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Three new hot spots satisfy Music City's hankering for below-$10 lunches

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For anyone who says they can't find a decent lunch in Nashville for under $10, I'll bet you burgers, barbecue and brisket tacos you're wrong. Conversation on the Scene's food blog, Bites, is buzzing about three new spots that have hit the sweet spot for cheap eats.

Gabby's Burgers & Fries
For so many reasons, I love this little burger joint nestled in the crook of the road where Chestnut and Humphreys streets meet. Housed in the legendary Hap Townes building near Greer Stadium, Gabby's is everything that's good about a dive—intimate, affordable, unpretentious—yet it's spanking clean. A fresh coat of pastel yellow and sage green paint, a pristine drop ceiling sans the years of grease stains that loom over many grill rooms, and a sunny side patio give Gabby's a welcome brightness instead of that friends-in-low-places pall of so many places of its ilk. Glass canisters on the counter, filled with chocolate-dipped Nutter Butters and Oreos, invite the obvious comparison between Gabby's and the bygone Vandyland. Now, I'm not saying that any place will ever fill the hole in my heart left when the venerable lunch counter shut down, but Gabby's comes the closest so far. And, well, to be perfectly honest, the burgers are better. Yep, I said it.

The terse menu at Gabby's lists six burgers—including one double stack—adorned with cheese, chili, caramelized onions, barbecue sauce and bacon. The Other Things menu includes a chicken burger, veggie burger, hot dogs, chili and grilled cheese. We could easily have worked our way down the short roster over our two visits, except that we couldn't help but order the outstanding $5.25 burger all over again.

Served on a shiny seedless bun from local Charpier's bakery, with an airy, chewy texture, the hand-smashed 5-ounce patties are cooked to medium-well, which would normally be sacrilege. But they were still so tender and juicy that it didn't matter. Grilled onions were the pièce de résistance, adding both sweetness and moisture to the big sandwich. Free toppings include Roma tomato slices, thick crinkle-cut pickle rounds and a large fluffy frond of leaf lettuce. A condiment bar stocks mayo, ranch, wasabi mayo and regular and chipotle ketchup. Bacon, grilled onions and jalapenos are available for a quarter or two.

As good as the burger was, it was the sweet potato fries that left us talking. Long planks were deep-fried until the dark brown surface concealed a steaming bright orange core. (The occasional fried nub at the bottom of the pile is like a piece of candy that melts in your mouth.) Dusted in salt—with hints of sugar, clove and cinnamon—and dipped in tangy cool ketchup, the fries are a seductive blend of sweet and salty, crisp and custardy that stands to extend the Hap Townes building's tenure as a lunchtime landmark. Indeed, lunch is the only time that Gabby's is open—from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Let's hope that owner Doug Havron's 20-hour workweek pans out, because if it does, it will be an inspiration to us all. Named for his daughter, Gabby's represents Havron's attempt to regain some control of a life out of balance. A former Sysco salesman, Havron bought Sam & Zoe's coffeehouse in Berry Hill, then sold it to find a business that would give him more time with Gabby, his son Seamus and wife Coreen. That backstory, which is printed on the menu, explains the staff's "Living the Dream" T-shirts and the welcoming atmosphere. Havron & Co. look like they're having fun behind the lunch counter, and the vibe is contagious.

The Local Taco
If you want to see a high-intensity dialogue about a low-key dining establishment, check out the May 5 blog post on Bites entitled "First Bite: The Local Taco." Readers gnashed about the noshes at the new Sylvan Park eatery, applauding and complaining in almost equal measure. Hot-button items were the margaritas (Bites readers like the sweet and tangy balance of the frozen version), chips and salsa (nobody wants to pay for chips and salsa, ever) and the patio (people love it—love it!).

The maiden restaurant project of entrepreneur John Ko, The Local Taco brings together an illustrious list of restaurant veterans, including former Bound'ry and South Street owner Jay Pennington, as well as Bound'ry alumnus Michael Cribb and former Virago and Lime chef Clay Greenberg, both of whom are helping get the operation up and running. The team revitalized the building that once housed Bro's, Portland Brew, Red Rooster and Goldie's Deli with a color scheme of clean white, crisp blue, cheery yellow and stainless steel, accessorized with comfy plastic chairs and playful pendant lights made of Ball jars.

Maybe it's the high expectations set by the cast of culinary luminaries, or the hunger for Mexican food in the neighborhood, or the hopes that Nashville was finally getting a specialty taco restaurant like something you'd expect to find in California. But the general undertone of chatter surrounding The Local Taco is a desire for something more—more interesting, more local, more food for the money.

Maybe it could be more. And maybe it will be more. After all, the place only opened the day before Cinco de Mayo. For now, though, the business is sizzling with spring fever, and the patio is packed at lunch and dinner with families, cocktailers and neighbors working their way through the tight roster of $2.50 tacos and $3.25 enchiladas, made with flour tortillas and fillings that include smoked pork shoulder, fried fish, chicken breast, brisket and fried shrimp. The favorite so far has been the Korean barbecue taco—grilled hunks of sweet-and-tangy marinated beef adorned with Asian slaw and sesame seeds.

Of course, the real star of the show has been the combination of balmy spring weather and twinkle-lit patio at the quirky crossroads in Sylvan Park. That half of the equation is nearly perfect. If the other half catches up, The Local Taco stands to become a local institution.

The Local Taco opens at 11 a.m. and serves lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.

Jimmy Carl's Lunch Box
If all restaurateurs had the vision of Russell Nelson and Pat Isbey, more of Nashville's legendary nightspots could moonlight as go-to lunchrooms. Los Angeles transplant Nelson and Indiana native Isbey—a filmmaker who directed the 2003 documentary The Station Inn: True Life Bluegrass—pulled up a smoker to the side of the Station Inn this month and started serving barbecue during the daylight hours, when the Mother Church of Bluegrass historically rests up for her nights of banjos and beer.

With Isbey as the barbecue brains and Nelson helping fund the project with proceeds from a recent game show victory (Trivial Pursuit: America Plays), the guys named the joint after Frank Zappa's original drummer, Jimmy Carl Black.

Like a hermit crab taking up residence in an exquisite but vacant shell, the Lunch Box fits seamlessly into the history-soaked cinderblock-and-stone landmark, which, to quote Isbey, is exactly what a build-your-own-barbecue-restaurant kit would look like. The half-sheet menu includes pulled pork, smoked bologna and hot beef sandwiches, ribs and chicken. Don't miss the high lonesome kick of red cabbage-vinegar slaw with carrot strings and jalapeño simple syrup, or the sweet-hot medley of beans strewn with pork and green bell peppers. Sandwich plates start at $6 with chips and drink, and tax is included. It's worth breaking the 10-buck barrier to get a third-of-a-rack of ribs ($11), which glistens with caramelized honey glaze over a sandy rub of chili pepper, paprika and cumin. A slice of locally made key lime cheesecake makes an unexpectedly delicate finale for this hearty lunch. The only thing missing from the concise menu—which boasts free parking, homemade food and free air conditioning—is beer. For that, you'll have to come back at 7 p.m., when the Station Inn comes to life with world-class live music and the sensational tongue-in-cheek Doyle & Debbie Show.

Jimmy Carl's serves lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:15 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Email cfox@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-844-9408.

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