Recession-busting dining, cheap but fine

Fish tacos at Bazo's
Bazo’s, which recently moved to new quarters off Dupont Circle, serves one of the city’s best fish tacos. Photo by Robin Garr

LEO’s Eats with
(Bazo’s, Caffe Classico, J. Gumbo’s, Stan’s)

OK, everybody listen up. I’ve told you this before, and chances are you’re going to hear it again: There’s a recession on.

Yes, a recession, and a lot of us are hurting. We’re cutting back on luxuries and hoping we won’t have to cut back on necessities.

For those of us who love food and drink and dining out, we’re whipsawed: It’s harder to justify dropping a pile of bucks on a big evening out, so fine dining may be one of the first indulgences to drop off the budget. But this decision puts a hurtin’ on Louisville’s local, independent restaurant community, the Louisville Originals and Keep Louisville Weirds that make our city an exceptional place to dine for its size.

If recession forces the loss of a lot of the indie eateries that give our town much of its personality, it may be years, if ever, before we get things back the way we like them, once things get better.

My plan’s a simple one, and I hope you’ll join me: I’m not going to declare dining out a luxury. It might take a little digging down on those special occasions when I decide to visit a fancier establishment. But I’ll make up for it by keeping my tummy filled and my spirits happy at the city’s many emporia of great cheap eats. And, having dined well, I won’t forget to tip well.

Let’s take a quick look at a couple of affordable favorites that have made some changes recently and that, by casual observation at least, appear to be feeding crowds in spite of the economy.

Bazo’s fish taco still fine

Bazo’s, the city’s original source for San Diego-style fish tacos and still arguably its best, moved a few months ago from Old St. Matthews to spiffier quarters in Dupont Circle.

Bazo’s new digs, a bit larger than the old, are somewhat hidden within the large building that houses the Village 8 theaters and a number of small shops. You can’t really see Bazo’s from outside, but park on either side of the building near the northern end, come in a side door, and you can’t miss it in the middle of the short corridor.

The room is bright and welcoming, its walls painted in food-appropriate colors of red chile, corn tortilla and habañero pepper.

The short menu is priced to serve recessionary times, with a library of burritos, tacos, salads and combos. Prices top out at an easy $6.99 (for a trio of tacos or a burrito combo; tacos run as low as $2.29 for a single loaded with beans).

We almost always indulge in the original fish taco (as noted, $6.99 for three). At the new location, they’re just as good as ever and maybe a little bit bigger. Each taco consists of a two-stack of light, tender corn tortillas made on the premises. They’re topped open-face with a good portion of crisply fried, breaded white fish garnished with mild pico de gallo and finely shredded raw cabbage. Add your choice of salsas, peppers and lime juice from the salsa bar, and you’re good to go.

Combos come with black beans (or pintos, if you prefer) and mild Mexican rice on the side. Three tacos make a pretty filling lunch, but we added cups of chicken tortilla soup ($2.59), a warming potion on a chilly day. A thick, red soup was loaded with corn niblets and topped with a good ration of crisp-fried tortilla strips.

Chile lime chips are fresh, crunchy and addictive; dip them in your choice of tasty homemade salsas from the condiment bar: salsa roja, orange and hot; salsa picante, stashed in a squeeze jar and very hot; medium salsa verde; and reddish, mild salsa morena, which achieves Zen-like balance for me.

With soup and lots of tacos and sides, a hearty lunch for two came to just $20.83. I poked $4 in the tip jar for competent and smiling service.

Bazo’s Fresh Mexican Grill
4014 Dutchmans Lane

Caffe Classico expands menu

Huevos fritos al caballo
Huevos fritos al caballo at Caffe Classico: crisp, sizzling Belgian frites tossed with tiny tomato dice in a tart vinaigrette, topped with a pair of perfect sunny-side-up henfruit.

Speaking of “challenging” dishes, as Stephen Dennison and I did in our duet on Chinese chicken feet last week, some people – somewhat to my bewilderment – consider eggs with runny yolks well beyond the culinary pale.

Frankly, you can make mine sunny-side up and I’ll be happy. But even over easy will get the job done. I can’t think of any dish in Louisville that makes more delicious use of the egg fried “up” than the new huevos fritos al caballo at Caffe Classico, one of my favorite local destinations.

If you still think of Caffe Classico as just a coffee shop – even as the city’s most international coffee shop, with a whiff of Madrid and a breath of Buenos Aires in its comfortable vibe – you really need to go back and check it out.

Over the years, this lovable eatery’s kitchen operation has gradually evolved from pastries to panini to pizzas to a full-service bistro menu (as reviewed in the Aug. 22, 2007, LEO Weekly). Recently they’ve expanded the menu with the addition of quite a few goodies for lunch and dinner.

Pizzas ($10-$11) are now available at lunch as well as dinner; ditto the addictive Belgian-style pommes frites ($6). The dinner menu grows significantly, featuring appetizers, salads, a trio of thin-crust pizzas and nine fine entrees with European accents, all in the range from $13-$15, which is attractive when you’re counting shekels.

That huevos fritos al caballo ($7.50 for lunch or dinner) knocked the socks right off my feet: Visualize an oversized pile of crisp, sizzling Belgian frites on an oval plate, tossed with tiny tomato dice in a tart vinaigrette, then topped with a pair of perfect sunny-side-up henfruit. I briefly considered lifting the eggs to one side and eating them first, but nah. Cutting right through the eggs and vinaigrette-laced frites offers a flavor and texture combination that will make you want to come back for more.

Caffe Classico
2144 Frankfort Ave.

Crawfish etouffée
J. Gumbo’s jambalaya.

Gearing up for Mardi Gras

If you think it’s too early to talk about Mardi Gras, take another look at the calendar: Carnival, the joyous festival in New Orleans (and many other Latin places), runs from Epiphany, Jan. 6, through Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, which is Feb. 24 this year. Celebrate, eat and drink like your life depended on it; then drop gently into the penitential season.

From now until Mardi Gras, J. Gumbo’s outlets on Frankfort Avenue, Lyndon Lane and Baxter Avenue will celebrate Carnival with $5 big bowls weekdays after 5 p.m., and all you can eat for $10 on Saturdays and Sundays. More special offers will knock a few more bucks off the tab at this already affordable eatery.

We stopped in to check it out before the specials, filled up on jambalaya and crawfish etouffée and garlic toast with giant glasses of iced tea and cola, and the whole works came to just $16, plus $4 for the tip jar.

J. Gumbo’s
2109 Frankfort Ave.

Finally, although it’s not identifiably Cajun or Creole, Stan’s Fish Sandwich gets into the Carnival spirit with DreamCatcher Farm breakfasts Saturdays through Feb. 21.

DreamCatcher, restaurant owner Stan and Lelia Gentle’s farm in Spencer County, Ky., produces natural, grass-fed beef, pork and lamb. Stan’s breakfast menu features sausage and biscuits, biscuits and gravy, fresh eggs, cheese omelets, French toast, cinnamon rolls and more.

Stay tuned! We’ll report on more local Carnival and Mardi Gras activities in coming weeks.

Stan’s Fish Sandwich
3723 Lexington Road