(Here’s the first winner of the Readers’ Choice $10 Challenge poll. Since there was a tie for first place, the second location will be featured in two weeks.)
I’ve thrown in a couple of extra bucks when a $10 Challenge isn’t going my way. Sometimes, the food is just so good, and the prices teeter just a smidge above my self-imposed limit, that I’ll fail a Challenge on purpose.
In returning to my frugal roots, I decided to adhere more closely to the terms of the $10 Challenge with one of my favorite restaurants, Mussel & Burger Bar.
Man, was that tough.
Mussel & Burger Bar has been open for less than a year. Yet the same folks who have injected flavor into the Louisville dining scene (think Guaca Mole Cocina Mexicana, Mojito and Havana Rumba) have created a concept around its titular offerings that have garnered much-deserved praise for this Jefferstown restaurant. The mussels are served in sauces such as curry cream or blue cheese beer pancetta that make this seafood more interesting than I thought possible. And the burgers would make the Hamburglar rip off his mask and weep tears of joy. The combinations of toppings transport me across the world and back again:
- Spanish Blue: La Peral Spanish blue cheese and fig marmalade
- Mediterranean: Ground lamb, quince marmalade, tzatziki sauce
- Argentinean: Chorizo Argentino, provaletta, chimichurri sauce
- Southern Bell: Fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese
These are masterpieces presented on wooden cutting boards and wax paper.
The ingredients are house-made and high quality, and the prices reflect these premium ingredients. An appetizer portion of mussels is $9, and an entrée size is $12. And the burgers, including one vegetarian option, start at about $11 (includes fries). For me, this has been fine and dandy. I expect to spend at least $20 on an entrée and cocktail when I visit Mussel & Burger Bar, and I’m treated to a meal and experience well worth the price.
When I limited myself to just spending 10 bucks, I was in a pickle. I had to take to the robust appetizer and side items menus to craft a meal that would fall beneath my price threshold. I had my mind set on the sweet potato fries ($4), but I made a mental note to try the duck fat potatoes (also $4) during my next visit. Choosing an accompaniment to the fries was tricky. Sliders made of either chorizo, Angus beef or soft crab were $8 and would have catapulted me past $10. At that point, it would have made more sense to just order an entrée that would have been about the same price. I also considered the short rib nachos ($8), an appetizer I’ve shared on date night. This dish, served in a small cast iron skillet, is made up of a layer of house-cut, crisp potato chips topped with slow-cooked beef short rib, cheese and guacamole. It’s a little bit of heaven that, unfortunately, would be a little too much money if I paired it with the sweet potato fries.
Since I was sticking to my guns about those fries, I only had two options to fit my budget – beef ($5 for five) or salmon tartare ($6 for five) taquitos. I went with the beef.
Did I squeal with glee when I saw this cute little presentation? YES. I love tiny versions of anything.
The taquitoes are bite-sized, hard-shelled tacos filled (well, as much as you can fill a tiny taco) with ground beef and black bean puree and sprinkled with queso fresco and pickled sweet peppers. The shells were nice and crisp even though a little beef grease had trickled out of the filling. The beef and bean combination was mild and slightly smoky.
I knew that the sweet potato fries would be fantastic, and Mussel & Burger Bar didn’t let me down. Each fry is crisp and peppery on the outside with a healthy filling of sweet potato on the inside. And the accompanying smoky pineapple dipping sauce made me wonder why we, as a nation, haven’t explored more pineapple and sweet potato pairings.
Even though I didn’t have mussels or a burger, I was satisfied with my meal — until I watched my husband, Rob, enjoy his order. I had some extreme burger envy as Rob ate his BBB (Bacon Breakfast Burger, $14), an Angus beef patty topped with white cheddar, caramelized onions, pork belly, a fried egg, and maple-infused aioli. My taquitos seemed abysmal in comparison to that work of culinary art dripping on the butcher’s paper that served as the tablecloth.
It’s possible to finagle the appetizer and side menus to create a few combinations that will leave you with a $10 tab at Mussel & Burger Bar. The entrees, however, are well worth breaking this Challenge’s threshold. Control your spending by ordering just an entrée without an appetizer (portions are generous enough to keep you satisfied) or finding a few friends with whom you can split some dishes. Just don’t leave without at least trying a slider.
Mussel & Burger Bar, 9200 Taylorsville Road, Louisville
Five beef taquitos: $5
Sweet potato fries: $4
Total (without tax and tip): $9