- 122 W. Main Street, Louisville, KY, 40202
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Like a brand-new bespoke suit — or a buckaroo hat that’s survived outside for many seasons in all kinds of weather — Tony Palombino’s newest venture, Manny & Merle, is perfectly designed to fulfill its mission. And a big part of that mission is serving folks headed to (or from) the KFC Yum! Center, which is just a few steps away.
Situated in a space familiar to Louisville blues-lovers — since it once housed Zena’s Café — Manny & Merle is a bright rectangle of brick and wood. It houses a good-sized bar and an efficient array of bar-height tables. The idea is to evoke the feel of a Southwestern honky-tonk that dishes up Mexican street food with a Bakersfield soundtrack. The beverage program focuses on bourbon and tequila (though other spirits and a short wine list are available). Live music is often billed, and the recorded music leans heavily on great legends of country music.
Palombino is a masterful restaurateur. His current restaurant roster includes the popular AP Crafters Kitchen & Bar and Boombozz Famous Gourmet Pizza. On the Boombozz website, he summarizes what sounds like an excellent business plan: “Try to be different, but not to an extreme. Try to find a niche. If you can go and find a concept that you think you can do better in an area where that concept does not exist I would say do it.”
And that’s exactly what he’s done with Manny & Merle. It fits into the arena dining scene like a round peg in a round hole. And several weeks after opening, the operation is a model of efficiency; even on a game night, general manager Emily Tolle’s forces have things well in hand, and kitchen manager Oliver de la Garza’s crew wastes no time in sending good-looking plates to the table.
The kitchen’s success stems partly from the sheer simplicity of the menu. It easily fits on a single sheet, making it easy for a diner to comply with Manny & Merle’s admonition to “Stop thinking, Start eating!”
On a recent visit we started with a guacamole trio ($13), a cheery assortment of dips and fresh, crisp chips that would easily appetize a half-dozen diners. The three guacamoles include a traditional guacamole ($4.50, on its own) a creamy dip with a whipped, chunk-free consistency and a mild flavor; and an inventive twist that dolls things up with grilled pineapple ($5.50); and our favorite, a colorful, spicy version that enhances the base with the texture and flavor of roasted corn and poblano peppers ($5). Other starters include chips and salsa ($3.50), chips and queso ($5), black beans ($3.50), and nachos with chicken ($7) or steak ($10).
A couple of generous salads ($8) are on offer, one that’s meat-free (romaine, black beans, avocado, bell peppers, queso fresco, and a cilantro-honey vinaigrette), and another that adorns the romaine with spiced pecans, crumbles of white, flavorful cojita cheese, and other stuff including big chunks of pork belly. Alas, those chunks were a bit too big for comfort — big enough that in my kitchen I might have used them to season a pot of old-fashioned green beans. And though the chunks had a pleasantly smoky aroma, they weren’t crisp (as the menu promised), but were more like soft, fatty, oversized croutons.
That odd flaw aside, the rest of the menu is quite satisfactory. Palombino calls his concept ModMex, and though Mexican street food is the base, this isn’t one of those restaurants where you get, say, a generic taco with lettuce, onions and your choice of fillings. Instead, each of the tortas and tacos is a composed dish with specific ingredients and flavors designed to complement the main ingredient. Four tortas are offered. They’re served on superb rolls, warm, fresh, slightly rounded loaves that offer perfect support for the fillings — which include a chicken cutlet with black beans, chipotle honey slaw, tomatillo salsa, and pickled onions ($8), grilled flank steak with cheese, black beans, guacamole, and chipotle crema ($9), and my favorite: a very spicy combination of house-made chorizo and little rock shrimp with finely shredded cabbage, cilantro, crumbly cheese and a pleasantly spicy sauce ($9).
If I were in charge of the menu, that outstanding chorizo would show up in a bunch of dishes (and in fact you can have it added to your chips and queso for a mere $1 upcharge).
Manny & Merle offers six tacos, each delivering a generous portion of fillings on a single, soft but sturdy flour tortilla. Toppings include braised beef brisket (with caramelized onions and peppers, $4), shredded chicken with a piquant cilantro-citrus crema ($3), beer-battered fish (our portion was a tad overcooked, but the batter was fine, $4), a lovely pile of slow-smoked pork with onions, cilantro and salsa ($3), and a nice vegetarian option, wild mushrooms with corn salsa, crumbly cheese and pickled red onion ($3).
Two desserts are offered: flash-fried sopapillas (a cinnamon sugar dusting, plus honey and a tequila-pineapple sauce ($4), and a bourbon-inflected flan sprinkled with an exuberant pile of crumbled candied pistachio nuts (which a purist might view as an unnecessary adornment, given the flan’s admirably smooth texture, $4).