Strati Wild Italian unites the Pasta Partners

Me and my friend Beth in 2006. HOLY CRAP, THAT WAS NINE YEARS AGO.
Me and my friend Beth in 2006. HOLY CRAP, THAT WAS NINE YEARS AGO.

When I was a student at Western Kentucky University, my friend Beth and I dubbed ourselves Pasta Partners. The name came from our affinity for the pasta station in the dining hall in Garrett Conference Center. The student newspaper office was located in this building, which meant I spent more time here than any location during my undergraduate education.

The dining room was in the basement of Garrett. The pasta station was located right between the door and the cash register at the end of a half-circle of meal stations. The Pasta Ladies were suited up in stained white chef’s jackets and hats to match. Their demeanor was more lunchroom lady than Top Chef.

The Pasta Ladies had their system down. They squirted oil into a skillet and plopped in a small spoonful of garlic to begin each order. They scooped the meat and veggies we wanted for our pasta from black plastic containers nestled in ice. Penne noodles went in next, followed by a ladle of marinara, alfredo sauce, or a combination of both for the adventurous among us. Once the Ladies tossed everything together over their individual burners, they slid the pasta onto black plastic plates and sprinkled a handful of cheese on top of it all. A hearty helping of carbs got Beth and I through many long afternoons and evenings in the newspaper office.

Several years later, Beth and I have rekindled our partnership at Strati Wild Italian, a fast-casual Italian restaurant at 1702 Bardstown Road (where Sitar Indian Restaurant used to be). The setup calls upon our collegiate carbo-loading days but expands on the little pasta station we loved. The concept is similar – customers at Strati can build their own small or large pasta dish from the viewable selection of pasta shapes (cavatappi FTW), meat, veggies and sauces. Small pans are stacked on a big hot plate near the beginning of the line. The cooking of the pasta and vegetable prep happens in the back kitchen, which leaves a Subway-like assembly line behind a sneeze guard at the front of the house. I didn’t mind waiting a couple of extra minutes for fresh pasta to cook in the back kitchen – it appeared that the selections out front were purposefully small to ensure constant freshness. Employees are friendly and patient when they walk newbies through the pasta-creation process. And if you freeze with so many options before you, there is a selection of  pasta dishes that the restaurant has put together on the menu.

A selection of fresh veggies and at Strati Wild Italian.
A selection of fresh veggies and at Strati Wild Italian.

Strati also has wraps and salads if you’re so inclined. However, it would be a shame to bypass the build-your-own pasta option. I made a creation with a spicy marinara, chicken and plenty of vegetables that was a little bit heavenly, mainly because I got to choose exactly what I wanted. Add a tiny bottle of wine ($3.99), and a small pasta order ($7.29) made for a satisfying weekend dinner.

A small pasta bowl at Strati Wild Italian. And yes, it pairs well with a little bottle of wine.
A small pasta bowl at Strati Wild Italian. And yes, it pairs well with a little bottle of wine.

I was inherently biased to like Strati – the same folks responsible for Wild Eggs opened this restaurant, and I, indeed, love me some Wild Eggs. Fortunately, the company’s commitment to fresh, friendly service has spread to this latest offering, and the restaurant gives Beth and me a reason to get the band back together.


Strati Wild Italian

1702 Bardstown Rd., Louisville

More information: Strati Wild Italian’s Facebook page

Havana Rumba Express livens up Bardstown Road with tapas at low prices

Fancy potatoes from Havana Rumba Express.
Patatas bravas, which I like to call fancy potatoes, from Havana Rumba Express.

I need to allot a portion of my paycheck to the owners of Havana Rumba Restaurant. I visit the restaurant’s Middletown location when I want to enjoy the weather on the lush patio. I go to Mojito Tapas Restaurant, a slightly different concept from the same owners, when I feel a little fancy. And when all else fails, I can count on the original Havana Rumba location in St. Matthews to provide consistently good Cuban food, strong tropical drinks and an atmosphere that will liven up any weekday.

Now, the creators of Havana Rumba have gone and opened another restaurant, or, as I shall call it, the Highlands Depository of Ashlee’s Hard-Earned Money.

Havana Rumba Express and Tapas Bar opened last month at 2210 Bardstown Road, close to Douglass Boulevard. This new branch of the Cuban food family is two restaurants in one — a fast-casual restaurant perfect for meals on the go and a tapas bar for a casual evening out.

A margarita and mojito to get the party going at Havana Rumba Express.
A margarita and mojito to get the party going at Havana Rumba Express.

The restaurant is split into two distinct dining areas to clearly divide the dual concepts. But there isn’t obvious signage to give direction to customers. I didn’t know whether to order at the counter, grab a seat or wait for a hostess.

The area in which you enter is the fast-casual side of the house, where you can order pressed Cuban sandwiches, desserts, or build your own entree (not literally, there’s people behind the sneeze guard that do that for you) by adding sides, meat and salad priced $1 to $5 per item. There’s plenty of seating in that area to enjoy your meal, or you can take your food to go.

