The $10 Challenge: Thai Noodles

This is the dish that inspired me to get back on my $10 Challenge game.
This is the dish that inspired me to get back on my $10 Challenge game.

This year, I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut.

I’ve become a creature of habit when it comes to eating out at Louisville-area restaurants. Part of this stagnation is because of (shameless plug alert) my book, Louisville DinersI was doing nothing but eating at new-to-me restaurants ALL THE TIME while I wrote it last year. When I finally turned in that manuscript at the end of 2014, I happily settled into a restaurant rotation that I haven’t strayed from in what feels like forever.

I also blame my own laziness for my lack of restaurant exploration (and, consequently, a lack of $10 Challenge posts). With grad school and a new job at CNET and a husband and a Roscoe, it’s just easier to pick a restaurant that doesn’t require much planning and anticipation. I think a lot about a restaurant before my first visit, and I’ve just let my daily life tire me out so much that I haven’t had much mental energy to devote to finding new eating places. Is their menu online? How big are their entrees? Is it worth the trip? It takes a lot of work to love food as much as I do.

I know, I know, excuses that I’ve made before. But my new role at CNET has given me a perk I didn’t anticipate: a new work location with new neighborhood restaurants to try. My awesome co-workers have introduced me to some great restaurants in the area, and Thai Noodles on Preston Highway has quickly become one of my favorites.

Not much of a view, but just wait until you try the food.
Not much of a view, but just wait until you try the food.

The family-owned restaurant provides quick service, hearty portions and vibrant flavors at low prices. Thai Noodles is in the space that once housed Thai Smile 5, according to the Courier-Journal. The building isn’t much to look at — just a little red building across the street from a shopping complex. Don’t let the modest accommodations fool you because there’s a lot to love once you get inside. The dining room is a nice open space with booths and tables around the perimeter and more tables in the middle. Despite the open floor plan (I’ve been watching too much HGTV), the dining area is calm and quiet because of the muted lighting and soft music piping through the speakers. I want to talk softly while I’m eating my meal just to match the atmosphere.

The menu offers a nice variety of Thai food. There are plenty of five types of curries, four types of fried rice and more than a dozen noodle dishes. I’ve only visited Thai Noodles during lunch time, and the midday menu is a bounty. Each of the 26 entrees range in cost from $6.95 to $10.95 depending on your choice of meat. The meal also comes with a bowl of soup. Customers can also add a spring roll, steamed dumpling, fried wonton or gyoza for an extra $1.50. It’s almost too easy to keep a big lunch under $10.

A cup of soup comes with every meal at Thai Noodles. I'm down for that.
A cup of soup comes with every meal at Thai Noodles. I’m down for that.

The broth-based soup has some tiny pieces of chicken, white rice and scallions and serves as a nice introduction to your meal. It doesn’t hurt that the server brings the soup shortly after you receive your beverage. (And speaking of beverages, save a couple of bucks for the Thai iced tea/lemonade combo. It’s refreshing and creamy with a little citrus kick.)

The dish that made me want to be a regular Thai Noodles patron was the first one I tried: L3, the Pad Kee Mao. This is a stir-fried rice noodle entree with egg, basil, broccoli, carrot, tomato, onions and bamboo shoots in a basil sauce. I chose shrimp to go with my noodles, an option that only cost $7.95. I also sprung for an order of dumplings for $1.50 since the lunch special was such a great deal. With every entree, you pick the level of heat you’d like on a scale of one red pepper (low) to five red peppers (Thai Hot). I picked one pepper because I wanted to be able to live with myself for the next 24 hours.

The steamed dumpling appetizer from Thai Noodles. You could pop these like Tic Tacs, or be polite and take tiny bites. Guess which option I chose.
The steamed dumpling appetizer from Thai Noodles. You could pop these like Tic Tacs, or be polite and take tiny bites. Guess which option I chose.

Just a few minutes after I had slurped up my soup, the waitress brought the steamed dumplings. They were filled with balls of ground chicken that poked out from the open dumpling exterior. The two dumplings were the perfect size for an appetizer in that they aren’t super huge and won’t fill you up too much before your meal. They had a subtle salty, savory flavor, but nothing too bold.

The Pad Kee Mao with shrimp at Thai Noodles.
The Pad Kee Mao with shrimp at Thai Noodles.

The Pad Kee Mao was a big plate full of vegetables, flat noodles and several plump shrimp. The basil sauce was pretty sneaky because it starts off as sweet, then hits you with some spiciness on the back end of the bite. However, my one-pepper heat level was the right choice for me — just enough spiciness to perk me up, but not enough to prevent me from truly enjoying this delicious meal.

I’ve been happy with my lunches at Thai Noodles, so happy that I’m back here writing a $10 Challenge. It just took a work location change and a tasty plate of noodles to get my groove back.


