I ate all the tacos so you don’t have to (unless you’re really into that)

A sampling of tacos from El Taco Luchador on Baxter Avenue.
A sampling of tacos from El Taco Luchador on Baxter Avenue.

It was an assignment not for the weak of stomach: write about the burgeoning Louisville taco scene.

Journalism school taught me that a good reporter must do his or her research, so I embarked on a two-week taco taste test across the city. I documented some lessons learned and some stand-out taquerias in a story I wrote for the WFPL news blog. Here’s an excerpt:

The components of a taco sound simple enough—a tortilla, some meat, a few veggies, a sauce, and a wedge of lime on the side. But the best tacos in the city are thoughtfully crafted by chefs willing to explore flavor combinations that call on tradition yet seem refreshing and new. The tortilla should be soft, warm, made of corn and sturdy. The meat is best when it’s marinated and slow cooked, as evidenced by tender strips that fall apart as you chew your way through. The veggies should be crisp and handled with a light hand to not overwhelm aforementioned tortilla. And the sauce can make or break this little handheld dish—too much, and it’s sloppy and overbearing, too little, and the dish is  dry. And don’t forget to squeeze that lime, for it adds a final citrusy pop to make the tastes come alive.

Read the rest of the article here. Gluttony jokes aside, I had a fun time writing this one. Louisville has turned into a great place for tacos.

Where do you go when you need a taco fix?

Like Lilly’s? You’ll love the Wednesday small plate specials

Chef Kathy Cary of Lilly's (photo courtesy of lillyslapeche.com)
Chef Kathy Cary of Lilly’s (photo courtesy of lillyslapeche.com)

Lilly’s Bistro is a pretty fancy restaurant that provides opportunities to sample the menu without increasing your personal debt ceiling (timely, news-related zinger FTW). There’s the lunch menu, a less expensive alternative to dinner and past $10 Challenge subject. Now, the bistro offers Small Plate Wednesday, a weekly menu that offers a selection of dishes for $10 or less.

Here are some examples from last week’s Small Plate Wednesday:

Pulled lamb shoulder – $8
Poutine – $9
Crispy red snapper – $9

Find the latest small plate menu on Lilly’s Facebook page.

 

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

Event: Motherlodge presents Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant at The Rudyard Kipling, March 29-30

I enjoy my theater with a side of food. A live art exchange will provide that this weekend.

Motherlodge is an organization that creates spaces or “lodges” for artists to present their work and collaborate. Motherlodge has brought the theater group Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant to The Rudyard Kipling for performances of Irina’s Naming Day Party, a rework of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. 

Here’s where things get fun — the show includes dinner and cake.

The first night of the show was Thursday, but there are additional performances at 5:30 p.m. Friday, March 29, and 7 p.m. Saturday, March 30. Tickets are $25 (includes the dinner and cake), and you can buy them here. All shows take place at The Rudyard Kipling, 422 W. Oak Street.

Motherlodge will host a lot of other events around town this weekend, including a Jesus Christ Superstar singalong, NCAA men’s basketball watching parties and an ongoing fundraiser to help pay for medical expenses for The Rudyard Kipling’s “patriarch,” Ken Pyle. For more information, visit Motherlodge’s website.

[$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: Franco’s Restaurant and Catering

A two-piece chicken meal with macaroni and cheese and collard greens.

Folks have a lot of different definitions for what dishes can be correctly labeled as “soul food.”

For some, it’s about the race of the cook (I know plenty of people who think only blacks can cook soul food). For others, it’s the region of the dish’s origin — if it ain’t from the South, it ain’t got no soul.

For me, it’s all about the taste.

You’ll know soul food as soon as it hits your tongue.

Soul food is the taste that makes you exclaim, “Somebody’s put their foot in this!” Soul food the traces of meat fat that flavor every vegetable on your plate. Soul food is the grease on your lips and the smile on your face.

