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August 11, 2010

The Taste Bud: Got lunch envy? Try Red’s Comfort Foods

There’s a reason Da Louisville Lip, the spicy polish sausage at Red’s Comfort Foods downtown, has its name.

“He always had a little spice,” Red’s owner, Robert “Butch” Martin, said of the fiery sandwich’s inspiration, Muhammad Ali.

Red’s sits on the corner of Muhammad Ali and Armory, across from the former Louisville Gardens, in what was for years a Fotomat. Martin serves lunch Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., and stays open late on Friday and Saturday to serve the Fourth Street Live crowd. The restaurant has been open a little over a year and has a number of regulars, as well as quite a few followers on Facebook (look ’em up or call 587-7337 for more info).

My buddy Kirk and I checked out Red’s recently and were impressed. The non-descript little hot dog stand has a single order window, a soda machine and a handful of stools around the built-in bar. Having heard the legend, I ordered Da Louisville Lip ($4) and a side of Red’s baked beans, while Kirk went for the BBQ chicken sandwich ($4), with chips and an Ale-8 (you gotta like any place that carries Ale-8).

Da Louisville Lip is quite a treat: It’s a giant polish topped with grilled green peppers and onions, plus yellow mustard and pepper on top, packed into a grilled hoagie bun. One of the preferred condiments at Red’s is the Tabasco-brand smoky chipotle sauce, so I added a few shakes. My, oh my. The beans were even a tad spicy — like much of Red’s food, there were flavors in there I couldn’t quite identify. A good thing, for sure.

Meanwhile, Kirk inhaled his sandwich, which was piled with big, moist chunks of tender, fresh breast chicken smothered in a slightly spicy sauce, and topped with homemade coleslaw. The carrots and red cabbage were crisp and fresh, and Kirk said the slaw provided a nice balance to the tangy BBQ mixture.

As we ate, we discussed our respective selections, and I noted we both had lunch envy. Kirk suggested we return soon and switch, with him getting Da Lip and me getting the BBQ chicken.

“I bet we still wind up with lunch envy,” he said.

There’s a lot on Martin’s “daug”-heavy menu, from Da Louisville Lip to a traditional Chicago Daug, a DaVille Style Daug, Da Colonel Frank Daug, Da Snow Daug and more. All are around $3.

“I want to do a Charlie Strong (daug),” Martin said, “but I haven’t come up with that one yet. Actually, I want his input.” (Hear that, coach?)

Martin’s father and grandmother were both cooks, so Martin has always been a foodie — interestingly, he went vegetarian while attending Flaget High School, which forced him to come up with his own dishes.

“I had to find stuff I liked,” he said. “I later gave it to my kids and they liked it, which told me something.”

He won’t ever go fully vegetarian at Red’s, but he has a veggie burger on the menu and a number of low-fat items. “This is still a meat town,” he said, followed by his genial chuckle.

One of Red’s specialties is fried cheese — yes, a big cylinder of American or pepperjack on a stick, covered in cornbread batter and deep-fried like a corndog. The mustard sauce accompanying it contains, by Martin’s count, 16 ingredients. He also makes his own lemonade, which has quite a few ingredients as well. Both are unique and delicious.

Martin is secretive about his recipes. Asked about the lemonade, he paused and said, “What do you want to know about it?” He then let out his signature laugh and revealed that mint is one of his secrets. “The mint cleanses,” he said.

On a return visit (I got the chicken sandwich, which meant only Kirk had lunch envy), Martin topped me off with a slice of his strawberry/blueberry pie — homemade, of course. I don’t even really like pie, but I couldn’t resist the plump, fresh berries. It would be well worth the $3 a slice, especially if you have a sweet tooth.

I can’t wait to go back and try Da Big Blue Style, which blends Italian sausage with peppers, onions, mustard and blue cheese dressing. Lunch envy, indeed.

Got any favorite cheap eats? Let’s discuss at kgramone@aol.com.