The $10 Challenge: AP Crafters Kitchen and Bar

Proximity drew me to AP Crafters Kitchen & Bar, a gastropub in the Westport Village shopping complex — I live right across the street. The imaginative versions of traditional comfort and bar food, generous happy hour specials and slick atmosphere have made me a regular, that elite status I’ve been searching for since my South-Central Louisville days.

AP Crafters is a place where you can watch a game and cheer loudly or take a date for a cozy evening; trust me, I’ve done both. The bar occupies the right side of the restaurant and the traditional dining area of booths and tables is on the left. Each of these areas, along with an enclosed patio complete with a fire pit, are separate enough to provide an enjoyable evening no matter your intentions.

Rob and I usually hunker down in the generous-sized, dimly lit bar area during AP Social Hour. From 3 to 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. to close each day, AP Crafters offers the following specials:

  • AP Crafters beer: $3
  • Wells and wines: $4
  • AP Crafters specialty cocktails: $5
  • Soft pretzels, bruschetta, dueling fries, steak-fried mushrooms, cheddar cheese curds and mini nachos (more on some of these later): $5
Pretzels and beer cheese from AP Crafters.
Pretzels and beer cheese from AP Crafters.

These happy hour specials have saved many a boring evening when we want to get out of the house without spending a lot of cash.

AP Crafters’ house cocktails are inventive, refreshing and seasonal. During the warmer months, I was a fan of the AP Crafters Refresher (Absolut Mandarin, St. Germaine Liquer, fresh basil and orange; $7) and Crafters Mojito (Ten Cane Rum, fresh mint, limes and craft sugar; $8). This winter I’m leaning toward richer drinks like the Smashing Pumpkin (Maker’s Mark bourbon, pumpkin liqueur, Grand Marnier and cream; $8) or the Nuts for Bourbon (Maker’s Mark, macadamia nut liqueur, Godiva Dark Chocolate and cream; $8).

Nuts for Bourbon cocktail at AP Crafters.
Nuts for Bourbon cocktail at AP Crafters.

If I’m at AP Crafters during happy hour, I will usually make a meal by pairing an appetizer with the filling BLT Wedge (iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing, bacon, tomatoes, chopped boiled egg and blue cheese crumbles; $8). The soft pretzels ($5.50) are closer to breadsticks in appearance, but have the familiar salty, crisp exterior and soft insides that we’re used to with the twisted variety. The pretzels come with a delicious house-made AP Dark beer cheese that is thick and slightly smoky. The special I usually turn to is the quart-sized Dueling Fries ($5), a combination of sweet potato fries and regular French fries. Each type of fry is heavenly on its own, but together they create the sweet-salty combo of which foodies only dream.

Dueling fries at AP Crafters.
Dueling fries at AP Crafters.

The rest of the menu is just as tasty as the appetizers. The group of entrees is a mixed bag that veers from chorizo and pulled pork tacos or fish tacos ($10) to grilled Atlantic salmon ($17). The prices of the entrees are in the high teens and 20s, so I save those dishes for a night of treating myself. Instead, I usually stick with the sandwiches and burgers section of the AP Crafters menu.

God bless the AP Crafters sandwiches and burgers. Seriously. There’s nothing that I don’t love about this selection. AP Crafters takes classic sandwiches and transforms them into something new. For example, the grilled chicken BLT ($11) uses house-smoked pork belly and a fried green tomato in place of the normal bacon and tomato. The roast pork sammy ($10) is a stack of roasted pork, Swiss cheese, red onions, fried pickle chips and bacon jam. BACON JAM. Stop for a second and let that sink in.

A typical night at AP Crafters means I’m ordering the AP Beer Cheese Burger ($11). This burger is make of Kentucky Proud beef, the AP Dark beer cheese, smoked bacon and caramelized onions on a pretzel roll. I usually avoid speaking in absolutes, but this is one of the best cheeseburgers in Louisville. All of the ingredients just roll together in a savory dance that makes my taste buds tingle. The pretzel bun is the best thing to happen to bread since, well, sliced bread – it’s a little toasty on the outside and moist on the inside. The smokiness of the bacon and beer cheese remind me of something you’d get at a summer barbecue, especially with caramelized onions on board. I usually get my hamburger cooked medium to medium well, so some of the juices slide out and mingle with drips of beer cheese. It’s messy, but fantastic.