The Stats
  • L3 Pad Kee Mao with shrimp: $7.95
  • Steamed dumplings: $1.50
  • Total (excluding tax and tip): $9.45

Mission: Accomplished

The $10 Challenge: Manny and Merle

Manny & Merle on Main Street. Say that three times fast.
Manny & Merle on Main Street. Say that three times fast.

I knew it was time to write about Manny & Merle’s when I panicked over what I thought was the restaurant’s closing. Rob and I happened to be downtown on a Monday evening and we decided to stop by this modern honky-tonk on Main Street. Instead of tacos and country music, we were greeted with a locked door. Dark had settled over the long, narrow restaurant. The tall seats I had climbed onto during some good happy hours were flipped upside down on the table. Was my favorite downtown spot was closed? I took to Twitter for answers to ease what I hoped was just an overreaction. Fortunately, the fine folks behind the Manny & Merle Twitter account let me know they’re closed on Sundays and Mondays, so I just needed to chill the eff out (my words, not theirs). But in that moment of panic, I realized that I had grown to love Manny & Merle.

Manny & Merle’s inexpensive, tasty takes on Mexican food and impressive happy hour specials have made this restaurant/bar/music venue a regular part of my downtown life. Add a selection of musical acts and its prime spot down the block from the Yum! Center, and you’ve got yourself a nice spot to put into your going-out rotation.

The Mannyrita. Order it immediately.
The Mannyrita. Order it immediately.

There are two prime times to visit Manny & Merle’s: lunch and happy hour (if only the two overlapped…). From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., you can order a “choose two” lunch combo for just $6.49, a downright steal for a meal at a sit-down, downtown restaurant. The hours between 4 and 7 p.m. are indeed happy — Mannyritas, the restaurant’s crisp take on margaritas, are $3 and glasses of Dos Equis Amber on draft are $2.50.

There are many ways to just spend $10 at Manny & Merle’s, even if you get an adult beverage, too. Here are a few of my favorite options:

Take a midday break with the “Choose Two” lunch of a half chopped salad and green chili pork taco. Order total: $6.49

Manny’s Lunch Special lets you select two of the following menu items for the aforementioned price: a half salad, a single taco, tortilla soup, a half order of nachos, or a sandwich (it’s an extra $2.75 if your combo includes a sandwich). The salad/taco pairing is my favorite. Imagine nachos without all the stuff that’s bad for you. That’s what you get in the chopped salad, a crunchy medley of roasted corn, black beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, chihuahua cheese and tortilla strips on a bed of lettuce. I opt for the cilantro-honey vinaigrette, which adds enough sweetness to make the salad pop. Don’t worry if you’re cilantro-adverse; there’s also a chipotle dressing option. The green chili pork taco is the standout of the Manny & Merle taco selection. Pulled pork is topped with green chili jam for a salty/sweet/tangy combo that makes it hard to order anything else.

The half sizes of the salad and nachos are good for a light lunch, but if you’re looking to have a midday throwdown, add another taco to your order. An additional $3 taco such as the wild mushroom, the chorizo, or carnitas or even a $3.5 option like the pollo rojo or green chili pork will keep you under $10.

Want a drink and a snack before you head to a show at the Yum! Center? Go for a Mannyrita ($3 during happy hour) and an order of queso and pretzels ($6). Order total: $9
Pretzel sticks and queso at Manny & Merle.
Pretzel sticks and queso at Manny & Merle.

Manny & Merle has spoiled me with their three-hour happy hour. There’s no need to rush out of the office for a drink, and you can stay awhile without shelling out a lot of money. As long as your butt is on a wooden bench before 7 p.m., you’re golden.

If you’re a fan of margaritas, Manny & Merle’s version will change your life. Seriously. I haven’t been the same since the first time I sipped that deliciousness that comes in a jar (it’s a honky tonk, remember?). It errs on the sweet side, but it’s not as sugary as some of the pre-made offerings I’ve had at other restaurants. And for the love of Christmas, they’re only $3. Plan accordingly for a designated driver, just in case you get too happy.

I wouldn’t normally go for pretzel sticks at a Mexican-ish restaurants, but Manny & Merle have nailed this appetizer by pairing the deep-fried bread with creamy queso. It’s hard to go wrong with fried carbs and cheese. It’s even better with pretzel sticks that are piping hot with a crisp exterior and soft, fluffy insides.

Dip into the appetizer menu again for an order of traditional guacamole and chips ($4.50) and a brisket taco ($4). Order total: $8.50
When I say "Brisket," you say, "Taco."
When I say “Brisket,” you say, “Taco.”

My only complaint with the guacamole is that it disappears too quickly. It’s hard to share such a tasty dip, so grab an order all to yourself. Don’t worry, we won’t judge. The brisket taco with caramelized onions and peppers, cilantro and queso fresco is tiny, but packs a savory punch that will add a little heft to a light meal like this.

