Great Bites in the Bluegrass State: What to Eat in Kentucky

Get lucky in Kentucky with these iconic state foods and the best places to try each.

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Patti’s 1880’s Settlement

Photo By: Sarah Jane Sanders

Photo By: Willow Pond of Aurora

Photo By: Anita Baker

Bourbon and Beyond

From the eastern Appalachian mountains west to the Mississippi River bottoms, Kentuckians stand united around tables loaded with aged country ham, tender spoonbread (please pass the butter), and handmade sorghum syrup. Oh, and a little local bourbon, maybe before. Maybe after. Ready to join the deliciousness? For everyday, try beloved soupbeans and cornbread and their variations: nationally acclaimed burritos and tacos. Pair with an Ale-8-One, munch a Modjeska for dessert, and share Kentucky's commonwealth.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Hot Brown

In 1926 Chef Fred Schmidt at Louisville’s Brown Hotel created a savory, creamy, hot, open-faced turkey sandwich intended to recharge the energies of the hotel’s nightly dinner-dance patrons. Schmidt layered sliced turkey on toast, covered it with Mornay sauce, tucked in some Roma tomato halves and toast points, ran the dish under a hot broiler and added crisp bacon slices as the topper. The Hot Brown, still available daily at the Brown Hotel, has its own webpage, which includes the original recipe. It remains popular enough in restaurants across the commonwealth that it has spawned its own best-of competitions.

Go to: The Brown Hotel

Bourbon

Kentucky gave birth to bourbon, and Kentucky distillers still make 95 percent of the world’s bourbon today. Kentucky’s bourbon-friendly natural assets include iron-free limestone water, a good climate and lots of corn, which must make up at least 51 percent of bourbon’s basic ingredients — its “grain bill.” Kentucky bourbon lovers who sip at home often choose time-tested Old Forester, introduced in Louisville in 1870 and distilled legally right on through Prohibition. Among many fine bourbon bars in the commonwealth, Henry Clay’s Public House in Lexington stands out for excellent live music and for its location in a building the bourbon-loving Great Compromiser built in 1805.

Go to: Henry Clay's Public House

Benedictine

Jennie Benedict, born in 1860 in Louisville, invented Benedictine, a spread made of cream cheese, cucumber juice, onion juice and seasonings, mashed together with a fork. Benedictine dip or sandwiches appear on many Louisville tables during Derby week. The original recipe — which is widely available — includes two drops of green food coloring, an ingredient that some cooks and chefs skip today. Louisvillians hungry for their signature spread often stop by La Peche Gourmet-To-Go, attached to Lilly's, for famed chef Kathy Cary’s cucumber-rich, crunchy version. Some also order a Benedictine-and-bacon sandwich to go, as fortification until they get their Benedictine home and can whip one up themselves.

Go to: Lilly's

Mint Julep

Bourbon-based mint juleps on Derby Day are a Kentucky ritual, for both natives and visitors, and mint juleps are the official drink at the Churchill Downs racetrack. Kentucky mint juleps start with bourbon and include muddled fresh mint, sugar or simple syrup and crushed ice. The drinks are assembled carefully, even ceremonially. Kentucky statesman Henry Clay held both mint juleps and bourbon in high regard. Craft cocktails at many restaurants include year-round julep variations that hold wide appeal. In Louisville, 610 Magnolia adds rose water and rose petal infusions, for example, and Proof On Main stretches out with a Hot to Trot cocktail that includes cayenne, curacao and a bitter herbal liqueur.

Go to: Proof on Main

Deviled Eggs

To be popular at a Kentucky potluck, bring deviled eggs, and watch your platter empty before all others. While each Kentucky cook makes deviled eggs to suit family preferences, ranging from purely savory to sweet-tart, Kentuckians are broad-minded and enjoy the full flavor spectrum. Although restaurants rarely feature deviled eggs, Dudley’s Restaurant, founded in Lexington in 1981, offers acclaimed daily deviled egg appetizers, with optional Kentucky smoked trout and fried caper toppings. Some Kentuckians resist the “devil” in deviled eggs, perhaps not trusting the late 18th-century British, who began using the term to describe certain intensely flavored, stimulating foods. While Kentuckians claim deviled (or “dressed” or “stuffed”) eggs as their own, versions of this favorite bite appear on tables around the world, and have since the days of the ancient Romans.

