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The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told

Lawrenceburg, Berea, Corbin, and Mount Vernon, Kentucky

It’s day three of the Bourbon Festival (for previous reports, use the links in the sidebar). Listen as JB and I plot our day (and JB reveals his pick for “the perfect bourbon”) in podcast #1: MP3

This morning we took a great tour of Four Roses Distillery (1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky; 502-839-3436), which makes some of my favorite bourbons (they don’t reveal which brands they produce on contract, but I’m pretty sure Bulleit, which I particularly love, is among them). Master distiller Jim Rutledge is a legend, and he gave a neat presentation on the ins and outs of bourbon over a surprisingly good buffet breakfast. Lots of people attended— it’s finally starting to feel like a real bourbon festival!

Seeing this sign, as we drove in, was a big moment for JB, who idolizes Four Roses:

Hear part of Jim Rutledge’s presentation (caution: suitable only for extreme bourbon geeks) in podcast #2: MP3

The pre-bourbon porridge:

JB shows poor impulse control.

(I’m kidding. We were actually invited by the tour guide to stick our fingers into the vats for samples. The flavor was yeasty/starchy and totally unbourbon-like.)

Here’s the “beer still” (undistilled bourbon is called “beer” ... and that’s what it is at this point—a mildly alcoholic beverage brewed from grain):

See the beer still in action, in video #1: Movie file

After Four Roses, we blundered into quality frozen custard at Mollie’s (2901 Richmond Road, #160, Lexington, Kentucky; 859-269-0133), across the street from fabulous Liquor Barn (3040 Richmond Road, Lexington, Kentucky; 859-269-4170), the place to buy bourbon. Some errant custardy woojoo pulled me into the plasticky shopping strip, and it was good stuff.

Frozen-custard aficionados ought to check out, which lists custard stands nationwide. While it’s incomplete and bare bones, I love that a fellow custard lover takes the trouble.

Then came the most twisted and epic day of chowhounding of my entire life.

+ + +

I was very excited to drive way down to Berea, Kentucky, for the 10th Annual Spoonbread Festival. Spoonbread is sort of a cornmeal souffle, something I’ve been cooking, myself, since the age of eight … without ever having tried anyone else’s. During previous travels in the South, I’ve always looked for it, but there’s a specific spoonbread belt I’ve never managed to pass through. Berea, its seems, is ground zero, hence the festival.

We arrived in town and came upon a large festival in a lovely park, but could find no spoonbread. As usual, food service was dominated by carnival concessionaires hawking blooming onions, funnel cakes, and the other drabness that’s supplanted regional foods at American fairs.

How could there be no spoonbread at a spoonbread festival? It seemed impossible. But finally, off in a corner, hardly noticeable among the zillions of booths offering kitsch, trinkets, and come-ons of various sorts, was a small spoonbread tent. A gloomy woman therein fecklessly scooped dryish spoonbread out of a rice cooker. The crowds stayed away. It was expensive. And it wasn’t very good. This was spoonbread made fast, cheap, and sans an iota of love or care.

But, hey, one bad spoonbread concession needn’t destroy one’s morale when one is at a spoonbread festival! So JB and I amiably walked around, trying to find the rest of the spoonbread. But there wasn’t any. And that’s when we started getting annoyed.

We heard the Boone Tavern might be serving spoonbread back in town, and so we rushed off to go try some. But as we exited the park, we were collared by a trinket-selling young woman named Tammy who was attired in very natural fibers. Tammy could not imagine why anyone would leave such a great scene so early.

“Well, we were sort of hoping for some spoonbread,” I explained, figuring this eminently reasonable statement might satisfy Tammy’s curiosity.

But no. “Berea’s about lots more than spoonbread, you know,” she replied, lightly miffed. I looked at JB and JB looked at me, and I gamely inquired, “Like what?”

Tammy replied vaguely about something called a “moonbow” somewhere outside of town (we later learned that this is a nighttime rainbow—the sort of thing young trinket makers go for). For specific fun tips, she perkily suggested I dial 611 for local information, insisting that the operators know lots of really good things for tourists to do.

