Going to the Derby? Here's How to Eat Like a Local in Louisville!

By Laura Siciliano-Rosen
April 30, 2015
Gallopalooza horse in louisville, kentucky
Courtesy pma03/myBudgetTravel

Laura Siciliano-Rosen and Scott B. Rosen are the editors of Eat Your World, a guide to regional food and drinks around the globe founded on the principle that what you eat depends on where you are.

It's that time of year again in Louisville—when the big hats and big bucks come out to play at Churchill Downs for the annual Kentucky Derby horse-racing event. There will be drama, there will be betting, and you can rest assured there will be bourbon, but whether you're there to witness the "most exciting two minutes in sports" or just to soak up the hoopla around the ongoing Derby Festival, there's one thing you don't have to gamble with: delicious local food. From the city's signature hot brown and a hip country-ham "bar" to Top Chef contestant Edward Lee's two excellent restaurants—not to mention the requisite drive out in the country to taste bourbon at its source—you'll certainly have more culinary options here than you'll have time. Here's what to eat and drink in Louisville now.

Mint Julep

This bourbon, mint, and simple-syrup cocktail is the traditional drink of the race, and nearly 120,000 will be served at Churchill Downs over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby (May 1 and 2). But the racetrack isn't your best bet for a real-deal julep, as the bars there mostly pour the Early Times Ready-to-Serve Mint Julep—in other words, a bottled mix. That's not to say it's not tasty or, ahem, effective in the moment, but do yourself a favor and belly up to a traditional bourbon bar for a handmade julep over crushed ice. You can't go wrong at the historic, genteel Old Seelbach Barit's a fantastic place to sample bourbon, period. As for Churchill Downs? Try the track's "other" house cocktail, the Oaks Lily, a sweet medley of vodka, cranberry juice, triple sec, sour mix, and a splash of 7-Up—no premade mixes in sight.

Hot Brown

You'll want to be hungry (or hungover) for this one: This Louisville icon is an open-faced sandwich of tender turkey, crispy bacon, and tomato, covered in cheesy Mornay sauce and broiled until the bread is toasty and the cheese bubbly. It's easy to find all over town, but the famed Brown Hotel invented this dish back in 1926 and still serves a terrific version of it, dusted in paprika and topped with shredded Parmesan.

Beer Cheese

Much in the vein of England's Welsh rarebit, this savory state specialty combines cheese with beer and spices in a dip of sorts and serves it, traditionally, with crackers. It's not terribly hard to find in Louisville; brewpubs serve it with pretzels, and even the farmers market has a stand selling the stuff. But one of the best versions is at Eiderdown, a gastropub in Germantown that combines Euro and Southern traditions to delicious effect, where the unbelievably creamy, rich beer cheese comes to the table warm and fondue-like, alongside a thin-sliced baguette from a local cafe. Pair it with a local beer from Eiderdown's excellent list, and you can't go wrong.


This spicy stew combines chunks of various meats and veggies together into comfort-food heaven. Whereas traditionally the dish was made with whatever Kentucky's hunters could get their hands on—venison, squirrel, raccoon, etc.—nowadays beef, chicken, and pork are more commonly used. Burgoo is another Churchill Downs tradition, but you can certainly find it elsewhere around town, particularly in Louisville's barbecue restaurants, like the casual, family-friendly Mark's Feed Store (takeout is pictured).

Country Ham

If you've traveled anywhere in the South, you've probably encountered country ham, likely on a breakfast menu. Lots of it comes from Kentucky, so Louisville is no exception (see, for example, the Proof Benedict at the excellent, seasonally inspired Proof on Main). But it's also where you may encounter country ham like you never have before: in a tasting platter from the local "ham bar" at Garage Bar, a hip restaurant housed in a former garage that hangs legs of ham, Euro style, in one of its corners. The delicate, shaved-off pieces of ham you're presented with may resemble prosciutto or jamón serrano, but it's all sourced from Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee—and, dare we say, it's just as good. (While you're there, also try the rolled oysters in cornmeal batter—another Kentucky thing—and a few of its excellent wood-fired pizzas.) Alternatively, hit up Chef Edward Lee's MilkWood, which specializes in Southern-Asian small plates, for another unexpected country-ham spotting: in slurp-worthy ramen with pork belly and shiitake.

