The Brown Hotel Has Kentucky’s Best Hot Brown, Claims Southern Living Readers

Any Kentucky restaurant, whether sophisticated or country casual, will likely have a hot brown on the menu. The open-faced turkey sandwich, typically served warm on a thick slice of toast with bacon, tomatoes, and Mornay sauce, ranks among the Bluegrass State’s many culinary achievements, alongside barbecue, bourbon, and burgoo.

You might find it as a hot chicken sandwich (at Frankfort’s Bourbon on Main) or as a vegetarian version with asparagus, mushrooms, and zucchini instead of turkey and bacon (at Ramsey’s Diner in Lexington).

The Original Hot Brown

The Brown Hotel Has Kentucky's Best Hot Brown, Claims Southern Living Readers

For the actual original, head to J. Graham’s Café at The Brown Hotel in Louisville, where the meal originated. Head chef Arkan Bajalani is in charge of the historic recipe, a job he takes seriously and that our readers value—they named The Brown Hotel the best place for a hot brown in Kentucky in our 2024 South’s Best awards.

Bajalani understands that in this state full of hot browns, not all are made equal. Some use too much sauce. Others cut corners by using pre-sliced deli turkey. Many people fail to keep their bread crispy. Bajalani describes all of these as cardinal mistakes.

“When you cut into a hot brown, you should be able to hear the bread’s crispness. “It should never get soggy,” he explains. And he should know. Every year, the hotel accommodates around 80,000 people, with an average of 500 each day during Kentucky Derby week.

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The History Of The Hot Brown

The Brown Hotel Has Kentucky's Best Hot Brown, Claims Southern Living Readers

The dish originated in the 1920s when large crowds gathered at the hotel restaurant to refuel after The Brown’s famed dinner dances, which drew 1,200 visitors per night. Tired of providing traditional standbys like ham and eggs, chef Fred Schmidt created the now-famous sandwich.

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The Hot Brown Today

The recipe has not altered much since then. The kitchen staff slowly cooks turkey breasts for five and a half hours before hand-cutting them. Crusts are removed from thick slices of Texas toast obtained from Klosterman Baking Company.

Every morning, Bajalani taste tests the Mornay sauce (a béchamel with pecorino Romano cheese and a touch of nutmeg). “We have to make sure it’s 100% right every time,” he said. The sandwich should be served still bubbling and browned from the broiler, topped with parsley and shaved Parmesan cheese, and with no sliced tomatoes visible.

The Brown Hotel Has Kentucky's Best Hot Brown, Claims Southern Living Readers

The hotel uses halved roasted Roma tomatoes to keep the juice from spoiling the creamy white sauce’s flavor and color.

The Brown ensures that its famous dish is available at all times at J. Graham’s Café, the airy and bright street-level spot for breakfast and lunch, as well as dinner at the second-floor Lobby Bar & Grill, where you can admire the room’s hand-painted coffered ceiling and ornate marble work. Alternatively, it can be provided via room service.

As the hot brown approaches its centenary, its lasting appeal can be attributed to the time-tested recipe and the staff’s determination to go on autopilot, despite producing hundreds of them per day. “You can see every ingredient,” adds Bajalani. “The dish has to look good because your eye eats first.”


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