Franco’s Restaurant and Catering indeed fits the bill for genuine soul food. This descendent of the now-closed Jay’s Cafeteria in the West End provides food that comforts and fills empty bellies.

You won’t find Franco’s in one of Louisville’s popular restaurant rows. Instead, you will need to venture to my neck of the woods — “Lively” Shively, specifically, Dixie Highway.

Franco’s is the place you go to if you’re Southern, homesick or just needing food that will stick to your bones without emptying your wallet. The dinner menu reads like a Sunday post-church spread at grandma’s house: chicken and dressing ($7.14), beef shoulder roast with potatoes ($8.24), and meatloaf ($8.24), just to name a few. Then there are the types of dishes that only true Southern-food connoisseurs like my dad can enjoy, such as pig feet ($7.22) and baked ribs and kraut ($8.70).

It’s hard to pick just one main dish and two sides when it’s time to order at Franco’s. All the food, from salisbury steak to macaroni to peach cobbler, is kept in warming dishes cafeteria-style behind a clear partition. About three employees are stationed at the counter to scoop food into to-go boxes or onto plates. When all that goodness is in front of you, it’s hard to narrow things down.

Eventually, I settle on a two-piece fried chicken meal with macaroni and cheese and collard greens as my two sides ($7.14). The meal also came with your choice of a roll or cornbread (I choose a roll).

I took the meal to-go, which was a bit of a shame because the chicken was cold by the time I made it to my mom’s house. I hope it was just the travel time, and not that the meat had been sitting out. But whatever the case, the fried chicken was simple, yet tasty. No frills or fuss. And the skin was audibly crunchy, a great trait in fried chicken.

The sides were fantastic. The mac and cheese had that yellow-orange tint that I’ve seen on many a Sunday at my family’s kitchen table — there’s some cheese product in that dish, and I like it. The macaroni was creamy and cheesy and fantastic. As soon as I took a bite of the greens, I realized I should have bought a side of deviled eggs ($1.39), my favorite accompaniment to this vegetable. A splash of Frank’s Hot Sauce took the greens over the top.

Franco’s is a bright spot in Shively and for the rest of the city, as well. The restaurant is great for the budget and even better for the need for some comforting soul food.

Franco’s Restaurant and Catering

3300 Dixie Highway, Louisville, KY

  • Two-piece chicken dinner with two sides: $7.14
  • Total with tip: $7.57
Mission: Accomplished

Garage Bar opens tonight in NuLu on East Market Street, features pizza, ham bar

The chef behind Proof on Main in the swanky 21c Museum Hotel will debut a new restaurant in NuLu at 5 p.m. today.

Chef Michael Paley has transformed a former auto service garage at 700 East Market Street into Garage Bar, a casual restaurant with a menu featuring artisan pizza, ham, oysters and a variety of Southern food.

Here’s a blurb about the restaurant’s pizza selections:

Pizza is the heart of the menu. Each pie is 100 percent handmade, naturally leavened, and cooked in a wood-fired brick oven that was built in Naples, Italy by Stefano Ferrara. Pizzas are baked quickly at 850 degrees to produce a thin, chewy crust that is lightly blistered and crisp on the outside.

I love pizza, but there is something more intriguing in the restaurant’s repertoire — A HAM BAR.

The rest of the menu is anchored by the ham bar, which serves up local and regional Country Hams served with Toast and Red Eye Aioli alongside an ever-changing selection of freshly shucked oysters. The ham bar seats seven diners and offers full menu service with a view of the open kitchen and pizza oven.

YES, PLEASE.

The $10 Challenge: Bunz Burgerz

A bison burger, fries and a side of Bunz sauce at Bunz Burgerz.

The only thing more aggravating than replacing a perfectly good “s” with a “z” in a restaurant name is waiting for an hour for your food at aforementioned burger restaurant.

Unfortunately, these are the things that I remember the most about my first visit to Bunz Burgerz on Baxter Avenue. My burger, though it was indeed delicious, wasn’t tasty enough make me forget all of the kinks that dampened my inaugural trip to a place voted “Best of Louisville” burger.