I steered the conversation back to spoonbread—a bad idea, as it only stirred up further contempt at our presumption to attend a spoonbread festival expecting spoonbread. How had we heard about the festival, she asked; was it over the Internet? Well, yes, actually it was. Tammy let forth a peal of scornful laughter, the origins of which I still don’t fully understand.

As if on cue, some crusty older dude with military bearing showed up. Tammy told us he worked at the nerve-agent factory. I asked him whether touring the factory might be one of the fun local activities we ought to enjoy in Berea. Tammy’s Rumsfeldian friend shook his head no with a stone face. We could try to get in, he remarked, but we’d likely be shot.

And off we went to the Boone Tavern.

The Boone Tavern (not a real tavern in this dry county) is the expensive restaurant in the quaint Boone Tavern Hotel. Its menu includes shrimp orecchiette and sorghum glazed salmon atop sweet potato risotto but no mention of spoonbread. And it was closed, anyway.

Thus ended our stay in Berea: scorned by Tammy, bereft of spoonbread, and … hungry. Especially JB, who is not accustomed to missing lunch.

Fortunately, I had a backup plan. Harland Sanders was embittered for years about how KFC had dragged his name in the mud with its miserable fried chicken. The colonel’s chicken, I’d heard, was actually wonderful. At the Harland Sanders Cafe, folks cooked, as one lonely little point of light amid the franchise glop metastasizing around the world, his great original recipe. I’d always wanted to go. And it was only another hour south.

Hear JB and I grouse as we set out from Berea to the Harland Sanders Cafe in podcast #3: MP3

... and watch video of the entire spoonbread catastrophe:

2: The drive into Berea:
Movie file

3: Hot on the trail:
Movie file

4: Explaining my fascination with spoonbread:
Movie file

5: So where’s the freakin’ spoonbread?
Movie file

6: Spoonbread scored … sort of:
Movie file

7: The wrong recipe:
Movie file

8: JB picks morosely at his spoonbread:
Movie file

9: Regrouping … and the indignation mounts:
Movie file

10: The Boone Tavern:
Movie file

+ + +

The drive seemed to take forever, and we finally pulled into scruffy Corbin, ravenously hungry. It was easy to spot from afar: the Harland Sanders Cafe! How exciting!

We went in, and I got a bad feeling when I saw a kitchen encased behind plexiglass, as in a museum.

So was there any food at all? We slowly worked our way around the curving lines of the Harland Sanders Cafe, past a wall of framed photographs of the colonel and his early restaurants, past the restrooms, and … gack. I turned a corner and spotted the very last thing I wanted to see:

Sullen, dead-eyed kids in fast-food uniforms and headsets asked if they could take my order, sir. I stood before them frozen and unable to reply, my jaw slack and mouth agape. Their inured reaction to my staring indicated that countless others had stood in this spot in a similar state of crestfallen paralysis. The tiles beneath my feet were bleached white from the bitter tears of my fellow chicken pilgrims.

The Harland Sanders Cafe had been gotten to. This one holdout, this small point of light, had been snuffed and paved over with dreck. There never was an original recipe. This is the good chicken. Once again: MAY I TAKE YOUR ORDER, SIR?

Deeply traumatized, we got back in the car and drove silently to Main Street, Corbin, where a Chowhound poster had tipped me to the Fad, a place serving pool hall chili—a nearly extinct regional food. I couldn’t find it, so I tried calling an old number, and some deaf old coot answered.

“Hi, is this the Fad?”
“The Fad?”
“The FAD??”
“Yes, THE FAD!!”
“The Fad’s been closed for 16 years!”

+ + +

Have you ever been in a car where the temperature plunges and you know your passenger is thinking murderous thoughts and there’s nothing you can say or do to restore even a modicum of sunny good feelings? This was one of those times.

We had now driven hundreds of miles, going most of the day without eating a thing. I, as a professional food writer, can time-shift my meals with ease. JB cannot. And JB never really wanted to leave the Bourbon Festival. And JB knew the Harland Sanders Cafe would be a sham. He’d warned me!

