Menu: Louie's Grill
If the friendly new Latino-tinged comfort-food emporium called Louie's Grill didn't exist, someone would have to invent it. Oh wait, someone already did, and they named it the Starliner Diner.
Louie's, which calls itself a "fusion restaurant" (but don't hold that against it), is family-owned and operated by longtime veterans of Starliner. Now those old pros have taken their experience - and a lot of recipes -and moved down the street from their inspiration. The results? If you like Starliner - and why wouldn't you, the place rocks - you'll like Louie's too.
For now, other than Louie's being open a convenient seven days a week, the differences between the two are primarily cosmetic. So whereas Starliner is cluttered and funky, Louie's is a big, bright, open and fresh-looking single room. By no means charmless, Louie's has a clean-looking paint job in shades of burnt sienna and a light, minty green.
Accenting those soothing tints are pleasant, tropically themed paintings (like of Mayan warriors and mythical Mexican corn people) plus culturally appropriate knickknacks and charming elementary school art projects. There's also roomy booths, simple tables and sort of a mod yet retro-looking, diner-style glass-block bar.
This is the casual setting for many of the same terrific dishes we've come to expect from Starliner. In general, I'd say Louie's does a few things better than its predecessor, but mostly it only comes close - real close- to the zesty and pleasing cuisine it copies. This makes it difficult not to compare everything Louie's prepares to Starliner; still, I'll try not to - just know they're like two delicious peas from the same stylish pod.
Certainly Starliner aficionados will recognize the familiar salads. Louie's wisely used only super-fresh, carefully edited ingredients in assembling their excellent knockoffs. Their House Salad ($3.50/$6) tossed mixed greens, red onions, cucumbers and romas with shredded cheeses and a rich and spicy dressing made with fresh salsa, yogurt and mayonnaise.
On the lighter side was the wonderfully refreshing Vera Cruz salad ($4/6). It's sort of a deconstructed guacamole, with romaine, creamy avocado slices, tomato and crunchy cucumber slices topped by an assertive lime and olive oil dressing perfumed with cilantro.
Gleaming with a crackly golden skin, Louie's Fusion (read: Cuban) Roasted Chicken ($12) was the kind of entree that might start tableside fights. The feuds could include warring over whether chicken skin can get that beautiful without frying (I doubt it) and who's hogging all the good bites (OK, me). The half bird came served with vinegar-soaked, sweet-and-sour cooked onions and a garlic sauce that seeped into the meat.
Also highly recommended was a nightly special of Tortilla-Crusted Chicken ($12). A platter-filling paillard had a crunchy, corn-nutty crust and came topped with side-by-side contrasting sauces of smoky rich, red chili abutting a bright pickly green tomatillo - like a Mexican yin and yang.
Another off-menu special was a mixed blessing. A smallish piece of Blackened Grouper ($14) was racily spiced, but its mango salsa had a banana aspect that didn't work for me. Still, as with all of Louie's entrees I tried, it came with excellent sides -in this case, fluffy Spanish rice fragrant with cilantro and made with tomato salsa plus the "California pan roasted vegetables," which were perfectly sauteed and lightly brightened with garlic, soy sauce and vinegar.
The above-average Cuban sandwich (Media Noche, $7) came with good ham and not enough pork roast, but I prefer mine to be as smashed as if run over by a Mack truck, and this one wasn't. On the side were meaty, fried sweet plantains and that addictive yogurt salsa dip/dressing.
If the Ropa Vieja ($12) is the nightly special, try it. It's a deeply beefy Latinized pot roast tricked out with rustically hacked tomatoes, peppers and onions held together by perky tomato sauce.
The jumbo-sized Jambalaya ($12) used many of those same flavor-forward elements - and was just about as good as Starliner's jambalaya.
Which makes me hope Louie's - which I definitely like - will eventually branch out and find its own identity. Or at least move more than one mile closer to me than the far-away Starliner.
Louie's Grill Fusion Restaurant
4453 Cemetery Rd., Hilliard
Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday
8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday