Who dreams up an open-face sandwich on thick Texas toast, with turkey and bacon and rich, cheesy Mornay sauce? If it sounds like the king of all drunk foods, that’s basically right; the original Hot Brown was the brilliant work of a hotel chef cooking for late-night partiers.
The Brown Hotel was a center of Louisville, Kentucky’s social life in the 1920s, with dinner dances that would stretch far into the night. So its chef, Fred Schmidt, devised a stick-to-your-ribs dish that would sell like crazy once the crowd was a few bourbons in. It’s still on the menu at the Brown Hotel, and elsewhere in the city and region too.
“The persuasive nature of the Hot Brown lies in its overindulgent, comfort-food-to-the-max factor,” says Levon Wallace, executive chef at the highly acclaimed Louisville restaurant Proof on Main at the 21c Hotel. “It’s everything you want to eat, especially after one too many mint juleps the day before.”
The bread. A proper Hot Brown starts with thick-cut Texas toast, crusts removed.
The filling. That toast is layered with slices of fresh roast turkey (i.e., not the deli kind), tomatoes and a ladle of the deliciously rich Mornay, a béchamel-based sauce with Pecorino Romano. After that’s slid into the oven, it’s topped with thick-cut bacon. But modern versions of the Hot Brown could include just about any kind of meat, or even be fully vegetarian—as long as that bread + topping + cheese sauce formula is followed.
Where to get one:
The Brown Hotel. Sometimes it’s best to honor a sandwich’s birthplace. “When it comes to classics, I stick to the source,” says Wallace. “Call me a purist, but I like the original. It’s a Kentucky thing.” Nearly identical to the version invented back in the ’20s, and always made with freshly roasted turkey breast, it’s still the finest example of the form.
Gary’s on Spring. Recognizing that a full Hot Brown is a truly gut-busting thing, Gary’s on Spring offers a comparatively delicate Baby Hot Brown on its appetizer menu.
Bristol Bar & Grille. Would you like some sandwich with that cheese sauce? Bristol Bar & Grille inverts the normal order of the classic with a Hot Brown Soup—a cheesy soup base with ham and turkey, garnished with crostini, bacon and chopped tomatoes.
Dish on Market. Pretty much all comfort food can be improved with a runny egg yolk or two. At Dish on Market, the Skillet Baked Eggs Hot Brown reinvents the dish as an eggs Benedict, with poached eggs joining the roast turkey, applewood-smoked bacon and Texas toast, plus cheddar and tomato, all doused in Mornay.