Photo by Ron Jasin

May 4, 2011

Burger or bánh mì? New cheap eats abound

Bluegrass Burgers & NamNam Cafe

I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. Actually, not to be wimpy about it, I would gladly pay daily for a gourmet-style hamburger at Bluegrass Burgers. And when finished, I wouldn’t at all mind running a few blocks down the street for a daily Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich at NamNam Café.

Both these recent arrivals are worthy, offering good fare at modest prices with admirable service. And if novelty — not to mention plenty of buzz on the LouisvilleHotBytes forum — has them running busy these days, chances are they won’t be any more crowded than anyone else during the festive fun of Oaks and Derby this week.

Both have dropped stylishly into smallish, recycled quarters: Bluegrass Burger has painted over the trattoria look BoomBozz left behind when it moved across Cannons Lane. NamNam’s Southeast Asian sensibility fits well with the tiny space that Simply Thai left when it shifted down the block.

Both earn my recommendation. Let’s take a quick look.

The burgers (and other things) are fine at Bluegrass Burgers, but I’m even more smitten by its locavore philosophy. If you join me in the category of carnivores who aren’t ready to give up meat but are more than ready to support local farmers who produce natural, hormone-free and humanely raised meat, you’ll admire Bluegrass’ commitment to using all grass-fed Kentucky beef and produce. (The ground ahi tuna-steak burger isn’t all that local, but hey, it’s sustainable.)

Bluegrass operates under the guiding hand of Christopher Seckman of North End Café, and it shows the benefits of experience. The smooth, friendly operation keeps things simple — place your order at the counter and wait for your name to be called — but backs it up with quick and competent table service, assuming you choose to dine in one of the small, attractive dining rooms.

The bill of fare features a half-dozen choices, ranging in price from $5.99 (for an all-beef frank) to $8.99 (for the Kentucky grass-fed bison burger). The regular burger is $6.99, as are the options of vegetarian garden burger, all-natural grilled chicken or marinated portobello. A Kentucky grass-fed beef cheesesteak is $7.99. Add a half-buck to garnish your burger with cheddar, swiss or jack cheese, chili, sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, grilled peppers, avocado or applewood-smoked bacon. Load up on goodies from the toppings bar, or go healthy with a spinach salad ($6.99).

We’ve been in a couple of times and left happy. J. Wellington Wimpy himself would have found nothing to displease him in the burgers, which are made to order while you watch. The beef burger ($6.99) and bison burger ($7.99) were both thick, dense and intensely beefy, cooked pretty much as ordered to a slightly pink medium rare.

Burgers are built on a decent white bun with substance, no mere squishy grocery bun, and come au naturel, subject to your choice of toppings. I kept my beef burger simple with melted cheddar (50 cents) and wasabi mayo plus a ration of crispy banana peppers. Mary dressed her bison burger with lettuce and tomato.

On another visit, a cheesesteak was right up there with Philly’s best: Thin-sliced, beefy locavore meat was topped with crisp, sizzling chunks of green pepper and onion from the grill and dressed with molten white cheese. I couldn’t resist kicking it up with banana peppers and jalapeño cream. Dishes come with fries or slaw. The fries were hand-cut, almost shoestring-thin, fried crisp and grease-free. The ginger-soy slaw option (the other choice is “traditional”) added an appetizing Asian touch to crisp, shredded cabbage, with lemony fresh ginger and a touch of mellow sesame oil. Onion rings ($3.29) were thick-cut, sweet and beautifully fried in a crisp, textured breading that might have been made with panko.

With diet cola and iced tea, lunch for two came to $18.65 and a $3.35 tip. A solo burger and iced tea another day was $11.21 plus $3.

Bluegrass Burgers
3334 Frankfort Ave.
614-6567
www.bluegrass-burgers.com
Rating: 90

 

I’ll get back to NamNam for a more complete review and rating once it’s had a little time, but a takeout sample and a drop-in visit last week, during its first full week of operation, boded well for it to become a favorite.

NamNam enjoys the guiding hand of owner David Truong, who’s worked for years in a variety of posts at August Moon. The short but authentic menu features some two-dozen items, all under $10. Everything we’ve tried has been delicious and subtle, showing the aromatic elegance and elusive flavors of quality southeast Asian cuisine.

The bánh mì ($6 for the pork option) was the traditional zesty mix of chopped pork, a schmear of pork paté, crispy pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber and a slice of fresh jalapeño on a genuine white Vietnamese-style baguette — much like a real po’ boy roll — with shattering crust and feather-light white interior. (The whole-wheat option, a grocery-style roll, was less exciting.)

Tofu and eggplant in clay pot ($8) was outstanding. A hearty, earthy dish, it was a sizzling stir-fry of chunks of baby eggplant cooked until creamy, mixed with delicate oblongs of sautéed tofu and crisp-tender sweet onion slices, cloaked in a piquant sweet-hot sauce and served with perfect white rice.

We’ve been happy, too, with rice-paper-wrapped Buddha rolls ($4.50), an eggy, rich bánh xèo Vietnamese crepe filled with bean sprouts and shrimp ($8) and the fusion of their “Vietnamese tacos” ($6 for a pair).

A filling lunch for two, with an aromatic iced citron green tea, was $27.56 plus a $6 tip.

NamNam Café
318 Wallace Ave.
891-8859
www.namnamcafe.com 

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