Keeping things balanced on Bardstown

Ballyhoo's Baja Grill
A fish taco (top) and a shrimp taco (with optional jalapeños) at Ballyhoo’s Baja Grill. Photo by Robin Garr.

LEO’s Eat ‘n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes
(Ballyhoo’s Baja Grill, Just Fresh)

Bardstown Road has been established as Louisville’s primary “restaurant row” for so long now that things seem to have achieved a sort of natural balance: If one eatery closes, chances are something similar will be along soon to fill its niche.

So, when the short-lived Baja Fresh closed after only a few months of vending fast-food-style fresh burritos out of a shiny new glass building, and a similarly ephemeral branch of Bazo’s came and went from the old building that once housed Jupiter Café and is now home to Nio’s, no one really expected that Bardstown would be long bereft of fish tacos. Or, for that matter, that Qdoba and La Bamba would dominate the boulevard’s burrito market without challenge.

Sure enough, now comes Ballyhoo’s Baja Grill, a new spot that looks a lot like a franchised chain operation but that’s actually only the smallest of chains, being the third property of a Nashville-based outfit whose eateries at the other end of the old L&N line bear the trademark name “Chile Burrito Co.”

Ballyhoo’s brings back the fish taco with a bang, producing a model that’s as good as I ever ate, and much more that’s good, too.

Ballyhoo’s shares storefront space with Sapporo and a Penn Station sandwich shop, an excess of options that could leave hungry diners standing out front, turning left to right in indecision. But when you’ve got a craving for a fish taco, nothing else will do. The new space is colorful, with a beachfront vibe that seems one part Acapulco, two parts Key West. Smiling grill cooks fashion your taco or burrito to order, using your choice of flour or corn tortilla and a cafeteria choice of toppings; you can dose your lunch still further with any of five mild-to-fiery options from the salsa bar.

In addition to tacos and burritos, the menu offers “Baja bowls” (burrito fillings without the wrap), salads, quesadillas, nachos and a chicken enchilada soup. In addition to fountain soft drinks, you can choose fresh horchata or Baja fruit tea, assorted bottle beers and Mexican Jarritos brand soft drinks. Nothing on the menu exceeds $7 except the “school of fish tacos,” a full dozen of the tasty little critters for $24.99.

A fried-shrimp taco ($2.79) was pretty darn good, crunchy-fried shrimp with shredded cabbage, cilantro, pico de gallo and chipotle crema, plus a few jalapeños a la carte. A steak taco ($1.99) was slightly less appealing, with thin-sliced, long-cooked beef that tasted like it had been in the fridge for a while. The “Baja-style” fish taco ($2.29), however, was excellent, a sizable boneless finger of white fish cloaked in crisp-tender beer batter fried golden brown, with the standard toppings and a creamy white “salsa blanco.”

Early visits signal a real commitment to food quality and service here, and the Bardstown Road denizens seem to agree, packing in to Ballyhoo’s for lunch and dinner.

Ballyhoo’s Baja Grill
1702 Bardstown Road
Rating: 86 points

Meanwhile, after standing vacant for about a year, the Baja Fresh building is active again, now housing Just Fresh, a chain concept that’s exceptionally fine despite its corporate status.

With its new Louisville entry, this South Carolina-based outfit is growing quickly; the chain has expanded through much of the Southeast and now includes some 75 properties. Its focus is on light, healthy fare that “never sees a fryer,” a concept that seems a good fit with the crunchy-granola Highlands.

Eat ‘N’ Blog correspondent SUZI BERNERT has dined there several times, alone and with family, and has become a fan. Here’s her report:

The inside has been completely renovated with a combination of tables and booths and a small lounge area with overstuffed chairs and free WiFi.

Our first trip was for breakfast, on a Sunday shortly after they opened for business. The breakfast menu consists of bagels, pastries, breakfast wraps, oatmeal and grits, plus coffees, mochas, lattes, teas and smoothies. The wraps and scramblers can be ordered as a combo with fresh fruit and coffee or tea for $4.99. I tried the huevos wrap ($3.29), with scrambled eggs, pepper jack cheese, black beans, salsa and onions.

Richard had the Scrambler ($3.49), scrambled eggs, choice of bread, cheese and bacon or ham. Son Edward decided he wanted a pizza and ordered Basilito ($6.29 for an 8-inch pie, $13.59 for 16-inch) – roasted chicken breast, mozzarella and basil pesto.

We had barely picked out a table when our “pager” went off. The food came on real plates, with metal silverware. The wrap was cut in half with a generous portion of cut-up cantaloupe, honeydew and red grapes on the plate. The Scrambler was a sandwich of scrambled eggs, cheese, crisp bacon and white toast. Edward’s pizza arrived two minutes later, smelling wonderful. The eggs were fluffy, not dry, and tasted good. The fillings in the wrap did not overwhelm the eggs but added a Southwest flavor. Edward’s pizza was nicely topped, and he said it tasted great but would not share a bite.

In our next foray to Just Fresh, Richard, Edward, his friend Tim and I arrived for dinner and found the combined lunch and dinner menu has wraps, salads (including a create-your-own option), sandwiches, quesadillas and pizzas (also with a build-your-own choice). Sandwiches and wraps include a choice of side, which may be fresh fruit, slaw, green pea salad, cucumber dill pasta salad or kettle chips. Tim had the oven-roasted turkey sandwich ($5.79) with chips. It came on honey wheat bread with dill spread and tomatoes (Tim left off the cucumbers normally on it). Eddy had the fajita quesadilla ($6.79) with chicken (there is also a beef option), peppers, onions, mushrooms and cheese. It arrived hot with crisp edges and included salsa and sour cream. Richard had a soup-and-half-sandwich combo ($6.49), with chili and half of a “Grown Up Grilled Cheese.” It came with a substantial bowl of chili, a corn muffin and pimento cheese spread in a grain roll. I ordered the California Dreamer wrap ($6.29), roast beef on a spinach tortilla, with artichoke parmesan spread, lettuce and tomatoes with a side of cucumber dill pasta.

The food came promptly, again on real plates with silverware. The boys inhaled their food and declared it very good. Richard’s pimento cheese spread had a tempting touch of chili spice and came on a hot toasted roll. The chili was a turkey, vegetable and tomato blend that my beef-loving hubby applauded. My wrap was very good, too, medium-rare warm roast beef with crisp lettuce and thinly sliced tomato. The artichoke parmesan spread was wonderful, a signature blend that is available on sandwiches, pizzas and quesadillas. The manager told me they’ll sell containers of it on request. My side order of pasta salad had al dente penne pasta with crisp cucumber pieces and grape tomatoes and a nice mayo-dill sauce.

On another visit I tried the artichoke parmesan pizza ($6.29), an 8-inch pizza on a medium-thick crust topped with the artichoke parmesan spread, chopped tomatoes, bacon, red onions and broccoli. It was a fine, fresh and non-traditional alternative to most white pizzas.

The menu at Just Fresh has several non-meat options, a kids’ menu and baked goods. Now that the weather is warmer, they have opened a small patio out front. It offers an appealing change from fast food and offers enough variety to fit almost everyone’s taste.

Just Fresh Bakery and Cafe
1255 Bardstown Road

Full reports in LEO and on LouisvilleHotBytes.