The sandwiches and burgers come with a choice of French fries, slaw or fresh fruit. I treat myself a bit and opt for an order of the Dueling Fries. It’s an extra $1.50, but when you’re sopping up beer cheese with a pretzel bun and wiping onion bits from your mouth, you need a side order of equal culinary caliber.

Dishes at AP Crafters ring in a little above the $10 Challenge benchmark. But the consistently delicious food makes each visit as good — or better — than the last.

AP Crafters Kitchen & Bar, 1321 Herr Lane, Suite 130, Louisville, Ky.

AP Beer Cheese Burger: $11

Dueling fries (instead of regular fries): $1.50 upcharge

Total (with tax): $13.25

Mission: Failed

The $10 Challenge: The Main Eatery

I’ve discovered my own little quantum of solace at The Main Eatery.

This lunch spot is my destination on the days when I’ve taken too many conference calls, my inbox never empties and my eyes strain under the fluorescent light.

I should keep this place a secret. But judging from the line that spills onto the sidewalk, somebody blabbed.

Main Street Eatery serves simple, wholesome lunches to office drones like me. And the stringent, assembly line operations at the counter and in the kitchen are ideal for getting back to the office in an hour — as long as you can slide into the routine.

Knowing how to order at The Main Eatery can make or break your experience. First, have basic knowledge of the menu:

  • The core of the Eatery’s menu is soups and sandwiches. No croque monsieurs, just ham, turkey, tuna salad, chicken salad and roast beef.
  • Salads, baked potatoes and desserts are also on the menu.
  • Each day, there is a special soup available in addition to the standing selections: broccoli cheese, vegetable beef, chicken noodle and garden vegetable.
  • There are a range of combinations that include a drink and some medley of soup, salad and sandwich. Most are between $5 and $10.
  • There are also Blue Plate Specials each day. Information about the day’s soup and Blue Plate Special is displayed on a white board in front of the restaurant. You can get the Blue Plate Special with chips or soup, but the soup costs a few cents more.

 

Got it? Let’s move on to waiting for your food. As I mentioned earlier, the line is usually out the door by 12:10 p.m. This is prime menu-studying time. Review the white board outside with the day’s specials. Once you make it into the building, there are two large signs that display the entire menu AND another white board full of specials. You’ll be in the line about 10 minutes, so it’s your own fault if you don’t know what to order by the time you make it to the register.

Now, the cashier. This guy (one of the owners) knows how to take an order. But his style of asking a barrage of questions can be daunting. Don’t blurt out everything you want to eat, just answer his questions one at a time. I’ll walk you through some examples:

  1. Here or to-go?
  2. What type of bread?
  3. Chips or soup?
  4. Would you like anything else?
  5. How are you going to pay for that today (more on this later)

 

Easy peezy, right? This efficiency is what will get you back to your desk in an hour. Respect the system.

You will earn a delightful lunch that tickles your insides if you can get into the swing of The Main Eatery’s flow. The food evokes a culinary déja vu — everything tastes like something I’ve had at home, only better. That’s because the ingredients are simple and familiar, yet the dishes are prepared with enough love to transform them into something special. And all this comfort rings up at less than $10.

My favorite Eatery lunch is Friday’s Blue Plate Special — a panini grilled cheese sandwich made up of Wisconsin whole-milk cheese on sourdough bread with a side of bread and butter sweet pickles. I recently had this sandwich with Friday’s soup of the day, tomato bisque, and a cornbread muffin.

Grilled cheese and tomato bisque from The Main Eatery (cornbread muffin not pictured).

This meal is perfect for winter weather. The tomato bisque is creamy and filled with chunks of tomato. I could feel my insides warming up after just one sip. It tasted as good as my Snuggie feels on a cold day.

The grilled cheese is perfect in its simplicity. No fancy cheese. No extra toppings. Just a thick slice of American between hearty bread. The sandwich was toasted to a light brown that was enough to warm the cheese and make it gooey, but not hot enough to make the cheese slide out of the sides.

The cornbread muffin isn’t available every day, but add it to your meal when it is. For 94 cents, I got a muffin that was a struggle to hold in one hand. This cornbread was sweet, which I prefer. There were also corn kernels throughout the bread. I split the muffin in half — I crumbled one half into the tomato bisque and took the other back to the office. Both incarnations were delicious.

Learning the ways of The Main Eatery is worth the good midday meal you’ll get. Find a quiet corner, sip on some soup and let the problems of the corporate world fade away.

Notes on The Main Eatery

  • This business prefers dealing in cash. There’s a $6 minimum to use a debit or credit card. There is also an ATM in the lobby. I recommend going to your bank and popping a $20 out of your account before you get to The Main Eatery. Not only will you avoid the ATM fee, but you also get a small discount on your meal for using cash.

The Stats

The Main Eatery, 643 W. Main Street, Louisville

  • Blue Plate Special (panini with tomato bisque): $6.93
  • Cornbread muffin: $.94
  • Cash discount: -$.33
  • Total (with tax and discount): $8.34

Mission: Accomplished

The $10 Challenge: The Bard’s Town

I’m in the second row of a small, empty theater. To my left, six actors stand in a circle doing vocal warm-ups. To my right, a full glass of white wine.

The wine is celebratory. One of the actors on the stage is my husband.

I am at The Bard’s Town, a restaurant and theater venue on Bardstown Road. It is a night full of firsts. This is my first time at The Bard’s Town. This is Rob’s debut in The Halloween Trilogy of Radio Plays (more on that later). And this is the first time I’ve started writing The $10 Challenge while still in the place where I ate my meal.

The Bard’s Town is unique in its ability to cater to a diverse audience. The restaurant portion of The Bard’s Town has a full menu of tasty items for the foodie like me. The second-floor theater houses a rotating schedule of performances by local theater companies for arts lovers like my husband. And there’s a full bar with flat screen TVs, and that pleases everyone. How can you not have a good time when your belly is full, your head’s fuzzy from the crafts on tap, and you’re supporting local theater?

If you hadn’t noticed from the name or the fetching fellow in the restaurant’s logo, The Bard’s Town tips its hat to playwright and all-around good guy William Shakespeare. The names of menu items are plays on the titles of or lines from famous works by B. Shakes (let’s start calling him that). I’m a sucker for puns, so I giggled as I scanned the menu, which is organized like the outline of a play. Here are some of my favorites:

    • Parting is Such Sweet Potato — sweet potato fries with cheese, bacon, salsa, sour cream and jalapenos ($8.99)
    • To Bean, or Not to Bean — black bean burger with red pepper aioli ($7.99)
    • The Shrimpest — grilled shrimp with lemon ($7.99)

Eventually, I had to stop laughing and decide what to eat. Rob, who had previously eaten at The Bard’s Town, recommended the pulled pork sandwich called My Kingdom for Some Pork! ($9.99). I added a side of coleslaw.

My Kingdom for Some Pork! and spicy coleslaw at The Bard’s Town.

If this whole theater thing doesn’t work out, The Bard’s Town folks should set up a barbecue pit on the street. It’s hard to find good barbecue, and I would have never guessed I’d find it under Act Two, Scene One of The Bard’s Town menu. The pork is loaded onto a toasted bun, and the people in the kitchen made the wise decision to put the barbecue sauce on the side rather than coating the meat in it. That way, you can taste the peppery smokiness of the swine, which tasted like it had been lovingly smoked for hours. I started by pulling pieces of the juicy pork with my fingers and dipping it into the tangy, tomato-based sauce. Then I drizzled the sauce on the sandwich and went to town. It was fantastic.

I always try to give coleslaw a chance at a restaurant, but the results often fall short of my expectations. Though The Bard’s Town adds a spicy kick to this cabbage dish, it was missing the pizzazz that I hoped for.

Next time, I’m going for the sweet potato fries, which I swiped from Rob’s plate throughout the evening. I dipped these crisp suckers in my barbecue sauce, which turned out to be a perfect combination of sweet and spice.

I capped my evening with a glass of white wine ($4 during happy hour) and a climb to the second floor to see Rob perform. I’m thankful that Rob introduced me to The Bard’s Town, not only for the food, but for the well-rounded evening that this venue gave me. I’m rooting for The Bard’s Town and everything it promotes — a good meal, a good drink and good times with local entertainment.

Notes about The Bard’s Town

    • A Trio of Halloween Radio Plays, the show in which Rob performs at The Bard’s Town, has shows at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18, 19, and 20. The show is presented by the Coffee Cup Theatre Company and is performed in the style of old radio plays. The actors perform The Canterville Ghost, The Cask of Amontillado and The Monkey’s Paw. Tickets are $15, $10 for students and seniors.

The Stats

    • My Kingdom for Some Pork! with a side of spicy coleslaw: $9.99
    • Glass of house white wine: $4 (happy hour price)
    • Total (w/tax): $14.83

Mission: Failed

The $10 Challenge: Bazo’s Fresh Mexican Grill

Ever been to the Qdoba Mexican Grill on Fourth and Jefferson streets at noon on a weekday?