Go to: Dudley's on Short

Spoon Bread

Sit down in the tranquil dining room at Berea College’s historic Boone Tavern and the famed restaurant’s hot starter dish arrives: crusty gold spoon bread scooped straight from the baking dish, served with fresh butter. James Beard called spoon bread a “heavy soufflé.” It is cornbread’s fancy cousin: eggy, buttery, tender and moist. While yellow cornmeal reigns in some parts of the country, legendary mid-20th-century Boone Tavern manager and cookbook author Richard T. Hougen required white cornmeal for the tavern’s signature dish. Home cooks can choose from many recipes to add spoon bread to the table for holidays, birthdays and, of course, Derby brunches.

Go to: Boone Tavern

Goetta

Northern Kentuckians cherish crisp-fried slices of goetta (pronounced “GET-uh”) for breakfast, in sandwiches and as part of “hangover cure” plates. Goetta manufacturers mix meat and broth with steel-cut oats and seasonings to make a mush, then shape the mixture into logs or blocks to sell to restaurants and home cooks. Cooks and chefs then slice or crumble it and fry until crisp. The venerable Anchor Grill in Covington — “We may doze but never close” — serves goetta around the clock, 365 days a year, and does not have far to go to buy it. Just across the road, Glier’s Goetta, founded in 1946, makes 1 million pounds of this German-influenced specialty food each year.

Go to: Anchor Grill

Fried Chicken

Even though people around the world love Kentucky’s fast-food chicken for casual meals, it’s the fine-dining restaurants that lift the deep-fried version to its peak. Heirloom Restaurant in Midway offers a memorable, buttermilk-brined chicken breast, serving it over rich mashed potatoes with sawmill gravy and arugula. This restaurant’s fried chicken livers, served with lemon-ricotta ravioli, attract a following so ardent the restaurant cannot replace them on the menu. Kentuckians still pan-fry chicken in cast-iron skillets for special meals at home, often using seasoned flour mix made from Kentucky-grown soft red winter wheat and produced at historic Weisenberger Mill.

Go to: Heirloom Restaurant

Moonshine

Independent Kentuckians have made and sold their own alcohol for at least 200 years, including before, during and after Prohibition. Much of that alcohol could be called moonshine — unaged, high-proof, corn-based, distilled whiskey, often made illegally. Distillers like Casey Jones Distillery in Hopkinsville now produce legal moonshine in the light of day. Master distiller Arlon Casey Jones uses stills built on patterns his grandfather developed in Golden Pond, Kentucky, a town renowned for its Prohibition-era moonshine. Golden Pond ceased to exist when its residents were forced to move in the 1960s to make way for the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

Burgoo

While trips to Keeneland Race Track in Lexington usually involve betting, another “B” word also beckons locals there: burgoo, a Kentucky staple since at least the mid-1800s. Burgoo has no fixed recipe. Food historian Charles Patteson calls it “a hunter’s stew made from what was available.” Early versions of burgoo included local game, simmered outdoors in large iron kettles. Today, burgoo is a thick, savory dish made with multiple meats and vegetables, spiced to the cook’s taste. At Louisville’s Churchill Downs, Derby-goers find burgoo sustaining on the first Saturday in May. Food journalist Jean Anderson said burgoo is “de rigueur at political rallies, church suppers, and family reunions in Kentucky.”

Shaker Lemon Pie

For nearly 50 years, diners have driven to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg for beauty, history, discovery — and the Shaker Lemon Pie. This double-crusted, intensely tart-sweet pie, filled with faintly bitter, paper-thin slices of whole lemon, makes Kentuckians forget all about the lemon meringue and icebox pies in the world outside. Guests from around the country still come in droves for other Shaker foods as well, and for the rich pleasures of enjoying seed-to-table dining in a lovingly restored setting. Big favorites from the menu include tangy tomato-celery soup, the corn muffins or white yeast rolls that are passed with each main meal, and fried chicken.

