Tips on dining out during Derby

LEO’s Eat’n’Blog, May 3, 2006

Illustration by Gina Moeller

You’ve probably figured out by now that if you didn’t make your reservations around this time last year, you’re pretty much out of luck if you were planning to see or be seen at any of Louisville’s top tables on Oaks or Derby night – or for that matter, any night this week.

Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Super Bowl Sunday whatever town it’s in, Louisville’s great cultural and religious festival turns into the nation’s biggest party for the duration, attracting visitors from all over and, for at least this one week of the year, providing some credibility to our odd claim that the merged metro really is the 16th largest city in the nation.

And just about all of the gazillion locals and tourists, it seems, think they’re going to get in to Jack Fry’s on Saturday night. Well, here’s our Derby tip: It ain’t going to happen. No matter how well you tip your hotel’s concierge to make a connection for you.

Don’t despair, though. You may not be dining with the trend-setters this weekend, but our team of foodies and dining critics has come up with a variety of creative ideas to help you celebrate the season as most natives do: Forget the crush of celebs and paparazzi at the hot spots and join us where the real people go.

Hitch your Chow Wagon to a fried Snickers bar

Turkey leg
photo by Sara Petty: Gordon Moffett makes short work of a gigantic smoked turkey leg at the 2006 Chow Wagon in Louisville’s Waterfront Park.

At the Chow Wagon, for instance. Open daily through Friday, this massive collection of food-and-drink wagons turns Louisville’s downtown Waterfront Park into something bearing a surprising resemblance to the State Fair midway boiled down to its culinary essentials, without the Tilt-a-Whirl or the Ferris Wheel.

Be sure to pick up a Pegasus Pin, which is required for admission ($3, available at the entrance and all over town during Derby season), and line up for a handful of food-and-drink tickets (50 cents each) at the entrance. To protect vendors from the temptation of handling real money, Chow Wagon organizers require that all purchases be made with tickets.

We dispatched Eat’n’Blog correspondent LEAH STEWART to the Chow Wagon last week to check out this year’s bill of fare. Here’s her report:

The folks who bring us the Kentucky Derby Festival tout the Chow Wagon as “the ultimate dining and socializing experience.” And in some ways they’re right. The food vendors there prove that almost anything can be fried and put on a stick. To be fair, there are some pretty good eats and some once-a-year treats. And the Chow Wagon does offer prime people-watching opportunities.

Our merry band hitched up to the Chow Wagon around mid-afternoon on opening day. This is a good plan if you prefer to avoid crowds, as the lunchtime crowds of downtown office workers have left, so there’s plenty of room at the picnic tables and no lines at the booths. My dining partners first tried a smoked turkey leg (12 tickets) and a Greek gyro (12 tickets) sandwich. The turkey leg’s crispy skin broke away to reveal moist, juicy meat redolent of hickory smoke. By the time our man got through with his sizable portion, there was nothing left on the plate but bones. The gyro sandwich suffered a bit from pale winter tomatoes, but that was the only fault in an otherwise fine Greek-style treat: sweet onions and cooling cucumber sauce served in perfect contrast to the beef-and-lamb gyros meat with its subtle hints of rosemary and thyme. As the vegetarian in the group, I indulged in fried green tomatoes (8 tickets for an order of four, served on a stick). The tomatoes were appropriately tart, and a zippy, piquant dipping sauce was a plus. However, I’d rate this dish three napkins for the amount of grease that they carried with them from the deep-fryer.

Frying candy
photo by Sara Petty: A Snickers bar, frying in oil.

For seriously delicious carnival-style eating, though – albeit in the once-a-year treat category for most of us – you just can’t beat the fried Snickers bar (8 tickets). This calorific bundle isn’t just good, it’s too good! At a glance a finished fried bar looks a bit like a corndog, but don’t be fooled. The vendor described it as “a chocolate sundae on a stick” and she spoke the truth. Warm gooey nougat, oozing caramel, melty chocolate and peanuts encased in a golden-brown, sizzling sheath of funnel cake, all dusted with powdered sugar. What’s not to like?