The drive out of Corbin (where there’s nothing to eat) was silent and depressing. My sullen passenger was ruing the day he’d left his comfortable California existence (and wife and children, who’d been calling his cell phone hourly to reestablish his sense of guilt re: the abandonment) to tag along on my nutty adventures. So I had to make good.

“JB,” I intoned, after clearing my throat, “I’d like to assure you that by the time this day is over, you will have eaten something extravagantly wonderful. We may be in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but rural empty space between here and Bardstown, but I will find us something sublime. I will pull something out of a hat. Trust me.” JB grunted crankily.

Onward I drove, in the silent, angry car, turning up the radio to drown out the tumult broadcasting from JB’s vacant gastric tract. I did, however, record podcast #4 (with JB bravely feigning optimism for the listening audience): MP3

I stayed off highways, threading my way through small towns and shopping strips, craning my neck to scan storefronts with the catlike alertness of a Manhattanite seeking a parking space. Flop sweat beaded on my brow. Finally, after driving through the chowless main drag of Mount Vernon, Kentucky, I came to a four-way-stop intersection.

I let the car to my left go. I let the car straight ahead of me go. A car approached to the right, and, figuring it was my right of way, I proceeded. The car, which was not planning on stopping, hit the brakes too late, and we collided. It turned out that I was in the wrong. This was a three-way, not four-way, intersection, after all.

The other car had nary a scratch, but the driver, a terrified girl driving a loaner, insisted on calling the police. In time, a cruiser glided into the frame and a late-middle-age patrolman in sunglasses got out. Slowly.

While JB and I watched from across the street, the policeman, without so much as glancing at us, interviewed the driver, went over her paperwork, and took down a report. Sometime during those 45 minutes, JB muttered something to me under his breath that I couldn’t quite make out. Bake off my muffin tins? “Take off your bourbon pin!” he hissed at me, and I realized I was still wearing my Bourbon Festival lapel pin. In a dry county. At the scene of a traffic accident. My God.

I snatched violently at the pin and chucked it into a trash can (along with a small portion of my shirt), and eventually the cop turned his head to fix us with a stare. The woman drove away. The officer slowly—oh, so slowly—proceeded to walk toward us, with jaw set. I flashed on every bad movie I’d ever seen. JB started to shake a little.

After crossing the street as if it were a four-mile trek through tobacco juice (paying no attention to traffic, which stopped to allow his brooding passage), he approached JB and me, extended his hand, and smiled widely. “Bill Barrett!” he boomed. “Jim Leff!” I answered, hesitantly. A tiny voice next to me whimpered, “Uh, JB Leibovitch.”

Officer Bill proceeded to take down our information. Very slowly. Officer Bill isn’t one for paperwork, but he gamely plowed through the procedure, double- and triple-checking numbers and addresses. All my papers were laid out on the hood of my car, including, last and all the way to the right, my insurance card—which I noted, with no small panic, had expired two weeks earlier. I knew that JB noticed this, because his shaking had increased. I was worried his sneakers might stamp cracks into the concrete sidewalk.

Officer Bill was so friendly and engaging, though, that I nearly forgot this looming disaster and just enjoyed his conversation. JB was wondering how long it would take me to steer the conversation to food, but I didn’t need to. Officer Bill, you see, is a serious food lover. Without knowing a thing about me, he began pelting me with chow tips.

“You were in Berea? Did you get a chance to try that pizzeria just off the square? I think their crust is something special!”

“No, didn’t get there. We were trying to find spoonbread at the spoonbread festival … I can’t find spoonbread back home.”

“Where are you from?”

“New York.”

“Really? I used to live in Jersey. There was this sensational Italian bakery … damn, what was the name?”

And on it went. I never expected to meet such a kindred spirit under such conditions. But conditions were about to change, because Officer Bill was moments away from setting eyes on my expired insurance card, and I couldn’t handle the tension any more.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed. “I see my insurance card’s expired!”

“Hold on. Just hoooold on a minute. We’re not up to that yet,” said the methodical policeman, who was still wrestling with my registration info. The food schmooze continued, I was starting to sense the launch of a lifelong friendship, and I felt thoroughly ashamed for having fallen prey to stereotyping.

