Monday, April 28, 2014

Eating BIG in Louisville

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

- Binge Eating + Drinking thru some Bluegrass Favorites

With the 140th renewal of the Kentucky Derby coming up we're headed down to Louisville! I spent two nights down here this past winter. Because of the weather and the fact we were there on a Saturday and Sunday night, we decided to stick with the Urban Bourbon Trail as opposed to visiting any distilleries, most of which are closed on Sunday during the colder months. The Urban Bourbon Trail is a clever, well put together "guide" to the best bourbon sipping spots within city limits. I believe the cities tourism board is responsible and I'll give them a tip of my Cubs hat as they got us to do our own little tour, pumping money into their economy while enjoying a weekend long buzz.

Riding 'round and getting it

First stop of the trip was downtown at Dish on Market. We got in around Noon and they have brunch plus lunch and are part of the Urban Bourbon Trail meaning they have lots of whiskey served in many different forms. The inside of the place is very old school, almost a Wisconsin Supper Club feel to it with the age old bar and two levels of dining amongst wooden floors and staircases. The service was really friendly and interested in what we were doing in town (ID's showed we weren't locals). When I told them we came from Chicago to eat and drink they immediately fetched one of the handheld Urban Bourbon Trail Passports for us to use which would become our guide for at least five other drinking stops on this trip. The idea is you stop into one of the places, order anything and then get your passport stamped. Five stops gets you a t-shirt. We also downloaded the app. If you really want the shirt check out the phone number of the spot you're at once you get their confirmation code for the app, wink wink.

Downtown Louisville

I made like Seabiscuit and got the duty of having a Hot Brown while in town out of the way right out of the gates and she went with their fried pork chop lunch plate. Both were tasty. I dont love a Hot Brown (this was my second) but in the middle of a brutal winter this isn't a bad thing to eat. It was both comforting and well balanced. I enjoyed it. The chops were pretty good, I mean they are what they are and that's southern comfort.

A Louisville Hot Brown

Fried Pork Chop Lunch Plate

We also stopped into Garage Bar, twice in fact, and enjoyed each visit. Louisville is like one big Wicker Park and Garage Bar is a replica of Big Star in the fact it used to be an old gas station and service garage. Being the middle of winter the patio wasn't open but it looked like a great place to hang when warm. We tried a Southern Ham Sampler and some beignets amongst a few of their excellent cocktails. I remember preferring the top left and bottom right offerings from the Ham Sampler which was quite a treat with a cold one. I could see myself stopping in another couple times next trip I get down there.



At the Bar

Southern Ham Sampler


Milkwood would be one of our dinner stops the two nights we were in town. We went in later in the evening and by then the placs was pretty much empty having already gone thru the dinner rush. The only other patrons I noticed inside were Rick Pitino and his group as the University of Louisville had just played a home game at the Yum Center earlier in the day.

Chef Edward Lee's Place

We took a seat at the bar which is my preferred choice when traveling. I like to meet the people behind them and learn anything they may have to share as far as food and fun. Our bartender was from Nashville and he and his wife were big fans of Chicago. I knew I had to have an order of the rock shrimp sausage upon glancing over the menu and she really wanted the Octopus Bacon with Smashed Potatoes dish and we split the double smashed pork burger. Loved it all. I think this was probably my favorite meal on all levels because they also had this simple cocktail made with some Asian tea, I wish I'd of remembered the name, mixed with Buffalo Trace on ice. Even though it was winter, I knew I wanted to drink this all summer long.

Octopus Bacon

Rock Shrimp Sausage

Smashed Pork Burger

We did brunch Sunday morning at Proof on Main. As already discussed this place is attached to the 21c Hotel and Museum. The latter part of which is a free exhibit of Contemporary Art in the lobby of the hotel. It's worth a stop, I thought it was pretty damn cool. 


Inside the restaurant there's some really pretty pictures related to Louisville that were taken by a longtime photographer for the local newspaper. It's really nice but still pretty formal. The fact that many places are closed on Sundays along with my personal opinion of their brunch menu looking more appealing than dinner got us in here that morning. The Nashville inspired Hot Chicken dish came with white bread, corn relish and bread and butter pickles. All of which I believe was made in house, it looked different than I expected but tasted as good as I had anticipated. I had to get their Fried Bologna Sandwich that with with an over easy egg, pimento cheese spread and arugula on a toasted butter bun. Again all but the egg is made in house. The sandwich was my favorite bite of the weekend, the fries served with it were equally great. After brunch we cozied up at the bar for a round before walking around the free display of Modern Art in the hotel's lobby.

