If you’re looking for the pompous, judgmental prose of a “food critic,” you’ve come to the wrong place. Because I’m not criticizing, here. I’m not reviewing. I’m lauding. I’m singing praises. I am unleashing a sort-of-poetic torrent of gastronomical love upon five of my most cherished dining establishments here in Paducah.
Recently, Paducah made the news for having the most fast food restaurants per capita in the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky. That doesn’t exactly paint a flattering picture, but the good news is, Paducah is so much more than fast food and chain restaurants. Yes, I know we don’t have a Golden Corral, which is, for some people, an abominable tragedy. But, we do have a whole parade of delicious, locally owned places to grab a bite. And, call me crazy, but I’ll choose a mom and pop diner rather than the picked over, microwaved muck at chain buffet any day, night, year, week, month, or century.
While we could discuss fabulous restaurants such as Freight House, Italian Grill on Broadway, or Cynthia’s, this time around, I thought I’d extoll the virtues of the kinds of places you hit up the morning after a long night of regrettable karaoke. You know, where you can find a quick, greasy lunch that gives you strength to power through yet another Monday, or on your way home from an interminably long, exhausting eight hours at work.
So , where do I eat when I’m not feeling virtuous? Where do I go when the thought of another kale and avocado salad makes me cringe?
Well for starters…
As we all know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. To be honest, I usually skip breakfast, choosing instead to guzzle my weight in coffee with plenty of cream, which almost makes it like a meal. However, if I need some completely empty, non-nutritional carbs and sugar to go with my caffeine buzz, I head straight to Red’s. It’s an unfortunate(ly awesome) habit I picked up while working on various construction sites.
What does Red’s offer that The Major Donut Chain Who Shall Not Be Named doesn’t offer? Pretty much everything. It has that hole-in-the-wall ambiance you expect out of a long-standing local donut shop. It has the wondrous, sparkling glass display counter jam packed with every flavor, color, and shape of donut you could imagine. It has the familiar faces of the lovely ladies behind the counter. And even if you wanted to, you’d be hard pressed to spend more than five bucks there. And five bucks will get you a lot of donuts.
Finally, it is a known fact that the donut holes from Red’s possess some sort of mystical quality that has yet to be identified. Euphoria, joy, loss of self-control, and inexplicable midnight cravings are only some of the side effects.
I don’t promise you that you’ll feel any healthier after downing three or four of Red’s fried confections, but I do promise that even if you regret it a little, you’ll soon go back for more.
I have absolutely nothing even slightly negative to say about this Paducah institution. There’s absolutely nothing to hate about a burger joint that serves up juicy, perfectly greasy, soul-satisfying hamburgers with a side of heavy metal. Any establishment that offers Iron Maiden-themed t-shirts and has burger specials named “The Big Popper” and “The Graveyard” deserves nothing but love.
They make their own, insanely tasty ranch dressing that improves the taste of pretty much any object — edible or not — you can think to dip in it. If for some bizarre reason you’re not in the mood for a burger, their fried tenderloin sandwiches and hand-breaded chicken fingers will never disappoint.
Every week, Just Hamburgers posts their innovative weekly special, and I have no shame in admitting that starting at 11 am every Monday, I hit “refresh” on their Facebook page until the description of the special appears. It makes life worth living. It makes lunch worth having. And as an added bonus, it’s pretty much impossible to go to Just Hamburgers without finding yourself in the drive thru line with at least three of your friends. You can then proceed to roll down your windows and scream embarrassing things across the parking lot at each other to pass the time as you wait your turn.
Of all the Chinese places in America called “Number One” (seriously, there’s probably 67,592 of them), the Lone Oak iteration will always be number one in my book. I have personally tried every single Chinese restaurant in Paducah (yes, I even ate at the ill-fated and mysterious Wah-Shing once), and I always go back to Number One.
The same woman who owns it, (“Julie - ten minute”) also operates it, and if you go there enough, she will know your order before you even get the front door open. Aside from the usual (and never-disappointing) array of noodle and rice dishes, Number One makes dumplings that will haunt your dreams and egg rolls that will make you rethink egg rolls.
And no matter what or when you order, your food will always be ready in “about ten minute.” In an ever-changing world of daily uncertainties, there’s something immensely comforting about that. Plus, fortune cookies!
I won’t tell you where it is. You have to find it for yourself. Suffice to say, in a town suffuse with Mexican eateries, Guadalajara is the real deal. The chips are always hot and perfectly oily. The salsa is actually crave-able. The guacamole is fresh. The queso is, well, it’s queso. So you’re going to want to drink it with a straw.
They have authentic, “street” style tacos, sizzling fajitas, burritos the size of your head, and everything in between. As an added bonus, you can watch either soccer or Hispanic soap operas on the TV and do a little shopping for cactus petals and Mexican Fanta while you’re there, because this little gem doubles as a grocery store and a place to buy all those Catholic votive candles you have sitting around your house - even though you’re not remotely Catholic.
Out of the way, off the beaten path, hole in the wall, and completely charming: The Nichols Worth is a diner in every sense of the word, and a very fine one at that. A relative newcomer to the Paducah dining scene, this place feels like it’s been around for decades. Charlie Nichols is the owner, cook, and all-around great guy, and the love he has for the work he’s chosen is evident in every perfectly crispy potato and every beautifully fluffy omelet.
The portions are huge and made from scratch. The coffee is hot, plentiful, and served with real cream. The floor is black and white checkered. The food is served on a charming assortment of mismatched vintage dish ware. And because it’s tucked away somewhere on the Southside (you’ll find it, if you’re ready for it), you really do feel as if you’ve gone back to another version of Paducah, or as though you're a tourist in someone else’s hometown when you eat there.
It’s at once comfortingly familiar and almost unbelievably novel. Bonus: If you’re really lucky, you’ll get to hear an old woman at a nearby table say, “And he asked if I still had my ovaries, and I said, ‘I don’t know! I was asleep!’” Just like Grandma’s kitchen!