Tired of mixing and matching? Try the El Vez Burger, which comes with tortilla chips. Order total: $8

Once again, it might not feel quit right to order a burger from such a Mexican-influenced menu. But the El Vez burger is a juicy delight on a ciabatta bun. The angus burger is topped with the green chili jam that’s on the so-named pork taco (hey, that’s the secret ingredient to goodness!), roasted garlic aioli and cilantro. It ain’t much in terms of toppings, but there’s a good flavors happening that makes this a surprise treat.

Now it’s time for you guys to swarm Manny & Merle. Just not on a Monday.


Manny & Merle

122 West Main Street, Louisville

For more information, visit Manny & Merle’s website or Twitter feed

The $10 Challenge: Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ

A pulled pork sandwich, coleslaw and french fries from Momma's Mustard, Pickles & BBQ.
A pulled pork sandwich, coleslaw and french fries from Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ.

Now, I have a college degree under my belt and I’m working on one more. I’m smart enough to know that there is indeed rhyme and reason that explains how the folks at Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ get the skin of the restaurant’s wings crisp and flavorful while leaving the chicken meat moist and juicy. There’s probably some science to how long to cook their pork before a set of magical hands pulls the tender meat off the bone and onto a Klosterman bun. But I’ve come to believe in a little bit of magic after several visits to Momma’s. It’s the only way to explain how this restaurant produces consistently fantastic food that charms newcomers, pleases regulars and inspires the staff to deliver warm, down-home service that matches the meals they serve.

Nostalgia inspires everything that comes out of the kitchen at Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ. Owner Chad Cooley and partner/chef Jamie Givan serve Kansas City-style barbecue, an ode to Cooley’s upbringing in Kansas, according to the restaurant’s website. The mustard and pickles portion comes “from Momma’s love” — Cooley’s mother would make batches of mustard and pickles during his childhood and continued to send them in care packages as he moved around the country, the website says. Fortunately for Louisville, Momma’s has two locations (one in Jeffersontown, on in St. Matthews) where we can get our own jars of pickles and mustard, along with a healthy heap of barbecued meat and sides.

Is your heart warm and gooey with the mentions of Momma? Well, the restaurant also donates 2 percent of its sales each month to local non-profit organizations. Talk about a sentimental one-two punch to the gut. I couldn’t help but like these guys without even taking a bite. Now that I’ve tasted the food, I might be in love. 

The Momma’s menu is heavy on the meat, as any self-respecting barbecue joint should be. The choices extend beyond the just the usual pulled pork, brisket and chicken that you might find at similar restaurants. For example, you can choose between pork ribs ($12 for a half rack, $24 for a full rack) and beef ribs ($16 for a half rack, $32 for a full rack), which was enough to impress this barbecue novice (I’ve heard enough grill-side debates to know that beef versus pork ribs is a contentious issue). I’m also a fan of the spicy sausage ($10 for a spicy sausage sandwich with two sides) that’s made in-house and the smoked turkey ($9 for a turkey sandwich with two sides), which would elevate any boring midday sandwich.

The side dishes ($2 for small, $4 for medium, $7 for large) are strong enough to stand up next to the bold flavors of the main dishes. The mac and cheese is one of my favorites (not as good as my mom’s, but that’s a battle no one will win). It’s a creamy bowl of deliciousness that made me understand how some people can eat macaroni and cheese as a main dish. The same seasoning that gives the restaurant’s wings a kick also coat the french fries ($2 for a small order), so the two dishes make a wonderful pair.

And those wings… I need a minute to wax poetic. Now, it feels a little wrong to order chicken wings at a barbecue restaurant, where I feel the need to eat a main dish that has been slathered, slapped and slowly smoked to submission. Slow-cooked barbecue is harder to find than an order of chicken wings, so why go with a dish you can get at any bar? The answer is simple at Momma’s: You can’t get wings like this anywhere in Louisville. First, Momma’s leaves the sauce off the wings, a bold move when it’s so easy to smother chicken pieces in sauce to hide the under-seasoned meat underneath. Instead, the mesquite dry rub of spices that coats the skin is on full, broad display. A waiter once told me that the restaurant uses a combination of quick frying and baking to cook the wings ($1.15 each or 10 for $10). The technique results in wing pieces with crisp skin on the outside and succulent meat on the inside. The menu brags that Momma’s has “THE BEST WINGS EVER!!” and I agree.

Fortunately, Momma’s provides many ways for customers to sample the menu with just $10 in hand. Here are some $10 meals I recommend:

Split an order of 10 wings ($10) and a medium fry ($4) with a friend and get yourself a small side ($2). Order total: $9
An order of 10 wings and a medium fry at Momma's Mustard, Pickles & BBQ.
An order of 10 wings and a medium fry at Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ.