I also tried the chocolate-covered strawberries (6 tickets), wondering whether the Chow Wagon is the place for such a delicate treat. Silly me! Large, frozen strawberry halves are pre-frozen, five to a stick (of course). When you order a stick, it’s dipped into molten chocolate, which immediately solidifies on the frozen berries. It can’t really be bad for you, right, because it’s fruit …

So much food, so little time. We had to pass on blooming onions, blooming potatoes, fried catfish sandwiches, grilled chicken breast, rib eyes and crab cakes.

Fried Snickers bar
photo by Sara Petty: It looks like a corndog, but don’t be fooled. It is pure sugary bliss.

Alas, there are no fried Twinkies or Oreos this year. But there is a frozen chocolate-covered banana with my name on it.

The Chow Wagon remains open through Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Derby Eve. Live music goes on almost constantly on two stages. No lawn chairs, coolers, cans, bottles or pets are allowed.

Haute cuisine in the infield

Speaking of downscale, there’ll be a whole lot more of us enjoying the Derby from the milling throngs in the Churchill Downs infield than amid the tasteful environs of Millionaire’s Row, and we suspect there’ll be a lot more LEO readers there.

After all, what’s not to like about a ritual that the Louisville native Dr. Hunter S. Thompson once described thus: “That whole thing will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene – thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other, and fighting with broken whiskey bottles.”

But it’s possible to do the whole infield thing much more tastefully, as correspondent ASHLEY DUNN explains.

Daring to immerse yourself in the crowd of the Kentucky Derby infield is a rite of passage for most Derby-goers: Everyone has to try it at least once. The grassy 40 acres within Churchill’s mile-long oval contains one of America’s greatest parties, and if you plan on taking the plunge, you should come prepared. Thompson wasn’t entirely exaggerating, as some parts of the infield – the infamous Third Turn, for instance – may make you feel like you’re in an episode of “Girls Gone Wild.” But keep moving, and stick together. You can make it through and over to the more civilized areas, where you can enjoy a refined repast as you try to catch a glimpse of the races.

If you’re planning on bringing your own food and beverages (wink, wink) you need to know the rules: Everyone coming into the infield must pass through airport-style security inspection; and all food items must be in clear plastic bags or containers and are limited to two per person. Reynolds Kangaroo Bags are perfect for this. They are basically a giant ziplock bag with three compartments. No bottles of any kind are permitted – surely an effective way to keep terrorism under control – so unless you want to try your hand at smuggling, it’s simplest to purchase your water, sodas, beer and liquor on the inside.

As long as you’re going to give the constabulary a clear view of everything you’ve packed anyway, why not impress them with a spread of gourmet indulgences? Say goodbye to the days of dining at the Derby on nothing but vodka-infused orange slices. I recommend Lotsa Pasta as the perfect place to put together an “adult” infield lunch menu.

Locally owned, Luna Mercato has taken the classic concept of cheese and crackers to soaring new heights. Try their divine Gouda Pecan spread ($5.29), served with sea salt crackers. This spread should come with a warning label about addictiveness. It’s a perfect combination of mellow Gouda, roasted pecans and sautéed shallots that’ll have you racing your friends to grab the last few bites.

Follow this with a rosemary ham-and-Swiss sandwich on foccacia. Lotsa Pasta’s rendition is almost big enough for two, and the combination of rosemary and Italian herbs in the bread with the ham and cheese makes for a delightful combination of flavors. Of course, you can’t walk away from this deli counter without an Italian sub on a crusty baguette, piled high with Genoa salami, hot capicola ham, pepperoni and provolone cheese, all finished off with a tangy olive oil and herb dressing.

Among other Lotsa Pasta goodies, the chicken chipotle salad will go so quick that you’ll probably find yourself nibbling at it while you wait in traffic. An authentic Italian antipasto of meats and cheeses is perfect for your journey into the infield. Lotsa Pasta offers 20 kinds of salamis and pepperonis to choose from. And it will all package nicely into a Ziploc Snap ‘n’ Seal.

