This story first appeared in Bill Addison’s newsletter “Notes From a Roving Critic.” Subscribe now to keep up with Eater’s roving critic on the road.
Last week we introduced something new to the Eater universe: The South’s 38 Essential Restaurants, kicking off an ongoing project where we’ll be singling out defining dining options in every region of the country. It’s a natural progression in our coverage: Our city editors oversee Eater 38 maps for 23 food capitals across North America, and in my three years as Eater’s restaurant editor, I’ve tackled the daunting, delicious mission of naming the Best Restaurants in America.
The South is my home turf; 12 other experts from around the region joined me in narrowing down the list to 38 standouts. Atlanta has been my home, minus two gaps of several years each, since 1995. I’ve been writing about Southern food since my career began in 2002. But as part of the research for this particular project, I took a road trip to the one state in the South where I had somehow never been: Kentucky.
In February its famously rolling, blue-green terrain was muted and dormant. The landscape made me want to return in the flush of summer, but I’d happily go back to immerse myself in eating there any time of the year. I drove the state but focused on Louisville, starting with smoked catfish dip, roasted lamb with creamed greens, and Van Winkle Family Reserve rye whiskey at Proof on Main soon after I arrived. A spectacular five-course meal at Edward Lee’s 610 Magnolia earned the restaurant a slot on the Southern 38. The trip’s winning breakfast: huevos rancheros with avocado mousse and chorizo at Con Huevos.
A six-month-old restaurant in Louisville struck me as a particularly meaningful addition to the city’s accelerating dining scene. It’s the kind of place that instantly becomes useful to the community, assimilating seamlessly into the rhythm of a neighborhood. It’s called Red Hog. Housed in a converted gas station, it sits along Frankfort Avenue, a thoroughfare through Crescent Hill (a residential area not far from downtown that’s dotted with independent businesses). Red Hog is both a butcher shop and a restaurant. Kit Garrett and Bob Hancock run the place; they also own Blue Dog Bakery & Cafe eight blocks up the street.
Hancock is the best kind of obsessive. He and Garrett opened Blue Dog as a showcase for perfectionistic ways with bread and pastry. (Blue Dog is both a bakery and a restaurant; I vouch for the crackly baguette and shattering croissant I picked up one morning.) Last decade, when Hancock decided he wasn’t satisfied with the quality of local pork available, he and Garrett began raising pigs on a farm 15 miles outside Louisville. They cured charcuterie on site at Blue Dog until they opened their new venture in September.
Red Hog operates a butchering facility on site. A gleaming case displays country ham, headcheese, sausages in many varieties, brown sugar-cured bacon, and Italian-style salumi like coppa and guanciale. Products like aged beef tallow and freshly made stocks (chicken, pork, beef) fill the shelves of nearby refrigerator. I long for such a cornucopia in my Atlanta neighborhood.
The restaurant’s menu is written on a blackboard near the open kitchen and changes often, rotating through a dozen or so options. It reads very much in the vein of chefs who are cooking dishes that they hunger for themselves, trusting their diners will appreciate them as well. Sandwiches feature heavily, but you might also see jambalaya, cassoulet, mussels in Thai red curry, beef tartare, and a stab at tonkotsu ramen.
On a first visit, at least, I’d encourage you to home in on Hancock’s metier: meat and bread. A meatball hoagie, soaked with the right amount of marinara and thinly blanketed with still-melting mozzarella, rivaled similar versions I’ve had in East Coast cities with deep Italian-American roots. “Really F’ing Good Bacon Bleu Cheese Smoked Burger” lived up to its cocky moniker. The pizza, not surprisingly, was terrific — a vehicle for the fragrant, puffy-edged crust topped with sausage, pepperoni, and tapenade, and finished with a parsley-pepperoncini salad.
Steve Hacker, the former editor of Eater Louisville (RIP) joined me for dinner and told me that some customers ribbed Hancock about having so few vegetables on the menu. He responded by concocting salads that always include meat — such as grilled escarole with marinated gigante beans and strips of coppa, basically a twist on an antipasti platter.
Red Hog opens at 4 p.m., and customers start filling its 50 seats shortly thereafter. If you’re in Louisville, give it a try. If you gorge yourself, like I did, leafy Frankfort Avenue would be ideal for a stroll afterward now that spring has arrived.
Red Hog: 2622 Frankfort Avenue, Louisville, KY 40206; (502) 384-0795; redhogartisanmeat.com. Restaurant open Tuesday-Thursday 4-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 4-9:30 p.m.