Tucked away in a darling stretch of Louisville’s sprawling south end, just past the Chili’s and the Arby’s, and a short walk from the Verizon store and the Peddlers Mall, is a charming little bistro.
On my way there, I had called my mom to ask if we ever went to Ponderosa when I was a kid, and she couldn’t recall such an occasion. I have a feeling she’d have remembered it had we done it.
Anyway, a few weeks ago, I stumbled across a tweet that implied that Ponderosa restaurants still did exist. I performed what is commonly referred to as an online search, on my computer, and found there was one about 25 minutes from my home.
Despite it being a beautiful Friday night in the Kentucky summer — absolutely perfect for friends and family to enjoy a nice meal together — this Ponderosa’s parking lot had enough space for one shirtless lad to do a little work under the hood of his teal-colored Chevy Celebrity.
When I walked in, I was greeted by a polite high-school-aged girl, and right behind her was a giant menu that almost resembled a stadium scoreboard. Having never been to a Ponderosa before, I didn’t know the drill, but Megan told me I can place my order with her and then go find a seat and my food will be brought to me.
Unless, of course, I opted for the buffet. Normally priced $12.99, I got it for $4.99 because I also ordered a steak. A few bros and I fancy ourselves as beef connoisseurs, so they all had a laugh when I told them I was going to try, at age 48, Ponderosa for the first time in my life.
I ordered the ribeye, medium rare. Ordinarily I would ask if I could swap a vegetable in in place of the potato (and still order the fries) but on this occasion, I remembered the commercials from my youth that featured a mouthwatering steak and an equally tantalizing baked potato on the side. I chose the baked potato and was asked if I wanted butter and sour cream served with it. Check and check.
I found my table, a four-top — industry term — near the window. As soon as I sat down, two things happened — a gigantic Pepsi was delivered to me in a Styrofoam cup, and then I realized that the haircut I got an hour earlier was not complete. The bottom half-inch of my neck beard was still totally intact, though my face was cleanly-shaven for the first time in a month or two. But then I looked around, and I didn’t feel embarrassed at all.
My next move was to hit the salad bar. I said hello to a young server restocking the buffet. She told me she was really tired and couldn’t wait to go home to take a nap. That sounded weird for a teenager expressing at 8 p.m. a desire to nap. Isn’t that just called going to bed at that point in the day?
I ate the salad fairly quickly. It was good. Hard to mess up a salad buffet.
My next trip was to pick up some appetizers, most of which were fried pieces of small fish. The marquee outside had touted a seafood buffet promotion, but I didn’t see much special about it once I got up there. That, however, didn’t keep me from loading my plate with a bunch of small bites. Once I had stacked some mac-n-cheese, corn, and four fried things on it, I figured a gigantic piece of steamed broccoli would add some green to the cellphone picture I knew I was going to take upon returning to my table.
I said hello to a second server as she restocked the buffet. She wasted no time sharing her own lament.
Me: “How are you?”
Her: “I’ve hit my head like six times today.”
I laughed, then realized that wasn’t something I should have laughed at, so I apologized. She wasn’t too fussed by the exchange, offering up an “all good” through a half smile that revealed some orthodontia.
I went through that plate pretty quickly as well. My server, Jennifer, then arrived at the perfect time with the ribeye just a moment later. Now, it’s important for both of you who will read this review to know that I’ve cooked probably 300 steaks in my life. I went through a New York Strip phase, then a bone-in ribeye phase, and for the last couple of years, I’ve been making a lot of filets. I’m a cast-iron skillet guy and I’ve perfected the medium-rare temperature (four minutes each side on medium-to-medium-high heat, after sitting with a dry rub at room temperature for an hour).
I bring this up to let you know that I know my way around a piece of beef, and this medium-rare Ponderosa ribeye was OK. I didn’t love the steak, but I didn’t hate it either. Surely by now you can tell I went for the overall experience just as much as for the food. If I went back, and I probably will — again for the overall experience — I wouldn’t hesitate to order the exact same thing. All this despite a bottle of A1 being delivered with the steak, and as she set it before me, Jennifer asked, “Do you need a different steak sauce? We also have Heinz 57.”
I’d be lying if I didn’t share that I made room for the dessert buffet. I had some soft-serve vanilla and chocolate ice cream with all kinds of toppings.
To get in and out of there for $23-ish and then a $5 tip I feel is a decent value for the amount of food I ate. And that’s why you go to Ponderosa. You’re not going to have the best steak or the best meal or the best experience of your life, but you’ll get fed well and even with six weeks worth of out-of-place neck scruff, you won’t look that weird.
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