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(out of five)

Go Big Orange?

The Original Louis Drive In
4661 North Broadway

by Les DuLunch

The Original Louis' Drive-In is one of my favorite occasional weeknight restaurants. When the heat and stress of the day has worn me down to the point of being unable to prepare dinner in my own kitchen and something more substantial than the latest chalupa special is called for, I hop in the car and motor up Broadway to Louis'. Beyond the miraculous garlic bread, the food isn't really what draws me there. Truth be told, the Italian specialties are actually kind of weird, but I'll get to that in just a moment. Instead, like any writerly type, I'm a fool for a good story and Louis' is a doozie. Although I should've checked with Mr. Neely for the exact version, the family feud that led to two identical restaurants located side by side on old Broadway sounds like a drama of almost Corleone proportions.

But did I mention the garlic bread?

Soft, butter brushed on both sides, and crowned with sesame seeds, this bread is one of Knoxville's most genuine attractions, ranking above even the Sunsphere and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. Garlic doesn't supply the bread's primary taste, so much as the butter, which adds a barely-there crunch to its exterior texture and leaves your fingers deliciously slick and seed-encrusted. And it comes by the basket-load with nearly every item on the menu. On the off chance that it doesn't, just ask for some.

The new Original Louis' Drive-In, located just catty-corner to its old Broadway home in what was once the Mustard Seed Café, offers all those favorites that north Knoxvillians have come to expect in a pleasantly airy, high-ceilinged environment—a vast improvement on the dim, windowless building that was sacrificed to make way for a new interstate exit. The drive-in concept still holds in the new location, but I've never quite understood how that works for a place that specializes in gooey sauce- and cheese-laden Italian foods. Just adds to intrigue, I suppose.

Everything on Louis' menu is reasonably priced—most of the pasta dishes are less than $10, with steaks topping out in the $16 range. And there's more than plenty to choose from—seafood (almost all fried selections), burgers and sandwiches, pizzas, cuts of veal, chicken, and pork, and of course, the pasta. It's a family restaurant in every sense of the word; there's something for everyone and the bill won't break the bank.

The pasta is the weird part referenced earlier. I've sampled Louis' spaghetti, ravioli, and lasagna and each is characterized by the second-most unusual marinara I've ever tasted, the first being during an unfortunate experience at Gus'. Louis' sauce is a vibrant shade of almost Volunteer orange and contains no discernible trace of pulpy red tomato whatsoever. There's not much in the way of herbs and seasonings either. It's as if it was made entirely from tomato paste instead of tomatoes. Then there's the meat, which supplies the sauce's primary taste. Each bite is composed mainly of the finely ground particles of ground beef. All in all, the thick sauce comes off more like gravy than marinara sauce—and who knows, maybe that's why everyone seems to love it so.

The pasta it smothers is of a particularly pale white flour variety. No spinach or fashionable pesto varieties, thank you very much. And it may have been al dente several lifetimes ago, but in the here and now seems so soft that it could be eaten by babies.

Continuing the trend of not-so-hot Italian offerings, there's Louis' pizza. Available in three sizes, starting with a personal 9-inch, and with a mix of toppings to choose from, its main problem is a thin, cracker-like crust that could just as easily be of the Red Baron freezer-section variety.

So instead of Italian, go for something grilled like the excellent pork chops. A perpetual special in Louis' last incarnation, they're now a regular menu item. There's nothing miserly about the two generous, thick bone-in cuts. And they're grilled, to borrow a cliché, to absolute perfection—shiny and beautiful on the outside, soft and tender inside and never spongy like pork can sometimes be. Served with Louis' trademark shredded Iceberg salad (try it with the house Italian dressing), wonderful onion rings, and a little plastic cup of seemingly straight-out-of-the-can Mott's apple sauce, it's a good, old-fashioned dinner that smacks of a Betty Crocker "Working Woman" cookbook.

The chicken parmigiano might've been better titled "When Good Meat Goes Bad." Like the pork chops, this split chicken breast was expertly grilled (I'd been expecting a fried one, and so was pleasantly surprised). But its lightly blackened and crispened edges hid under a waxy slab of decidedly un-Mozzarella-like cheese. Yes, slab is a perfectly appropriate word—when I went to remove it with my fork, it slid off like a waxy second skin. With the cheese neatly dispatched, I could fully turn my attention to the chicken, which was remarkably tender and flavorful. A side of spaghetti with more of that Big Orange marinara and a couple of Louis' onion rings completed the picture.

Ultimately, Louis' is one of those great, only-in-a-small town destinations that you go to simply because it's familiar, comforting, and has an interesting story. Kind of like visiting your family, isn't it?

July 13, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 28
© 2000 Metro Pulse