I had just recorded a podcast with Melissa and Linda of the Louisville, Not Kentucky podcast, and we decided to keep the fun going by eating in the tapas bar area.

A view of the baron the tapas side of Havana Rumba Express.
A view of the baron the tapas side of Havana Rumba Express.

Tapas is a Spanish style of cuisine that involves small plates and sharing. It was hard to pass along the goodies at Havana Rumba Express. I didn’t want to let go of my patatas bravas (fingerling potatoes topped with truffle aioli, spicy sauce and mahon cheese sauce), and I hesitated to share the surprising deliciousness of the pintxo de morcilla (a black sausage patty and goat cheese topped with a fig sauce over a slice of tumaca bread). However, it’s better to give than receive, and it’s awesome to give AND receive a bite of lobster quesadilla and torta de camaron (a potato cake topped with pickled carrots, guacamole, shrimp and a sweet chili sauce).

Lobster quesadilla at Havana Rumba Express.
Lobster quesadilla at Havana Rumba Express.

Our table of three ordered nine small plates to share, which was enough to make a meal. However, the servers bring only one or two dishes at a time, so it can get kind of awkward eating your friend’s guacamole while you wait on your empanada (sorry, Linda).

Spinach and cheese empanada at Havana Rumba Express.
Spinach and cheese empanada at Havana Rumba Express.

Other than the taste, the price is the best thing about tapas dining at Havana Rumba Express. The small plates are no more than $4 each, and three will leave you pleasantly full. I spent $9 on food, an amount comparable to other fast-casual restaurants but with the added bonus of supporting a local business that consistently produces great cuisine. So great, in fact, that my money will continue flowing Havana Rumba’s way.

Bits and Pieces: KFC Eleven, food truck follow-up and other Louisville food news from the web, 7.27.13

Sanders remains the official face of Kentucky ...
Sanders remains the official face of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and appears on its logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

News

  • KFC gave media folks a sneak peak of the fried chicken chain’s foray into fast-casual dining called KFC Eleven located at the corner of Bardstown Road and Baxter Avenue. From what I can tell from the Eater Louisville slideshow of the restaurant (slated to open to the public in August), the art is funky, the bathrooms are clean and the Colonel is sparse. (Eater Louisville)
  • LEO Weekly took a look at the health inspection scores of Louisville food trucks as a follow-up to the WAVE 3 Troubleshooter story that questioned the safety of these mobile eateries (check out my reaction here). Turns out, food trucks are just as clean and safe as brick-and-mortar restaurants. Food truck friends, go ahead and drop the mic in triumph. (LEO Weekly)
  • Employees at a Creole restaurant called Le Bossier Café at Muhammad Ali Boulevard and 18th Street will be part of a union, a rarity in the restaurant world. (LEO Weekly)

Openings

  • One of the founders of the bar Meat will open an upscale bar called Meta this fall in downtown Louisville. The bar will be located in the former Show-n-Tell Lounge adult nightclub on Chestnut Street between Fourth and Fifth streets. I just hope they keep some of that old signage. (Business First of Louisville)
  • The folks behind the restaurant Rye in NuLu will open a bistro later this year called Atlantic No. 5 at 605 W. Main Street. One of the owners said to expect “sandwiches, salads, rotisserie chicken, smoked fish, pork, lamb, house-made charcuterie and bagels at breakfast.” I could be down for that. (Insider Louisville)
  • Bristol Bar and Grille plans to open a café in the Mellwood Art Center by Sept. 1. (Courier-Journal)

Chipotle Mexican Grill scheduled to open today in downtown Louisville

Chipotle in Chinatown - Washington, DC.
Chipotle in Chinatown – Washington, DC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The time has come, friends. Chipotle Mexican Grill, a fast-casual Mexican restaurant, will open its first Louisville location today, March 13, according to WHAS 11.

Chipotle is located at 315 S. Fourth Street, and it will be open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. The restaurant faces Qdoba Mexican Grill, a similar restaurant concept with its own legion of fans. Bazo’s Fresh Mexican Grill, a local eatery, is right down the street, too, so the battle for Mexican food supremacy could get interesting.

If any of you plan to hit Chipotle for lunch or dinner, let us know what you think in the comments.

Let the Mexican grill showdown begin: Team Chipotle or Team Qdoba?

Chipotle in Chinatown - Washington, DC.
Chipotle in Chinatown – Washington, DC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It could get downright ugly down on Fourth Street.

Chipotle Mexican Grill will officially open its first Louisville location at 315 S. Fourth Street, a space attached to the Hyatt Regency Louisville, Business First of Louisville reported Wednesday.

This puts the fast-casual restaurant across from Qdoba Mexican Grill, a very similar competitor. My office-mates and I have already had heated debates over the merits of each of these Mexican-ish chain restaurants. The fans on both sides are passionate and decisive.