Nashville Spicy Chicken

House Bologna w/ Pimiento Cheese Spread and Egg

Walking Around

We stopped into Silver Dollar one night. I thought I read that this place has some connection to Big Star here in Chicago and you could definitely feel that. If the folks from BS had decided to open up a place reflecting 1950's Bakersfield, California than this is what you would get.

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Happening Spot up on the Hill

It almost felt identical as far as atmosphere and customers and the food was pretty damn good too. Of course the bourbon based cocktails were also to be had. We started with an order of fried oysters which were what we wanted as far as those go. Entree wise she went with the fried chicken and waffle and enjoyed her plate and I had the Plate O' Chops which had three fried bone in pork chops with a black pepper gravy and smashed potatoes. Very comforting. The menu and music is supposed to reflect the people from the South that migrated to Bakersfield starting in the 1930's. Fun stop.

Country Fried Pork Chops with Country Gravy and Mashed Potatoes

The Seelbach Hotel was on the aforementioned Urban bourbon Trail and it's an authentically restored, early 1900's bar that features a expansive bourbon collection. I ended up drinking here twice, one night to watch the NBA Dunk Contest and met some really interesting people while sipping on some rye.

As seen in The Great Gatsby

I wasn't expecting to eat Mexican on this trip but then I remembered this place I had read about that was doing up local seasonal cuisine with a Oaxacan flair. Chef Bruce Ucan is from a small village in Southern Mexico and he's bringing some of his family's recipes as well as takes on them to the Mayan Cafe.

Downtown Louisville

The chef has been here for a while now and before that he started selling salbutes, tamales and tacos out of a truck called The Gypsy Van and this was before food trucks became fashionable. Said salbutes are a staple of the Yucatán peninsula. They're freshly fried tortilla puffs that typically come topped with chopped cabbage, pulled bird (chicken or turkey), tomato, pickled red onion, avocado, and pickled jalapeno pepper. Mayan Cafe offers a variety of options on their lunch menu.


Three come to an order and they let you pick and choose your main topping option. We went with the Smoked Chicken, a Roasted Pork and a Chorizo, Potatoes & Black Beans and they were outstanding. I know I said upthread that the house bologna sandwich at Proof was my favorite bite but now I think these may have been. So good we got another round and thus I wasn't able to save any room for anything else. Next time I want to try their Papadzules which are smoked chicken & mozzarella cheese enchiladas served with a pumpkin seed sauce, fried egg, guacamole & chips. We really dont have anything like this in Chicago so dont skip over it thinking it "cant be better than what we have here" Chef Ucan would be a celebrity in Chicago. Especially in today's day, he's been practicing farm to table sustainability since he started.


We stopped into El Camino which is located amongst a happening part of town with the younger aged crowd. I believe this place also has some association with a well known Chicago Mexican dining option in that its run by a guy who used to work at Frontera.

Happening Spot on Bardstown Road

While the looks and feel of the place were great, the outdoor area must be a hotspot when warm, the tacos were not good. The al pastor was the worst I've had in a long time, drowning in what tasted like an uncooked sauce there no way was it from a spit as advertised. The panza taco wasn't much better. It was just one large hunk of pork belly that resisted arrest with each bite, on top of that all the ingredients on top of it were a little much.

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Panza (L) and Al Pastor (R) Tacos

I had better taco success at a newer place in the Highlands neighborhood called El Taco Luchador. It's pretty much the typical new aged taqueria you're seeing pop up all across the country. From the menu down to the design, but that doesn't mean the place cant be good.

Taco Shop on Bardstown Road

The fish taco was outstanding, crunchy perfectly battered fish only needed the chile aioli and pickled cabbage that came on top of it. Their unique offering that I really enjoyed was the veggie taco. Refried black beans, guacamole, queso fresco, roasted corn and poblanos, crema and pico de gallo along with a roasted plantain gave it a little Cuban flair.

Chicken Mole (L) Fish (M) Veggie (R)

Time for some old locals favorites. Indi's Fried Chicken is a Louisville Institution. When us outsiders hear Louisville and fried chicken in the same sentence we think about the Colonel, most locals think Indi's. So I knew I had to go.

