The Little Chef was an institution in New Albany for some 60 years, a tiny breakfast and lunch spot downtown, tucked away in an inconspicuous corner to serve everyone from nearby neighborhood residents, workers at the various surrounding shops, and those coming and going from the courthouse just blocks away.
But Little Chef is new and improved, given a rebirth earlier this year under the name Lady Tron’s. It’s a vast departure, even from the relative departure of the short-lived Coqui’s Café.
Lady Tron’s offers a small menu of sandwiches and soups and not much else, relying on quality ingredients, interesting recipes and big portions.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Lady Tron’s, on the surface at least, is that the quaint little red and white pre-fab building built in the 1940s or ’50s by the Valentine Manufacturing Corp. — and one of a dwindling number remaining in America — has been transformed into a science-fiction themed diner.
A robotic figure, who I assume stands for Lady Tron, greets customers on the sidewalk, while Darth Vader and Buzz Lightyear await just inside.
The ceiling is an outer space mural, while the stools lining the small counter have been reupholstered with a rocket ship motif. On the shelves behind the lunch counter are countless toys, games and other knickknacks from “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “E.T.,” “Lost in Space,” “The Jetsons” and tons more. Mork from Ork even makes an appearance, for you kids of the ’70s.
When I say the menu is small, I mean really small: one appetizer or “munchie,” six sandwiches, rotating soups and a kids menu featuring PB&J, grilled cheese or a mini burger. The soups, however, are a big attraction, and three are usually available.
When I stopped in with my girlfriend, Cynthia, the choices were chicken with wild rice, french onion with provolone crostini, and crab bisque with tarragon.
I started my lunch with a small order of the latter, and the quickly served bowl was darn hearty for a “small” portion. I suspect the $5.95 large portion would be a filling meal.
But the key was the flavor of the bisque, which tasted like it was made with real crab. In fact, the medium-bodied soup was so full of crab flavor, it was akin to eating steamed crab legs with butter sauce that had been put through a blender. Delicious.
For our main lunch selections, Cynthia ordered the Uhura (named for the “Star Trek” character), which was recommended by our server and a fellow diner. I chose The Ripley, which is named for the main character in the “Alien” series of films.
The Uhura is a fish sandwich made with an 8-ounce filet of fried cod, topped with iceberg lettuce and jalapeno sauce, served on a toasted french-bread style bun. The piece of fish was massive — hey, half a pound isn’t to be sneezed at — not to mention lightly battered and perfectly fried. The jalapeno sauce was subtle, but a nice application where most would expect standard tartar sauce.
My Ripley sandwich consisted of pulled chicken simmered in blueberry molasses, topped with house-made sesame slaw on toasted bread. If Cynthia’s fish sandwich was large, this thing was enormous, to the point that attempting to eat it any other way than open face would have been folly.
Enough of the molasses sauce remained in the bottom of the pan, and the bottom half of the bun was soaked already.
Meanwhile, the chicken, which had come to look like beef thanks to the dark sauce, was tender and tasty, with only minimal sweetness from the blueberries and molasses. It was more of a dense, earthy fruit flavor than tart or sweet, as were the dozen or more blueberries I found in my lunch. It worked, and it was quite a meal.
Unfortunately, there was no special sandwich or side of the day, which is the case most days, so I ordered some unnecessary Doritos as my side (later realizing that my “side” was the slaw on the sandwich), while Cynthia got a bag of Funyons, which I joked was just a dryer version of the French onion soup.
All in all, a fine lunch in a fun environment, and the other sandwiches look worthy as well: the LT, which is a maple ground beef burger with Applewood bacon in the blend; the Starbuck, which is Polish sausage in five-bean soup and collard greens; and the Leia, a brie and Muenster grilled cheese on cinnamon raisin bread.
Recent specials include a curry chicken salad sandwich, portobello and sun-dried tomato sandwich, and a shrimp po boy.
Lady Tron’s is located at 147 E. Market St. in New Albany. Hours are 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday; and 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Sunday.