I’m on Team Qdoba. Here’s why:

  • Qdoba is all I know. I’ve only been to a Chipotle once. I’m not opposed to eating there; I’m just rarely in the same city with a Chipotle franchise. I live across the street from a Qdoba. Convenience is important, people.
  • Qdoba has some pretty sweet rewards. With a Qdoba card, you get a free meal with every 10th meal. On Tuesdays, you can get double points for your meal. And if that’s not enough, you get email coupons out the wazoo.
  • Qdoba has wheat tortillas. A small triumph in my battle against white grains.

 

So where do you stand in the Battle of Mexican-ish Fast-Casual?

Smashburger comes to Louisville, will induce food comas across Kentuckiana

(Blogger’s note: The following company provided free food to me and other blogging and media types. If something’s bad, even if it was free, I’m always going to speak up, save for a feeble relative whose only joy in life is cooking food everyone knows is terrible. And if something’s good, I’ll rave about it. Just wanted to give everyone a bit of full disclosure. Now, on to the food.)

The Bluegrass Smashburger.

I just emerged from a two-hour nap that I blame exclusively on the tastiness of a new burger joint in town.

Smashburger, a national chain of hamburger-centric restaurants, will open its first Louisville franchise today at 9409 Shelbyville Road. The powers-that-be opened Smashburger a day early to media people and bloggers like me so we could get a preview of this fast-casual restaurant and tell folks about it.

My guest-for-the-day/hubs-to-be, Rob, and I ate through a great swath of the menu. The employees and even the founder of Smashburger were burger-pushers for the day, slinging sandwiches, fries and shakes to anyone who paused too long between bites. We ate until our waistlines groaned for mercy, took home a couple of doggie bags and slept away the fullness in our stomachs.

Now that my meal is digested and I have some sense about me, I can honestly say that Smashburger will provide Louisville with some good burger eatin’, the kind of eatin’ that drives a reserved eater to gluttony.

In a nutshell, this place is good. Real good. Here’s why:

  • Smashburger is passionate about providing delicious food. “We want to get burgers back in people’s lives,” said Tom Ryan, founder of Smashburger and host of the event. Burgers never left my life, thank goodness, but I like his ambition.
  • The restaurant blends diner-style techniques with bistro tricks to provide a new burger-eating experience. It’s called Smashburger because of the way employees cook each patty. They take a ball of meat, throw it on a griddle, and press it down with what I can only describe as a cast-iron-like smasher for 10 seconds, a technique that helps sear in flavor. They combine practices like this with more upscale methods you don’t usually find at a burger place, such as hand-tossing french fries in a mix of oil, garlic and rosemary.
  • Though Smashburger is a national chain, each franchise makes a small effort to cater to its local audience. The first thing I tried was the Bluegrass Burger, that included Wild Turkey bourbon barbecue sauce, fried banana peppers, bacon and cheddar cheese. And to all you Ale-8 lovers, they serve this drink from Winchester, Ky., and include an Ale-8 float on the dessert menu (Ryan used to live in Lexington and said Ale-8 was a favorite drink of his). Unfortunately, the Ale-8 hadn’t arrived yet, but it’s on Rob’s to-order list for our next visit.
  • The menu has something for just about everybody. Not into burgers? There’s hot dogs. Not into beef? There’s a whole chicken menu. Not a meateater at all? There’s veggie frites, salads and a black bean Smashburger.
  • Coke Zero has a slot on the fountain. I am a recent convert from Diet Coke to Coke Zero, thanks in part to raves from my buddy Michelle at Consuming Louisville and the discovery of Cherry Coke Zero. Smashburger has my new favorite drink on tap, along with regular Coke, Diet Coke and Cherry Coke. For a Coke aficionado, it doesn’t get much better than this.
  • Finally, and most importantly, the food is fantastic. The Bluegrass Burger was like a smoky taste of Kentucky with the rich sauce and melty cheese that dripped with every bite. The patty, which is sprinkled with a blend of spices, was juicy but not greasy. The Avocado Club Smashchicken Sandwich with a crispy fillet was sort of magical. The fresh avocado slices mingled well with the ranch dressing, and the chicken fillet was good enough to eat by itself. Hubs-to-be went for the Sweet Potato Smashfries, whose sweetness he thought complimented the Bluegrass Burger well. I went gaga for the aforementioned rosemary Smashfries, aka what happens to regular french fries when they grow up and find the spice rack. The grilled chicken Baja Cobb salad was more like a sandwich minus the bread. When a salad includes an entire chicken breast, a mix of lettuce, bacon, cheddar, tomatoes, onions, guacamole and jalapenos all tossed in spicy chipotle dressing, it’s hard to convince yourself that it’s healthy. Oh, and we had dessert — a Nutter Butter milkshake made with Haagen-Dazs ice cream. I don’t have to tell you how good that was. Just use your context clues.
Still wondering about Smashburger? Here’s a little bit of food p0rn from yesterday’s event:

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