Derby Pie

Not only is it delicious, but it's also named Derby pie—of course you'll need one of these. Imagine a chocolate-chip cookie crossed with a pecan or walnut pie, with bourbon added for good measure. That's a Derby pie. The name itself is trademarked by its creator, Kern's Kitchen, which still ships out the pies to places like the Brown Hotel (where it's still quite good!). But on other menus, just look for a variation of "chocolate bourbon pecan"—like Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen's pecan chocolate-chip pie—and you'll get something similar, prepared in-house. And definitely swing by the excellent Comfy Cow ice cream shop to try the flavor called Simply Southern, a mashup of pecan pie, roasted pecans, chocolate chips, and bourbon in what's essentially Derby pie ice cream.

Fried Chicken

Ever hear of Kentucky Fried Chicken? KFC is headquartered in Louisville, but we're not suggesting you hit up the nearest franchise. You could drive out to Shelbyville (40 minutes) and try the touted fried chicken, complete with 11 herbs and spices, at Claudia Sanders Dinner House—that's the restaurant established by the Colonel and his wife back in 1968—or you could do this: Swing by the drive-through at Indi's Fast Food Restaurant, a local chain; spend a few bucks on some spicy hot chicken; and prepare to be blown away by the crisp, perfectly fried, perfectly spiced tender chicken (served with wedges). Trust us.

Bourbon Balls

The place to try this delicious local sweet is nearly century-old Muth's Candy, a step-back-in-time kind of place in the midst of the revitalized NuLu district on East Market Street, home to the previously mentioned Garage Bar, fabulous coffee shop Please and Thank You, popular Yucatecan restaurant Mayan Café, and cocktail standout Rye. Bourbon balls are little chocolate-dipped balls with soft, sugary centers of bourbon-soaked pecans; they're made with real bourbon (Very Old Barton, in this case) that is not cooked off. Which is to say you'd better like the taste of bourbon in your chocolate. Have you noticed a theme here yet?

Pimiento Cheese Sandwich

This dish isn't specific to Kentucky, but it is a Southern thing-and you can't really beat the atmosphere or price. Just across the street from Churchill Downs is a 1922-established drugstore-cum-diner called Wagner's Pharmacy, historically the place to rub elbows with jockeys, trainers, and the various celebrities who come out for the Derby (yes, you should expect a table wait this time of year). It's just a little greasy spoon serving a basic breakfast and lunch menu till 1 or 2 p.m. daily, but our money's on the generously sized pimiento cheese sandwich, which will fill your belly for an afternoon of revelry for a mere $3.59.

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Tequila!

I recently brought a little bit of Mexico home, hosting a tequila tasting for my friends in the Washington, D.C., area. I wanted to share stories from my travels in Mexico, show off my newly learned tequila tasting skills, and use the cheesy shot glass I brought specifically for the occasion in Mexico. I returned from a place that I didn't know existed. A place called Tequila, where for hundreds of years tequila has been distilled and perfected for tastings. I hopped a train, the Jose Cuervo Express, from Guadalajara, the capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco. Train travel is a great way to take in the countryside, and the train ride to Tequila is both scenic and festive. If you think you might enjoy having a margarita with your breakfast, you can do so on the train, where snacks and, of course, tequila are served. Passing fields of agave, the plant from which tequila is made, you know you're getting close to Tequila. This town is designated as a Pueblo Mágicoor Magical Town, due to its rich culture and history. The Agave Landscape also holds a special designation by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The two-hour train ride is both interesting and peaceful, as the scenery changes from urban to rural. You know you're getting close as you breeze past valleys of blue agave stretching to the horizon. Resting at the bottom of the Tequila volcano, the valley's mineral-rich soil and semi-arid climate make growing conditions perfect for harvesting agave azul, blue agave, the basis for tequila. Upon departing the train, we took a bus to the agave fields, where our education in tequila making would begin. Field to Distillery Like true champagne from the Champagne wine region in France, Tequila can't come from just anywhere. To be called tequila, the blue agave plant must be grown in the state of Jalisco and specific regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. It's a labor-intensive process involving ajimador, a skilled harvester of the plants who likely has learned the craft from his parents. With the backdrop of the Tequila volcano and, of course, a margarita, I watched as a dashing, mustached jimador dressed in a cowboy hat, white button-down shirt, and jeans used a coa, a hoe-like tool with a sharp blade, to slice off the spikey green-blue stalks and show us the core of the agave, called the piña. Aptly named, it resembles a pineapple. It's this bulbous core that is hauled to the distillery for processing, but only after it's been allowed to mature in the fields over a period of eight to 12 years. During this time, the plant is pruned and taken care of to ensure healthy ripening and growth. Tequila Distillery Tour Back in town, steps away from the main cobblestoned square, we started our tour of La Rojeña, Cuervo's oldest distillery, and said to be the oldest active tequila distillery in the Western Hemisphere. 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