Go to: Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill

Soup Beans and Fried Corn Cakes

Soup beans and cornbread? That’s the epicenter of Kentucky’s Appalachian heritage cooking, enjoyed across the state for the savory, salty goodness of slow-cooked pinto beans seasoned with smoked pork. While bean soups can be based on any dried bean, soup beans are always pintos. The best soup beans and cornbread come from home — ideally from Mamaw’s kitchen — but restaurants across the price spectrum also feature these now-stylish survival foods. Windy Corner Market, a popular country crossroadslocation near Lexington, offers red-pepper-flecked soup beans and fried corn cakes every day, served with raw onion, as they should be. Soup beans and cornbread originated because hard-working farm and mining families needed good food they could afford and cook while managing all the work of self-reliant homesteads. The taste of the foods, the comfort they offer and the sense of connection to tradition and culture moved them into the mainstream, where they bubble along today in frugal families’ meals.

Go to: Windy Corner Market

Hoppin’ John

Alfalfa restaurant in Lexington put Hoppin’ John on the menu soon after it opened in 1973, and the dish is still available daily, making generations of Alfalfa fans happy. Alfalfa’s idiosyncratic, vegetarian version of this coastal favorite features brown rice topped with lightly seasoned black-eyed peas, a layer of diced canned tomatoes and a trio of toppings: chopped fresh onions, bell peppers and grated white cheddar cheese. Insiders order the cabbage side salad, invented during the early 1970s lettuce boycott, and ask for Alfalfa’s famous miso dressing on the side.

Go to: Alfalfa

Bourbon Balls

During the winter holidays and Derby week in early May, home cooks often make bourbon balls with moist centers that include crushed vanilla cookies, somewhat like European rum balls. Several excellent Kentucky artisanal candy companies produce truffle-like versions of these beloved candies: creamy, bourbon-soaked fondant centers dipped in fine chocolate. At 95-year-old Ruth Hunt Candies in Mt. Sterling, staff members top each Woodford Reserve Bourbon Ball with a perfect pecan half. Ruth Hunt also lures thousands of fans with its distinctive Blue Monday candy bar, a chocolate-coated slice of pulled, meltaway vanilla cream candy, honoring a traveling minister who said he needed a little sweet each week to help him through his “Blue Monday.”

Transparent Puddings and Pies

The transparent pies at Magee’s Bakery, founded in Maysville in 1956, have their roots in nearby farm kitchens, where cooks made dessert with what they had: eggs, butter, sugar, cream and a touch of flour. These iconic pies may be first cousins of the better-known chess pies, and second cousins once removed of pecan pies, but fans insist on the distinctiveness of transparent pies: They are made without the cornmeal and flavorings typical of chess pies, and without the nuts so crucial in pecan pies. Aficionados also know that the smaller, personal-sized pies are called “transparent puddings.” Reportedly, George Clooney, Maysville’s best-known native, seeks out and shares the pies with friends and colleagues on his movie sets.

Go to: Magee's Bakery

Corn Pudding

Corn pudding, a side dish of baked, corn-filled custard, delights Kentuckians at large family meals, potlucks and holiday dinners. Many Kentucky home cooks depend on a widely shared recipe that stays on the menu at Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, handed down through five generations of the owners’ family. The James Beard Foundation declared the Beaumont Inn an American Classic in 2015, honoring nearly 100 years of family ownership and a commitment to iconic Kentucky foods like country ham and fried chicken.

Go to: Beaumont Inn

Craft Beer

Bourbon may take top billing when it comes to Kentucky drinking, but the craft beer scene is thriving too. In 2012, Lexington’s West Sixth Brewing began brewing and serving beer in one corner of a historic bakery building called The Bread Box. The craft microbrewery now offers 15 to 20 beers on tap, and the Bread Box brims over with creative, community-minded businesses and nonprofits, including an inventive indoor farm at the heart of the building. Stores and restaurants across Kentucky sell West Sixth’s signature IPA and many other beers. Soon West Sixth beer will include ingredients grown on a newly purchased 120-acre Franklin County farm, 35 minutes from the brewery.

