Road trip to Rick’s White Light pays off in good eats

I settled in, craving a po’boy, and asked the gent behind the counter what seemed like a simple question: “This month doesn’t have an ‘R’ in it. How are the oysters?” The raspy-voiced guy in the ball cap shot me a grin. “Are you kidding? You’re thinking about Gulf oysters. These are from Chesapeake Bay, and they’re good all year ’round.”

Well, I know something about oysters, too. I broke in: “Chincoteagues?” He reared back, his trim white beard bristling. “Don’t interrupt me while I’m lecturing you about oysters!” He turned to my wife. “Ma’am, does he talk this much all the time? What do you do when he interrupts you like that?”

Mary grinned. “I let him have it,” she said, laughing. The guy laughed, too. And then I sat quietly while Rick Paul, the eponymous owner and short-order chef at Frankfort’s Rick’s White Light, told us (and the rest of the crowd that packs this tiny place) about as much as we probably needed to know about the crafty bivalve.

That’s standard procedure for the wisecracking Rick, whose quirky style and excellent cooking has turned this little spot at the foot of the old Singing Bridge in downtown Frankfort into a destination serious enough to attract reporters from CNN and Southern Living and, perhaps most notably, Food Network’s Guy Fieri, who did a piece about Rick’s on “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives.”

Rick’s White Light is just about as diminutive a venue as New Albany’s Little Chef, and its white porcelain tile building makes the place look something like an antique White Castle. It is indisputably a diner, complete with an eight-stool counter and three tables. The walls — and even the ceiling — are covered with pictures, slogans and political stickers, and a precipitous set of wooden stairs descend into an antique basement, making a trip to the restroom an adventure.

“Really, it is a dive,” the chef likes to say. “But it’s the finest dive in this country.”

Rick Paul’s cooking, indeed, is nothing like White Castle or, to be frank, like Little Chef. Trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and boasting some serious chef credentials, his bill of fare gives new meaning to the term “diner chow.”

Only breakfast and lunch are served, and the cuisine is a combination of diner food and Cajun, not really cheap — po’boys are $15 — but worth it. All the meat is Kentucky Proud, grass-fed and hormone-free, and all the seafood is from the United States. Rick will happily tell you a lot about Southeast Asian seafood if you ask.

The Breakfast Special, featuring two eggs, potatoes, meat and toast (“with real butter”) is available until 11 a.m. weekdays for a bargain $7; it’s $9 at other times, and you can go up to $14 for a memorable eggs Benedict. Omelets are $10 or $11 for white cheddar, veggie, Cajun-style or “Control Freak: You pick what’s in it,” and come with whole wheat toast, butter and garlic-cheddar grits or grilled garlic potatoes. French toast or “Uncle Rick’s Magic Pancakes,” both with choice of meat or potatoes, are $9.75.

The lunch menu tops out at $16.50 (for a softshell crab sandwich or scallop po’boy) and includes a variety of burgers ($8 to $10.25 depending on size and toppings), various po’boys ($15), a crawfish pie that Guy Fieri made famous ($15), quesadillas ($10 to $15), Italian sausage on French bread ($14), fried Kentucky catfish ($15), and take-out pulled pork, chicken or baby backs, smoked in a well-used black smoker on the premises.

Rick’s has long been popular with locals, who get into the spirit of things and give back to Rick everything he throws at them. It’s just plain fun, and you can’t get close to Frankfort without making an excuse to catch lunch at Rick’s White Light.

On one recent visit, I enjoyed a muffuletta ($15) and got into my first debate with Rick when I asked him how it compares with the canonical muffuletta at New Orleans’ Central Grocery. As it turns out, he makes his in a different way, and asserts that his way is better. Maybe. It’s delicious, for sure, idiosyncratically served warm on Rick’s tasty house-made French bread.

On a return trip, I went for the oyster po’boy ($15) and had no complaints about those Chesapeake Bay oysters, which were bountiful, small and sweet, crisply coated with breading and served dressed on Rick’s bread. Mary was happy with her burger ($8), too, 6 ounces of Kentucky Proud, tender and light, pink at the center, dressed on an eggy bun. Creamy, crisp, thick-sliced slaw and savory grilled garlic potatoes made fine sides.

Let’s give Rick the final word. He would probably take it, anyway:

“We feel our food is beyond decent to the level of excellence,” he writes on the comments page of the diner’s website. “Our side dishes are made here, and we get rave reviews on them. Our prices are determined by wholesale prices and our excellent quality and the fact that we employ wonderful, caring individuals to make the French bread. I do understand that Arby’s has cheap sub sandwiches for those of you that cannot appreciate a four-star restaurant.”

Rick’s White Light Diner
14 Bridge St.
Frankfort, Ky.
(502) 330-4262
Robin Garr’s rating: 90