Southern foodie hub: The Louisville you don't know

Louisville is an iconic Southern city famed for a certain little horse race, mint juleps, bourbon, the Louisville Slugger baseball bat, and a slugger of a different sort - favorite son Muhammad Ali. I recently visited there and thoroughly enjoyed a riveting horse race at Churchill Downs (no, not that one, unfortunately...sigh), the Kentucky Derby Museum, Louisville Slugger Museum and Muhammad Ali Center, among other things the Kentucky city on the Ohio River has to offer. It was all grand good fun.

But what you might not know about "Louavul" is that it has evolved to become a major culinary hotspot that's been lauded by the likes of Bon Appétit, Food & Wine Magazine, Southern Living, Garden & Gun and other esteemed publications. We're talkin' James Beard-nominated chefs and restaurants. We're talkin' about a city with 2,500 restaurants. We're talkin' about classic Southern fare with delicious new touches. We're talkin' a vibrant Latino/Cuban food scene. And when you're here, you won't just be talkin' it, you'll be walkin' it and you'll be eatin' it. And you'll be very happy about that.

Katie Payne knows. Payne is a chef instructor in the culinary program of Louisville's National Center for Hospitality Studies and an alumna of the well-regarded school.

"One of the great things about Louisville's culinary scene is its diversity," noted Payne. "It definitely still has, though, a very Southern character, particularly in some of the iconic older restaurants and hotel restaurants like at the Brown Hotel and the Seelbach. And Louisville also has a lot of barbecue that's really good."

But it's the diverse elements Payne mentioned that have made such a splash in the culinary world in recent years.

"There's also a great international flare here, too. We have Anthony Lamas, who has a restaurant called Seviche, where he does this incredible South American/Latino/West Coasty kind of menu that is incredible! Olé Restaurant Group is responsible for bringing Cuban, upper-scale Mexican and tapas to the region, probably second-to-none, at Artesano, El Taco Luchador and great Italian at Mercato. Havana Rumba is another restaurant – there are three of them actually – that has brought an incredible Cuban flair to the Louisville food scene. We have Ed Lee here, who is famous for his 610 Magnolia Restaurant. Ed has a Korean background but grew up deep in Southern food traditions and has managed to bring that fusion together."

For the record, Lamas is a three-time James Beard Award semi-finalist and he's participated in the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour Dinner Series. He's also won Food Network's "Extreme Chef," competed on the debut episode of Food Network's "Beat Bobby Flay," has appeared on the Cooking Channel's "America's Best Bites," and was one of the chefs featured in "Back Home," a documentary about Mexican food traditions.

Lee and his 610 Magnolia Restaurant have been featured in most of those aforementioned publications and others, including The New York Times Magazine, Saveur, Esquire and Gourmet Magazine. He's a two-time finalist for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southeast category and he's won competitions on "Iron Chef America."

But if classic Southern fare and updated takes on same suits your taste buds, don't you worry. Louisville's got you covered. The English Grill at the Brown Hotel, The Oakroom at the Seelbach Hotel and Lilly's Bistro are local favorites with dishes that lean southward. There are several good soul food spots in Louisville, too, including Shirley Mae's Café & Bar. And a brand new eatery getting good response on the Louisville dining scene is Finn's Southern Kitchen.

Other elements of the Derby City food-and-beverage landscape that seem to continually develop include its location in a region where 95 percent of the bourbon in the nation is distilled, its Urban Bourbon Trail of 35 Louisville bars and restaurants with primo bourbon bona fides, a celebrated barbecue tradition and a growing fleet of fine food trucks.

One great way to be introduced to the Louisville food scene is by taking a guided food tour. There are several good ones and two of the best are City Taste Tours of Louisville and Mint Julep Tours.

Beyond the numerous excellent eateries in Louisville, you should be aware of the city's extraordinary historic claims to fame as the birthplace of some iconic Southern dishes and drinks. If you do visit Louisville, you should treat yourself to at least a few of these Louisville originals:

The Hot Brown

This open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich with Mornay sauce was created in 1926 by a chef at Louisville's venerable Brown Hotel, and you can still get it there at both the Brown's eateries, the English Grill and at J. Graham's Café. But plenty of restaurants all over the city serve their own versions.

Derby Pie

The Derby Pie was created in 1950 by forebearers of the Kern family that operates Kern's Kitchen in Louisville. Unlike most versions on this chocolaty take on traditional Southern pecan pie, Kern's uses walnuts instead of pecans and doesn't drop in a dollop of bourbon. But you can find slightly different recipes at many Louisville restaurants.

Benedictine

Louisville caterer and restaurateur Jennie Benedict concocted this pale green cucumber-and-cream-cheese spread around the turn of the 20th century. Historically, a couple of drops of green food coloring were included in the mix but most of it prepared these days doesn't. Lilly's has some that's mighty good.

Mint Julep

This sweet concoction of bourbon, mint, sugar and crushed ice has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby since 1938. Proof on Main and The Silver Dollar make Mint Juleps as tasty as any you'll find.

Old Fashioned

This classic bourbon cocktail was created in the late-1800s at the Pendennis Club, a private Louisville social club still operating. The simple cocktail is made of bourbon or whiskey, bitters and a little sugar, with an orange peel garnish, and it gained renewed popularity thanks to the period drama "Mad Men," whose back slapping urbanites drank them regularly. Sip one at a historic bar in Louisville — The Lobby Bar at the Brown Hotel, a beautiful little bar that, with a little imagination, makes you feel like you're in an earlier era.

Seelbach cocktail

Created at Louisville's historic Seelbach Hotel in 1917, the Seelbach cocktail is a mix of bourbon, Cointreau and both Angostura and Peychaud's bitters, topped off with champagne and garnished with an orange or lemon twist.

For more information: Go to Louisville; Kentucky Tourism; Food and Dine