Cheap Eats Along Limestone in Lexington, KY
Now, I admit, north Lexington isn't what anybody would call a posh section of town. You'll find small grocery stores more interested in selling lottery tickets and Doritos than fresh vegetables. In fact, for his rural sociology class at University of Kentucky, Will and some classmates conducted a food access study of the area. Not one fresh vegetable could be found in these stores. Not a single apple. Not an orange. The closest you could get was a bag of potatoes. And those were rare. You can get checks cashed as well.
Al's Bar and Grlll sits at the corner of Fifth and Limestone amid forlorn surroundings: a pool hall, a hot wings joint and a barber shop so old and decrepit it's a wonder anybody risks life and limb for a haircut. Al's is pretty forlorn itself, to be honest. The first time I entered Al's I did so because I heard it was for sale. Immediately, I began to dream. Homemade soups each day, my friend Claudia and I talking with the neighbors as we served up steaming cups of coffee and homemade food. The price was right at $199,000.00 certainly, but my life was already filled.
But somebody bought Al's. A surprise to us all because it sat with that For Sale sign on it for close to a year. The owners of Stella's Deli, another downtown establishment, but down near Second Street, and that makes all the difference in the world if you know Lexington, bought Al's and not long after a sign hung across the brick facade.
Lunch Special: Burger, Fries and a Draft Beer, $5.00.
Well, well! The owners are people committed to using as much local foods as possible, especially grass fed, organic beef.
Recently, I went with two friends to sample the special. The waiter, who I suspect is one of the owners, came and took our order. Lea ordered a Diet Coke, Amy a water, and yes, I got the beer. Budweiser on tap. Oh well, it was almost a hundred degrees that day, and they served it in a mug frosted a quarter inch thick. Baby, it was the best Bud I'd ever had!
Our burger came with a choice of fries or sweet potato fries. We all ordered the sweet potato fries. Having chatted for less than ten minutes, we soon lifted those organic burgers to our mouths. They weren't huge affairs, just quarter pound, hand formed patties. But the meat was moist and tasty and still piping hot. The grilled buns added a pleasant, crispy texture along with lettuce and a slice of ripe tomato. It was nothing less than what I expected from the owners of Stella's.
But the most pleasant of surprises came with the sweet potato fries. Skins still clinging to the perfectly fried, bright orange meat, seasoned with a blend I didn't recognize from the grocery store, I bit into a little bit of heaven. All three of us agreed, these were the best sweet potato fries we'd ever eaten. If you'd like to order them a la carte, the price is right as well at $1.50 a serving. I swear I'm going to go back, get a double order and call it a meal.
As an author, I know you can't tell a book by its cover. As someone who loves local dives, I know you can't always tell what kind of food you're going to get in a restaurant that may not look so tony on the outside. Or the inside for that matter.
If you have trouble looking beyond atmosphere, Al's may not be the place for you. A set of green naughahyde booths line the left side of the joint, just across from the bar where colorful, city locals gather. A pool table haunts one of the back rooms, the bulk of the establishment rarely used during the daylight hours. On the way out, we had a lovely conversation with the woman who works in the lunchroom at the local elementary school. She said, "Have a good day, baby," to me on the way out.
That was even nicer than those fries!
Down Fifth you'll find Stella Mae's SRO, quite possibly the smallest sit-down restaurant you'll ever go to. Wait until you hear about Stella Mae's apple cobbler. But that's for another day.