Digging In to the Kentucky Hot Brown
Thank you, Chris Pogue (wherever you may now be), for dispatching this food sleuth on one of the most delectable assignments to date.
The one-time House aide — confidence is medium he’s since moved on, given that recent attempts to connect via email bounced back as “undeliverable” — pled his case to Noshtalgia a while ago, and actually provided a wealth of potential targets to consider.
“I’m from Kentucky and I miss the food dearly. . . . This includes specialties such as Derby Pie, Hot Brown sandwiches, fried okra, hush puppies, etc.,” Pogue penned in his request for guidance on inexpensive eateries that might cater to his particular appetites. “I’m having trouble finding anything online so I am asking the best food purveyor out there who knows D.C. best. Can you help me out?”
My affinity for saucy sandwiches (see: dripping-with-yolk Croque Madames; Monte Cristos slathered in hollandaise) naturally steered me toward the renowned Hot Brown.
A Thing of Legend
As anyone who’s ever attempted to engage Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in conversation before well knows, Kentucky is the birthplace of American-style bourbon whiskey.
And while the multitude of “brown water” makers continues to spiral — their evocative elixirs multiplying like rabbits on stacked-till-nearly-sagging bar shelves — the Bluegrass State also lays claim to the origin story of one of the great late-night munchies.
According to the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Ky., the now-iconic sandwich got off to a rather inauspicious start.
“In the 1920’s, the Brown Hotel drew over 1,200 guests each evening for its dinner dance. In the wee hours of the morning, the guests would grow tired of dancing and retire to the restaurant for a bite to eat. Diners were rapidly growing bored with the traditional ham and eggs, so Chef Fred Schmidt set out to create something new to tempt his guests’ palates,” the hotel explains on its website. “His unique creation was an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and a delicate Mornay sauce. Exemplifying our unending dedication to serving our guests, the Hot Brown was born!”
Food historian John T. Edge delved deeper into the history-making strategy session that hatched the multi-layered feast in his 2007 tome, “Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South.”
In an oral-history interview collected by the hotel, a former employee recalled the night in question: “[Schmidt] said, ‘I have an idea for an open-faced turkey sandwich with Mornay sauce over it.’ At that time, turkeys were only used for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and they had just started selling them year-around. I said, ‘That sounds a little flat,’ and the chef said, ‘I’m going to put it under the broiler.’ The maître d’ said, ‘It should have a little color, too.’ So Schmidt said, ‘We’ll put two strips of bacon on it.’ I said, ‘How about some pimento,’ and that’s how the Hot Brown came to be.”
As former executive chef Laurent Géroli explained to Condé Nast’s online repository, Epicurious, before parting ways with the Louisville institution in 2013, the powers that be haven’t tinkered too much with the nearly nonagenarian creation.
“The recipe has stayed almost identical,” Géroli said. “The one thing I do differently is that I add heavy cream to the bechamel sauce — in addition to the milk — so it has a richer taste.”
Subtle tweaks aside, Géroli maintained the bare essentials — slow-roasted turkey breast meat, an inch-plus tall Texas toast, fresh tomatoes, thick cut bacon — are good as is. To wit, he appeared to be a stickler about finishing off the signature Mornay, which is apparently forged from the aforementioned bechamel and shredded Pecorino Romano cheese.
“It’s important that the Mornay sauce not be too hot, otherwise it’ll be too runny,” Géroli counseled Epicurious. “We like to keep it at a temperature of about 100 F, so that when you ladle it atop the turkey it’ll be a bit thicker.”
D.C. Does Ky.
Finding a noteworthy Hot Brown in #ThisTown isn’t so much about beating the bushes for qualified purveyors as it is a question of personal taste.
Which is why Mr. Pogue, after keeping you on the back burner for so long, this hired mouth feels compelled to provide not one, but two spots at which to sate your Kentucky cravings.
If twisty forkfuls of gurgling, burbling molten dairy are what you’re after, treat your mouth to a trip to Martin’s Tavern.
Billy Martin, current owner of the longstanding Georgetown restaurant at 1264 Wisconsin Ave. NW, said his family has been in the Hot Brown business since the first Reagan administration.
“My cousin Billy Simpson, who lived in Louisville, introduced this dish to my father [third-generation owner, William A. Martin] and the rest is history,” Martin said of the crowd-pleasing selection.
Unlike the original, Team Martin doctors its soup of a meal with Welsh rarebit, a tavern staple featuring a wealth of cheddar cheese blended with Yuengling lager, heavy cream and select spices.
“Sticking the fork into the cast iron skillet and pulling out a bite with toast, turkey, tomato and bacon drenched in the rarebit sauce and taking that first bite just doesn’t get any better,” Martin said.
Authentic or not, he says the dish has resonated with his guests. “Many folks from Kentucky have told me they wish it was made our way back home,” Martin said.
Billed as “Martin’s Delight,” the filled-to-the-brim cast iron skillet it arrives in is a sight to behold.
The “sandwich” features layers of sumptuous ingredients that bleed deliciously into one another as one’s utensil burrows into the core of the supremely hearty experience. Up top reside twin strips of sugary bacon, followed by a single slice of squishy tomato. Just below begins the broiled-till-golden brown cheddar-Parmesan sauce (which seeps into every available crevice). Beneath the blanket of cheese are overlapping slices of lean, smoked turkey breast and, finally, the sauce-soaked piece of toast.
The generously stacked breast meat (at least three to four slices thick) remains juicy, the cheddar sauce is utterly intoxicating (heavy cream is a major player) and the bacon contributes smoky-sweetness to many bites. A calorie bomb, to be sure. But it’s our kind of comfort food.
Although just a few years old, Woodward Table at 1426 H St. NW has already found great success with its own interpretation of the Kentucky favorite.
Restaurateur and chef Jeffrey Buben has never made the trek to the Brown Hotel, but said he was inspired to put his own stamp on the dish after hearing award-winning New York City toque David Chang wax philosophic about it on PBS’s “Mind of a Chef” series.
“[I] just liked the fact that it is an iconic lunch dish that you just don’t see on many menus,” Buben related via email.
His version, which weaves goat’s milk curd and cave-aged cheddar into the mix (“It lifts the Mornay sauce,” Buben said), started out as brunch bait but has since graduated to featured player.
“[I] haven’t been able to take it off the menu because people come back for it,” he said.
Buben’s artful arrangement and gourmet flourishes are apparent from top to bottom. Crisscrossing strips of extra crunchy Benton’s bacon bring the salty, while a dusting of grated Parmesan softens the blissful sting of a roasted heirloom tomato that propelled water and acid into every bite. Broiled cheese drapes multiple layers (a half dozen, this time) of lean, sliced turkey breast, while thick, spongy brioche plays clean up down below.
“Some people have said it is not as cheesy and some want pimento added, but most have loved as far as we know,” Buben said of the mostly positive feedback that’s filtered back into the kitchen.
No argument here, chef.
CQ Roll Call dining guru Warren Rojas will stop at nothing to track down your regional specialty/state dish/hometown favorite. Put him on the case by nominating your most sorely missed meals to email@example.com.
Martin’s Tavern: 1264 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-7370; martinstavern.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner and late-night dining daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Woodward Table: 1426 H St. NW; 202-347-5353; woodwardtable.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.