By the time you pay for Kentucky Derby tickets, get your hat and dress or suit and bowtie, and pony up for lodging you probably don’t have a lot left for dining out at Louisville’s hottest restaurants. That’s ok – they’re all booked up anyway, and even if they weren’t you’d be relegated to a Derby menu prepared for the masses. Don’t get me wrong, I love our great restaurants. But Derby weekend’s not the time – spend some other weekend eating your way through the stars of Louisville’s culinary scene. In the meantime, this Derby, I’ll share some of my favorite options that don’t bust your budget.

Menu board

You can read the menu, but go ahead and plan on ordering the avocado burrito

Lolita’s Taco: Even without the hilarious name I’d love this place. Utterly lacking in pretension (think styrofoam plates and a menu free of the words artisan and handcrafted) they make up for cramped quarters and a location off the beaten track with super fresh, heaping plates of Cali-style Mexican. Their avocado burrito is legend – it’s just a flour tortilla loaded with hunks of avocado, plus the pico de gallo made here, but it was one of my first food revelations in Louisville, and remains one of my favorite things to eat. (They don’t have a website, but read more here; 4222 Poplar Level Rd. (502) 459-4356)

Alwatan: Two words: hummus and falafel. Oh, but what creamy, smooth, rich hummus, and crisp, steamy-hot falafel. They’re not going to win any awards for interior design or service, but who cares with food this good? Their pita bread is a soft heaven you just want to bury your nose in – slather it up with some of that hummus and pay yourself on the back for not joining the tourists eating their obligatory hot brown sandwich across town. (No website, but I can give you an out of date Facebook page for more info.)

Thai Noodles: This is some seriously good Thai food made with love and a definite step up from what you often find at these places. We went there when we were jonesing for Pad Thai and curry after a recent trip to Bangkok and were beyond happy with our dishes – and with the chance to practice our speck of Thai language on the sweet owner. (More info)

Pizza and beer

Have a local brew with your thin-crust pizza

Bonnie & Clyde’s: We make a pilgrimage to this old-school (some call it outdated but haters gonna hate), family pizzeria a couple times a year, and spend the rest of the year wondering why we don’t go more often. Take cash, get your huge playing card that serves as your order number, grab a seat at a long table with a bunch of locals and dig in (make sure you arrive ravenous). This is some of the best damn pizza in town. And blessedly it’s completely free of any scene types. (Again, no website. See a trend here? 7611 Dixie Hwy, (502) 935-5540)

El Mocajete: I recently discovered this little Mexican joint near the track when a couple friends both mentioned it within the space of a week. And I agree with everyone in town that I’ve heard say it’s the best Mexican in the city. Service is as slow as you’d expect with one server for the whole place, but when you tear into a plate of fish tacos you’ll realize you’d wait twice as long with a smile. Just sit and listen to the mostly Spanish conversation and drink a big-ass Corona and chow down on nachos with fresh, warm salsa and be happy. (More info)

Four Sisters Cafe: Crepes and banh mi? Why not have them together? The Vietnamese sandwiches on baguettes are a tasty legacy of the French colonial days, and crepes are another portable French delight. Speaking of delight, even if the food weren’t so tasty, you’d want to go just to chat with the young women that run this lovely shop. Sit and drink a sweet iced Vietnamese coffee and ask them to tell you about the food back in Vietnam where they grew up.  (More info)

 

 

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Dana is a Louisville then Detroit food and travel writer, adventurer, serial learner of sports, and bourbon enthusiast. She has written for outlets including NBCNews.com, Fodors.com, Elle, Chicago Tribune, and the Louisville Courier Journal.