Review: Twig And Leaf Goes Latin At Dinnertime

Nov 29, 2023 at 11:49 am
Pupusas, a popular dish across Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, are thick, soft, tortilla-like flatbreads stuffed and topped with good things.
Pupusas, a popular dish across Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, are thick, soft, tortilla-like flatbreads stuffed and topped with good things. All photos by Robin Garr.

Any discussion of Louisville’s oldest and most iconic restaurants can’t reasonably overlook Twig And Leaf. Founded in 1962, this Douglass Loop neighborhood landmark with its iconic leaf-shaped neon sign has been a local go-to spot for diner fare for a long, long time.

Sure, this place has had its ups and downs. Passing though many ownership hands over the years, it’s been cherished at times, avoided at others: Favored by ‘60s hippies with the late-night munchies, later hailed by the Highlands lunch set, sometimes widely ignored, the Twig endures.

In recent years, Twig And Leaf has been bouncing back under a succession of owners who’ve freshened its look, scrubbed it sparkling clean, and updated its fare while hanging onto its old-school diner vibe. No longer an all-night destination, it’s open daily except Tuesday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but closes early evenings until the next day.

But here’s the surprise that drew me back in like a moth to the flame: For the past month, after serving its traditional fresh-made, short-order diner menu from 7 a.m.-3 p.m. — including breakfast dishes served all day, as a proper diner should — it now reopens at 4 p.m. with an all-Latin menu featuring Mexican and Guatemalan fare.

Say what? Twig And Leaf becomes La Ramita y la Hoja? Well, not officially, but we could just as well translate the name to Spanish. That would properly recognize the presence of Antonio Vasquez, the chef, who takes the kitchen’s helm evenings and turns out memorable, well-crafted items representing both traditional Mexican delights and the less familiar fare of Guatemala.

Vasquez told us that he and his family have been in Louisville for 10 years and are well-established here. In what appears to be an example of immigrant grit, he told us that English is his third language; he had to learn Spanish after growing up speaking Mam, the indigenous Mayan language of western Guatemala and Chiapas in Southern Mexico.

The new menu features about a dozen items in a mix of Mexican and Guatemalan tradition. Pricing is quite reasonable, with generously portioned entrees ranging from $10.50 (for gorditas, empanadas, taquitos, or tostadas) to $13.50 (for quesadillas, burritos, tortas, or a not-so-Latino platter of chicken tenders with fries). Chicken tenders are also available as a six-piece appetizer ($8.99) or a child’s plate ($6.49).

We ordered Guatemala tacos ($11.99) to start, and we got mouthwatering evidence of the delights to come before the food even reached our table: The most delicious scent of quality beef on the grill came drifting out of the kitchen and whetted our appetites more than any starter could have done.

Three large, soft tacos came out on a large, oval white stoneware plate with lime wedges and a dish of house-made fiery, cilantro-laced avocado salsa verde on the side.

Three hefty Guatemalan-style shredded beef tacos are piled atop soft, freshly made corn tortillas.
Three hefty Guatemalan-style shredded beef tacos are piled atop soft, freshly made corn tortillas.

Each taco was wrapped in freshly made white corn tortillas about 6 inches in diameter, softer and thicker than typical Mexican tortillas. They were delicious and tender, but their tenderness makes it challenging for the uninitiated to eat them out of hand without them falling apart. A fork is a perfectly acceptable alternative.

They were topped with hefty portions of that great-smelling beef, finely shredded, crowned with finely chopped white cabbage and cilantro and drizzled with tangy citrus. All the flavors went together beautifully, and the salsa brought it together.

Pupusas ($11.99) are Central America’s answer to Mexico’s tortillas and Colombia’s and Venezuela’s arepas, or, for that matter, the good old Anglo white-bread sandwich. Popular, with local variations, in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. they are thick, soft, cornmeal-based, skillet-cooked flatbreads that you can stuff or top with good things to eat. They remind me of fat cornmeal pancakes, but savory with that delicious Latin cornmeal scent. They came stuffed with a thin layer of soft black beans and were topped with a crisp-textured mix of sliced raw onions, cabbage, and carrots with a tangy citrus dressing, plus a bowl of tasty, not too fiery, salsa roja on the side.

What's a gordita? These fat cornmeal disks stuffed with goodies and fried crisp are called "little fat ones" for a reason. They will fill you up.
What's a gordita? These fat cornmeal disks stuffed with goodies and fried crisp are called "little fat ones" for a reason. They will fill you up.

Now imagine a pupusa but make it thin, split it, and fry it. This is a gordita ($10.50), a beloved Mexican street-food snack that’s also popular through Central America. Twig And Leaf’s version comes in threes and is fried deliciously crisp, then stuffed with a mix of black beans, mild cheese, lettuce, sour cream, and pico de gallo. You can get it with your choice of chicken, beef, or the beef-chorizo mix called campechano, or – as with many of these dishes – omit the meat for a vegetarian option.

Why are Jarritos Mexican soft drinks like this grapefruit soda so delicious? They're made with fresh fruit and natural cane sugar.
Why are Jarritos Mexican soft drinks like this grapefruit soda so delicious? They're made with fresh fruit and natural cane sugar.

With ice water and a Jarritos grapefruit soft drink ($2.99), a filling Guatemalan and Mexican dinner came to $41.31, plus a $10 tip.


Twig And Leaf

Mexican and Guatemalan menu

2122 Bardstown Road

451-8944

twigandleafky.com

facebook.com/thetwigandleaf

Noise Level: Quiet with few other customers at the time of our visit.

Accessibility: The entrance appears accessible to wheelchair users, but seating is in booths or counter stools.