Go to: West Sixth Brewing

Tacos and Burritos

In a national competition in 2014 aimed at finding America’s best burrito, Lexington’s Tortillería y Taquería Ramírez missed first place by one point. A judge called the tortillas “essentially perfect.” This modest grocery-restaurant attracts hundreds of patrons daily, for both sit-down and carry-out orders. Many are there just for stacks of warm, freshly made corn tortillas: The Ramirez family buys, soaks and grinds Kentucky-grown corn from local Weisenberger Mill as the main ingredient in the tortillas. Journalist and Mexican food authority Gustavo Arrellano documented the Ramirez family’s story in an oral history for Southern Foodways Alliance, beginning with their coming to work on a central Kentucky horse farm and leading to their owning a block of buildings that includes their famous grocery-restaurant.

Go to: Tortillería Y Taquería Ramírez

Doughnuts

Bowman and Zelma Spalding launched Spalding’s Bakery in their north Lexington home in 1929. Their family members still follow the original recipe to make Lexington’s most-famous yeast doughnuts — slightly gnarly, crispy, light, barely glazed, both filling and fulfilling. Other pastries from Spalding’s, particularly apple fritters and filled doughnuts, have their own fan groups. Although plenty of media outlets have affirmed the doughnuts’ wonders, only locals willing to come early, stand in line and carry out — there are no seats — get the full benefits of the bakers’ skills. Once the day’s supply of all the pastries runs out, Spalding’s closes.

Go to: Spalding’s Bakery

Mutton Barbecue

Owensboro, a large river town, serves as Kentucky’s barbecued-mutton epicenter. At least four local restaurants keep mutton on their menus, and frequent church dinners and fundraising events feature this regional specialty of western Kentucky. The Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro serves a legendary daily buffet showcasing mutton, along with other meats and traditional side dishes like country green beans and broccoli casserole. One distinctive buffet item, banana salad, features sliced bananas rolled in a cooked sweet-tart creamy dressing and topped with crushed peanuts. Bananas have a Kentucky tie because early refrigerated railcars bringing the tropical fruits north from New Orleans to Chicago for national distribution had to stop in Fulton, Kentucky, to replenish their ice supply.

Go to: Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn

Burger

At Jack Fry’s, the sultry Louisville restaurant that first opened in 1933, diners can order Jack’s Burger for lunch or dinner. Jack Fry’s chefs put Black Hawk Farms Black Angus chuck on a brioche bun and then add lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions and spicy-sweet local pickles. The rest of Jack Fry’s menu soars to fine-dining heights, but the burger never disappoints. The City Pool Hall in Monticello serves up another kind of burger, also a favorite for more than 50 years: a hamburger patty flattened and crisped alongside its bun on a venerable flat-top griddle, all crunch and savor.

Go to: Jack Fry's

Modjeskas

In the late 1800s Anton Busath, a French confectioner living in Louisville, worked for years to perfect a candy he named for a beautiful, dramatic Polish actress, Helena Modjeska. Busath wrapped a premium marshmallow in soft, buttery caramel, creating a tender bite of sweet-on-sweet that enjoys dedicated fans today. Muth’s Candies, founded in 1921, acquired the closely guarded recipe in the late 1940s. Descendants of founder Rudy Muth continue to make and wrap Modjeskas by hand today, coating some with milk or dark chocolate. Muth’s now sells Modjeskas and other confections online as well as in its NuLu store.

Go to: Muth's Candy

Sorghum

Kentuckians revere sweet sorghum syrup, which many call “molasses” or “sorghum molasses,” as a favorite way to close out a meal: They mash sorghum with soft butter and apply the mixture to a biscuit or two. Sorghum is a single-ingredient sweet syrup that farm families can produce from start to finish on their own land. Kentucky cooks use sorghum in soft spicy cookies, baked beans and the apple stack cakes that are part of traditional Appalachian cuisine. Premier Kentucky producers include Townsend Sorghum Mill and Country Rock, both of which hold national sorghum championships, as well as Oberholtzer’s, which does not enter national competition. Starting in late summer, sorghum producers press sorghum cane stalks to release their green juice, then cook that down in special pans to yield sweet, dark amber syrup. For many Kentuckians, cooking sorghum is a fun activity done communally with family and friends.

Skyline Chili

Nicholas Lambrinides, born in Greece, started Skyline Chili in 1949 in Cincinnati, relying on a secret blend of Mediterranean spices. Across the Ohio River, northern Kentuckians have enjoyed their own Skyline locations for decades and claim the flavorful sauce as part of their cuisine. Basic chili, called a “3-way,” comes on a bed of spaghetti, topped with grated cheese. Diners can keep adding toppings, choosing beans or onions or both, to reach a “4-way” or “5-way.” The chain’s signature Coneys are sauce-topped hot dogs, with other toppings optional. There are several Skyline Chili branches in Louisville.

Go to: Skyline Chili

Beer Cheese

Kentuckians began eating beer cheese in the 1940s, when Arizona chef Joe Allman invented a cheese spread with four ingredients: cheese, beer, garlic and cayenne. Joe’s cousin, famed restaurateur Johnny Allman, served it as an appetizer at popular destination restaurants on the Kentucky River near Winchester. Today, Hall’s on the River in Winchester serves a popular beer-cheese appetizer with saltine crackers and crisp vegetables. Hall’s spread won the People’s Choice award at Winchester’s 2016 Beer Cheese Festival. Hall’s Snappy Beer Cheese, a commercial version of the restaurant’s housemade spread, can be ordered online.

Go to: Hall's On The River

Derby Pie

George Kern and his parents, Leaudra and Walter, developed Derby Pie around 1950 in Prospect, Kentucky. They trademarked it as Derby-Pie in the late 1960s. Kentuckians eat Derby Pie year-round, not just in early May. Kern’s Kitchen in Louisville produces the custardy walnut-chocolate dessert from a secret recipe, selling it frozen online and to restaurants and grocery stores in parts of Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. When Kentucky home cooks and chefs make similar pies — for example, adding chocolate chips to a pecan pie — they sometimes use names like Racetrack Pie to let diners know the pie is similar to Derby-Pie while also avoiding trouble over the fiercely protected trademark.

Flowerpot Bread

Western Kentuckians and people from throughout the state drive to the tiptop of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area to eat at Patti’s 1880’s Settlement. One big reason is Patti’s Flower Pot Bread. With each entree, Patti’s serves a seasoned clay flowerpot overflowing with tender yeast bread freshly baked from scratch. Plain butter and strawberry butter come alongside it. Patti’s and its sibling restaurant, Mr. Bill’s, serve more than 350,000 people annually, in a town with fewer than 400 residents. Take a walk through the gardens or play in the nearby lake, and come back for a slice of mile-high meringue pie.

Go to: Patti's 1880's Settlement

Ale-8-One

In Winchester in 1926, G. L. Wainscott launched Ale-8-One, a new, gingery, caffeinated soft drink. He promoted it as “A Late One” to spotlight its recent arrival on an active soft drink scene. For decades, fans went to Winchester to buy the drink, carrying supplies to friends and family members far away. Now Ale-8-One is available online and its distribution area includes much of Kentucky, along with some Ohio and Indiana counties. G. L. Wainscott’s great-great-nephew Fielding Rogers heads the company today, and he still relies on the founder’s handwritten notes to stay true to the original recipe.

Fried Catfish

While fried catfish appears on menus in restaurants across Kentucky, it’s held in particularly high esteem by diners in western Kentucky. Willow Pond Southern Catfish in Aurora breads catfish fillets lightly and fries them to a crisp brown, serving them alongside well-praised sides, including hush puppies, vinegar slaw, baked potatoes and white beans. Condiments on each table include a sweet red pepper relish that most diners add to the beans — though it can be a dip for other foods as well. Willow Pond of Aurora opened in 1993, taking over from Sue and Charlie’s, a popular catfish restaurant founded in 1947, and it remains known for its warm, skilled service.

Country Ham

Kentucky country ham, now a revered delicacy, was once simply “ham.” Families raised their own pigs, cured the hams in salt — sometimes with brown sugar added — smoked them a bit if they wished, and then hung them to age in unheated smokehouses for up to two years. Nancy Newsom Mahaffey of Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham in Princeton says it’s likely her ancestors began curing hams soon after reaching Virginia in 1642. Today, Nancy uses a recipe written into a family will in the late 1700s to produce stellar aged hams that were praised by James Beard. Available to purchase on the company’s site, they’re impressive enough that a Col. Newsom ham is the only American exhibit in a Spanish museum dedicated to jamon.