Portion sizes at Momma’s are pretty hefty. Splitting some fries and ordering another side is enough to supplement five wings. Also, we took a waitress’s recommendation to get a side of ranch and add a squirt of the barbecue sauce on the table and made a tasty dip for both the wings and the fries. Big shout-out to her for the tip and the rest of the staff, who are nothing but nice every time I visit Momma’s. Definitely ask them for recommendations on their favorites.

Treat yourself to the slider sampler that comes with one of each of the restaurant’s mini sandwich options: pulled pork, brisket, smoked sausage, chicken and turkey. Order total: $10

Rob and I ordered the sampler on our first visit since we couldn’t decide what to get. There’s no picture because we ate everything so fast. Our bad.

Try three sausage sliders ($2/each) and a medium side of macaroni and cheese ($4). Order total: $10
Three sausage sliders and macaroni and cheese from Momma's Mustard, Pickles & BBQ.
Three sausage sliders and macaroni and cheese from Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ.

The spicy sausage is my favorite of the slider selection. Add a little of Momma’s barbecue sauce and some sweet pickles, and you’ve got yourself a treat.

Opt for a turkey, pulled pork or brisket sandwich that comes with two sides. Order total: $9

Along with the macaroni and cheese and french fries, Momma’s sides include coleslaw, potato salad, mashed potatoes, baked beans, green beans and “cheezy corn.” There are also some other sandwich selection for $10 or less, such as the grilled cheese on which you can add any meat ($10), a sausage sandwich ($10) and the turkey club ($9).

Momma’s Mustard, Pickles and BBQ is a Louisville treat. Try it yourself. I dare you not to believe there’s some magic there.


Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ

Two Louisville locations: 102 Bauer Avenue and 119 S. Hurstbourne Parkway

  • There’s also a Momma’s food truck you can spot around town.

More information: Momma’s website and Facebook page

Cue the confetti, the $10 Challenge returns today

Holy crap, it’s been a long time since I’ve done a $10 Challenge.

It began as procrastination. Then, working on the book kept me from doing much in my free time, let alone write something that wasn’t related to the manuscript. Then, when I finally did have time, I was intimidated to get back into writing the $10 Challenge because I had been gone for so long. My blogging had become sporadic in the back half of 2014, and I was scared that 1) I had lost my $10 Challenge groove, and b) no one would want to hear what I thought about restaurants in the city anymore. A few weeks away from a blog is like an eternity in internet time. How could I make up for lost time?

The answer was pretty easy. I just had to tell myself to shut my yapper and get back to writing. I’m my own worst enemy, and I had almost talked myself out of doing one of my favorite things — writing about cheap, awesome food. There wasn’t a light-bulb moment, or a contagious “new year, new me” mantra that got me excited to get back to Ashlee Eats.  I decided to write a $10 Challenge because why the heck not?

Now, I am going to change things up a little bit:

  • Originally, the $10 Challenge was a weekly feature. That won’t fly in 2015, thanks to a full-time job and a book (*cough cough PLUG cough cough*) that I’m going to promote the heck out of when it publishes this year (specific date TBD). Instead, I’m going to publish a $10 Challenge bi-weekly on Fridays beginning today. That will keep me accountable to you guys and get me writing (and eating) more often. Everyone wins!
  • Instead of focusing on just one dish that is less than $10, I’m going to try to highlight various options you have at a restaurant. Ideally, restaurants will offer customers more than just a couple of $10 options, and I want to find them.
  • As always, I’ll take suggestions on where you want to me to go. Simply Thai has been a crowd favorite that I’ll get to this year. Just leave comments, holler at me on Twitter or post something on my Facebook page.
  • In the spirit of nostalgia, I will revisit some old $10 Challenges to see if the restaurants are still offering bargains.

What are your $10 Challenge suggestions for the new year?

Forget recaps. Here are 10 ways I will rock my foodie life in 2014.

Is 2013 already over? 

There’s so much food I didn’t get to. So many recipes I didn’t try. So many things I didn’t write about.

As this blog post title indicates, I’m not going to spend my time recapping. I like to take the occasion of a New Year to look forward, not back. I like having things to look forward to — new goals, new adventures, new restaurants.

Here’s a collection of some of the things I’d like to accomplish in life and on this blog in 2014. Let’s not call this a list of “resolutions” — I’m allergic to that word because it sets me up for failure by March. How about this handy dandy headline:

10 Ways I Will Rock the Glasses off 2014

1. I will not be such a beast before I’ve had my first cup of coffee. 

English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...
My life blood. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To those mighty giants who can operate without a hot splash of caffeine, I salute you. I have an addiction, and I can be pretty mean if coffee doesn’t hit my lips before 9 a.m.

