In the Local Palate’s Spring travel issue, our editors explore the South through its iconic sandwiches. This one takes us to Prohibition-era Louisville, where the sultry Kentucky Hot Brown rose as a late-night staple.
Stop Six: Kentucky Hot Brown | Louisville, Kentucky
It was during the height of Prohibition when the Brown Hotel opened its doors in Louisville—exactly 100 years ago. But considering its location in the heart of whiskey country, people were still able to get their hands on some hooch, which would often fuel the late-night, live band dances that took place inside the hotel. The crowds would make the most of their time on the dance floor, and then, when the band took a break at midnight, look for a late-night snack. Enter hotel chef Fred Schmidt, who is said to have created an open-faced turkey sandwich to fill their bellies. The Kentucky Hot Brown, as it was dubbed, arrived with slices of bacon and a creamy mornay sauce.
Schmidt’s sandwich was a huge hit, but it’s been reported that when he wanted to add some acid to the plate, he tried a few different things (including strawberries, oddly) before eventually adding two Roma tomatoes, sliced in half, to the dish.
The Brown Hotel still serves up the original hot brown—while the main dining room, English Grill, is closed for renovations, you can order the sandwich à la carte inside the Lobby Bar and J. Graham Cafe. Others around town have taken up the call, putting their own spin on the classic. The open-faced turkey can be found on biscuits or French bread, and under a heavy blanket of melted cheese, especially around Kentucky Derby season, when the sandwich is miniaturized and served as a canapé alongside the celebrated mint julep.
Four Key Elements of the Kentucky Hot Brown
The original recipe calls for Texas toast, which is a sturdy, thickly sliced, toasted white bread that stands up to the rich and creamy mornay sauce—and cuts easily to offer a substantial bite.
Think of the slices that come off a Thanksgiving bird—it’s usually two to three pieces that provide a decent helping of protein to help carry the sauce.
It starts with a thick roux and gets the addition of heavy cream, milk, pecorino-romano cheese, and a hint of nutmeg, all whisked together before blanketing the turkey and bread.
Bacon + Tomatoes
Laid crosswise over the sauce, the bacon provides a salty kick, while the roma tomato halves, raw or roasted, add just a hint of acid to the otherwise decadent dish.
Where to Find a Kentucky Hot Brown in Louisville
The Brown Hotel
Celebrating a century this year, the Brown Hotel feels as grand and glamorous as it did in its early days when the hot brown came into being. The hotel touts the many media outlets that have covered the hot brown; you can find the sandwich on the menu at the Lobby Bar as well as J. Graham’s Cafe.
The Village Anchor
This upscale pub transports visitors back in time with its English-pub-meets-bistro decor. Their take is called the “hotter brown” and gets its own twist. Pulled roasted chicken replaces the turkey and sits atop TriBeCa Bakery french bread, which then gets smothered in a cheddar-parmesan mornay sauce. Meanwhile, the addition of slow-roasted grape tomatoes and candied bacon brings the dish firmly into the 21st century.
Known for its over-the-top breakfast creations—buttermilk chicken with goetta sausage gravy comes to mind—this multilocation biscuit-centric breakfast-and-lunch spot has a good handle on the hot brown. Two biscuit halves are splayed open and topped with turkey and a gouda-laced mornay sauce while two bacon slices garnish the top.
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