Lexington cult restaurants Loudon Square Buffet, Taco Tico see loyal customers

Sometimes you just have a taste for one of Lexington’s “cult” restaurants, those places that aren’t posh and may be somewhat off the beaten track but have rabid followings.

They are not farm-to-table or artisan. They don’t have repurposed wood and the ever-present Edison lights of brewpubs everywhere. The menus lack truffle aioli, latte and crème brûlée.

What they have is a customer base that often has eaten there for years or even decades, cheap eats and some distinctive tastes that you just can’t get elsewhere.

Take Max’s Loudon Square Buffet and Taco Tico in north Lexington. The restaurants are about a mile apart and have thrived for more than 40 years. Taco Tico is part of a small Kansas chain.

The Loudon Square Buffet doesn’t look like much from the outside. It doesn’t look like much from the inside, either.

It’s safe to say that owner Max Flannery, who has run the buffet for 42 years, doesn’t care much about décor. And his customers don’t seem to either, because look at that buffet table.

Shortly after 10 a.m., huge bowls of salads, from potato to three-bean to macaroni to coleslaw to “green stuff” — that wondrous concoction of lime gelatin, cottage cheese and pineapple — gleam in the huge ice bins.

Nearby is fried chicken, fried Alaskan pollock, ham, meatballs, cornbread both baked and fried, pinto beans, mustard greens, macaroni and cheese, wieners and sauerkraut, and a daily special. On a recent day it was spaghetti just like Mom used to make when Mom was feeling ambitious enough to break out the big skillet.

Flannery, 78, works 85 hours a week, often starting at 6:30 a.m. and working through the dinner shift, then returning to close up later in the evening. Loudon Square is open 365 days a year. It was closed on Christmas the first year, but Flannery’s family struggled to find a place to eat on the way to visit relatives in Hazard. The next Christmas, and every Christmas since, Loudon Square has been open.

Sometimes specials will include liver and onions, which Flannery said deeply divides his customers into those who love it with a passion and those who don’t, but can content themselves with Flannery’s homemade banana pudding, his vats of fruit cobbler, soft-serve ice cream and cake.

The banana pudding has a following. “Making it scratch-made is the secret,” Flannery said.

For $8 per adult, you can eat enough at Loudon Square to lay you right out. And the booths aren’t modern, but they are roomy. The restaurant seats 85.

The salads are freshly made by Max, as is the food. He has worked in Lexington restaurants most of his life, including the old Clay Wallace restaurant downtown at Main and Walnut (which is now Martin Luther King Boulevard).

“It’s an experience to eat my food,” Flannery said. “People rave about it.”

At 10:20 a.m., the first customer of the day arrives and starts off with a plate of pintos and mashed potatoes.

“I like it when Max makes a casserole or something special,” said Mark Pflueger, who has eaten at the restaurant several times a week for 26 years.

A few blocks away, on the street called Boardwalk that is not made of boards or a pedestrian thoroughfare, sits Taco Tico.

Taco Tico, a chain based in Wichita, is the place that gave Lexington its first taste of Tex-Mex in the 1970s. At one time it had stores on New Circle Road, in Palomar (which during the 1990s served alcohol), on Village Drive and on Nicholasville Road. Taco Tico also had a Taco Tico Express in Lexington’s Festival Market, which was open in the 1990s.

Taco Bell, the giant of the fast taco/burrito market, didn’t open a Lexington store until 1986.

Now, the Boardwalk restaurant is all that’s left of the Taco Tico presence in Lexington, where a top-of-the-line combo meal with a drink will set you back less than $10.

Leigh Putnam and her husband, Joe, bought the restaurant 2  1/2 years ago.

“We both ate it when were kids in the ’80s,” Putnam said. “I always got the sancho and enchiladas, and he grew up eating the tacos and taco burgers. We loved the food, just like everybody else, and my husband is an entrepreneur at heart, so this is what I spend my time doing.”

Taco Tico gets four out of five stars on both Google+ — where a man writes that he would drive 100 miles for his Taco Tico fix — and on Yelp.

What sets it apart?

Many of the reviewers note that Taco Tico is the Tex-Mex of their childhood, so perhaps it’s true that you never forget your first burrito. But Taco Tico is a few blocks from a Taco Bell, had a now-closed Mexican restaurant next door and is close to a handful of authentic Mexican restaurants. None of this appears to matter to Taco Tico customers, as the lot still fills up and the drive-through is still a wait (a customer-courteous wait, but a wait nonetheless).

Taco Tico’s food is better than its fast-food competition because “we do buy our produce fresh every day. Our cheese is not bagged cheese, it’s freshly grated cheese,” Putnam said.

The seasoned beef “is what makes Taco Tico,” she said. The seasoning is made in Kansas, where Taco Tico is headquartered. The company has about 40 restaurants left in the United States.

The most popular items are the sancho, a soft-shell item with meat, cheese, tomato and lettuce, and the taco burger, which is taco filling on a bun.

Putnam said customers are rabid about getting their Taco Tico fix: “People come across town, people come from different towns, we’ve had people ask if we can send them our taco meat in the mail.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman