was barely retrofitted from an old Sonic, with their hot Cuban lunch and dinner offerings displayed on backlit boards behind the counter (which I think rules). Their $7.50 classic pressed Cuban is a great lunch on the go, but the real winner is the hot-line lunch, specifically stewed chicken in spices and peppers with Cuban rice and beans and sweet caramelized plantains. This is a massive plate of food that keeps well for leftovers. And like La Sierra Tarasca and so many other jewels of The South End, the restaurant features an adjacent store to take home baked goods and groceries.
French crullers, half donzen ($4.29)
2317 Brownsboro Road
Like bacon, people lose their entire shit over donuts, which I find often misplaced. I mean, they’re fine. Fried dough with greasy sugary stuff on top. Great, I wanted to expand my equator a bit anyway and try to rush in a little diabetes, too. And yet, when I tried my first French cruller from Clifton Donuts, I was thunderstruck and reminded that, no, donuts are not overrated. Very light and airy inside, creamy and sweet on the outside, the Eng family’s flawless donut could, at least in terms of flavor and execution, compete with Portland, Oregon’s nirvana of sweet treats, Voodoo Donuts. My first stop in the shop was a pretty-delightful customer service experience. The woman behind the counter, a tour de force of personality, was hands down the most persuasive and suggestive seller I’ve encountered. I walked in for three French crullers. There were four total left in the case, so she turned toward me and said “No, you want four, take them all,” as she delicately grabbed the tongs and added a fourth. OK, yes, I want four. As I walked toward the cash register: “You want donut holes too?” No, I’m good! “You want donut holes, a half dozen is a better deal,” as she went on and grabbed the tongs. OK, yes, you’re right, I want donut holes. So I walked with twice the quantity of donuts for which I came, and you know, I ain’t mad about that. And while I try to respect my body, which is my temple, and not fill it with too much ethereal sugary goodness, I tend to go for a least a half dozen on any given weekend morning. You should too.