City of Culinary Influence – Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Did you know the cheeseburger, The Hot Brown, and the serving of non-KFC meals to the public by Colonel Sanders and his wife originated in the Louisville area? I just had to sink my teeth into these dishes while there.

Kaelin's cheeseburger
Kaelin's cheeseburger

Birthplace of the cheeseburger
Kaelin's touts itself as the “Birthplace of the Original Cheeseburger". Mr. and Mrs. Carl Kaelin opened their restaurant in 1934; the hamburger had already been around for some time. Still, Carl was always trying to make his burgers better. One day, he thought a slice of melted American cheese on top of the burger would enhance the flavor, so he tried it – the rest is history!

I had one of Kaelin’s original cheeseburgers. They have a tasty char-broiled flavor. Eating a cheeseburger here meant I dined on a slice of food history! I enjoyed it in a low key family atmosphere that elegantly played pre-rock 'n' roll era tunes in the midst of a pictorial motif honoring Kentucky icons like Colonel Sanders and Churchill Downs. For those who love meatier burgers, this establishment serves plenty of these, as well as sandwich entrees, including a triple burger with lots of bacon and cheese (called the Spath Cardiac Burger) and a fried bologna club sandwich.

This unique eatery offers even more quality food at fair prices for those who aren’t necessarily hungry for a cheeseburger. Everything is served quickly by a polite staff. Appetizers and salads/soups include Kaelin’s mini cheeseburgers and fried pickles. Their other entrees feature seafood, pasta and meat-filled selections, like the southern fried half chicken and frog legs.

If you’ve ever wanted a piece of pie that tasted like a chocolate chip cookie, ask for the original Derby Pie. Its name is reserved for those pies made and distributed by Kern’s Kitchen (the name is on the crust). Another treat is the Kaelin’s Bourbon Biscuit Pudding that contains bourbon sauce and whipped cream.

Kaelin’s offers a wide selection of beers (including local, domestic and imported), as well as several red and white wines.

Non-fast food by the late Mr. and Mrs. Colonel Sanders
The old saying, “Behind every successful man is a woman” couldn't be more true for Colonel Harland Sanders, whose wife Claudia helped him make Kentucky Fried Chicken a worldwide success. When Sanders sold his brand in 1964, he and Claudia still wanted to share their other recipes, so in 1968, they opened Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville, Kentucky. It’s just a 30-minute drive from downtown Louisville. This restaurant is not connected to the KFC brand.

KFC, but tastes similar
Not KFC, but tastes similar

KFC is probably my favorite food. I heard that Claudia Sanders’ chicken tastes similar to KFC. I had to find out. The verdict: other than the fact that KFC chicken is a bit spicier, it tastes the same. Ironically, Claudia Sanders' mashed potatoes and coleslaw have the same flavor as KFC’s. This is where the similarities end. Claudia Sanders has a lot of southern-inspired entrees for lunch and dinner that you won’t find in the fast food joints. In addition, the atmosphere is one of dining in a room with fanciful high ceilings, pleasant chatter (I dined next to a large group of Red Hat Society ladies who were having a jolly good time). Claudia Sanders is part of a great house where the grounds were once the headquarters of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The original building burned down in 1999, but was rebuilt by the owners. You’ll see pictures of Colonel Sanders and his wife when you enter.

The Sanders couple was there in spirit while we dined. The Colonel died in 1980 and Claudia passed away in 1996. We received friendly service, but on a busy day, you may have to wait to get seated. Menu prices are fair; more economical than the usual KFC prices. Right away, we got sweet cornbread for an appetizer that I found tasty, surprising since I don't particularly care for cornbread.

The non-fried chicken entrees include such dishes as homemade baked lasagna, Kentucky country ham ‘n’ biscuits and Claudia’s original country ham salad. The main dishes come with a choice of eight vegetables like corn pudding and mock oysters (similar to eggplant). Their sandwich selection is vast: pork chops, BLT’s, and baked fish nestled inside bread.

For dessert, homemade pies and cobblers are available. A custard-like Chess Pie and an apple pie that comes with a hot butter rum sauce are featured. A children's menu has a number of chicken and burger options.

A Louisville Hot Brown
A Louisville Hot Brown

Take me to the ballpark year round for a Hot Brown
Baseball season doesn’t have to be in full swing in order to visit Louisville Slugger Field's Browning's Restaurant & Brewery. You always get huge servings at good prices, as well as a chance to dine on Browning’s own version of the renowned “Hot Brown”.

I had heard of the “Hot Brown” entrée that originated in this city. Circa 1926, the Brown Hotel’s chef Fred Schmidt, wanted to make the tired dancers happy with something original to eat in the early morning after a long night of partying. Guests were not pleased with the usual ham and eggs, so Schmidt concocted an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon as the topping, a Mornay sauce as another prime ingredient. It was a hit. Now many of Louisville’s restaurants serve their own version of the “Hot Brown”. Their Louisville Hot Brown is loaded with smoked turkey, large Texas toast slices, Mornay sauce, tomatoes, and a gooey combination of cheddar and parmesan cheese. This dish filled me up – no room for dessert.

The Colonel is buried here
The Colonel is buried here

Browning’s also offers a number of pub grub options, a litany of appetizers (soups and salads) such as crab cakes, tomato mozzarella salad, and a blue cheese salad that contains pears. I went with the very tasty black & white hummus, loaded with grilled pita bread. There are also a number of seafood, beef, and sandwich selections, and the bourbon tri-tip with bourbon molasses sauce. After all, Kentucky is bourbon country! For desserts, you can get such treats as the Derby Pie and cheesecake. Browning’s micro brewery selections of beer feature the “She-Devil Imperial Pale Ale”, which has a spicy and citrus aroma. Many wines, spirits and other mixed drinks are also available.

The menu states that Browning’s uses as much Kentucky “sustainable raised and organic products” as possible. The service is fast and friendly in a festive atmosphere, especially before a Louisville Bats minor league home game.

The Colonel rests at Cave Hill Cemetery. There are other notable graves in this 300-acre resting spot. For example, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the founder of the Kentucky Derby is here. More than 200 Confederate soldiers are buried too. Cave Hill Cemetery is a botanical garden full of trees, flowers and greenery. The cemetery’s website is informative. People can find the location of specific graves via the online Burial Database. Colonel Sanders’ grave is in Section 33 and Lot Number 57. Short biographies of famous people buried at Cave Hill are listed online.

Roy's other Louisville articles can be found here and here.

Roy A. Barnes is a frequent contributor to If he could only have one food to eat, it would definitely be Kentucky Fried Chicken!

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