It’s a mad house.

The line often snakes at least 20 people from the cash register to the door, a daunting prospect to a hungry corporate employee with only an hour to eat.

Yes, Qdoba offers up some tasty, Mexican-inspired grub — I have a rewards card to prove my appreciation. Lately, I’ve skipped the rush and gone with an even better, local option right around the corner, Bazo’s Fresh Mexican Grill.

I’d noticed Bazo’s before on the corner of Market and Fifth streets, a lunch-friendly intersection (the restaurant’s neighbors include Dish on Market, Chop Shop Salads and FireFresh BBQ). But I usually bypassed Bazo’s in favor of the familiar Qdoba.

A business lunch changed my ways.

My companions for that meal suggested Bazo’s. That was about a month ago. Since then, I’ve been back three times.

Bazo’s has a menu that will be familiar to folks accustomed to Qdoba, Chipotle Mexican Grill and other Mexican-style, fast-casual dining, but provides a wider selection at a comparable cost with a much shorter wait time.

There are no surprises in selections like the nachos (from $5.79) or the assortment of burritos, such as the Fajita Burrito with meat, cheddar-jack cheese, grilled peppers and onions, rice, sour cream and salsa (from $6.29). There’s even a Tostada Salad, a taco salad in a flour tortilla bowl ($6.59) that will look familiar to a Qdoba regular.

But Bazo’s offers choices and menu items that the chains are missing. Let’s start with dessert. Signs on the tables in Bazo’s advertise $1.59 churros, a fried-dough dish popular in Spanish-speaking countries. There there is a salsa bar with four to five different salsa options and tiny cups for you to try as many as you want. Bazo’s also has economical combination choices that start with one to three of tacos of your choice, a small side of chili-lime chips and a choice of sides depending on the combination you choose (starts at $6.29).

And speaking of the tacos, the highlight of Bazo’s menu is the variety of fillings you can choose for your tacos, which start at $2.39. There’s the usual chicken, carne asada (steak) and bean, but the restaurant also adds barbacoa (shredded beef), carnitas (pork), shrimp, and, my favorite, fish.

The fish made me a Bazo’s convert. The first dish I tried with this ingredient was a fish burrito ($6.99). The burrito was filled with a grilled fillet, black beans, salsa fresca, shredded cabbage, cheddar-jack cheese and baja sauce.

For the $10 Challenge, however, I decided to change it up and order a combination with three fish tacos, a dish that was featured in several framed newspaper and magazine article near the register ($8.49). It took about five minutes for my order to come up, the average wait time I’ve experienced at Bazo’s. It’s just enough time to fill your salsa cups and water cup.

Three Taco Combo at Bazo’s.

When I picked up my plate, the mounds of white, crunchy cabbage on top of the tacos threw me for a loop. Don’t get me wrong, I love cabbage, but not when I can’t even see the dish it is supposed to accompany. I scooped about a cup of cabbage off to the side of my platter before I dug into my tacos.

The tortillas seemed delicate enough to be homemade. They were soft and not sturdy enough to hold the slices of fish in each taco. I’m not sure where Bazo’s gets their fish (I hope not the Ohio River), but it tasted out-of-the-water fresh. The grilled fish was succulent and well-seasoned, but not too spicy. I’m curious to see if the taste of the fish holds up if it’s battered and fried or blackened, two other options available.

After taco number two, I realized how much value I had gotten in my meal and how much I had overestimated my appetite. There is about half of a fish filet in each taco, so I got really full really fast. I had also created a cabbage salad of sorts with a squirt of lime and a drizzle of the creamy baja sauce that dripped from my tacos. My impromptu side dish, the side of crunchy seasoned chips, and those little tacos packed an unexpected punch to the gut. Next time, I’ll go with the Two Taco Combo  that comes with rice and beans (from $6.29).

I’m a bit ashamed that I had always passed up a little guy like Bazo’s in favor of a Big Boy Chain. Now, it’s good to know that I can get a good taco at a great price without the long wait.

Notes about Bazo’s

  • The price for the taco combos and some of the burritos increases depending on the type of meat you choose. Seafood is the most expensive option.

