On the Road

Central Kentucky Bluegrass Bites

By: Hannah Lee Leidy

Finding flavors from near and far on a culinary tour across Central Kentucky

I spend most of my year on the road. Well, I used to. In the “before times,” I was on a wash-rinse-repeat cycle, except it was with cities and events or pop ups with my business Tuk Tuk, which is like a roving Sri Lankan dinner party.

By mid-2019, I had settled into a steady rhythm of showing up in a city, cooking my tail off, and heading to the next one. In March 2020, the job I loved vaporized. Like all of us, I hoped it would only last weeks, but here we are.

With the pandemic, gone were the days of heading overseas to see family or experience new cultures, and gone was my outlet for adventure and learning. But it helped me realize that there are a whole lot of things that make my home state of Kentucky special. So, this past winter, I decided to revisit some of the beloved spots in the central Kentucky region to learn how they work into the state’s culinary fabric.

I needed a road-trip buddy. So, I texted my Louisville pal Patrick Hallahan, who most people know as the drummer of rock outfit My Morning Jacket, and who also happens to be a font of culinary curiosity. (I’d worked a few shows for his band many, many years ago.)

We both felt that despite our constant zigzags on a map, we were sorely lacking in the knowledge of places in our own backyard.

Stop One in Central Kentucky

Noodle Nirvana (Berea)

Our guide: Mae Suramek, chef-owner
On the menu: Mom’s curry noodles with chicken, tom kha gai style

Mae Suramek is a real-life Wonder Woman. In the past five years, Noodle Nirvana has made a massive impact for positive social change. She’s advocated for causes in her community through the power of flavors she grew up with. Her mother created the shop’s wildly popular noodle broth, which is well worth the forty-minute drive it takes us to get there.

Ever hospitable, the charismatic Mae walked me and Patrick through the process of making a beautiful broth, one exploding with the flavors of Thailand, yet comfortably at home in the academic and agricultural town of Berea.

Mae is a product of Berea College’s full scholarship tuition program—all students are funded by full scholarships at the school—and chose to remain local to advocate for causes important to her. Little did she know that her noodles would be a catalyst for good things in her community.

Previously in the nonprofit world, Mae opened Noodle Nirvana to not only share flavor, but to promote positive change.

The first Tuesday of every month, her restaurant donates sales to a nonprofit chosen annually. She contends she’s able to make a greater impact with a larger donation to a single cause by dedicating an entire calendar year to it. Mae keeps a tip jar open for donations and to date she has raised more than 100,000 dollars for local nonprofits.

One sip of the broth from the Noodle Nirvana stove is a journey in and of itself. Mae weaves local ingredients and staples from Lexington’s international markets into comforting dishes that feel like a warm hug. Fat from coconut is cut with the zing of lime and heat of chilies—her dishes sing with the flavors of her favorite Thai staples. After a few spoonfuls, Patrick is a convert too, ready to sing the praises of Mae’s noodles to the world.

Stop Two

Holly Hill Inn (Midway)

Our guide: Ouita Michel, chef-owner
On the menu: Snacks! Country pate, cheese wafers, butternut squash soup, local pickles, candied walnuts, local cheeses, and jam cakes

You cannot discuss Kentucky’s culinary landscape without mentioning chef Ouita Michel.

She reigns as the queen of Kentucky cuisine, displaying local ingredients with deftness and skill. Her restaurants have developed some of the region’s most talented chefs. She focuses a lot of her energies on her ever growing team across seven restaurants.

Her favored dishes are powered by the local farmers who supply her restaurant group—she even uses the garden between her home and the restaurant as a source for ingredients.

Holly Hill Inn is a beautiful manse, with a front porch perfect for sipping bourbon and watching fireflies. There’s a peace and tranquility on the grounds, and the historic structure that houses the restaurant is full of stories and quirks (some even of the paranormal variety). Its small kitchen is an extension of Ouita’s own, often serving as a family gathering place when not serving locals its white-tablecloth fare.

Ouita greets us with the Holly Hill snack plate, which is a reflection of the region, from the Capriole goat cheese to the pickled pumpkin.

A symphonic bite with so much dimension, it’s made when Ouita stews local pumpkin pieces in brine with fall spices, raising the sweetness of the pumpkin over the punch of spice. There’s also a butternut squash soup—I envy how she coaxes a velvety texture from the liquid.

Patrick, meanwhile, is just happy to be face to face with Ouita. They’d served together on advocacy panels, but never had the time to actually link up.

Ouita strikes us as the steward for the future of fine dining, albeit one in a town of roughly 2,000 people. Within moments of meeting, Ouita and Patrick are discussing the best techniques for making jam cakes—Holly Hill’s are loaded with housemade blackberry jam and topped with a delicate salted caramel frosting.

These days, Ouita leaves most of the cooking and menu direction to her chefs and culinary director, but she can still be found behind the stove at the restaurant that propelled her into accolade after accolade, mentoring her young cooks and transforming the future of cuisine in Kentucky.

Stop Three in Central Kentucky

Tortillería y Taquería Ramírez (Lexington)

Our guide: Laura Patricia Ramírez, chef and owner
On the menu: Burritos, sopes, tortas, and chicharrones

When I moved back to Kentucky in 2012, I had no idea it was a haven for excellent Mexican cuisine. After a few research trips, I found myself becoming a regular at Tortillería y Taquería Ramírez, a tortilla shop and restaurant tucked into a strip mall between downtown and the race course at Keeneland.

Laura Ramírez, the matriarch of the family restaurant, has been operating the shop for over thirty years. Her husband moved here in the early ’80s as a part of the work force for the horseracing industry.

Many of the families that came to Lexington for the same reason left everything familiar about their cuisine behind. At the time, most of the popular places were Tex-Mex-oriented—Laura even operated a Tex-Mex spot in the early years.

When she and her family realized there was a lack of availability of treasured ingredients, they opened a grocery store in the neighborhood now affectionately known as Mexington. Within a few years, her husband had the idea to add a tortilla press to their operation.

The Ramírez crew drove the massive metal contraption from Texas to Kentucky. The press, made in Guadalajara, is still in operation in the mornings, and contributes to the restaurant’s traditional Mexican dishes. Stuffed with masa, the conveyor creaks along, pushing out piles of hot corn tortillas that are quickly sold to locals and restaurants alike. It’s the heart of a family business that has survived for decades.

One bite of Laura’s food made Patrick swoon.

Besides being recognized nationally for many things, including their burritos, Laura has been honored for her contributions to the community she and the restaurant helped establish in the Bluegrass. People of all walks of life, from Range Rover to rickety Chevrolet Cheyenne, tuck into sopes, gorditas, and tacos in the restaurant’s small and simple space. The no-frills appearance has no bearing on the food—and her nopales might be my favorite, anywhere.

One of the most recognizable sights at Ramírez? A pile of freshly fried, thick cut chicharrones. They sell pounds and pounds of the local favorite. Laura supplies Patrick with a small bag of the morsels for his drive back to Louisville, but I suspect they didn’t last the drive.

Sometimes you don’t have to go very far to find the flavors of far away, and with the pandemic still rearing its ugly head, food is a safe way to explore when we cannot do so physically. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeking out more local stories like these, and digging for more gems. It’s become an adventure in and of itself. Onward.

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