Three Derby box-lunch choices at Lotsa Pasta – pre-packaged in clear containers for Oaks and Derby inspection – include your choice of sandwich, chips and cookie ($7.50); a pint of salad, chips and cookie ($8.50); or a sandwich, a half-pint of salad and a cookie ($9). Throw in a package of Blue Chips ($3.49) and some crunchy, spicy wasabi peas ($1.99), and you’ll be all set for your gourmet infield picnic! Security will be envious.

Still want to dine out Derby night?

OK, we’ve established that the hot spots downtown and along the restaurant rows on Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue will likely be jammed and slammed on Oaks and Derby evenings. But you’ll find plenty of excellent dining opportunities in the Derby City, and by taking the less well-beaten path, you may even be able to dine without crowds or a wait.

Let’s consider a couple of offbeat approaches featuring a random selection of some favorites that, chances are, shouldn’t be any more crowded after Derby than, well, any other Saturday night.

Get out of town. You don’t have to go all that far to get out in front of the teeming masses fleeing Churchill Downs after the races. Head east to Oldham County, for example, where you’ll find such delights as Westport General Store in the village of Westport on the Ohio (7008 KY Hwy. 524, 222-4626), a converted general store that now houses a bistro that wouldn’t be out of place on Bardstown or Frankfort; Norma Jean’s Trackside in La Grange (119 W. Main St., 222-8044), a fine, nostalgic diner that recently added a full Cuban menu on the side; or Steve O’s Italian Kitchen (4205 W. Hwy. 146, 222-0300) just off I-71 near Buckner, offering splendid pizzas and other hearty family Italian-American fare.

Or head out in the other direction, north across the bridges to Southern Indiana. If you want something on the upscale side, I suggest RockWall, an attractive dining room in a lovely wooded setting in Floyd Knobs, a steep but quick drive up from New Albany. New Albany also boasts one of the city’s best casual, authentic Mexican restaurants, La Rosita (1515 E. Market St., (812) 944-3620), and arguably the region’s most memorable beer bar, pizzeria and community center in Rich O’s/New Albanian Brewing Co. (3312 Plaza Drive, (812) 949-2804). Over in Jeffersonville, Mai’s Thai (1411 E. 10th St., (812) 282-0198) is casual, informal and one of the region’s better sources for aromatic and spicy Thai fare.

Back in the city, ethnic dining makes sense, too. Many local foodies consider Vietnam Kitchen one of Louisville’s top spots for good eats, and its South End location (5339 Mitscher Ave., 363-5154) is particularly handy to Churchill Downs. Outstanding ethnic dining is also virtually guaranteed at Havana Rumba in St. Matthews (4115 Oechsli Ave., 897-1959), where first-rate Cuban food is the draw … come to think of it, this place is jammed every Saturday night, but it’s worth the wait. If all else fails, treat yourself to a truly Louisville experience with a cold beer at Flabby’s Schnitzelburg (1101 Lydia St., 637-9136), one of the most welcoming beer bars in the city’s old Germantown neighborhood … German-style and down-home dishes fill the inner person, and if you’re lucky, they’ll have fried chicken on Saturday night. -Robin Garr


If you thought Snappy Tomato was just part of the recipe at this regional pizzeria, you’ve had your bet on the wrong horse. In fact, we’re told, the original Snappy Tomato was a race horse, who brought home just enough bucks to provide his owners the stake they needed to open the pizza chain that bears his name. In honor of this equine heritage, the local franchisees have come up with a daily double of a deal: The first 10 people who show up at any of the five Louisville Snappy Tomato locations (Highway 22, St. Matthews, U of L, Middletown and the Highlands) with a losing Derby betting ticket will get a free Snappy Pizza of their choice. The offer runs May 7-14. Your losing pick may still be running.

A tradition from the Old South, beaten biscuits really are beaten … with a mallet, a flatiron or even the side of an ax. The recipe hails from the days before baking powder and baking soda were commonly available, so to provide a small amount of rise, early cooks would fold biscuit dough and beat it for 20 to 30 minutes, trapping tiny air pockets within. Unless you’re in serious need of aggression-release therapy, we suggest you buy your beaten biscuits pre-made for Derby brunch. They’re available at Burger’s Super Market, 1105 Ray Ave., in Louisville, 454-0461. -Leah Stewart