IF YOU’RE LOOKING to travel someplace where you can order a très bien duck confit mere hours after destroying a paper plate full of awesome BBQ, put Kentucky on your “to-eat-and-drink” list. You’ll find plenty of round-the-world influences, a whole lot of “down home,” and several world-famous drinks and dishes that have their roots right here in the Bluegrass State.
Kentucky fare is as complex as any palate, and these 12 experiences will make that crystal clear — though deciding exactly what to put in your mouth first might be as tricky as ever.
1. Sampling tapas that feel straight out of Spain
The first spot any non-Kentucky-native should beeline to is Mojito Tapas in Louisville. Not what you were expecting? Exactly. You can feel the energy as soon as you pull up in the parking lot, and immediately all Southern stereotypes get shattered. The restaurant is locally owned, and the tapas range from modified American cuisine to fresh-made Spanish paella that takes up to an hour to prepare. This is not a place you come for a “quick bite” — this is a place you come to experience.
The menu itself may overwhelm you at first glance due to the sheer volume of options, but it’s a safe bet that whatever you order, it’s going to be good. My humble opinion: You absolutely can’t leave without trying the datiles rellenos (stuffed dates), full of goat cheese, wrapped in savory bacon, and covered in red sauce and sweet honey. And “mojito” is in the restaurant name for a reason, friends. Theirs are phenomenal.
2. Ordering a Hot Brown at the Brown Hotel
Frequently recognized as Louisville’s most famous dish, the Hot Brown is something that will mean nothing to you until you’ve gotten to know Kentucky. It’s an open-faced turkey sandwich topped with bacon and mornay sauce (a white sauce with cheese added to the mix) — it’s definitely this special sauce that seals the deal.
The sandwich is sold all over the state, but Louisville is home to the Brown Hotel, where the dish has its roots. You’ve probably seen the hotel on cooking shows, including Man vs. Food, a segment with Bobby Flay, and even ABC News. It’s something of an icon in Louisville and one of the most prestigious places to stay in the area — get a room here if you can!
3. Biting into the Miss Madison at the Red Pepper Deli
Growing up in Kentucky, one of my favorite spots to eat was the Red Pepper Deli. Most locals cite Red Pepper as the best place for a sandwich.
The deli has two locations in Oldham County — one’s in Crestwood, the other in La Grange. I’m partial to the latter, set right in the middle of La Grange’s Main Street, a microcosm of the area’s small-town charm. Main Street is home to shops and restaurants housed in buildings from the 1800s, and the street has train tracks cutting right down the middle.
I recommend the Miss Madison sandwich, if lunch is what you’re after. It’s stacked high with turkey, cucumber cream cheese, and plenty of toppings. What I love most, though, is the homemade pasta salads, like Chipotle Chicken Pasta. For the best of both worlds, substitute your chips for pasta — and have your cake and eat it, too.
4. Sipping a Mint Julep at Churchill Downs
The Kentucky Derby is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not only do you get to hang out with friends and family, bet on horses, and enjoy the sunshine, you also have the opportunity to indulge in one of Kentucky’s most famous drinks.
The Mint Julep is a mixture of mint, water, sugar, and bourbon, and during Derby season it’s served in stemless tumblers that you can keep — and use to impress your friends — forever! If you can’t make it for Kentucky’s world-famous horse race, don’t fret. Churchill Downs is open throughout the year, and most other bars around the state can pour you a Mint Julep, too.
5. Sliding into a booth at Hometown Pizza
Many Kentuckians become absentmindedly accustomed to Hometown, to the point that when we leave the state, we’re surprised to discover it’s the thing we miss most. Started in the 1980s, there are now 18 locations (thankfully), each locally owned and with its own unique twist. But all are known for their exquisite hand-tossed crusts.
The menu is full of options beyond pizza — bacon cheese fries, salads, pasta — but if you’re looking for a good pie, you’ve come to the right place. I always order the Maui-Maui (their version of the Hawaiian pizza), though if you asked my family, they’d probably steer you towards the Hometown Special. And no Hometown experience would be complete without a glass of wine or bottle of beer off the daily specials list, which varies store to store.
6. Taking on the dynamic duo that is Goodfellas and Wiseguy Lounge
Wiseguy Lounge is a bar you’d probably never know about if you didn’t live or grow up in Northern Kentucky. You’re welcome in advance. Find it in a narrow, two-story structure, right above the Goodfellas location in MainStrasse Village, Covington. (Goodfellas is known for its huge and delicious pizzas sold by the slice throughout the tri-state area.)
