Unless you’re from Kentucky yourself, we bet you haven’t tried (or even heard of) most of these 21 delicious dishes and drinks from the bluegrass state.
Bourbon probably bounds to mind when you consider Kentucky food and drink culture, and rightfully so, but what about burgoo? Have you chowed down on chow-chow or spooned up some spoonbread? Chances are you’re less familiar with the offbeat oddities that amp up Kentucky’s culinary quirk factor, but restaurants across the state regularly serve up these unique offerings, revered by locals for their place in regional history, and finally gaining appreciation from visitors. As varied as the histories and cultures that bore them, from Appalachian necessity to highbrow horse culture, only a true Kentuckian has even heard of more than a handful of these 21 gems. We bet you haven’t tried most of them unless you’re from the bluegrass state yourself.
WHERE: J & B Country Cooking; Corbin, Kentucky
It’s exactly what it sounds like, and it may be the simplest and most prolific dish across rural Kentucky. Put a bunch of pinto beans in some stock and boil until they’re soft! Soup beans are to Kentucky cuisine what rice and noodles are to Chinese—most meals require them. Traditionally a home-cooked side, soup beans are popping up at restaurants like J & B Country Cooking in Corbin, Kentucky, where comfort food is king. The secret to having the best soup beans around is the stock, where anything from ham hocks to jalapeño peppers and a host of herbs and spices can be added for a twist to the otherwise straightforward dish.
WHERE: Bubby’s BBQ; Corbin, Kentucky
Chow-chow is unlikely to be the same dish in two different homes across Kentucky, but you can usually count on a base of cabbage and onion. After that, any number of local vegetables from hot peppers to green tomatoes might be added before being boiled in vinegar, chilled, and served. What to do with chow-chow is also up for interpretation. Some serve it on pinto beans (Kentucky’s favorite ingredient), others use it to top hot dogs and juicy burgers, but most will agree it’s a relish that can go on just about anything. Family recipes are older than most living members, and everyone’s chow-chow is obviously “the best in Kentucky.” If you’re not up for sampling hundreds of private recipes, try chow-chow at a restaurant like Bubby’s BBQ where it’s served with just about anything, but especially good with smoked and pulled barbecue sandwiches.
WHERE: Kentucky Mist Moonshine; Whitesburg, Kentucky
In its purest form, moonshine is clear whiskey and it’s completely legal today. In the past, moonshine referred to any illegally-made, high-proof spirit, and that’s when the romance of the Kentucky moonshiner was born. A good moonshine will still knock your socks off, but plenty are now distilled with fruits and other ingredients to provide some interesting flavor alternatives from cranberry to caramel apple. Kentucky Mist Moonshine produces these and many other varieties in its Appalachian craft distillery, with a history that spans generations and includes federal imprisonment, connections to Al Capone, and a grandson who turned the business legit in 2015.
WHERE: Old Hickory Bar-B-Que; Owensboro, Kentucky
It’s stew. In the old days, this would be a dish of pure mystery meat, livened up with whichever vegetable and spices were available, but today the meats are generally limited to the more palatable options of pork, mutton, chicken, or some mixture thereof. The variety of vegetables and spices used are just as plentiful today, adding to the tremendous variety of flavors burgoo can take. In Kentucky, burgoo parties involve each guest bringing a different ingredient to make one big burgoo together. If you haven’t been invited to a burgoo bash, though, you can still try this quintessential Kentucky dish at a restaurant like Old Hickory Bar-B-Que, where mutton, pork, chicken, corn, cabbage, and potatoes come together in a thick barbecue and brown sugar base. Some say a burgoo should be so thick a spoon can stand independently in the center, but others claim that’s just nonsense.
WHERE: J & B Barbecue; Henderson, Kentucky
Barbecue is king in certain regions of Kentucky, and barbecue mutton is a local favorite that came to popularity when the wool industry first began sustaining these areas in the early 19th century. Mutton is slow-cooked for upwards of 15+ hours, frequently bathed in “mutton dip” (vinegar and salt, with optional flavorings like peppers or common barbecue sauces), and served bare with dip on the side. The result is a surprisingly tender dish from what was originally a very tough meat. To find out why the Kentucky summer social season is packed with mutton barbecues, try the dish at J & B Barbecue where it’s cooked for 12-16 hours and served with an au jus mutton dip with Worcestershire sauce, Country Bob’s sauce, and garlic powder.
Peach Cobbler & Strawberry Lemonade
WHERE: Tom’s Smokin’ Barbecue; Henderson, Kentucky
These may not be the rarest of offerings in Kentucky’s culinary arsenal, but served together they’re almost as Kentucky as bourbon and horses, and no must-list would be complete without them. Peach orchards and strawberry fields are plentiful in the bluegrass state, and the pairing is a natural fit for picnics and dessert, especially during that late June/early July sweet spot when both are available for fresh picking! Tom’s Smokin’ Barbecue has strawberry lemonade regular, but peach cobbler only in season, so make it July visit to try these sweet summer favs together! They’re just as good separately, though, so don’t stress if you can’t make it exactly then!
WHERE: Hall’s on the River; Winchester, Kentucky
Gaining popularity throughout the US, beer cheese is said to have originated in Kentucky, where it’s taken quite seriously and disagreements over the original recipe and its whereabouts abound. The good news is you don’t need the original recipe; it’s just cheese, spices, and beer blended together and chilled, so just about any beer cheese is going to hit the spot. Nothing goes better with cheese and beer than pretzels, but don’t be surprised to find just about anything being dipped into this local party staple. Check out the beer cheese at Hall’s on the River, where Miss Bell has been whipping up the dip for more than 50 years, but don’t ask what’s in their top secret recipe. Other than “fiery attitude, decades of tradition, a dose of love, and some extra spices,” Hall’s isn’t releasing much info on their own beer cheese, and neither is anyone in Kentucky.
WHERE: Boone Tavern; Berea, Kentucky
If cornbread and bread pudding had a food baby, it would be spoonbread (sometimes written in two words as “spoon bread”). Native to the bluegrass region of Kentucky, it’s a fluffier variation of cornbread made with a healthy dose of some of those deliciously unhealthy baking ingredients—milk, butter, eggs, and cream—in varying amounts, depending on the recipe of choice. The most famous spoonbread in Kentucky comes from Boone Tavern, where the soufflé-like dish has been served for nearly 70 years, so pop in and grab a spoon where the likes of the Dalai Lama, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Maya Angelou may have done their same during their stays at this historic Kentucky property.
Good to Know: Berea hosts an annual spoonbread festival in September!
Bibb Salad with Benedictine Dressing
WHERE: Isaac’s Café at Bernheim Arboretum; Clermont, Kentucky
Best grown in Kentucky’s limestone-rich soil (which explains why it’s also called “limestone lettuce”) Bibb lettuce is light and slightly sweet. While the name “Bibb” is often used interchangeably with butter lettuce or Boston lettuce (and they are essentially, though not exactly, the same), true Bibb lettuce is a Kentucky original, and the local topping of choice is Benedictine dressing named not for an order of monks but the woman who invented it, Jennie Carter Benedict, in the early 20th century. It’s a cream cheese and cucumber concoction often used as a dip, but slathered in Bibb salads across Kentucky. Take a trip to Isaac’s Café at the Bernheim Arboretum to try this creamy combo in a salad that’s tastier than it is healthy.
WHERE: The Brown Hotel; Louisville, Kentucky
There’s no better spot for a Hot Brown than the Brown Hotel, where (you guessed it) it was invented in 1926. It’s a turkey and bacon sandwich smothered in Mornay sauce, then baked and served open-faced. Sometimes topped with tomato or mushroom, this Louisville favorite has spread in favor and availability throughout the state. The Brown Hotel was closed for nearly 14 years before reopening in 1985, so the original is once again available, topped with tomatoes, paprika, and parsley.
Good to Know: A Mornay sauce is traditionally a béchamel with Gruyère cheese added, but could also include cheddar or Emmental.
WHERE: The Blue Raven; Pikeville, Kentucky
An Appalachian creation born of necessity during hard times, salmon patties remain a regional comfort food. Salmon blended with mayonnaise, onion, cornmeal, and flour make are the bulk of this simple, inexpensive recipe handed down through generations of Appalachian kitchens, and they’re no less popular in the region now than when they were a necessity. A local tradition is to coat the patties in crumbled crackers and an egg-wash before frying for a crispy crunch. Grab a patty at The Blue Raven, which focuses on Appalachian classics featuring quality ingredients.
Apple Stack Cake
WHERE: Mountainview Restaurant; Pineville, Kentucky
A traditional favorite of the Mountain South region of Kentucky region where molasses sorghum was once the only available (affordable) sweetener and dried apples were plentiful, apple stack cake was, and still is, a regional hallmark. Thin layers of nearly crispy cake separated by dried apple filling are stacked as high as ingredients and patience will allow before resting for, preferably, two days, while the apple filling seeps into the cake layers and brings the cake together. Pine Mountain State Resort Park, home to Mountainview Restaurant, serves a traditional apple stack cake in the mountain setting where it was born.
WHERE: Rudy’s on the Square; Murray, Kentucky
You probably don’t associate bananas with Kentucky, but you should. For a time, the vast majority of bananas that entered the US passed through the railroad center of Fulton, Kentucky, and the area has considered itself “the banana capital of the world” for some time. Banana pudding is a simple dish of banana, vanilla wafers, and meringue, but it’s not taken lightly in Kentucky, where an annual festival features a 3,000-ton banana pudding. If you can’t make it September, try a more reasonably seized portion at Rudy’s on the Square in Murray, dishing up local favorites for more than 100 years.
