Louisville's trendy eats gaining notice

Tim Rowe (left) and Joe Seger grabbed lunch at Safier Mediterranean Deli on Fourth Street in 2011.  The co-workers say they venture down to this area at least once a week.
Tim Rowe (left) and Joe Seger grabbed lunch at Safier Mediterranean Deli on Fourth Street in 2011. The co-workers say they venture down to this area at least once a week.

The Derby City's food scene has grown to include much more than juleps and hot Browns.

The Zagat restaurant-reviewing guide named Louisville an "up-and-coming food city" and listed the NuLu district near downtown a "hot food neighborhood." Trendy eating spots including Harvest, Garage Bar and celebrity chef Edward Lee's MilkWood have earned their own national accolades.

Make no mistake, we Louisvillians appreciate the attention and the money it brings from out-of-towners visiting for Derby, this weekend's Forecastle Festival, IdeaFest, etc.

That said, we also know there are plenty of terrific eating options that can send our tummies aflutter whether they're trending on Twitter or not.

Here are a few places where you can eat like a local when visiting Louisville.

Atypical Man BBQ: Tucked away on a side street next to Trinity High School in St. Matthews, Atypical Man wears the term barbecue joint with a certain sauce-stained pride.

With a big-screen TV and spare decor in its main dining area, the small restaurant has a certain "man cave" feel, but the place is a worthy stop for diners of any gender who like smoked chicken wings and pulled pork with beef brisket made by a barbecue artisan who clearly loves his craft.

Atypical Man's Cris Banaszynski looks at a slab of beef the way a painter does a canvas. Banaszynski's equivalent of a palate is his collection of original barbecue sauces, including Habanero Hot Carolina, Derby City Bourbon, and my own favorite, Coffee, which doesn't taste like coffee; slathered on a hunk of Atypical Man's smoked brisket, it tastes more like heaven. (119 St. Matthews Avenue.

Safier Mediterranean Deli: Some days it requires a little patience to get lunch at Safier, because the line often extends out the door and onto the sidewalk of South Fourth Street, one of the city's most densely packed restaurant districts.

This single block offers 10 distinct eating options, but Safier's Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern/Indian cuisine has held its own for years against muscular competition by making hummus, shawarma, kabobs and baklava so good that people seem content to pass other wait-free options to get a taste.

Once you're inside Safier, the line moves pretty quickly, although you'll have time to take in the curious juxtaposition of decor, which includes framed currency from the Middle East and other countries, a picture of hundreds of people kneeling in prayer at a mosque, and enormous images of horses racing at Churchill Downs.

I've ordered everything on their menu — multiple times. If you're in a hurry at lunch, ask them to add hummus to the $5 chicken shawarma sandwich, and you will keep hunger happily at bay for hours. (641 South Fourth Street.

Vietnam Kitchen: Vietnam Kitchen doesn't look exceptional; it's housed next to a vacant space in a downscale strip mall. But go inside at, say, 2:30 in the afternoon, and there's a good chance you'll see the place about 80 percent full with customers from seemingly every available demographic.

Vietnam Kitchen is a longtime heavy hitter in the Louisville food lineup. It has an Urban Spoon rating of 91 percent, with more than 1,000 votes. The menu uses a convenient number-letter combination system to categorize the items, many of which have Vietnamese names and English descriptions. This can make the customer-server exchange sound slightly like bingo night, but who cares?

Vietnam Kitchen knows you're coming for what's on the plate and offers its own version of Chinese-style fried rice for children and the less adventurous.

My picks from the menu:

■ A17, "Vietnamese pancake filled with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and onions, served with a special sauce." The "pancake" is a thin, savory layer that comes wrapped around the fixings and is served with a sweet tangy sauce, a description that doesn't do it justice because it's. Just. Great.

■ N1, "boneless catfish simmered with fish sauce in a clay pot." This, like so many Vietnam Kitchen dishes, is just right in all the ways I can imagine it being right — the perfect mix of sweet, sour, savory and spicy. The consistency, temperature and portion size are all I could ask for.

From the drinks and desserts menu, I recommend the Vietnamese coffee. It is sweet as a gas station cappuccino, but with an elegance that puts those to shame. It involves coffee, condensed milk and bliss. (5339 Mitscher Avenue.

Cake Flour: Cake Flour's confectionery prowess is not exactly a secret. The New York Times has been there, or at least to its old site.

Cake Flour recently moved from cool NuLu to the East End 'burbs, which caused many of us on the east end of town to rejoice. So thank you, Chef Claudia DeLatorre, alumna of the French Culinary Institute of New York. Thank you, for not only moving to my neighborhood, but for your mission: "to provide all-natural, organic goodness. Real food. No artificial anything."

Cake Flour's flourless chocolate cake appeared on a Food Network program called The Best Thing I Ever Ate. You know why? Because whoever you are and whatever you've eaten, I defy you to try it and tell me it's not at least in the conversation. When I sampled it, I felt as if the dessert was speaking to me through my own taste buds; its message was, "Though shalt have no other chocolate before me."

I think I haven't. And won't again. At least none that are worthy of the name.

The flourless chocolate cake is rich but not heavy. There's something so pure about it, so uncut. So chocolate.

Cake Flour has other desserts — cookies, cupcakes, pastries — and savory items. Someday I'll go in and try some of those. Maybe. (2420 Lime Kiln Lane.

Also of note

Super Chefs Breakfast: The menu and the walls of this inventive eatery feature tributes to various superheroes, including a breakfast sandwich made of sausage and egg with green waffles. It's called the Hulk. It's a smash. (307 Wallace Avenue.

Havana Rumba: Cuban food served with style, and sometimes live music. Recommended: the ropa vieja (shredded beef in a wine and tomato Creole sauce) and the ensalada tropical (mixed greens with five kinds of sliced fruit) — it's like eating sunshine. (Three restaurants: 4115 Oechsli Avenue, 12003 Shelbyville Road and 2210 Bardstown Road.

The Chop Shop Salads: This aspiring chain has some interesting salad and wrap combinations worth a try for the names alone, including The Bookie, Handsome Rob and Kentucky Gentleman. You can also create your own. Two stores: 126 Breckenridge Lane, Suite D, and 436 West Market Street.