Where to Eat 6 Iconic Kentucky Foods
I grew up and have spent much of my life in Kentucky. Rich, hearty cooking reminds me of home. Certain foods are clearly associated with my home state. Join me as we wander the Commonwealth in search of 6 iconic Kentucky foods.
Today, most people think of Kentucky cuisine as fried chicken and bourbon. I love fried chicken, but it did not make the list. Bourbon is a different story. Even the smell of bourbon does to me what durian fruit does to this kitten. I hate it! It is great for tourism and business, though.
I have eaten and can testify for each of the foods and restaurants mentioned below. If you are a native Kentuckian or are just visiting, then you need to try these foods.
The Hot Brown
Nothing says Kentucky like the Hot Brown. Created by the chef at Brown Hotel in Louisville in 1926, this rich, open-faced sandwich remains a local favorite. Texas toast is topped with turkey, bacon, and tomatoes. Then mornay sauce is slathered over the top, creating a cheesy masterpiece that makes you want to lick the plate.
Of coarse, what better place to eat a Hot Brown than at the Brown Hotel. This luxury hotel on Broadway in downtown Louisville is on the National Register of Historic Places. J. Graham’s Cafe in the hotel serves the original.
For a less expensive, more laid back atmosphere, I recommend Goose Creek Diner. It a neighborhood diner where we have eaten several times, almost always ordering the Hot Brown. I have sampled the Hot Brown at both and loved both versions of this iconic Kentucky food.
Traditionally, Burgoo was a wild game soup/stew that has been served in Kentucky since at least the mid 1800s. You won’t find Burgoo in restaurants made with rabbit, squirrel, and venison, but you will find many good versions. 3-4 meats are cooked with multiple vegetables slowly for hours, historically over an open flame.
I first tried it at a burgoo cook off at the Red Mile in Lexington while in high school. Some of these may have contained game, but most were made with beef, pork, and chicken. Prior to writing this article, I had only found it in a couple of Barbecue restaurants. I found that it is much more common here than I knew. Several restaurants here in Louisville serve it. Fire Fresh BBQ in Shelbyville serves a spicy, soupy version.
My favorite so far has been from Moonlite Bar-B-Q in Owensboro. They use mutton in addition to other meats, giving it a more wild, authentic flavor.
Spoonbread dates back to the native Americans. Early settlers in the 1700s quickly adopted the recipe and it has remained a Kentucky tradition ever since. Spoonbread is basically a cornbread souffle, with a pudding like consistency. The names comes from being able to scoop it with a spoon.
I remember this from my childhood. My grandmother made it and it was delicious. She also made the best fried chicken ever, but that’s for another time. Spoonbread tastes like smooth, mild cornbread on its own. Add a little butter, or maybe honey or molasses to amp up the experience.
The small artsy-craftsy, college town of Berea in central Kentucky is ground zero for this iconic Kentucky food. Historic Boone Tavern prides itself on serving some of the best. Every year, Berea hosts the Spoonbread Festival with over 50,000 people attending each year.
Ham cured with salt and brown sugar in Kentucky is called country ham. Kentucky loves its country ham. The Kentucky State Fair hosts a yearly country ham competition. The winning ham is then auctioned for charity. This year’s Grand Champion from Penn’s Country Hams sold for $1 million! The record remains $2 million in 2015. Wow!
I have not tasted country ham from Penn’s, but I can attest that Finchville Farms Country Hams from the tiny town of Finchville, Kentucky. They are almost always in the top 5 at the fair. Flavorful, chewy, and salty, but not to salty, a slice of Finchville ham on a buttermilk biscuit makes a perfect breakfast,..or brunch, or lunch, or…
You can purchase Finchville hams at the farm, about midway between Louisville and Lexington. Or, order them online. Here in Louisville, we can purchase the hams at Kroger, Walmart, and other chains.
Roasted mutton has been a staple in western Kentucky since the 1800s. Scottish and Irish immigrants raised sheep for wool, and mutton was their primary meat. For over 70 years, Moonlite Barbecue in Owensboro, Kentucky has served slow roasted mutton barbecue with a Worcestershire sauce marinade.
I have never encountered mutton barbecue anywhere else. People travel from all over to try it. I normally do not like mutton, but Moonlite’s is quite tasty. I am not the only fan. Southern Living magazine named Moonlite’s the best barbecue in Kentucky. Moonlite made CNN travel’s list of the 15 of the World’s Happiest Places. How can you top that?
Personally, I recommend to avoid the buffet and just order the mutton, some veggies, with burgoo for a starter.
Derby Pie is a chocolate and walnut pie that is rich, decadent and delicious. A family created the recipe in 1960 in Prospect, on the outskirts of Louisville. Naming it after the Kentucky Derby, it quickly became a local favorite.
I have eaten Derby Pie several times at parties and local restaurants. It is truly different than any other pie, distinct and delicious.
The family who created it trade marked “Derby Pie” in 1968. You can find imitations, but literally, the only true Derby Pie comes from Kern’s Kitchen in Louisville.
Here, several restaurants including the Bristol Bar & Grill and the Brown Hotel serve it. Is is readily available in stores around town, less so the farther you get from Louisville. Online, you can purchase one from Kern’s Kitchen or A Taste of Kentucky.
Bonus: Hamburgers at Monticello’s City Pool Hall
When I visited my grandparents in Monticello, Kentucky as a kid, my grandfather would treat my brother and I to Pool Hall burgers. To this day, these are the best hamburgers that I have eaten. My uncle Clyde owned the City Pool Hall back then and manned the griddle. People would drive from all around and order bags of his burgers. He sold the pool hall over 20 years.
In researching this post, I stumbled upon an article in FoodNetwork.com that mentioned Monticello City Pool Hall hamburgers, “a favorite for over 50 years: a hamburger patty flattened and crisped alongside its bun on a venerable flat-top griddle, all crunch and savor.”
They must still use the same recipe. My mother told me the secret to Uncle Clyde’s hamburgers, but I really can’t share. Sorry. If visiting Lake Cumberland, then you need to try one.