Finally Officer Bill picked up my insurance card and sighed. “You know, if you’re not insured and you tell me you are, we’ll have to subpoena you for passing false information?”

“Yes, Officer Bill. You see, I left on this trip—I’m eating my way across North America for a media company in California—over three weeks ago, so it expired while I was on the road and the new card is surely sitting in my mailbox back home.”

I was way too off-script at this point—I think Officer Bill stopped listening sometime around the point when I mentioned “a media company in California.” And it was after 5 p.m., so my insurance agent had left the office. Officer Bill seemed unsure what to do with me.

“Look,” I said, “I’m perfectly willing to spend the night in jail if need be. All I ask is something great to eat for dinner first. We’re not here for pizza. We need something local. Something like catfish.”

At mention of the word “catfish,” Officer Bill’s eyes lit up. “What day is this?” he asked. “Friday!” JB and I shouted in unison. Officer Bill slapped the hood of my car and told us we had to go immediately to Derby City Truck Stop, on the other side of the interstate, where they fry the heck out of catfish, Fridays only. Hardly able to contain our jubilance, JB and I carefully jotted down the directions, pumped Officer Bill’s hand with deep, affectionate gratitude, and drove off to a rather generic-looking truck stop.

There was no catfish—they were frying up some other fish. We ordered, the plate came, and the fish was fantastic. Just look at it!

Notice JB’s hand in the background of this photo, balled up into a fist of exhilaration:

At this point we recorded podcast #5, running down the day’s highlights and trying to synchronize our level of adoration for Derby City Truck Stop: MP3

After the first order of fish, the revelrous mood sank a bit as we started to doubt our feelings. The dramatic arc of this story demanded a monumental finale. Was the fish truly great, or were we merely willing it to be great? As with most Kentucky restaurants, the Derby City Truck Stop is all-you-can-eat, so we requested another round. And it was even better. We went through order after order, insatiable, refusing to ever stop eating. It was like being on a cosmic escalator of galvanizing chowhound wonderment.

Hear the podcasts we recorded between each supernal round:

Podcast #6—JB recants: The fish isn’t good, it’s “really, really” good, after all: MP3

Podcast #7— No … the fish is actually even better than we thought: MP3

Podcast #8—Fish round 4: MP3

Dessert was even better. Much better, in fact:

Lemon meringue pie with perfect meringue—tight as a nail but gossamer light and instantly melting. Geological striations of luscious custard, sharp and true lemon, and the richest, moistest, crumbliest of graham cracker crusts. Banana pudding was the best I’ve ever had (and this is a dish I’ve had a lot), with banana slices perfectly dovetailing into rich pudding, Nilla Wafers neither saturated nor dry, and more of that incredible meringue.

Hear the giddy dessert podcast: MP3

And then: blackberry cobbler.

In report #29, I explained how sometimes, back in Bardstown, “the wind shifts, and angels puff into your nose. An unearthly aroma of luscious caramel and vanilla sneaks up on you in an undulating wave of divine consolation” from the aging bourbon barrels scattered around town. This blackberry cobbler, though it contained no bourbon, was the sweet embodiment of that indescribable, deeply consoling aroma. I never thought I’d find it in edible form. Even bourbon itself doesn’t fulfill that aromatic promise. But the blackberry cobbler did. I felt utterly complete.

I’d had the perfect meal; a meal so unfathomably delicious that it transformed an agonizing day into a gorgeous operatic crescendo of awed predestination. I would not have changed a single thing.

+ + +

NOTE: If you skipped the videos or podcasts from the spoonbread festival, above, you may want to go back and check them out. They really evoke the comical slow burn as events unfolded.

I’m sorry I have no photos or video of Officer Bill, but he will forever be etched in my memory as one of the great heroes of chowhounding. The next time you eat something wonderful, please toast Officer Bill Barrett, Chowhound Paragon.