WHERE: Serendipity at the Orange Door; Somerset, Kentucky
No one’s quite sure how spider cornbread got its name, but don’t worry: None of the legends include spiders as an ingredient. The most basic theory is that it refers to the crackling top of the cornbread, reminiscent of a spider’s web. The most interesting (and perhaps most accepted) theory is that it’s related to the original three-legged cast iron skillets (standing like a spider…with only three legs) that were used to cook the dish over a fire. Whatever the origin, this is cornbread cooked at high temperature in a skillet, and it’s a staple of many Kentucky meals, best used to sop up the remaining juices of whatever other delicious thing has just disappeared from the plate. Head to Serendipity at the Orange Door for a no-nonsense, high-quality take on this simple side.
Blackberry Jam Cake with Caramel Icing
WHERE: Mona’s Creative Catering and Fine Food Restaurant; Pikeville, Kentucky
The Kentucky Appalachian region lives for this cake. Blackberry jam is combined with cocoa and sugar, spiced with cinnamon and sugar, and sweetened with vanilla before being baked into a cake with raisins and nuts, and finished with a slathering of caramel icing, often enjoyed with a cup of hot coffee. Once a Christmas favorite, this cake is now beloved throughout the year. Head to Mona’s for a piece of homemade jam cake baked from a family recipe and see why old-fashioned Kentuckians drool over this decadent dessert.
WHERE: Brothers Restaurant; Campbellsville, Kentucky
This citrus soda isn’t actually native to Kentucky, but a bottling plant in Greensburg once made it the exclusive soft drink of many regional restaurants and groceries, and Kentucky has never let go of its love affair with Ski. Less sweet than other citrus sodas, Ski also sets itself apart with its orange and lemon flavor profile, breaking from the lemon/lime combo of similar drinks. Pair a Ski with a barbecue lunch at Brothers Restaurant, where Kentucky favorites are elevated with original touches.
WHERE: Magee’s Bakery; Maysville, Kentucky
It’s not see-through, but its list of ingredients is as transparent as . . .transparent pie. Sugar, butter, cream, and a dash of vanilla in a pie shell, there’s no mystery about this dish, other than how it’s so darn good. Don’t believe us? Ask George Clooney, a Kentucky boy himself, who always stocks up on pies from Magee’s Bakery when he’s nearby and has been known to bring them to studios and sets, spreading the gospel of Magee’s and its signature transparent pie.
WHERE: Colonial Cottage; Erlanger, Kentucky
Something like scrapple, Goetta is a meat, oat, and spice mash likely invented in Ohio by German settlers looking to stretch scarce and expensive meat, but it wasn’t long before it spread to neighboring Kentucky, where an annual Goettafest is now held in honor of the beloved creation. It’s typically pork flavored with onion and herbs like rosemary and thyme, and it’s most commonly formed into patties and fried before serving as a sandwich, side, or snack. Colonial Cottage in Erlanger, Kentucky, will even serve it as a burger or wrap!
Good to Know: Though sometimes marketed as “German breakfast sausage,” Germans don’t actually know about this quirky concoction. It’s distinctly American, so don’t look for it in Berlin.
Kentucky Wonder Green Beans
WHERE: Kentucky Dam Village Harbor Lights Restaurant; Gilbertsville, Kentucky
Okay, green beans certainly aren’t unique to Kentucky and you may eat them regularly enough, but you’re probably not enjoying them as much as you would if they were Kentucky wonder green beans. Often called pole beans (especially by older generations), these local favorites can climb a pole up to six feet, and produce hearty pods with an intense flavor Kentuckians say can’t be matched by any other green bean. They’re slow-cooked, often with bacon and garlic, coated in oil and simmering in a tiny bit of water to keep from drying out. You’ll find them alongside just about any meal in western Kentucky, but pair them with country ham at Harbor Lights Restaurant in Kentucky Dam Village state resort park for the true local experience.
WHERE: Otto’s on Main; Covington, Kentucky
If you’re not from Kentucky or the surrounding South, you’re probably picturing something like a deep-dish pizza with no cheese or toppings, just tomato sauce, but this is definitely not what Kentuckians mean when they order tomato pie. This is more of an actual pie, like apple or cherry, but filled with tomatoes and topped with mayonnaise or cheese. Personal recipes can include various herbs and sometimes meats to turn this summer favorite into a more savory meal, but in its simplest form it a pie shell topped with tomato, and it’s delicious. Check out Otto’s on Main for a take that includes basil, green onion, and a house cheese blend.
Ale 8 One
WHERE: Fava’s; Georgetown, Kentucky
Say the name quickly, and you’ll discover how Kentuckian’s pronounce this citrus ginger soda: “a late one.” Available nationally at Cracker Barrel and some select grocery stores, Ale 8 One is otherwise found only in Kentucky where it’s still bottled by the Ale 8 One Bottling Company with a recipe reportedly known to only two living people. For more than 90 years, this has been the favorite carbonated beverage of Kentucky, and it’s one of the two ingredients of the Kentucky Cocktail (the other, of course, is bourbon). Try a bottle with lunch at Fava’s, originally a confectionary serving the best sweet and sodas, where Georgetown favorites have been dished up for more than a century.