Groupon introduced me to Bunz Burgerz with a deal that allowed participants to buy $10 worth of food at the restaurant for just five bucks. I can’t miss a deal like that in my current economic state, so I purchased the Groupon and planned a Saturday lunch trip with two of my friends.

I was prepared to indulge in a good ol’ American burger made of local ingredients. Autumn, one of my dining companions, bought the maximum three Groupons to Bunz Burgerz because she liked it so much. And some online menu studying revealed that this restaurant provided many options to jazz up any hamburger.

Bunz Burgerz offers a list of Gourmet Bunz starting at $4.99. This portion of the menu features the restaurant’s original creations, such as the Blue State Bunz with two patties, blue cheese, pickles and Bunz sauce ($6.79) and the Highland Bunz with a single patty, feta cheese, fried capers, chopped olive blend and mayo.

The control freaks can build their own burgers with a variety of veggies, sauces and cheeses. And Bunz Burgerz tries to please lots of diets with a Portabella Bunz ($4.89), Salmon Bunz ($5.79) or Turkey Bunz ($5.89).

(Side note: My left pinky is about to go numb from reaching down for the “z” button so much.)

I decided what I wanted before I arrived at Bunz Burgerz. A Saturday lunch rush in a tiny eatery is not the ideal time or place for contemplating a menu’s options.

Bunz Burgerz is a four-tables-and-two-counters-sized joint. When I arrived at about 1 p.m., the dining area was filled with a line of people waiting to order, folks chomping away at delicious-looking burgers and onion rings at the few coveted tables, and individuals tucked in tiny places with their arms crossed waiting for their order.

After I ordered a Bison Bunz ($5.99) with pepperjack cheese (49 cents), lettuce and tomato, fries and a drink ($2.89), my two friends and I squeezed to a window-side counter with no chairs to wait for our order. Between teaching one another about our new Android phones, we table stalked, aka stared at patrons eating at other tables grasping for signs that they will leave soon. Eventually, we migrated to a table with only two chairs as the previous eaters were throwing away their trash. Then, after seeing that one member of our trio was left without a seat, a woman who just finished our meal offered us her soon-to-be-empty three-top.

An hour passed, and my friends and I were still burger-less. A trickle of hungry patrons went to the counter to ask about the progress of their order. Bunz Burgerz only had two people working at the restaurant – the cook and the cashier. They were generous with their apologies, but this duo wasn’t enough to effectively serve a busy Saturday lunch crowd in one of the most happening corridors in town.

About 70 minutes into my visit to Bunz Burgerz, bison burger was in hand, then in mouth.

My first eager bite.

The upside to waiting at the restaurant is that each burger is made to order. My bison burger, a leaner take on a traditional beef patty, was piping hot, as were the heap of fries beneath it. My patty was slightly pink in the center, which kept the burger from drying out. The bison appeared to be pre-patted, as opposed to the freshly formed patties of my friends’ beef burgers. But it was still a dang good burger without a lot of bells and whistles. And pepperjack is always a good road to take to Burgertown if the option is available. All this was perched on a soft sesame seed bun that was buttered and toasted.

The Bunz sauce, which I got in a container on the side, really spiced up my burger. It’s a mayo-based condiment with chipotle seasoning, which gave it a pink hue and a spicy kick. It was also good for fry dipping.

My buddies, who ordered the Red State Bunz (two patties, spicy pickles, pepperjack cheese, grilled jalapenos, grilled onions, hot sauce and mayo, $6.69) and a Single Bunz ($3.89), were just as pleased with their meals, if not more. The beef patties were juicy and thick. But waiting an hour for some meat between two pieces of bread is asking a lot from me.

Will I return to Bunz Burgerz? Probably so. My burger was good. My fries were crispy. My dipping sauce was delicious.