You Smell Good Enough to Eat

Everyone’s familiar with Philosophy’s ridiculously rich and tempting bath products. Well, everyone girly, anyway. I’m particularly partial to their Eggnog Bath Gel and Gingerbread Man Hot Salt Scrub at this time of year, and I walk around smelling like a plate of Christmas cookies.

This holiday season, Bath & Body Works proves just how familiar they are with Philosophy’s products as they release their own line of Crazy Caramel Corn, Spicy Gingerbread, Wickedly Hot Chocolate, and Twisted Peppermint. Not only are the flavors shockingly familiar, but some of the packaging also seems to recall Philosophy’s.

Gael at Pop Culture Junk Mail gives a thumbs up to the seasonal unguents, but she also loves another seasonal Bath & Body Works lotion:

It’s also the season for Vanilla Bean Noel body lotion, which is the only lotion I’ll use after a workout, and which is so yummy that if I run out during the year, I will buy it on eBay rather than use another product.

I might have to do some extensive bath testing.

Mutton Khandari at Masala

Masala Indian Fusion is actually an excellent choice for classic, non-fusion Indian dishes, like the mutton khandari–a dish Ozumo pronounces the Best Indian Dish Ever. Order it “incredibly” spicy and they’ll actually bring it to you that way–they won’t gringo you. It’s painful and beautiful, and comes with saffron-tinged basmati rice and piping-hot naan.

This place serves food with fresh, complex flavors, and even the lunch buffet is great. Water pitchers are filled with citrus and mint and the mango lassi is garnished with saffron threads–details that hint at the overall quality of everything they serve. Stick to the traditional menu, and you won’t be disappointed.

Masala Indian Fusion [East Bay]
499 San Ramon Valley Blvd., Danville

Board Links
Authentic Indian food in East Bay?

Mr. Pollo

vinchar likes the chicken and arepas at the newly-opened Mr. Pollo. Arepas are kind of like discs of cornbread with cheese inside. The arepas here are huge and terrific, with medium-sweet masa; they go for $1 each. The chicken is reasonably moist and pleasantly garlicky, even if you get there late and take the last chicken. A new place worth checking out if you’re in the area.

Mr. Pollo [Mission]
2823 Mission Street, at 24th St., San Francisco

Board Links
Mr. Pollo (?) ; new at 24th and Mission

Devin Tavern: All-American Comforts in Tribeca

Hearty American chow and creative cocktails are drawing downtown hounds to Devin Tavern, opened in summer by the owners of nearby steakhouse Dylan Prime. Crowd-pleasers include pan-roasted duck, corn souffle with lobster bisque, a Gruyere burger with pork belly, and grilled Arctic char (with broccoli rabe, white bean puree, and veal reduction). Some dishes are too rich for their own good; nice briny Wellfleet oysters are nearly overpowered by the accompanying lardons and Hollandaise.

Mixology is first-rate. Good bets on the cocktail menu include the pepper basil caipirinha, Raleigh Collins (silver tequila, lemon juice, house-made limoncello), and Blue Tomato (vodka with a blue cheese-stuffed pickled cherry tomato).

Hounds also love the handsome brick-and-beam space. But some find the food too pricey, with most entrees in the mid-$20s and topping out near $40. “For a place that bills itself as a tavern, it’s on the high side,” advises Phil E. “We were extremely happy with our meal, but someone coming in expecting something more casual (the environment is, the food isn’t) might be surprised.”

Devin Tavern [Tribeca]
363 Greenwich St., near Franklin, Manhattan

Board Links
Where to go to dinner tonight….anywhere south of 14th
Help! Need a dinner spot in Tribeca (or near the 1) Tonight…
Devin Tavern–Review (Long)

Lucali’s: Masterly Brick-Oven Pizza in Carroll Gardens

New York’s hottest new pizzeria is an old-school kind of joint with deep Brooklyn roots. Lucali’s in Carroll Gardens has equipment from the departed Leonardo’s, sausage from Esposito Pork Store, and an owner whose pizza god is Domenico DeMarco of hound mecca DiFara. ” I think we have a winner here!” exults bobjbkln.