Wiseguy is perfect for a low-key rooftop bar experience. There’s couch-like seating outside, and they often have a fire pit going so you can enjoy the city views year round. There is indoor seating, but for the full experience, get a spot outdoors. Oh yeah, and the drinks are to die for — my favorite is the one named after Audrey Hepburn, but they have all the classics, too.
7. Grabbing a bottle of true Kentucky spirit
A few years back, Kentucky became one of the first states to open a legal moonshine distillery. Now, a number of producers are bottling and selling their moonshine throughout the state. Wherever you’re visiting, you should try to find a bottle of apple pie moonshine; there’s nothing like it. Trust a local. Check out Paducah Distilled Spirits, aka The Moonshine Company — there’s a museum to brush up on your knowledge of the bootleggin’ days, and, of course, plenty of samples.
You probably also know about Kentucky’s connection to the bourbon world — that is, we’re the birthplace of “America’s native spirit.” There are so many stops across the state, it’s nearly impossible to recommend just one. Which is why the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® crosses north to south, east to west, highlighting the state’s finest bourbon offerings in the form of 10 distilleries. Stops like Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Bulleit should sound familiar, though the smaller craft distilleries are the ones that always leave my “foreign” friends more surprised (and there’s another entire trail dedicated to these smaller-scale operations).
8. Enjoying Mexican food made by your second family
If there were ever somewhere that made you feel right at home as soon as you walked through the doors, Gustavo’s Mexican Grill is that place. It may look like your run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant, but with an owner like Gustavo, it’s anything but. The menu is large and the prices modest, but what really keeps you coming back over and over is the service. The wait is never too long — though the limitless chips and some of the best salsa I’ve ever had make that a non-issue anyway.
Gustavo and his family can be found running their three restaurants in Prospect, La Grange, and Crestwood. They genuinely take the time to get to know their customers, their orders, and about their lives — it’s the kind of place that frequently holds fundraisers for local causes and supports the community. Gustavo is even known for becoming part of his customers’ families and is often invited to high-school graduation parties across the county. It’s hard not to love him!
9. Going late night at the Silver Dollar
Meet the Silver Dollar in Louisville — for a good time and a spot that’s more adult-friendly (and some honky-tonk and a hefty serving of chicken and waffles thrown in), this is the place. People say there’s more whiskey available here than anywhere else in the state, and the drink list tends to agree. If you want it, it’s pretty much guaranteed they’ve got it. Oh, and I can’t emphasize this enough: Their banana pudding is downright phenomenal.
10. Mixing beer and BBQ at Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot
Frankfort Avenue, in Louisville, has wonderful wings and BBQ you shouldn’t leave the state without trying. Part tourist attraction, part locals’ spot, this place has plenty of that quintessential “BBQ ambiance.” Plus there’s free mini golf, which means waiting for your food is an opportunity, not an inconvenience.
As mentioned in the name, Frankfort Avenue has plenty of beers to try, but it also offers a selection of wine, cocktails, and all the normal bar necessities (and since we’re in Kentucky, remember that “normal” means an apocalyptic stock of whiskey and bourbon). Pick your poison, and don’t miss the Frankfort Avenue Philly or the half rack of ribs.
11. Visiting a local bakery for a bourbon ball — or 10
Kentucky, home of bourbon, likes to include its signature liquor in its food — glazes for chicken or steak, adding a kick to sauces…the list is long. But if you ask me, the best creation featuring our famous bourbon is the bourbon ball, a treat comprising bourbon, dark chocolate, and pecans. Stop into Rebecca Ruth’s, in Frankfort, to see how they’re made and pick up a box. Or skip the tour and hit up The Bakery in Louisville, which tops most locals’ lists.
12. Stocking up at a farmers market
If you’re looking for a true Kentucky farm-to-table experience, a farmers market is where you’ll find it. They’re scattered across the state, but the mainstays are in Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green, and Hopkinsville. Lexington’s market — in Cheapside Park — is said to be one of the best in the country.
Not only will you find local art and products from homegrown businesses at each of these locations, you’ll enjoy some of Kentucky’s freshest and finest food and drinks, too. Pick up some samples and stock up on your favorites — you can go home with anything from homemade cheeses and pastas to fresh sausage and herbs. Think of it as an opportunity to fill every last square inch of your suitcase before you head home.