One of a handful of their locations

a peak inside

Indi's has spots all over the city and they're all different in looks, I liked how they did that. Not one outlet is the same as far as the building goes. It's popular at all times of the day but they seem to do their best business at night. I visited twice and on my first visit it was around Midnight and the place was packed. I was weary about the fact the chicken is sitting there under a lamp but went ahead and ordered anyway, not like there were many other options at this time.

Spicy Fried Chicken and Spicy Wedges 

Chicken is served regular or spicy and you can definitely taste the kick in the spicy batch. I was instantly addicted, not just to it but also to the wedges which come served regular or spicy as well. This was some of the best fried chicken I ever had, maybe not the juiciest as it didnt need anytime to cool down but as far as fast food shacks go, this was grand.  The green bean side dish was also a real winner, so good I got a large container to take home on my way out of town. 

I'd done a little google search before heading down there and noticed another place called Chicken King that many praise as being, well, the King. So I just had to try them both. Similar spots, this one was a little more run-down and I didn't like the chicken quite as much as I enjoyed it at Indi's but it was still really solid and the green beans somehow managed to be better than those at Indi'. 

Locals Favorite

Fried Chicken and Wedges

Another locals favorite I found online was Check's Cafe. They appeared in a search I did for rolled oysters which if you've never heard of them are another one of Louisville's regional eats. Check's has been a staple in these parts since 1944.

Longtime Locals Favorite in the Schnitzelburg neighborhood

a peak inside

The place was hopping on this Sunday afternoon visit as I walked up to place my food order. As mentioned I was here to try a famous Louisville Rolled Oyster. These are actually a dying breed. Originally started by Phillip Mazzoni who opened a tavern in his name in 1884 in downtown Louisville. It's no longer around but along with beer Mazzoni sold hot dogs, boiled eggs, and what would become the iconic Louisville bar food, rolled oysters. They're made by taking three shucked oysters and rolling them in a thick batter before deep frying, so they come out looking almost like a baseball. You don't need a Louisville Slugger to eat one but you will need a knife and maybe a fork. It was ok, lots of breading and pretty damn heavy. Maybe there's a reason they're fading away.

Rolled Oyster

Also mentioned on Check's menu as a specialty of the house was their chili. Me being a chili connoisseur and it being another fading menu item I just had to try theirs. A big semi greasy bowl came with lots of spaghetti on the bottom. It wasn't too spicy of a blend and had large hunks of ground beef still intact as well as the standard Midwest kidney beans. Seeing as how Cincinnati is just an hour away it would seem that this "Louisville Style" of chili is a take on it, although I remember Cincy style being alot more sweet and not too much to my liking. Whereas I'd probably stop in for a bowl of this a few times each winter if I was a resident down there. Not bad at all.

Checks Famous Louisville Style Chili

Looks alot like Cincy Style Chili to me...although not as sweet

Another random regional eat they love around these parts is the fish sandwich. In fact I'll share the fish sandwich trail that leads thru a few small Indiana towns south of Indianapolis down into Louisville in another post. This was a total freestyle stop as I was just driving by and even though I wasnt hungry I wanted to make sure this report was complete.

A Louisville Staple going on 20 years

So what makes a fish sandwich a Louisville style fish sandwich? I guess a few things the first of which is the breading. It's called Green River Style but I'm not so sure what makes it so. You'd think maybe catfish would be the choice of the places serving these sandwiches but most use ocean fish. The other crucial element is the bread which is most always rye. The result? I dont need another.

Louisville Style Fish Sandwich

Another impromptu stop happened when I was riding around Monday morning getting gas before taking off for Chicago. I spied this awesome looking shack sitting in a parking lot labeled Ollie's Trolley and got excited to go back to the hotel and see what was up with it as it was early morning and they weren't open yet. As it turned out this place has quite the history here in the states. So it goes "Former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown, who had done quite well with his Kentucky Fried Chicken concept and made “Colonel” Harlan Sanders a legendary figure, tried to do the same with Ollie Gleichenhaus, who ran a tiny burger joint in Miami Beach. Ollie’s top-secret spice combo reportedly includes 32 ingredients, and Brown believed it was the burger version of the Colonel’s chicken recipe."

The Last of a Dying Breed

As the launch began Ollie's Trolley's started popping up around the country. They were unique in both looks (burgers served from a trolley) and also in taste. Aside from the secret spices used in the meat they also use a thousand island like secret sauce that goes on the burgers as well as fries which are tossed with the aforementioned 32 spices. I got there right as they were opening and so did a handful of other people. To my knowledge this is one of three left, the others in DC and Cincinnati though this might be the most "authentic" one.

At Max Capacity Inside

As I made my order I noticed something odd as I always like to watch them make the burgers at a place like this, you know to see what they're using (frozen, fresh balls smashed etc). Well as I waited and watched, there was nothing on the grill and then my order was called and I was like "what the f-ck?" I dont know if they made the patties before they open and hold them under a heatlamp until someone orders one but it was very odd. So was the taste. It's been at least 5 years since I been to a Subway but this burger tasted like a Subway sub. I have no idea why. The fries were pretty damn good though. I liked the secret seasoning which is sold by a former employee in one pound bags online.

Ollie Burger and their Secret Spiced Fries

While waiting for Ollie's Trolley to open I took a ride over to the Louisville staple that is Wagner's Pharmacy. They've been around since 1922 and are a raceday favorite of both the jockeys and the owners of the horses they're riding. This place has been featured in more publications than most any spot out there so I'll save the history as you can easily find it online.

A longtime favorite of the Jockey's and folks who call Churchill Downs their neighbor

Upon walking in I saw something funny, they were taking the days pancakes and putting them in plastic bags and then into the fridge for what I assume was usage the next day. Seeing as how I was already waiting for Ollie's to open and also that, I decided not to eat. Instead I did a little shopping and bought a shot glass with their name on it as there wasn't much else worth a purchase.

a peak inside

One last longtime locally loved stop. Jack Fry's has been a Louisville institution since 1933. "Fry was known as a rambling, gambling kind of guy who loved amateur boxing and the ponies. As a result, Jack Fry's became a sportsman’s hangout, as evidenced by the numerous historic photographs that fill the walls of the current Jack Fry's." Bootlegging and bookmaking were his other specialties. Jack closed his spot in 1972 and after a decade of renting the building to a family running a Mexican restaurant, it was re-established as Jack Fry's. Ownership has switched hands a few times since Jack's death but the current one was a longtime employee who's happy to keep the tradition going.

Another Louisville Institution

The inside was really old school with white tablecloths and tons of the aforementioned pictures hanging up on the walls. Nowadays they have an executive chef and are known for their shrimp and grits so thats what I would go with while she had the Korean seafood stew. Both were very good.

Seafood Stew

Last stop of the trip before heading home would be The Liquor Barn where they have all sorts of bourbon for you to buy. Some of it sits behind locked glass because it aint cheap. What is cheap are the handles of Buffalo Trace and other Kentucky made bourbons. About $10 less than what you'll be paying at Binny's in some instances and then there's also all the options only available in state as well as the small batch bourbons from the more well known purveyors. Walked out with almost $200 worth of stuff but it was indeed worth it as I wont be needing any brown liquor in my bin anytime soon. Looking forward to a return trip when nicer weather hits.

Loading up with some bourbon before heading home...That's all for this trip

Dish on Market
434 W Market St
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 315-0669

Garage Bar
700 E Market St
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 749-7100

316 W Main St
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 584-6455

Proof on Main
702 W Main St
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 217-6360

The Silver Dollar
1761 Frankfort Ave
Louisville, KY 40206
(502) 259-9540

Old Seelbach Bar
500 S 4th St
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 585-3200

Mayan Cafe
813 E Market St
Louisville, KY 40206
(502) 566-0651

El Camino
1314 Bardstown Rd
Louisville, KY 40204
(502) 454-5417

El Taco Luchador
938 Baxter Ave
Louisville, KY 40204
(502) 583-0440

Indi's Fast Food
Multiple Locations

Chicken King
639 E Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 589-5464

Check's Cafe
1101 E Burnett Ave
Louisville, KY 40217
(502) 637-9515

The Fishery
11519 Shelbyville Rd
Louisville, KY 40243
(502) 409-4296

Ollie's Trolley
978 S 3rd St
Louisville, KY 40203
(502) 583-5214

Wagner's Pharmacy
3113 S 4th St
Louisville, KY 40214
(502) 375-3800

Jack Fry's
1007 Bardstown Rd
Louisville, KY 40204
(502) 452-9244

The Liquor Barn
4301 Towne Center Dr
Louisville, KY 40241
(502) 426-4222


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