The pie at Lucali’s, which opened in October and is already drawing crowds, is thin but not super-thin, made with care and attention to craft, and baked in a wood-and-gas-fired brick oven. “The crust is the perfect combo of chew and char, the ingredients first rate,” says missmasala. CTownFeedR reports a flavorful crust, tasty sauce, a stellar cheese combination of fresh mozzarella and grated grana padano, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil at the end.

Although chef-owner Mark Iacono is inspired by DeMarco, his pie has its own personality. “The pizza is not like DiFara’s,” observes bobjbkln. “It’s brick oven, and the crust is somewhat thicker. The cheese is more chewy than DiFara’s. In all, the pizza reminded me more of Totonno’s than DiFara’s, but it was certainly very good.”

Iacono is still getting to know his oven and its quirks. Some complain of overly charred pizzas, others of soggy, underdone ones–but if it doesn’t come out right, he’ll cheerfully make a new one.

Besides the pizza, hounds dig the vibe: low lighting, Caruso on the jukebox, and intoxicating wood smoke aromas. “Still working out the kinks, true, but all the elements are there,” writes sadie. “This place should succeed. He’s got the passion and the pizza–the rest is up to us.”

Lucali’s Pizza [Carroll Gardens]
575 Henry St., between Carroll and 1st Pl., Brooklyn

DiFara Pizzeria [Midwood]
1424 Ave. J, at E. 14th St., Brooklyn

Totonno Pizzeria Napolitano [Coney Island]
1524 Neptune Ave., between W. 15th and 16th Sts., Brooklyn

Board Links
Loucallie’s: Wood-fired Brick Oven Pizza in Carroll Gardens
New Restaurant–Henry btw Carroll and 1st

Chicken Pho – the Good, the Bad, the Gristly

The world of pho eaters can probably be divided between those who love it no-holds-barred funky (bring on the tendon, the tripe, what have you) and those who prefer not to find any funny stuff in their bowls.

If you’re looking for chicken pho without the ick factor, russkar gives major props to Pho Thanh, where the broth is solidly good and there’s nothing but boneless, skinless white meat in addition to the noodles.

On the other end of the spectrum is Pho Bolsa, where a bowl of pho ga means deeply flavored broth, chicken meat, guts, and maybe even ovaries. Not for the faint of heart, but it’s fantastic, says kingkong5.

Pho Thanh [Little Saigon]
13055 Euclid St., Garden Grove

Pho Bolsa Restaurant [Little Saigon]
14092 Magnolia St., Westminster

Board Links
Pho’ Thanh- Perfect Chicken Pho’

Delicata Squash

Delicata is sweeter than most varieties of winter squash, and denser in texture. It’s difficult to peel, but the peel is edible. You can use it in recipes as you would butternut squash; or cut it in half, seed it, and roast it with 1 Tbsp. each butter and brown sugar in each half, then scoop and eat.

wyf slices it into rings, tosses with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roasts on a sheet pan at about 375F until it’s tender. pitu does the same, but adds fried sage leaves and shallots.

oakjoan loves this treatment for delicata squash: combine coarsely ground whole spices (she likes fennel, cumin, coriander, and black peppercorns), crumbled oregano, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, and salt, and mix with olive oil. Brush on quartered squash and bake at 400F for about 15 minutes; test for doneness continue baking if necessary.

Board Links
Delicata squash

Fire Up the Hot Pot

Hot Pot City is sort of a do-it-yourself place–each table has a cast iron griddle at its center, with a hot pot in the middle. You serve yourself ingredients from the refrigerated case in the back of the restaurant, and you can cook up hot pot soup and sizzling meat at the same time. You’re charged per plate for the ingredients: $2-5.

Vegetables, tofu, and shrimp are amazingly fresh, but the beef, lamb, and venison get a bit dry from standing uncovered in the refrigerator. The meats are also trimmed of their fat, so it’s a good thing that butter for cooking is complimentary. Steamed rice also comes free.

Dinner for two runs about $30.

Hot Pot City [Little Saigon]
15606 Brookhurst St. Suite E, Westminster

Board Links
Hot Pot City mini-review