Bazo’s Fresh Mexican Grill, 428 W. Market Street, Louisville (two other locations in Louisville)

  • Three Taco Combo with fish: $8.49
  • Water: $0
  • Total (with tax): $9.00

Mission: Accomplished

The $10 Challenge: Lilly’s — A Kentucky Bistro

Photo courtesy of Southern Food Alliance via Flickr.

First, an apology to Lilly’s — A Kentucky Bistro.

I had dismissed this upscale Highlands restaurant long before my first visit this week.

Lilly’s evaded my list of future blog subjects because of my prejudices against the more tony qualities of this establishment — crisp tablecloths, reservations recommended, even an endorsement from Emeril Lagasse. This type of fine dining seemed out of my reach. I had resigned myself to the fact that my budget is more suited toward casual eateries, diners and cafés.

Lilly’s lunch menu, however, revived my faith that fine dining at affordable prices is attainable in Louisville — as long as you have time for lunch.

A midday meal is a gateway into the fancier side of eating in our fair city. Check out the lunch menus of some of the big-name restaurants — Proof on Main, Bristol Bar and Grille, and Equus & Jack’s Lounge, to name a few. A $10 bill goes a long way between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Lilly’s is no exception. The restaurant provides a respectable selection of food on its lunch menu that will please the dollar-conscious diner and provide an accurate impression of what evening meals there have to offer.

The prix fixe lunch alone is a frugal way to sample a selection of Lilly’s cuisine. During my lunch this week, the prix fixe included vichyssoise, seared ruby red trout on eggplant and sherry salad topped with gremolata, and dulce de leche cheesecake. This is three courses of food I’ve only seen on Top Chefand it was just $16.

The prix fixe and other lunch menu items combine Southern tastes with French staples. I was tempted to try the Kentucky pulled pork barbecue sandwich made with local pork piled on a pretzel bun ($9) or the crepes ($9), a savory dish of sautéed spinach, mushrooms, Gruyere cheese and shrimp.

After a chewing on a couple of slices of warm bread (it was so good, my friends and I ate two plates of it), I settled on the grilled croque-monsieur with Gruyere cheese, Béchamel sauce, Preacher Ham, caramelized onions and bacon ($8). In $10 Challenge terms, this was a fancy, hot, ham-and-cheese sandwich, a dish that began with as proudly French and ended in down-home Southern charm thanks to the addition of Kentucky ham and onions.

The taste of the croque-monsieur lingered on my mind and tongue for the rest of the work day. My infatuation began with the bread, two crunchy slices thick enough to hold the pile of pork and dairy. Then there was the salty bacon, thick cut and perfectly fatty. And the ham, salty hunks that were carefully arranged. And the onions, sweet rings of brown delight. And finally, the Bechamel, the sticky sauce that married the ingredients together into the best sandwich I’ve ever tasted. The Béchamel combined with the Gruyere and oozed from the corners of the bread and coated my mouth as I chewed. Its creaminess balanced the rough texture of the ham and bacon and took the sandwich to a level of perfection I had never experienced at lunch.

The croque-monsieur was a dream.

Unfortunately, my camera on my phone froze before I could take a picture of my dish. But no worries — I will return to Lilly’s, and I will have the croque-monsiuer again.

It turns out that I can afford another lunchtime trip. I just hope Lilly’s accepts my apology.

Lilly’s — An American Bistro, 1147 Bardstown Road, Louisville

Grilled croque-monsieur: $8

Water: $0

Total (with tax): $8.48

Mission: Accomplished

$10 Challenge: Joe’s Older Than Dirt

The promise of cheap food close to my home was the only thing that could get me in Joe’s Older Than Dirt, a tavern in Lyndon.

Framed, autographed headshots of visiting country singers and a couple of deer heads filled a wood-paneled wall where I ate my dinner. A cornhole game was assembling in the expansive outdoor patio as I headed home. And there’s plenty of cheap beer on tap, which seemed to be the main attraction that brought patrons to Joe’s.

I don’t know much about country music (though I love me some Johnny Cash). I know less about cornhole. And I can name on one hand the beers I can tolerate.

Fortunately, stepping out of my comfort zone paid off. There’s a lot more to Joe’s than a few good drinks. This is a bar with hearty platters of food with prices that compliment the beer specials.

Joe’s has been around since 1937, when Joe Keal opened a tavern near what is now the corners of Lyndon Lane and New LaGrange Road, according to the information on Joe’s menu. His clientele was passengers from the nearby railway station that he sometimes picked up with a horse and buggy.