2. I will finally complete my $10 Challenge on Simply Thai

Short rib nachos.
Short rib nachos at Mussel & Burger Bar. Now if only I can get to Simply Thai…

Remember when I had the reader’s choice Challenge? I sampled one restaurant, Mussel & Burger Bar, that you guys selected. The other, Simply Thai, has been outside my grasp lately, because of a busy schedule and long waits. That ends in 2014, friends. I’m going to make this happen.

3. I will make an edible batch of biscuits. 

One of my unsuccessful batches of biscuits that was transformed into stuffing.
One of my unsuccessful batches of biscuits that was transformed into stuffing.

I consider myself a pretty good cook and a decent baker. I can’t, however, make biscuits if my life depended on it.

4. I will accept the fact that pizza, no matter how many vegetables I pile on top, does not count as a well-rounded meal.

The Chicken Peppadew pizza at Boombozz in Westport Village.
The Chicken Peppadew pizza at Boombozz in Westport Village.

This is going to be a tough one. I will, however, eat pizza at Loui Loui’s Authentic Detroit Style Pizza, Bonnie & Clyde’s Pizza Parlor and Angilo’s Pizza. These places need some more love and attention, and I’m the lady to give it.

5. I will become more efficient at using chopsticks.

I'm this close to eating these with my hands.
I’m this close to eating these with my hands.

Also, I will eat more sushi because IT IS DELICIOUS.

6. I will stop giving my dog, Roscoe, so many table scraps.

He's very food motivated, especially when it comes to Moby Dick.
He’s very food motivated, especially when it comes to Moby Dick.

I know, I know, this is bad news bears, and I don’t recommend it. But if you see these puppy eyes looking up at you, it’s hard to resist sliding Roscoe a bit of pork chop.

7. I will wait to eat long enough to post more pictures on Instagram and Facebook.

Ahh, the wonders of Instagram. Doesn't the app make this corn dog look delicious?
Ahh, the wonders of Instagram. Doesn’t the app make this corn dog look delicious?

This feels counterintuitive. I know that most people make fun of folks like me who take pictures of my meal and plaster them all over social media. But I’m a food blogger, darn it. I gotta show you what I’m eating. I just have to pause long enough to snap a pic. When a full plate is put before me, I lose my mind and dig in.

8. I will take pictures using my good camera, not the crappy one on my phone.

Taquitos and sweet potato fries at Mussel & Burger Bar.
Taquitos and sweet potato fries at Mussel & Burger Bar.

Let this picture speak 1,000 words.

9. I will eat correct portion sizes.

The meatloaf special at The Irish Rover.
The meatloaf special at The Irish Rover.

For example, not eating all of the plate above in one sitting.

10. I will keep my commitment to exploring good, inexpensive food in Louisville.

Cheers to a New Year.
Cheers to a New Year.

Happy New Year, y’all.

The $10 Challenge: Mussel & Burger Bar

 

MusselBurgerentry

 

(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
The Spanish Blue.
The Spanish Blue.

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.

Short rib nachos.
Short rib nachos.

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.

Taquitos and sweet potato fries.
Taquitos and sweet potato fries.

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.

MusselBurgertaquitos2

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

Mission: Accomplished

Help me pick the next $10 Challenge restaurant

Could this Mussel and Burger Bar dish be the next $10 Challenge?
Could this Mussel and Burger Bar dish be the next $10 Challenge?

I’m in a pickle. I don’t know what restaurant to visit for the next $10 Challenge. Granted, this is a wonderful problem to have — there are so many good, interesting and/or new restaurants around Louisville that it’s hard to pick which one to focus on.

So I’ll let you guys make the tough choice for me.

Ashlee Eats readers will pick the next $10 Challenge restaurant. I have some suggestions, and I want you to vote on the one you want to read about. Vote in the poll below through 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16. I’ll tally the votes and post the $10 Challenge about the winning restaurant Monday, Oct. 21.

Here are the contenders for the first crowd-sourced $10 Challenge:

  1. Mussel and Burger Bar: This is one of my favorite newer restaurants in the area, but it is indeed a challenge to only spend 10 bucks for hand-crafted deliciousness on a bun (or in a bowl if you get the mussels).
  2. Proof on Main: I’m not gonna lie — some of the menu descriptions are a little scary (charred octupus?). But this restaurant inside the 21c Museum Hotel has gotten a lot of attention nationwide for its cuisine. Could I find something delicious and inexpensive?
  3. Simply Thai: I love Thai food, but I’ve yet to make it out to this often-recommended eatery in the East End.
  4. KFC Eleven: OK, it’s a “concept” dining experience from a corporate fast-food behemoth, so this pushes the boundaries of keeping the $10 Challenge local. But I’m curious to see fried chicken turned fast casual at Baxter Avenue and Bardstown Road.
  5. Bonnie & Clyde’s Pizza Parlor: I’ve gotta throw in a South-end option. A co-worker was disappointed I hadn’t tried what she called some of the best pizza in town. Should I be the judge of that?

