The Taste Bud: Luncheon roulette

Oct 5, 2011 at 5:00 am

I’ve always wondered about the phrase “blue plate special” and where it originated. We all know basically what it means: a one-price meal that typically includes a meat and two or three sides, served on a plate that often has divided compartments.

While it’s not easy to figure out where the term comes from — research I found on the Interweb dates it back to the late 1800s and a guy named Fred Harvey selling lunches to train passengers out West on inexpensive blue plates — part of the fun of eating one is that you never know exactly what you’re going to get.

I call it “luncheon roulette.” Why? Because restaurants typically rotate what they’re going to serve on any particular day, and often it comes down to the whim of the chef or, perhaps more specifically, whatever’s in the fridge that day.

Maybe it should be called the “clean-out-the-freezer” special.

The sad truth is, the term “blue plate special” seems to be dying. One is more likely to encounter the term “plate lunch” or just “lunch special” these days. With the rise of specialty restaurants and fast food, one has to wonder if the traditional plate lunch may eventually die out completely.

In the meantime, there are still a few places in Louisville where the plate lunch lives on. I got the “luncheon roulette” urge recently, so my buddy Kirk and I decided to hit up a Louisville staple — Check’s Café in Germantown — to test out the lunch offering. It’s true Check’s is best known for its fried chicken and fish sandwich, but if it can do chicken and fried fish that well, my guess was it would knock a lunch plate right out of the park, too.

I was right.

One notable thing about the Check’s lunch special is that, thanks to the aforementioned Interweb, some of the mystery can be removed if you aren’t inclined to gamble. Just go to Check’s fanpage on Facebook every morning right before lunchtime to get a rundown of what’s on the menu that day.

Some recent plates included tempting fare such as beef brisket, pork and kraut, chicken carbonara, and half of a smoked chicken with white Alabama barbecue sauce. Everything comes with two sides of your choice. Check’s is big on sides, and the offerings in that category are no less solid, with complements that include standard fare such as mashed potatoes and green beans, but branch out to fried apples, German potato salad, mixed greens and red potatoes.

I managed to avoid the temptation to peek at the online menu before heading over last week, and was greeted with a choice of country-fried steak with two sides, Italian sausage with peppers and onions, and chicken alfredo with a salad — each one for $6.95. Sides? Yeah, there were plenty: mashed potatoes, coleslaw, green beans, corn, peas, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and lima beans.

Kirk and I both opted for the country-fried steak and mashed potatoes, both of which came topped with milk gravy. I had green beans as my second side, and Kirk ordered coleslaw.

Like one would expect from any self-respecting plate lunch or blue plate special, the food was freshly made — it was clear we had been served pounded steak that had been rolled in batter on the premises, not something that came frozen from Sam’s Club. The green beans were seasoned with onions and bacon — mmm, bacon — and Kirk praised the coleslaw.

“It could be goopier,” he said. “But that’s just personal preference.” (Insert your own “that’s what she said” zinger.)

For another $1.50, one could also partake of mac and cheese, broccoli casserole or potato salad — it’s a veritable cornucopia of homemade side items. You know, like with any self-respecting plate lunch special. There were even lumps in the mashed potatoes — just like mom’s. (Sorry, Mom!)

Bottom line, it just made me want to go back. Daily, if I could. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see the descendants of Fred Harvey, because my guess is the old guy would have felt right at home playing luncheon roulette at Check’s.