Times have changed, and so has Joe’s. The tavern was expanded over the years, so patrons can have a drink, watch some ESPN on several flatscreens and a projector, play a little cornhole outside or enjoy some karaoke or a live performer depending on the day of the week.

And then there’s the food — nothing fancy, and that’s OK.

Appetizers are designed to complement a cold beer, like nachos with beef chili ($7.95 for a large, $10.95 for a jumbo) or Joe’s Famous Cheesy Fries with bacon bits ($6.99). The hot sandwiches and platters come with a lot of food. Just look at some of these names: Big Bob’s Battered Belly Buster (a half pound white fish sandwich, $7.99); A Moose-of-a-Burger (a one-pound hamburger, $9.99); the Jumbo Fried Fish Platter (two pieces of cod, two crab cakes, two hushpuppies, fries and coleslaw, $14.99).

You have to pay at least $10.99 to feast on any of the platters, which come with more side dishes than just a sandwich. But all of the sandwiches come with chips and a pickle and are less than $10. On a weekday evening, a sandwich and chips were enough for me, so I ordered the half-pound Lodge Burger with cheese ($7.49) and a side of fried corn ($1.95). My husband ordered 10 chicken wings with a dry rub ($7.99) and an order of fries ($1.95).

Joe’s Lodge Burger.

The burger was a solid example what you can do with some beef and bread. The patty was juicy and covered with a thick slice of pepperjack cheese, my dairy product of choice. Call me crazy, but the best part of the Lodge Burger might have been the bun, which was buttered and toasted to a crisp brown. A little cooked fat kept the beef juice from turning the bread into a soggy mess.

As far as sides go, the kettle-cooked chips were nothing to write home about, but the corn was a dream. The kernels were fried in some kind of spicy sauce that kicked the back of my tongue after its sweet first impression. What a way to eat more vegetables.

Fortunately, The Mister believes that sharing is caring.

Joe’s chicken wings.

The dry rub gave Rob’s chicken wings a crisp, mesquite skin. The french fries were coated in a seasoning salt that made it hard for me to keep my hands away from his basket. Next time, I’ll opt for the fries instead of my kettle chips.

Even if you’re not much into country or cornhole, Joe’s Older Than Dirt is worth a visit. And take a few extra bucks for a beer to go with your meal.

Joe’s Older Than Dirt, 8131 New LaGrange Road, Louisville, Ky.

Lodge Burger: $7.49

Fried Corn: $1.95

Water: $0

Total: $9.44 (before tax)
Mission: Accomplished

[$10 Challenge] O’Shea’s Irish Pub

Fish and chips at O'Shea's.

I’m not a big drinker. And I hate going out to the bars.  A night with a bar stool up my butt while I sip on a $10 drink? Not my idea of a good time.

I do make exceptions for two things:

  1. A good happy hour (cheap drinks AND I can still be in bed by 10)
  2. Bar food

Bars are an untapped resource when it comes to finding a good cheap place for a full meal. When I visited London in college, pubs became the only place in which I could afford a meal that was tasty, filling and easy on my student budget.

Those fond memories of fish and chips led me to O’Shea’s Irish Pub, a member of the O’Shea’s family of pubs located throughout Louisville.

Under normal circumstances, O’Shea’s is a place I would avoid. It’s one of many bars sandwiched together along Baxter Avenue. On weekend nights, traffic inches by groups of bar-hoppers. It’s loud. It’s crowded. It’s a shock to my system that keeps me tucked far away.

But Baxter Avenue at 5 p.m. on a weekday? Completely manageable, downright pleasant and the best time to slide into a wooden booth at O’Shea’s and enjoy an early dinner.

The lunch and dinner menu is full of filling dishes that include Irish favorites and Kentucky standards. The Guinness Beef Stew topped with mashed potatoes ($6.99) sounds great for a cold winter day, but I’d also settle for Irish Whiskey Style steak sandwich ($8.99, includes one side item). For those with a more Bluegrass taste, there is the Classic Hot Brown ($8.99) or the 12-inch Bourbon County Flat, a whole-wheat pizza with chicken, mozzarella, red onions and bourbon barbeque sauce ($10.95). Diners can also substitute any of the pub’s hamburgers ($6.99-8.59) with Kentucky-raised bison for an additional $2.50.

O’Shea’s also offers a variety of pizzas, sandwiches and appetizers that could turn into meals. But when I hear the word “pub,” my mind instinctively scans the menu for fish and chips. O’Shea’s doesn’t disappoint — Fish & Chips is the first option available under the “Pub Classics” section.