Ready? Let’s do this!

 

The $10 Challenge: Addis Bar and Grill

My favorite meal at Addis Bar and Grill. It tastes better than it looks, I promise.
My favorite meal at Addis Bar and Grill. It tastes better than it looks, I promise.

I’ve embraced the “if not now, when?” motto in 2013. But all this change calls for some things to stay the same. I guess that’s why I refuse to order something new from Addis Bar and Grill.

Maybe the sweet sting of curry I smell when I enter the restaurant puts me into a trance. Maybe the wealth of options makes me panic and I choose something familiar and safe. Or maybe I’ve just found one dish at one restaurant that makes me happy enough to never branch out.

Addis Grill is an Ethiopian and Mediterranean restaurant on Fourth Street about a half a block south of Main Street in downtown Louisville. If provoked, I could probably give exact latitude and longitude coordinates — my day job is within spitting distance to Addis. Yet, it took me more than a year to stop in and try this eatery that is tucked away in the shadows behind concrete pillars. I ignored Addis as I walked several times a week to the more bustling food corridors of downtown Louisville for lunch.

One day, I got sick of the usual line-up of sandwiches, salads, and Mexican-inspired fare that I usually turned for a midday meal. A co-worker recommended Addis, a more international option than my usual standbys that was less than a five-minute walk from the office.

Addis serves up a broad menu that provides the chance to sample basic Mediterranean dishes. Appetizers, such as baba ghannouj ($4.75), creamy hummus ($4.75) and stuffed grape leaves ($4.99), are inexpensive enough to allow the more hesitant diner to try something new without spending too much money. The variety of dishes are wonderful for pleasing a group of hungry colleagues with diverse tastes, such as a selection of kabobs for meat-eaters ($7.95 to $12.95 depending on the meat) or vegetarian dishes such as the mujaddarah ($6.95).

All this sounded fine and dandy until my eyes settled on the Ethiopian Vegetarian, a lunch platter for only $7.95 that includes the following:

  • Misir Wot: Split lentil stew simmered in berbere (Ethiopian pepper)
  • Kik Alicha: Split peas stew in spiced turmeric flavored sauce
  • Misir Alicha: Whole lentil with onion and garlic jalapeno
  • Gomen Wot: Collard green with onion and garlic and spices
  • Atkilt Wot: Cabbage with carrot, onion and garlic in turmeric
  • Fasolia: Fresh string beans with carrots, onion and garlic

 

It was love at first sight. Variety? Check. Lots of vegetables, so it’s probably somewhat healthy? Check. Only $7.95? I couldn’t order fast enough.

The meal lost some of its visual luster when the employees stuffed everything in a Styrofoam container. Don’t be turned off by appearances — looks aren’t everything. Just let the spicy fragrance transport your mind to another world.

A full, un-Instagrammed view of the Ethiopian Vegetarian.
A full, un-Instagrammed view of the Ethiopian Vegetarian.

The Ethiopian Vegetarian is served over injera, a spongy, slightly bitter flatbread. Injera is very porous, so all the flavors from the thick stews on top seep into the bread. Injera is like an edible plate, and who doesn’t like dinnerware they can eat?

Though the stews are rubbing elbows with one another, each has a distinct flavor and texture. My favorite selection is the misir wot, a fragrant, rich lentil stew with a warm, spicy flavor. I also love the firmness of the cabbage, string beans and collard greens, a nice change from the more mushy texture of the lentils and split peas.

I’ve been to Addis three times in the past month. I have only ordered the Ethiopian Vegetarian. I’m sure the rest of the menu is just as delightful, but this spicy selection made a big enough impression that I don’t want to venture out.

Notes on Addis

  • My co-workers love the chicken curry that is served with rice, hummus and pita and only $8.49. One day, I’ll try it.
  • Visit Addis for lunch when the prices are a little cheaper than at dinner, but make sure to arrive before noon or you could face a line.

The Stats

Addis Bar and Grill, 109 S. Fourth Street, Louisville, Ky.

  • Ethiopian Vegetarian: $7.95
  • Total (with tax): $8.43

Mission: Accomplished

The $10 Challenge: Yang Kee Noodle

Malls are a gift and a curse.

The convenience is the most redeeming quality of a typical trip to a Louisville shopping mall. In terms of one-stop shopping, I can’t beat having 50-plus retailers at my disposal when it’s time to find some shorts. Everything else, however, is awful – loud corridors filled with oblivious teenagers, pushy sales associates, and racks and racks and racks of clothes that I really don’t even need. I have a headache just thinking about the sensory overload.

