Cheap Eats: Luke's Inside Out
Coating your ribs for less than $20
The worst date I ever went on convinced me of one essential food truth: Going on dates to expensive restaurants with people you don't know very well is an almost guaranteed fail. For starters, this was a "second chance" date. Plus, the guy was half an hour late! Third, Mr. Tardy Pants had picked a place that neither of us could really afford. Thus, he didn't pick up the tab. By the time the meal was (finally, thankfully) over, I was out $30 (we split the bill) and if that weren't painful enough, he asked me to drive him to his next appointment. (Bummer.) The point being: Go to the French bistro or the fancy steakhouse after you've found a lover, not before. Eat on the cheap while assessing your suitor's taste, looks, and, yes, his transportation options.
But let's face facts: With everything in our burgeoning city getting more expensive, eating on the cheap is getting more difficult. So, I came up with a challenge: finding non-fast food places – that serve food that rivals the fanciest eateries in town – where two can eat for $20 before the tip.
Cheap Eats Case File 0001: Luke's Inside Out
Located next to the Gibson Street Bar, Luke's is known for inventive sandwiches, an ever-rotating list of daily specials, and some of the most unpretentious and delicious food in Austin. It's a trailer. But unlike some other food truck owners, Luke's namesake chef – Austin industry vet Luke Bibby – doesn't base menus off what is trendy or cute. And the service at the trailer surpasses much more expensive restaurants. Bibby's team never rushes you and politely answers questions about the menu. Despite the small size of the trailer, and the obvious difficulties of both working in the trailer and delivering to the busy Gibson bar, it's clear that there's both a warm heart and a clear mission at work here.
The meal: All of the entrées cost more than $10, which makes keeping the budget under 20 bucks a bit of a challenge. At the suggestion of the cashier, we ordered baby back ribs with Love Slaw ($14) and crinkle-cut fries ($6.50) which are topped with queso, jalapeños, and bacon. This lands you $2.50 over budget with tax, but your date will no doubt appreciate your largesse. If you are a stickler for rules, you'd be just as well off splitting the shrimp sandwich ($11) with the fries, which brings you in just under $20.
The atmosphere: While waiting for your food, you can sit at the Gibson bar. Though the interior tends to get a little loud, the outside patio seating offers fine people-watching and various sports on TV. If you sit facing Lamar Boulevard, you can watch the cars drive by and the neon lights flicker in the sunset. It's also worth noting that the Gibson has a weekday happy hour from 4-7pm that features $3 well drinks. Order a couple of those and the neon lights will seem extra romantic.
The verdict: By the time our food arrived we were ravenous, and we instantly plowed through the crinkle-cut fries. They were crisp, doused in creamy queso, with pieces of salty bacon and thick-cut pickled jalapeños – and a meal by themselves. Similarly, the lightly smoked and tender baby back ribs were served in a huge portion. Best of all, they were topped with a thick tomato sauce that made for entertainingly messy eating. Despite the massive portions and accessible creations, Luke's also obsesses over the details. The Love Slaw is made with just as much care as the ribs. Tender ribbons of red onions, pert slices of cabbage, and a smattering of baby spinach leaves doused in a light cream sauce made for the ideal complement to the heaviness of the meat. If you go for the shrimp sandwich (be sure to fill up on those fries), you'll be pleasantly surprised by the bright apple and red onion filling, as well as the piquant bleu cheese spread that coats your tongue and counters the apple's tartness. Plus, all the sandwiches come with house Parmesan chips. I haven't seen Mr. Tardy Pants since our disaster date, but I don't mind. I now have Luke's.
Luke's Inside Out1109 S. Lamar (at Gibson Street Bar), 512/589-8883
Mon.-Thu., 5-11pm; Fri., 5pm-12mid;
Sat., 1pm-12mid; Sun., 11:30am-11pm