On a recent dinner date, my husband and I each ordered the Icelandic cod, battered European-style with Guinness beer (the other option is a cracker-crumb coating known as O’Shea’s-style). On the advice of a waitress, we replaced the fries that come with the platter with pommes frites, “handcut potatoes fried twice at two different temperatures the way they’re prepared in Belgium,” the menu told us. The fish and chips also comes with a side of coleslaw. I had the half order that comes with one fillet ($8.99), while Mr. Ashlee Eats got down with the two-fillet full order ($12.99).

First, let’s talk about the bad, which was fortunately just a tiny part of the meal.

One bite into the coleslaw, and the little plastic cup earned a place off my plate. The pub considers this more of a garnish than an actual side, the waitress said, and it was evident in the taste. The cabbage tasted like it had been sitting in the refrigerator for a day too long. It was bland and forgettable, especially compared to the delight that was the entree itself.

The fish and chips (well, pommes frites) were fantastic. It is just as simple as that. The cod was freshly battered and hot out of the fryer, so much so that a few moments of cool breath were necessary. The coating was thick, crisp and perfectly brown. The fish beneath the batter was flaky and moist with a seemingly melt-in-your-mouth quality.

The pommes frites are just as crispy as the breading on the fish. The side dish seemed more like the kind of french fries I might make at home if left with a pile of potatoes and vat of grease. They were much better than anything a fast-food restaurant could offer. There’s also a medley of dipping sauces you can choose to go with your frites. My heart belongs to the horseradish aioli.

By the time we polished off our meal, the after-work crowd had started to trickle into the pub. I happily walked by the faces at the bar with a belly full of good food and a smile knowing I wouldn’t be stuck on a bar stool for the rest of the evening.

Notes about O’Shea’s Irish Pub

  • Want a drink while you eat? Here is the pub’s drink menu.
  • The servers have always been super friendly on my visits to O’Shea’s. They give great recommendations and are very honest.
  • The menus, options and prices are different at each of the four bars in the O’Shea’s family, so look at the menus before you pick your destination.

The Stats

O’Shea’s Irish Pub, 956 Baxter Ave., Louisville, Ky.

  • Fish & Chips half order, European style: $8.99
  • Water: $0
  • Total (with tax): $9.53
Mission: Accomplished

[The $10 Challenge] Annie Cafe

It’s hard to find a place where everybody knows your name when you’re a vagabond.

I’ve lived in seven different cities since I graduated high school. By the time I became familiar with my surroundings in one place, it would be time to load up the Mercury Tracer and set up house in a new neighborhood in a new apartment with a new roommate. No time to become a regular at a local neighborhood restaurant or bar.

But my life has changed in the past few months. I have a roommate for life. We rent a house in south-central Louisville, an area in which we’d like to stay for awhile. Even the dog seems OK with his new hood.

It’s time to adopt a neighborhood favorite as “our spot,” and Annie Café is in the running.

This Vietnamese restaurant is wedged on a busy block of Woodlawn Avenue between Southern Parkway and South Third Street that also contains Sunergos coffee shop, a Penn Station sandwich shop, and a grocer that sells hard-to-find items such as camel meat. Annie Café stands out for its quiet atmosphere, quick service and consistently good, authentic and inexpensive cuisine.

Annie Café is a great place to bring someone who is relatively new to Vietnamese food. The less-experienced food can flip to the back of the menu to the selection of familiar Chinese food dishes that the restaurant offers, such as sesame chicken or moo goo gai pan. These dishes come with rice and a spring roll and are just each $5.75 during lunch.

The real deal, however, is in the traditional Vietnamese entrees that make up the majority of Annie’s menu. Noodle dishes make up the majority of the selections. The pho, a northern Vietnamese noodle soup, is only $6.50 and comes with your choice of meat. Then there are dishes with rice noodles, vermicelli noodles, egg noodles, stir-fried noodles, crispy noodles, dry noodles. With all of the entrees ringing in at less than $10, it’s pretty inexpensive to experiment with so many noodle variations.

Let’s not forget about the equally tasty dishes without noodles. The com ga xao gung, aka ginger chicken on steamed rice (E.26 on the menu, $6.50), is a sweet and tender alternative to a bowl of noodles. The com tom nuong, grilled shrimp on rice with vegetables and Annie’s sauce (E.23, $7.25) sounds equally delicious.

