Puck chain brings a taste of California downtown

Photo of Wolfgang Puck Express from outside
Photos by Robin Garr.

(Wolfgang Puck Express, Voice-Tribune, Mar. 13, 2008)

Wolfgang Puck, the smiling, round-faced Austrian-turned-Californian with the Schwarzenegger accent, has finally arrived in Louisville.

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Puck’s fast-casual dining chain has arrived: The 80th unit of his Wolfgang Puck Express opened recently in the Kentucky International Convention Center, but you’re no more likely to find Puck building pizzas here than you are to run into Col. Harland Sanders frying chicken at your neighborhood KFC.

Puck cooked for two years at La Tour restaurant in nearby Indianapolis before moving on to Southern California and fame as an early innovator of eclectic, Pacific Rim-influenced “California cuisine,” leading to his eventual status as culinary star of stage, screen and television and CEO of a large and growing group of restaurant chains.

The new Louisville property is inside the convention center, but there’s access from the street on the southwest corner of Third and Liberty.

It’s a sleek, stylish room, with tables packed in tight, with a California high-tech look that combines earth tones, glass and brass. This is fast casual dining, not table service. You come in, bear to the right, go through a line, place your order and pay up front. Take a number, find a table – it can be tough to find space at noon, but the crowds thin fast an hour later – and wait for someone to bring out your food. It doesn’t take long: The name of this place is “Express,” and they mean it.

Although Puck won’t be on the premises, sports fans may recognize a few familiar faces: Louisville’s franchise is operated by Centerplate, the concessionaire at Slugger Field and Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, and I’m almost certain that some of the guys working the hearth oven have done duty on the grill stations at Louisville Bats games.

The menu offers a fair selection of sandwiches, soups, salads, pasta dishes and a selection of “hand-crafted gourmet pizzas,” recognizing Puck’s role as an innovator of the yupped-up California-style pizza at his Los Angeles restaurant Spago.

Photo of diners in Wolfgang Puck Express

You won’t find his iconic original, smoked salmon and caviar, on the Louisville menu, though. The pizzas here (most are $8.95 medium, $19.95 large) tend to be more traditional, from the classic Margherita (cheese, tomato and basil) to pepperoni-and-mushroom and a BBQ chicken pie. Salads and stuffed-pocket sandwiches are $7.95 to $10.96, and a short list of main-dish “classics” run $8.95 (for the Puck Burger on focaccia bread) to $12.95 (for grilled salmon in Puck’s ginger teriyaki sauce).

Tortilla soup ($3.95 for a cup, $5.50 a bowl) was a thick, chunky southwestern-style bowl of chili, topped with crumbled goat cheese, crisp strips of red, white and blue tortilla chips and a sprig of fresh cilantro.

The rotisserie beef and Gorgonzola “pocket” ($7.95) was very large, two pita-type halves stuffed to overflowing with cold roast beef sliced paper-thin, and crisp romaine, red onion and tomato in a tangy Caesar-style sauce with a zippy note of horseradish. The role of the Gorgonzola blue cheese wasn’t immediately apparent.

A small spicy chicken pizza ($8.95), dinner-plate size, was built on a thin, chewy crust with a distinct yeasty flavor. It was artfully topped with colorful rounds of plum tomato and squares of red and yellow bell pepper, chopped leeks and cilantro over creamy mozzarella, dusted with enough red-pepper flakes to give it some sizzle.

Lunch was fast – we were in and out in about a half-hour – but I wouldn’t really call it cheap: A filling lunch for two, with about half of the pizza taken home in a box, came to $25.24 plus tip.

Wolfgang Puck Express
Kentucky International Convention Center
221 S. Fourth St.