LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Hammerheads web site warns diners ahead of time. Don’t bring large parties. Expect to wait. The chefs aren’t trying to be divas. They aren’t trying to be unnecessarily surly. They simply need you to accept the fact that there might be a few logistical challenges to serving delectable food in the basement of someone’s house.
Hammerheads isn’t the first restaurant to occupy the basement on Swan Street in Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood; according to venerable alternative paper the Louisville Eccentric Observer, a bar or restaurant has occupied the space for almost 80 years. The last was a vegan eatery called Swan Dive that closed in October 2010. Fortunately for those of us who appreciate and embrace our place at the top of the food chain, Hammerheads proprietors Adam Burress and Chase Mucerino have more carnivorous leanings. How carnivorous? They understand Heaven Is a Buffet’s first commandment, and they pay homage to that commandment with a bacon brownie dessert.
Fair warning: The staff at Hammerheads can get harried as the place fills up. Get over it. Enjoy the pauses in the action. Order a beer from a lengthy, carefully curated list and watch some History Channel on the TV over the bar, or just chuckle at the obvious effort put forth by the mostly hipster clientele to appear aloof. The food is worth it.
If you’ve read the other reviews here, you’ve noticed the restaurants have one thing in common. They’re inexpensive. I love reading the restaurant reviews in GQ and New York Magazine, but I can’t afford most of those places on a regular basis, and I’d feel terribly guilty turning them in on an expense report given the fact that Time Inc. already does me the favor of paying me to go to football and basketball games. What is amazing about about Hammerheads is that the food tastes expensive, but a couple could leave full and happy – and maybe a little buzzed – for about $50.
I started with the daily appetizer special, in this case a pretzel croissant with beer cheese dip. Pretzels and croissants are like that opposite-sex friend pair you know that obviously needs to take the relationship to the next level. At Hammerheads, they made the two hook up with tantalizing results.
Next came the lamb ribs. I was hesitant at first, because I’ve always considered lamb a closer relative to beef. Beef ribs are OK, but anyone who has spent an hour yanking bits out of their teeth knows they can be a little tough to eat. The lamb ribs responded to smoke more like pork would, but they didn’t lose that distinctive blast of lamb flavor. The sauce, a tangy, tomato-based affair, was applied minimally, because the chefs understand the meat is the star.
With the lamb ribs, I ordered a basket of hand-cut Grippos fries cooked in duck fat. I’d had duck fat fries before, so I knew the flavor would be a bit richer and more complex than the peanut oil-fried variety. I’d had seasoned fries before as well, but nothing as good as these. Grippos is a Cincinnati-based potato chip company, and Hammerheads uses Grippos barbecue chip seasoning on its fries. This makes such sense – obviously, barbecue potato chip seasoning marries perfectly with potatoes – that I’m shocked it hasn’t gone mainstream already.
I finished with the aforementioned bacon brownie. The moist, fudgy slab of goodness had chunks of bacon scattered on top. Normally, I’m not a salty-sweet fan, but the bacon didn’t overwhelm the chocolate. It provided a slight counterbalance.
During the meal, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about Neanderthal skull size thanks to that History Channel documentary, and the diligent, extremely overworked bartender earned a tip that I hope helps him chase his dream of opening a combination barber shop/coffee shop. Hammerheads may be too good to stay in the basement, but I hope it does. It feels like a spot only those in the know can find, even if every hipster worth his white belt can find the place.
Post-meal workout: P90X2 Yoga (Because nothing washes down a bacon brownie like Vinyasa flow.)