Fresh back from a 10-day Road Trip, I’m here to report that the United States is open and ready for travel! I visited North Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, Louisville, Kentucky, with a short jaunt into Cincinnati, Ohio. Places were packed! Tourists spots, hotels and restaurants are booming with business in our good ole U S of A. While I’m on the one hand, so happy to see people exploring our own country (often overlooked by many Americans), on the other hand, many people in the service and hospitality industry have yet to return to their old jobs, making traveling and eating out more difficult. Patience is the name of the game these days.
We spent the night in Asheville at the lovely and Historic Grove Park Inn, ate dinner at the Sunset Terrace with John and Kelley to celebrate our anniversaries, before heading to Cashiers and a wonderful wedding we attended in Glenville, North Carolina. While walking the streets of Highlands, nary a mask was seen and, when we arrived in Nashville, it was packed and bustling with tourists, making the rounds up and down music joints and honky tonks on Broadway. When we tried to get a reservation for dinner (on a Monday night), we couldn’t get one until 9 p.m., way past my suppertime!
And when we stopped by Mammoth Caves, the largest cave in the world, on the way to our next stop in Louisville, the tours were totally sold out for the next week. Obviously, I didn’t plan ahead well enough, but I hadn’t gotten the memo that the world was open and ready for business! We toured another, commercial cave (Diamond Caverns) and I felt lucky that we were able to get tickets for the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Behind the Scenes Tour the next day.
We went straight to the bar in the lovely and historic Brown Hotel for a drink. The bartender there was totally underwater, his fourth day on the job, one bartender short and trying to split a check between three guys. We finally sat down and ordered a drink. I got a Bourbon Mule, because if there’s one thing Kentucky is synonomous with it’s bourbon. It was cool and refreshing, just what I needed after a long day in the car. We put our names on the list for dinner in the Brown, but didn’t sit down until 9 p.m. again!
We split the Hot Brown sandwich, a dish associated with Louisville and invented in The Brown Hotel. It’s an open faced turkey sandwich, served on toast points with Mornay sauce, bacon, tomato and cheese and it was as decandent and delicious as it sounds.
The next morning, just driving up to Churchill Downs was a thrill and the Behind the Scenes tour was really wonderful. Some of it was outside, by the paddocks, but the other part was inside the stadium, in different areas. I was surprised when our guide instructed us to enter the elevator to the second floor. About twenty of us were crammed into a large elevator, shoulder to shoulder. I looked in my purse for a mask, but didn’t find one, so tried to hold my breathe on the ride up. After staying six feet away from my fellow man for more than a year, this sudden togetherness, with us all breathing the same air in a small enclosed space was like going from 0 to 60 with no warning. I tried not to over-think it, but it felt strange, to say the least. I felt a minor panic attack coming on, but I lived through it.
We left the Kentucky Derby Museum to eat at Biscuit Belly, with biscuits the size of a small baby. In fact, I kept wanting to call it Biscuit Baby. If there was one theme to our Road Trip, a food I saw over and over again, it was Biscuits and Gravy. Zeke got the favorite- Rockwell Supreme with sausage gravy, fried chicken breast, bacon and a fried egg. I got the more petite Mama’s Boy with fried green tomato, fried chicken breast, jalapeno pimento cheese and pickles. Both were delicious! Then it was time for our tour at Four Roses Bourbon Distillery.
I checked many Bourbon Distilleries on the Bourbon Trail to make a reservation, but they were all booked! Probably the only reason we were able to get a tour at Four Roses was because it was Four Roses’ first day of tours since COVID. Four Roses is located in Lawrenceburg, about an hour away from Louisville, in the same town as Wild Turkey. We did the tour, had a bourbon tasting and I checked one distillery off my Bourbon Trail passport (with 36 to go!). Dessert was Derby Pie in our hotel lobby, the official pie of the Kentucky Derby. It’s made with semi-sweet chocolate, walnuts and bourbon and we had it served a la mode. Delicious!
The final food destination I had to make was Skyline Chili, located in Cincinnati, Ohio. This also allowed me to check another state off my list. I’m down to two- Rhode Island and Alaska. We first visited the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati (very cool!), then went to Skyline Chili in Clifton, the oldest one still existing. While I’d heard about Cincinnati Chili for years, I’d never eaten it, so was really looking forward to it.
Skyline is a chain of Cincinnati-style chili that was started by a Greek Immigrant and named for the view of the Cincinnati skyline seen from the original restaurant. The Skyline Diner is just a straight up, old school diner, with stools and booths and cooks in the middle, lining up hot dogs and topping them with chili and mounds of grated cheese, like a factory. There were oyster crackers and hot sauce on the table, as our waitress handed us laminated menus. Obviously the thing to get was the chili, but it came different ways- 3-way, 4-way and 5-way.
I ordered a small 5 way, which was the signature dish 3-way of “steaming spaghetti, covered with the chili and topped with a mound of shredded cheddar cheese”- plus diced onions and beans. I was disappointed in this dish; I’m not a fan of the dish other people rave about. First of all, the spaghetti wasn’t steaming, it was cold, the chili tasted bland, sweet (from cinnamon and chocolate) and watery, there was a lot of cheese and not many diced onions.
After a couple bites, I added the oyster crackers and hot sauce to the dish to try and liven it up. It helped a bit, but really I felt those 450 calories could have been spent on something that actually tasted good. The Peppermint Patty, at the cashier register, was the highlight of this meal for me. I know people from Cincinnati love this stuff, so maybe you have to have been raised on it. As a Miami Girl, I’ll take a toasty Media Noche, creamy croquettas or black beans and rice any day over this dish!
On the way back to Asheville from Ohio, we stopped in Corbin, Kentucky to see the Original Kentucky Fried Chicken location. Unfortunately the museum was closed (thanks, COVID!) but it was still fun to take a little side trip to the birthplace of Finger-Lickin’ Good Chicken. Needless to say, I didn’t need to eat any more fried chicken on this trip, so we stopped, got a bottle of water and were back on the road.
In conclusion, in case you’re planning a Road Trip to any of these locations:
- Best Breakfast: Breakfast Burrito with Potatoes Pucketts in Nashville
- Best Lunch: The Burger at Bridge at Mill Creek , Highlands, North Carolina
- Best Dinner: Smoked Pork Shank with cilantro microgreens, peanuts, sorghum-chili glaze and lime on cheese grits at Deacon’s New South, Nashville
- Best Drink: The Bourbon Mule, The Brown Hotel Bar, Louisville
- Best Dessert: The Derby Pie, The Brown Hotel, Louisville
- Best Old School Dish: The Hot Brown, The Brown Hotel, Louisville
- Most Outrageous Meal: The Rockewell Supreme, Biscuit Belly, Louisville
- Most Disappointing Meal: The 5-way Chili at Skyline Chili, Cincinnati
Up Next: Shrimp Ceviche Recipe