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September 2, 2008

Voyage of foodie discovery at Worldfest

AND KEVIN GIBSON

Another WorldFest, Louisville’s annual celebration of ethnic diversity, is behind us and as usual, that means I’ve spent another weekend stuffing myself with delicious and exotic food from many nations.

That’s the good news. On the other side of the ledger, it didn’t seem to me that there were quite as many ethnic restaurants represented at WorldFest this year as last. Asiatique was there as usual, holding down the high end of the local-restaurant spectrum with well-prepared goat-cheese crabmeat spring rolls, salmon egg rolls and beef kebabs ($2 each or all three for $5). 

Photo by Robin Garr: The “Food Village” at this year’s WorldFest.
Photo by Robin Garr: The “Food Village” at this year’s WorldFest.

A number of other local ethnic favorites staffed booths offering samples of their fare, including India Palace, Los Aztecas, Mai’s Thai, Queen of Sheba Ethiopian, Safier Mediterranean Deli, Taste of Jamaica Cafe, Thai Taste, Valu Market and Yang Kee Noodle, not to mention sweet treats from Café Glace, Coco’s Bakery, Gelato Gilberto and Kizito Cookies. Even those wary of unfamiliar dishes could easily fill the inner person with such comfort foods as bratwurst, ice cream and funnel cakes.

All these familiar eateries offer decent fare served by friendly people, and I’ve pretty much reviewed them all in recent months. So, for a change of pace, I decided to spend my eating time at WorldFest 2008 seeking out the more unusual and obscure. Ethnic eats, mostly, from families and social groups that turn up as food-service vendors just once a year, often offering goodies we can’t find in Louisville restaurants … just yet.

[img_assist|nid=7679|title=Photo by Robin Garr|desc=Pupusa, prepared by the Lopez family, is a Salvadoran/Guatemalan dish similar to a tostada.|link=|align=left|width=250|height=250]

Take Guatemalan food, for instance. Over on a far corner of the Riverfront Plaza/Belvedere, a friendly family named Lopez was offering a variety of Central American foods that I’ve enjoyed in New York City and South of the Border, but never before in Louisville — a pupusa ($3), for example, a Salvadoran tradition that crosses the border into Guatemala. Think of a thick, gordita-style corn taco laid flat on a plate, then topped with a generous ration of finely shredded, crisp cabbage and a dollop of warm but not fiery orange chile sauce and served with lime wedges. Guatemalans may know how to pick this thing up and eat it out of hand, but I went to work with my fingers and a plastic fork and was glad I did. 

It was too good to stop, so I went back a little later, thought about some elotes or esquites (corn treats similar to those offered at Las Gorditas, featured in the May 28 LEO Weekly), but finally settled on a Guatemalan tamale ($4), which bears only a faint resemblance to the more familiar Mexican version. It’s made from light cornmeal rolled around tender but bony bits of pork neck meat, wrapped in banana leaves, not corn husks, and steamed; topped with more of that orange hot sauce, it made a memorable flavor combo. With glasses of fresh-made tamarind juice and lemonade, it was a welcoming introduction to Guatemalan cuisine.

Please, Lopez family, open a restaurant … soon. 

Other WorldFest treats included sauerkraut balls (three for $1.50) from Louisville’s German-American Club, deep-fried, golden breaded-and-fried sauerkraut and mustard. Another family-run operation, La Nirra Taco, not yet a restaurant, offered a simple selection of outstanding Mexican-style tacos — steak or chorizo — topped with onion and cilantro with lime. 

A final discovery, Vic iVan Café, primarily a catering operation, turns out to have been operating an Ethiopian lunch spot, unfortunately under my radar, for the past 18 months at 120 S. First St., 625-0404. The doro wot (spicy chicken stew) I enjoyed at WorldFest was among the best Ethiopian dishes I’ve ever tasted. I’ll be moseying along to their eatery soon. —Robin Garr

Photo by Robin Garr: A Guatemalan tamale, prepared by the Lopez family, is a lighter version of the Mexican staple.
Photo by Robin Garr: A Guatemalan tamale, prepared by the Lopez family, is a lighter version of the Mexican staple.

We kick back

at Big Al’s Beeritaville

It’s no secret that Louisville has an excellent fine-dining scene, especially for a city its size. Still, sometimes you just want to kick back with a good sandwich and a beer.

Enter Big Al’s Beeritaville in Clifton. With a cozy bar, front patio with tables and an outdoor beer garden complete with a horseshoe pit and cornhole, it’s a fun, laid-back place to spend a Saturday afternoon or a weeknight happy hour. LEO Weekly’s own Bar Belle, Sara Havens, wrote earlier this year that the bar at the newly made-over Mac’s is “like hanging out in a friend’s basement,” which pretty much says it all.

The story behind the name resonates: Big Al’s is owned by Mike and Loraine Sachse. Mike’s brother Al, who was born with Down syndrome and who used to bartend at Rush Inn just down the street, had always wanted to own a bar. When Al died last year at 51, the Sachses decided to buy Mac’s and remodel it in his honor. Thus the name, and thus the fun: A photo of Al, grinning ear to ear, hangs in the bar.

 My friend Julia and I had dinner there recently and weren’t disappointed. It’s an order-at-the-bar scenario, so I grabbed a bucket of Coronas ($11) and asked for an order of hot wings ($6) while she snagged a picnic table in the beer garden. We studied the menu as we sipped our beers, trying to decide among the extra-thick fried bologna sandwich, a bratwurst or a deli sandwich (each just $4). The special of the night was smoked sausage with chips, a bargain at $3.50.

 We were impressed at the more than reasonable prices, but couldn’t help wondering if such a low toll could possibly yield great eats. Then the wings arrived, and I’m here to tell you they were tasty. Ten plump wings greeted us (with sides of ranch and blue cheese, per request), and they challenged our taste buds from the get-go. The sauce was more than just Frank’s and butter — there was a hint of citrus in the mix, and just a touch of sweetness, perhaps a little honey. The spice is latent, but it’s there. They could use a bit more pepper, in my estimation, but they’re unique, and we both gave them the thumbs up.

Photo by Robin Garr: Doro wot is a spicy chicken stew from Vic iVan, a little, undiscovered Ethiopian spot on First near Main Street.
Photo by Robin Garr: Doro wot is a spicy chicken stew from Vic iVan, a little, undiscovered Ethiopian spot on First near Main Street.

 With bolstered confidence in the menu, we ordered. Julia chose a stacked club sandwich ($5) with steak fries, and I went with the Reuben. The food arrived just a few minutes later (the service was spot-on), and we immediately knew we would be taking some home. Julia’s sandwich, although it could’ve used a bit more turkey, was piled high with bacon, ham, turkey and tomato on toasted bread. The fries were plentiful — hot, crisp and spiced with seasoned salt.

 The Reuben was a solid specimen of the traditional German sandwich, with plenty of tender corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. The sandwich came with tasty kettle chips, which were fresh and crisp, and a semi-impressive pickle spear. (Restaurants really should learn to get good pickles; I always give extra points for crisp, tasty pickles.)

 Considering the price — with enough leftovers for lunch the next day — this could go down as one of the better deals in town. There are daily specials and soups of the day (15-bean was featured on the day we visited); whenever I’ve stopped in, it has always been active. Hoist a cold one in honor of Al … and try the wings. —Kevin Gibson 

Big Al’s Beeritaville

1715 Mellwood Ave.

893-4487

Rating: 81 points