October 7, 2011 by Ashlee Clark Thompson
(Blogger’s note: This is Ashlee Eats’ first guest $10 Challenge from reader Matt Ruben. Want to get in on the fun? Here’s how.)
Like most of the businesses along this stretch of Whiskey Row, Harley’s is relatively new. Catacorner from the KFC/Yum! Center, it’s situated where a former blues bar, Zena’s Cafe, lived for many years. It’s easy to miss as a lunch option, with the flashier quartet of Patrick O’Shea’s, Doc Crow’s, Bearno’s and Los Aztecas across the street. But if you’re like me, you have an inner radar that sniffs out bars. And this bar does have a kitchen. Much like Denny Crum’s name adorns the court at Freedom Hall, Harley’s kitchen is the Big River BBQ.
It’s been my experience that bar food has a better chance of being good when the menu is smaller, and the Big River menu is nothing if not brief. There are a several lighter options like onion rings and soup, but for a full meal, your choices are pretty well narrowed to a meat sandwich – pulled pork, chicken, or brisket – with a choice of sides. Spare ribs or the bourbon brownie are an option if you aren’t restricted to a $10 tab. Plenty of tap options and a full bar for the happier hour crowd.
The pulled pork comes undressed on plain white toast, which is nice, since it gives you the option of trying several sauces on the table. The basic sauce is tangy and a little smoky, with options varying in the amount of heat they provide. My pork meat was maybe a little lean, but not too dry. Sadly, no vinegar-based sauces for this Carolina boy, but I know better than to expect that. My side of fries was pretty standard. The slaw was the one disappointment, standard cafeteria-style-in-a-jar. It’s as though they were trying to hide the cabbage. But the main act, the barbecue, was fine for the price. On the whole, a satisfying and casual lunch.
It definitely meets my criteria for a good business lunch in that service is quick and portions are reasonable (not too big, not too small). Traffic was light on the day I came, but my food was on the table less than 10 minutes after I ordered, and I paid the bill and was out the door in well under 30. The servers were very friendly. My waitress was experimenting with dissolving a sweet tart in some vodka, in fact. You’ll have to ask her how that turned out, since I never did stick around for the ending.
I’m always surprised at how much space there is in these old brick buildings. Ceilings are probably 15 feet high. Seating is plentiful and unpretentious, and there are pool tables and TV sets. But no one would mistake Harley’s for a dive bar either. I like the old Actor’s Theater headshots that line the walls. The waitress told me they used to decorate the walls at Zena’s, so they kept them.