To soothe my sensitive psyche, I’ve made more frequent meal-time visits to Oxmoor Center so I can stop by Yang Kee Noodle, a Louisville-grown pan-Asian restaurant in that mall. Yang Kee Noodle is a rarity – a local dining option in a shopping mall. Its location away from Oxmoor’s main corridor (it’s next to Dick’s Sporting Goods) and fast-casual concept make for a nice oasis when I’ve had enough browsing and buying. Plus, the food is tasty, fresh and affordable, especially important when I’ve treated myself a little too well on a shopping trip.

Yang Kee Noodle offers service that feels classy for the mall atmosphere – and that’s not a bad thing. Servers bring your meal and cutlery right to your table after you order at the counter. And no worries if you’re too tired to throw your trash away – employees clear your table, too. These little things might not seem like a big deal, but it tickled me pink to spend less than $10 and get a sit-down restaurant experience. Other national fast-casual restaurants with similar price points such as Panera and Chipotle don’t even give this type of service.

Yang Kee Noodle dining room.
Yang Kee Noodle dining room.

Yang Kee Noodle delivers a lineup of food that focuses on Asian-American cuisine that’s approachable to a large audience. I’ve seen Yang Kee Noodle’s menu items offered at a number of local Chinese places, such as fried rice ($6.99-$8.49), General Tso’s ($7.99-$8.99) and egg drop soup ($2.79). But this restaurant’s dishes are lighter than the more greasy fare I’ve eaten at other places. The noodles of the chicken lo mein, for example, left me pleasantly full instead of roll-me-out-the-door bloated.

Yang Kee Noodle's chicken lo mein.
Yang Kee Noodle’s chicken lo mein.

The number of options that Yang Kee Noodle offers its diners also sets the restaurant apart from other eateries that serve Asian food. The variety of combo options, stir-fry customizations, and a “pick two” menu provides opportunities to sample from across the menu in just one visit. Customers can upgrade any entrée to one of four combos, such as adding an egg roll and soft drink for an additional $2.59 or a cup of soup and a soft drink for $3.29. For stir-fry dishes (starting at $7.49), patrons choose the meat (or tofu) of their choice, a set of vegetables and sauce such as the Honey Bourbon or Golden Ginger, and rice or noodles. And the “pick two” menu ($7.49 or $8.99 with a drink) lets you chose from six starters and five entrees for one filling meal.

During a recent visit to Oxmoor, I stopped by Yang Kee Noodle for a pick-two lunch of chicken lo mein and potstickers. I also sprung for a soft drink ($8.99 for the meal).

Yang Kee Noodle pick two meal
Yang Kee Noodle pick two meal

Everything is made to order, so I waited about seven minutes or so for my lunch. The food was piping hot when a server brought it to my table beside the window. I started with my four potstickers, slim pockets of chicken and pork served with a Singapore sauce on the side.

Yang Kee Noodle potsticker.
Yang Kee Noodle potsticker.

This was a slightly salty yet light appetizer that provided a nice balance to the relatively sweeter lo mein. Nothing fancy, but nothing terrible, either.

The lo mein was loaded with shreds of carrots and strips of chicken. I could’ve gone for more cabbage, but that’s more of a personal preference. As I mentioned earlier, this noodle dish is much better than its counterparts at fast Chinese food restaurant because of its lighter sauce and fresher taste. A soy sauce coated the noodles well and didn’t leave the dreaded pool of gelatin-like substance at the bottom of the bowl. The flavors are pronounced enough to be interesting but subtle enough for a wide appeal. And those fried wontons on top? Yes, please, more of this.

Yang Kee Noodle chicken lo mein
Yang Kee Noodle chicken lo mein

Like my general relationship with shopping malls, I’m afraid that Yang Kee Noodle’s location in Oxmoor Mall is a gift and a curse. The restaurant provides a healthy, local dining option in a shopping center that just got rid of its food court, but I’d bet money that most people don’t think about going to the mall just for a meal. But Yang Kee Noodle is a hidden gem in the Louisville dining landscape. It’s affordable and it’s good. It’s even worth a trip to the mall.

Notes about Yang Kee Noodle

  • Rob once brought home some Firecracker Chicken and Yin-Yang Hot-Sour soup ($11.28 for the combo) when my head was congested. WHOA. Not only did both these dishes clear the heck out of my nasal passages, but I also sweated during the entire meal. Bonus: there was enough Firecracker Chicken for lunch the next day.
  • There’s a nice outside patio for dining al fresco. Yang Kee Noodle also serves beer. Put two and two together, and you get a nice place to spend a summer Saturday.
  • Decide what you want to order before you hit the cash register. A bit menu board and to-go menus are positioned near the entrance for pre-meal planning.
Yang Kee Noodle menu board
Yang Kee Noodle menu board.

The Stats

Yang Kee Noodle, 7900 Shelbyville Road, Louisville, Ky.

