The recently opened 502 Cafe was born from a food truck, also called 502 Cafe, that has been in business on the road for four years. With an ingenious tagline of “If You Smoke It, They Will Come,” the food truck has a loyal following, with people dining on ribs and brisket with regularity. With the success of the food truck, it was a natural transition for owner Chris Williams to open a brick-and-mortar establishment. The 502 Cafe restaurant opened in June 2016, near the University of Louisville’s campus on Fourth Street (in the spot where the old Bearnos was). Williams still operates the food truck ,as well, and divides his time between the two.
We visited for lunch on a weekend and it was pretty quiet. This place has all the makings of a hopping bar and restaurant at night, as they are located in the midst of a college campus and are open until 2 a.m. There is a vast selection of beers, many local favorites, on draft. But we were there to eat and to try out this popular barbecue.
Let it be known that, as a Texan, I have a different palate for barbecue. I’m not a fan of a lot of sauce and I judge you on your brisket and your poultry too. (A Texan-smoked turkey breast is the stuff of legends.) Chris has been in the food industry for a long time, and only in the last six years has he really discovered that he loves smoked barbecue and that he is good at making it. That being said, we did a roundup of menu selections this day, ordering the brisket, the turkey and the pulled pork sandwich.
The pulled pork sandwich comes with a choice of a side and we chose tater tots. A heaping portion of freshly pulled pork arrived on a bun, with a small amount of sauce and pickles on top. The meat was extra juicy, with a good amount of fat and flavor that made it a messy success to eat. It had the “ends” on it, which were crispy and full of dry rub. We started off eating it as a sandwich with our hands and gave up after soaking five napkins and opted for a fork. This is a sign of a good sandwich. The tater tots were seasoned and crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.
The brisket platter came with two pieces of white bread and two sides. We opted for the coleslaw and the fries. The fries were huge, ample shavings of potatoes deep fried to perfection. The coleslaw was fresh and with a good amount of mayonnaise (meaning: not sopping wet). The brisket was tender, smoked to perfection with a delicious crust of dry-rubbed goodness on it. This portion size is 1/2 pound of meat, which makes for a very big lunch. There was a bourbon jam sauce that accompanied it — but we didn’t really touch it. The brisket stands on its own.
The turkey platter also came with two slices of bread and two sides. We opted for the brussel sprouts and the Pitmaster beans. This sides will be detailed below because they were just that meaningful. Let’s talk turkey, though. Smoked turkey, like stated before, is the stuff of legends where I’m from. This was just as good. Tender, with a rich flavor that needed no sauce, no bread and not even a knife to cut it. The dry rub, which took Chris Williams six years to perfect, was the most present in this dish out of the three. With hints of sweet (brown sugar) mixed with hot spices, it amplifies the turkey without taking away from any of the inherent flavor. We might have to order this for Thanksgiving dinner.
This side is the brussel sprouts. Obviously not your typical side of brussel sprouts, these are fried individually then topped with bleu cheese and bacon. This would be an incredible appetizer to share for the table. A fried brussel sprout is crunchy and savory, and the crisp outer layer pairs well with the crisp bacon and smooth bleu cheese.
The Pitmaster beans were my favorite thing I ate that day. This has three different types of beans: butter beans, Boston baked beans and kidney beans, as well as pork and/or rib meat, tomato, a little bourbon, and other spices. It is cooked in a pan under the pork in the smoker, so it gets all the delicious drippings from the meat while it cooks. I could have eaten only this and walked away happy.
Owner Chris Williams says the most popular things on the menu are the pulled pork (a safe option, he contends), the brisket and the truffle mac ‘n’ cheese. When I asked him what the best thing on the menu that was maybe the sleeper hit of the cafe, he immediately said the Hot Brown. This Hot Brown is a little different, though — made with smoked turkey, fried green tomatoes, pork belly and beer cheese. That is definitely on our list to try next time.
There are many ways to experience all this smoked goodness. First, you can go to the restaurant located on Fourth St. Or, try the food truck, with its location always listed on social media. Also, you can order online for takeout, a great option for a tailgate. Speaking of tailgating, if you forget to bring your food, the 502 Cafe food truck is parked at the House of Cards on Floyd Street, near Cardinal Stadium during every home game.
502 Cafe is located at 1923 S. Fourth St., Louisville, KY 40208 •(502) 996-7636. They are open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 12 p.m. to 4 a.m.
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