This article appeared in the October 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
I only hope that someday one of my “jokes” turns out as well as Hillbilly Tea — a deliciously funny idea that’s become a fantastic restaurant downtown on First Street, just south of Main. The partnership between general manager Karter Louis and chef Arpad (“Arpi”) Lengyel takes the pretension out of tea service and creates an inviting, exceptional way to appreciate fine tea and food.
Veterans of teahouses on both coasts, the pair tired of doing what Louis described to me as elaborate and “very esoteric tea services, full of Asian influence and folklore. I said to Arpi, ‘We should do hillbilly tea!’ And he said, ‘What’s a hillbilly?’”
Once Louis, a Louisville native, explained the regional reference to the Hungarian-born Lengyel, the idea became something the pair, according to Louis, “joked about for years. Then we decided to start.”
Thus began Hillbilly Tea — a place offering fresh, organic whole-leaf teas and interesting, expertly prepared foods, all within an Appalachian theme. While doing his recipe research, Lengyel discovered that the mountain cuisine reflects his own Hungarian background, where much of what gets eaten comes from the back yard. Along with “sweets” and “treats” available on my first visit, the chef’s seasonal menu included dishes from the kettle, creek, field and pit (although several items may have changed by the time this review is published).
Hillbilly Tea had a light hand with the hokeyness. When I placed my order, my name was written on a laminated card and attached to a clothespin, alerting the servers where the order should go. The sorrel and potato soup ($4) featured a simple, lightly lemony broth holding chunks of tender potato. A lovely barley salad ($5) included firmly cooked grains blended with diced red and yellow peppers, squash and chopped herbs in a light vinaigrette. I thought the white bean and sage fritters ($4) represented an outstanding way to blend two Appalachian standards: beans and frying. I only wish the accompanying dipping sauce had had a little kick to it.
“We wanted the menu to be something versatile, for tea, snacks or even a full meal,” Louis told me when I talked to him after recent visits. Hillbilly Tea also offers breakfast, which I sampled one Sunday morning. (Breakfast was being served Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m.-2 p.m.) My Hillbilly Deluxe ($12) had herb-flecked scrambled eggs, a wedge of cheesy-eggy “potato bake,” a slice of grilled bread and spicy, savory bison patties. I might have considered the add-on of a rich, dense bourbon and bread pudding as gilding the lily — except I enjoyed it too much.
The eggs, potato and toast in my breakfast companion’s Moonshine Breakfast ($9) came with smoked pork loin marinated in bourbon and sage. (I enjoyed that same loin on one of my lunch visits when it was served as Moonshine Pork, $7). On both visits, slices of pork tenderloin were smothered in a chunky, rich brown sauce. A non-meat option, smoked tofu ($6), had a “hickory-pit” sweet bourbon barbecue sauce and was served on a “plank” of cedar wood. The moist and flavorful fried frog legs ($5) were enhanced, but not overwhelmed, by a wild-onion dip.
I approach tea the way I approach wine, as someone who appreciates the complex web of climate, harvest cycles, varietals and cures that make a good drink — but without a great deal of true knowledge of either. Fortunately, Hillbilly Tea is dedicated to making tea service less intimidating. “We don’t use esoteric names,” said Louis. “We rename them to be more approachable.” So while I don’t know exactly what kind of black tea I imbibed, I can tell you that the Mason jar I handled was full of a dark, rich liquid as “malty and sweet” as the menu said it would be.
Tea and sweets go together like fiddles and banjos — and I found Hillbilly Tea’s house-made sweets to be very good. Chocolate stack cake ($5) took a traditional Appalachian treat a step further with a rich chocolate sauce, and the lemon square ($3) was tart and lively.
But the real winner was that bread pudding at breakfast. When you’re on mountain time, it’s OK to indulge at any hour of the day.
If you go
Hillbilly Tea, 120 S. First St., 587-7350. Open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. hillbillytea.com
Photo: John Nation