My last trip to Annie Café was part pleasure, part medicinal. With the region’s erractic weather patterns, my allergies have at times turned me into a mouth-breather. So I began my lunch with the hot and sour soup ($2.50), a bowl of which is strong enough to clear my clogged sinus passages.

Don't stare too closely. The heat might singe your eyebrows.

The Hubs and I were pretty sure this was a fresh batch of soup, judging from the slight crunch of the vegetables and the steam rolling off of the liquid. Large chunks of vegetables and tofu were jammed into the bowl, which made this a very hearty appetizer that required more chewing than I’m used to with a soup. The broth was opaque with spices that tickled the back of my throat.

To give my mouth a chance to cool off, I ordered the bum tom nuong, vermicelli noodles with grilled shrimp and vegetables (E.3, $7.25).

E.3, an instant favorite.

This dish is unlike anything I’ve ever eaten. A handful of plump grilled shrimp sprinkled with crushed peanuts and a heap of shredded lettuce, cilantro and cucumber sit atop a knot of tender noodles. The dish is served with a small bowl of a light, sweet sauce that I pour over the whole thing. The dish is slightly chilled because of the vegetables, which made me think of it as a kind of noodle salad. The vegetables were very crisp and fresh, crunching with every bite. The shrimp were well-cooked. But it’s the sweet sauce, which I somehow manage to get all over me on every visit, that unites a bowl of assorted ingredients into one fresh and interesting dish.

I look forward to seeing more of Annie Café. I’ve been at least three times already, and have never been let down by the friendly staff or consistent meals. Maybe, just maybe, this will be the place where everybody knows my name. Or at least order.

Notes about Annie Café

  • The restaurant is closed on Monday, which is a bummer since I have a craving for it RIGHT NOW and it’s Monday.
  • The Hubs and I often make an afternoon of going to Annie Café, having coffee at Sunergos and taking a nice walk if the weather permits. The food at Annie Café is filling, yet light enough to make a short post-meal walk seem manageable.
  • It’s hard not to compare Annie Café to Vietnam Kitchen, which is arguably more popular. Both serve delicious authentic Vietnamese food at reasonable prices in the south end of Louisville. Overall, the quiet Annie Café is less expensive and not as overwhelming as Vietnam Kitchen, which can get packed even on a weekday night. But Vietnam Kitchen offers a larger menu. Basically, you’ll get a good meal at either place. It really depends on your preference.
The Stats
Annie Café, 308 W. Woodlawn Ave., Louisville, Ky.
Hot and sour soup: $2.50
Bum tom nuong (E.3): $7.25
Total (before tax and tip): $9.75
Total (with tax): $10.34
Mission: Failed (darn sales tax)

 

Guest $10 Challenge: Big River BBQ at Harley’s Main Street Tavern

(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.

The Stats:
Big River BBQ at Harley’s Main Street Tavern, 122 W. Main St., Louisville, Ky.
A sandwich plus two sides: $7-8 (lunch or dinner, tax included)
Total (with sweet tea): $9
Mission: Accomplished

Here’s your chance to write a $10 Challenge

Lately, I’ve been doing less of this:

And more of this:

I’m getting married in less than a month. Preparation for the wedding festivities has consumed my usual writing-and-eating time, which is why the $10 Challenges have been a bit sporadic.

This is where you come in.

For the next 23 days, I won’t have much time to blog between getting ready for holy matrimony, completing freelance assignments and generally trying to preserve my sanity. So I’m inviting you to write a $10 Challenge to run right here on Ashlee Eats. Here’s the deal:

  • Pick a local restaurant (in the Kentuckiana area, preferably not a national chain) that hasn’t been covered in a previous Challenge. You can read past entries here.
  • Scope out the menu. Could you easily get a meal for $10 or less, or would you have to use some creative appetizer pairings to make it work?
  • Write about your experience. How was the food? How were the prices? The staff? Did you succeed or fail in spending only $10 before the tip?
  • Keep your Challenge at about 300-400 words. And write it in a Word document or the body of an email.
  • Send your Challenge entry to me at ashleelclark [at] gmail [dot] com. Don’t forget to use my middle initial in the email address, or an Ashlee Clark in Ohio will get your piece.

If your piece is kosher, then I’ll run it on the blog. I try to keep it honest, but polite. We play nice around these parts. Let’s see how this goes, and guest entries could become a regular part of Ashlee Eats.

I look forward to seeing what awesome places you will discover around Louisville. Good luck, and good eatin’.