Pick two meal (chicken lo mein and four potstickers): $8.99

Mission: Accomplished

*UPDATE WITH WINNER* The $10 Challenge: The Irish Rover (and an app giveaway)

Congratulations to commenter number four, Jake! Check your email for information about your free download of the Menu and Hours app.

Blogger’s note: Irish Rover is featured in the Menu and Hours app, so Michelle Jones and I would like to give away a copy of the app for free! Just leave a comment on this post by Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. that answers the following question: What is your favorite Irish food?

The fish and chips from The Irish Rover.
The fish and chips from The Irish Rover.

Two things to remember before you visit The Irish Rover:

      1. Ten dollars will take you a long way at this Louisville Original, but $15 goes so much further.
      2. Don’t wear Spanx during your meal.

The Irish Rover delivers food hearty enough to stretch your waistline while your budget remains fairly intact. I say “fairly” because it’s hard not to sample a variety of dishes from a menu bursting with descriptions that make everything sound delicious. And the good (and bad) part about it is that everything lives up to its introductory prose.

The restaurant’s atmosphere is well-worn and humble, thanks in part to its location in a 150-year-old building on Frankfort Avenue. The entrance thrusts patrons directly into the bar area where drinkers mingle with folks just waiting for their table. It got a little cramped during my weeknight visit, but Rob and I were rewarded for our brief wait with a quaint table for two in a dim section of the restaurant. Lots of hardwood? Low lighting? A handsome date? I was a fan.

I quickly snapped out of my romantic lull when the waitress handed me the menu. This is when things got real.

I don’t know much about Irish cooking. But if I use The Irish Rover as my definitive guide, I would say the diet of our friends across the pond is filled with lamb, fish, potatoes and cabbage. In short, stick-to-your-ribs food.

Irish food is more than just Guinness Beef Stew ($6.95), fish and chips (market price) and bangers and mash ($6.95). The Irish Rover takes (what I assume are) traditional Irish ingredients like fish and rabbit and presents it in dishes that make the ingredients more accessible to those not used to this genre of food. For example, the Welsh Rabbit sandwich slides this meat into a grilled cheddar cheese sandwich on sourdough bread (totally mistaken about the Welsh rabbit, y’all) (with Irish chips, $6.95); salmon is presented
in casserole form with potatoes, cream and Swiss and Parmesan cheeses (smoked salmon and potato gratin, $8.95); prawn are paired with cashews in a light salad ($9.95). I wish I could say something more poetic than, “Everything looked good.” But it was true. Everything on the menu did look good, from the appetizers to the desserts.

I wanted a little taste of everything. We started with the Cordon Bleu Fritters ($4.95), little balls of ham, chicken and Swiss cheese batter and deep fried. They were crunchy, gooey and delightful. I followed with a cup of leek and potato soup ($2.95), a rich soup that was a soothing chaser to the sharpness of the fritters.

I was all set to order the lamb-stuffed cabbage ($12.95) until our nice waitress began to list the evening’s specials. I heard the words “meatloaf,” “stuffed with bleu cheese” and “brown gravy” before I blacked out from disbelief that such flavors could exist in one dish. When I came to, I ordered the bleu-cheese stuff meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy ($12.95).

The meatloaf special at The Irish Rover.
The meatloaf special at The Irish Rover.

At this point, my abdomen was screaming at the Spanx that was supposed to hold me into my date-night dress. I couldn’t possibly dive into this plate of deliciousness, could I? Oh, yes, I could.

This was a meal for the record books. A rich brown gravy covered two thick slices of meatloaf and hid the mixture of bleu cheese and mushrooms stuffed in the center. The creamy gravy and moist beef balanced the tanginess of the bleu cheese, a wonderful combination I would have never considered without The Irish Rover.

The mashed potatoes were lumpy and filled with onion and hunks of potatoes that escaped the masher. The mashed potatoes’ thick consistency was perfect for constant dipping in the gravy sliding along the edges of my place.

The steamed vegetables were the Michelle Williams of this Destiny’s Child of a dish — an ingredient that rounds out the trio, but you could honestly do without it. But I dutifully ate my vegetables to help balance all the meat and potatoes I put back in the course of my meal.

By the end of the night, I wasn’t sure what I was more excited to do — eat the slice of meatloaf and hunk of potatoes in my to-go box or change into more bloat-friendly sweatpants. I may have regretted my choice in foundation undergarments that evening, but I was happy I went over my $10 benchmark. I left with a second meal that reheated wonderfully and a taste of Ireland.

The Irish Rover, 2319 Frankfort Ave., Louisville

Cordon Bleu Fritters: $4.95

Leek and Potato Soup: $2.95

Bleu Cheese-Stuffed Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes and Vegetables: $12.95

Total (without tax and tip): $20.85

Mission: Failed