Many in Louisville would argue that Check’s Cafe is the city’s best neighborhood tavern. Certainly, you’d get some passionate testimonials from those who live in the vicinity of Germantown and Schnitzelburg and have enjoyed favorites like chili, white bean soup and fried fish for years.
The folks in Middletown now have a reason to get in on some of that fun with Check’s BBQ & Blues, a collaboration between Check’s owner, John Murrow, and business partner, Todd Zaborac. The small Middletown space in a strip mall was created as a sort of hybrid between Check’s and the former Scotty’s Ribs & More, the previous tenant before the changeover.
The space was known to the neighborhood for about a decade-and-a-half as Bubba’s Bub-Ba-Que, featuring fare made by the owner and chef Hal Steinbeck. When he retired, he passed on his recipe to Scotty’s, creating the new look — there was a remodel before the new Check’s opened back in the spring — neighborhood barbecue joint and tavern.
The split space has a long, L-shaped bar on one side with a small row of tables and a full dining room on the other with plenty of seating, mostly high-tops for parties of varying sizes. TVs and beer signs dot the wood-trimmed walls, and both sections have their own entrances.
Boiled down, the place does have a Check’s sort of feel to it: unpretentious and laid back, with a focus on reasonably priced, quality bar fare. That said, I was not surprised when I stopped in for a late lunch and found several regulars bellied up to the bar, even with the slow period of the day rendering the dining room empty.
The menu looks like a pretty even split down the middle, with plenty of barbecue options like barbecue sandwiches and half-pound brisket and pulled pork dinners, not to mention spare ribs and St. Louis-style ribs.
There are several burgers in the mix, and starters include items like barbecue nachos, loaded fries and pan-fried oysters.
For those Check’s Cafe purists, the signature white bean soup is on the menu along with the Check’s Fish Sandwich. (Sorry, folks, no chili-cheese fries.)
Looking to strike a balance, my eyes landed on the brisket chili. No, Check’s never put brisket in its chili to my knowledge, but it seemed like a good blend to start with. I was right. For starters, much like at Check’s in Schnitzelburg, the chili comes either with or without spaghetti, and onions and cheese are options.
I got mine with cheese and without spaghetti, and as soon as it was placed before me, garnished with a couple of packets of saltines, I saw beneath the mound of cheese that it did bear a strikingly resemblance to the chili I’d had at the cafe in previous years. There was one exception, however, in the form of a large hunk of brisket peeking through the deep, red chili.
I dug in and found more brisket than I’d imagined for the reasonable $5.99 price tag, in the form of big cubes, some of which were so tender that they fell apart in my mouth without chewing. The chili itself was bright and peppery, a bit on the salty side, but each bite that included brisket brought with a burst of rich, smoky flavor.
I lost count of how many chunks of brisket I gobbled up in the course of finishing the bowl, but I’m guessing it was 14 or 15 — probably a good quarter-pound of brisket. Not too shabby.
Feeling in a Check’s Cafe mood and my barbecue taste satisfied, I fell back on the fish sandwich, fried cod on your choice of white, wheat or rye, and a side of housemade tartar. I was already feeling a bit full from the chili, so I went with a one-piece sandwich ($7.99) instead of the double ($10.99). I also opted against paying $2.25 for a side from a tempting list that includes fried corn, mashed potatoes, potato salad, fried apples and more.
My sandwich came out fairly quickly, a sizable piece of breaded and fried cod with a crispy, light brown coating that was thick and crispy on the ends.
The thick, clean cut of cod was a win and was accented nicely by a thin layer of the crunchy-meets-creamy house tartar, which infuses so much bright pickle and lemony flavor that it was downright startling when I took that first bite.
Sweet pickles have never been a favorite of mine, but this was worth it.
All in all, Check’s BBQ & Blues is a worthy sister neighborhood tavern and restaurant for a Louisville classic that dates back generations.
As you guessed from the name, live music is a staple, and if you go for food, be sure to ask for the day’s specials. When I was there, $8.99 would have gotten you fried chicken livers, pork chops or chicken cordon bleu with two sides.
Check’s BBQ & Blues, located at 14049 Shelbyville Road, is open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.