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Taking a Bite Out of Lexington

Hot brown, beer and burgers in the horse capital of the world

By Suzanne Wright

You never forget your first bourbon ball.

I tasted mine nearly two decades ago. Allow me to explain.

Bourbon balls, invented in Kentucky, are chocolate-covered candies infused with real bourbon (another Kentucky creation known the world over) and topped with a pecan. If you can delay your gratification—and that's a big if—roll the confection in your mouth, letting the semi-sweet chocolate slowly melt on your tongue, followed by a hit of the earthy, caramel-like bourbon and the slight crunch of the pecan.

I remember taking home two boxes of bourbon balls to share with my best friend. One box didn't make it off the airplane.

Sampling the classics

When I'm dining in Kentucky, I tend to graze. Instead of three meals a day, I might aim for five, noshing through various menus and sampling a dish or two before moving on. There's just so much good food available, it's hard not to overindulge. Plan to discreetly adjust your belt accordingly, or, better yet, forgo one altogether. Stretchy waistbands or untucked shirts are a sure indicator of hard-won culinary prowess.

Lexingtonians are a garrulous and generous bunch when it comes to eating, which is a pastime in these parts. Asking for dining advice is an excellent icebreaker: Everyone has favorites and is happy to direct you to them, adding helpful tips on when to go and what to order.

There are more than 100 independent restaurants in town, which keeps quality and creativity high. Chefs here are confident, knowing they come from a deep culinary heritage and that they have access to a bounty of locally-sourced foods.

But they are also cutting-edge, willing to goose tradition with playful takes on dishes you might recognize from century-old cookbooks. Like a hot brown that swaps classic turkey for sea scallops. It's those kinds of surprises that keep diners coming back.

The Hot Kentucky Brown, which was invented at Louisville's The Brown Hotel, is something you should not miss. If only every sandwich was this luscious: open-faced toast layered with turkey, bacon and tomato, then smothered in a blanket of rich cream sauce and broiled until bubbly, golden brown. Forget picking it up; you need a fork and knife for this plate of flavor. Ramsey's Diner has an excellent version.

Great sandwiches in Lexington, KY - Anthony/Flickr

Beyond bourbon, there's beer

I'm a bourbon loyalist, but I love a pun and the Brewgrass Trail is a clever riff on Bluegrass. Where better to brush up on my beer bonafides than at a craft brewery, or two?

The Jefferson Street Corridor has exploded as a dining destination and West Sixth Brewing Company is part of the reason why. Housed in a former Rainbow Bread factory and redolent with the smell of hops, the taproom has a rotating selection of seasonal beers. After a tour of the facility, I hang out in the sun-dappled beer garden sipping an amber, identifying rye and biscuit notes.

I strike up a conversation with a couple from Chicago who is in town for a wedding.

"This is what I call a beer run," says thirty-something Mark, taking a swig."

"More like a beer sit-in," cracks Melissa, with a laugh."

Nearby, the newly opened Ethereal Brewing, located in the Historic Distillery District, focuses on "funky Belgian farmhouse brewing" (their words, not mine). The place has a cozy charm and the enthusiastic staff recommends their favorites. I opt for the Wanderlust IPA, which goes down easy.

There's nothing like a burger to accompany beer, so on a tip from a friend who's been on an extended work assignment in town, I head over to Side Bar Grill. The place is packed, but I wrangle a seat at the bar. I'm flanked by patrons who recommend the barbecue pork sammy and the sweet potato fries. But I've decided on a burger with a fried egg. The bartender gives a thumbs-up. It is delicious. For dessert, I go with another Kentucky classic: a mint julep.

Taking a little Lexington home

Another way to sample offerings from some of the city's best eateries while learning a bit of history and burning off calories is to join a Bleu Plate Tour. The tour lasts three hours and focuses on the ever-changing downtown dining scene.

Middle-aged British traveler Phil, declares it, "the best eating I've done while standing!" to a gale of laughter.

When I travel to places that have a distinctive cuisine, I often take a cooking class. Even if I only walk away with one recipe I can replicate, it's enough to share with friends and family and awaken dining memories.

"Cooking With Bourbon" is a four-course, two-hour class at Wild Thyme Cooking School. Who knew you could work the state's spirit into a vinaigrette, pimento cheese, steak au poivre and bread pudding.

Before leaving Lexington, I stop at North Lime Coffee and Donuts. This place has plain glazed and chocolate-iced donuts, but the maple-bacon are beckoning to me. Impulsively, I order a half-dozen.

Let's see how many survive the plane ride home.

Discover local foodie favorites in Lexington!

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