A restaurant is allowed to have off days. I believe in such things as an overwhelmed staff and doling out second chances. But I also believe that going to Bunz Burgerz on a weekday is the way to go.

Notes on Bunz Burgerz

  • When you enter the restaurant, a partial menu is located straight ahead on the lower part of the counter. Laminated copies of the full menu are on the counter. If you don’t know what you want, please step to the side or step outside – space is tight.
  • The restaurant offers Bunz of the Day, which can get pretty interesting. The special on my visit was a burger with chili and sour cream, among other toppings.

Bunz Burgerz, 969 1/2 Baxter Ave., Louisville, Ky.

  • Bison Bunz: $5.99
  • Pepperjack cheese: 49 cents
  • Lettuce, tomato, Bunz sauce: Free
  • Combo (addition of fries and a drink): $2.89
  • Total (with tax): $9.33
  • Groupon Total: $5
Mission: Accomplished

The $10 Challenge: Happy Buddha

A “B” letter grade is acceptable in most areas of life – except for restaurant health inspection ratings. In the food arena, many a nose will turn up at the sight of a B in the window.

Here’s what will earn a restaurant a B in Jefferson County, Ky., via the health department’s website:

Restaurant has scored 85-92% on its last inspection or it has scored 93% or above, but with at least one correctible critical violation. Such correctible critical violations might include toxic items not properly labeled or stored or restaurant staff eating or drinking while preparing food.

This grade was plastered on the door of Happy Buddha, a fast-food Chinese restaurant in Shively. Though the follow-up score of 98 percent was circled in red on the same sheet, that omnious B looked me in the eye and dared me to disregard instincts to visit a better-performing restaurant.

But I live in a world of second chances, so I continued inside the restaurant, where I found a clean dining room, friendly staff and really cheap food.

Happy Buddha is close to my childhood home, but I never visited this Chinese food restaurant until recently. I blame the dark exterior and static signage that never appealed to a teenager who wanted something more exciting.

Too bad I wasn’t eating there as a teenager, because I could have saved some major dollars. Only one dish, the seafood delight with shrimp, scallops and lobster ($10.95), is above $8. And the dishes on the high end of Happy Buddha’s scale (hot and spicy orange chicken, $7.65, and the shrimp dishes, $6.75-7.55) include fried rice and hot tea, so you’re getting lots of food for just a few bucks.

The menu doesn’t venture beyond the standard food offerings you would expect from a fast-food Chinese restaurant. Have a taste for fried rice? They have six types ($3.25-6). Lo mein? Lots of it ($6.05-6.95). Egg foo young? You betcha ($4.75-6.50). But it doesn’t get more exotic than that.

I went with the old standby – the broccoli chicken combination with white rice and an egg roll ($4.75).

Broccoli chicken.

My order looked no different than any other broccoli chicken I’ve ever had – a pile of chicken, broccoli florets and carrot slices coated in a brown goo. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, because it’s exactly what I wanted my broccoli chicken to be. And when my order was ready to go in less than 10 minutes, I’m not expecting stellar presentation.

Happy Buddha’s broccoli chicken qualified as a dish that falls under the “You Get What You Pay For” heading. It wasn’t bad – it just wasn’t that good. The carrots tasted no different than the broccoli. The chicken was bland. And the egg roll could have been bought from the frozen food section of your friendly neighborhood grocery store.

That said, I got a lot of food. It was hot. It was quick. And it was less than five bucks.

I’m glad that I didn’t let the health rating scare me away because I wouldn’t have discovered a place to get really cheap food that’s close to my parents’ house. But Happy Buddha isn’t a place that will offer cuisine designed to stimulate the taste buds. It’s a restaurant that will fill your belly on the cheap with something other than a cheeseburger and fries. And that’s fine.

The Stats:

Happy Buddha, 3927 Dixie Highway, Louisville, Ky.

  • Broccoli chicken combination plate with egg roll and white rice: $4.75
  • Total (with tax): $5.04

Mission: Accomplished