Lexington, Kentucky's biggest culinary evangelist on how immigrant cuisines are shaping the new face of southern cooking.
Lexington is known for many quintessentially Kentucky things. It’s the unofficial capital of Bourbon Country (no small feat in a state that produces 95% of the world’s bourbon), and the self-proclaimed Horse Capital of the World, with an equine population of over 300,000.
But like so many cities in the South, Lexington also has deep-rooted immigrant food stories that aren’t so often told. Travel + Leisure recently spoke with chef Dan Wu, the city’s resident “culinary evangelist” and the mastermind behind new restaurant Atomic Ramen, who is passionate about the city's rich and diverse culinary heritage.
According to some estimates, one out of every 5 restaurants in Lexington serves Japanese food — and most people agree that it started with a single factory. In 1986, the state won a bid to build Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, Inc. in nearby Georgetown. Along with the new jobs came executives and specialists from Toyota’s headquarters in Aichi Prefecture. And 6,700 miles, a 14-hour flight, and a cultural chasm away, Japanese immigrants created a little piece of home in classic fashion: through food.
Tachibana, the area’s first Japanese-owned Japanese restaurant, opened around 25 years ago with a traditional architectural aesthetic and a menu designed for the enjoyment of business travelers.
Wu moved to Lexington around the same time as Toyota. Born in Wuxi, China, he immigrated to the U.S. with his family at the age of eight, eventually landing in Kentucky in 1986. “Back then, it was your average south-midwest kind of town. Things were slow to happen. Culture came slowly,” he told T+L. After attending the University of Kentucky, Wu went in search of more high-profile culinary landscapes. He lived in San Francisco — “where I discovered ‘real’ ramen” — and spent time in New York City before eventually returning home nine years later. He was excited by what he found there.
“When I came back, there was a much larger Latinx population here, and more South Asians,” said Wu. “I discovered real Sichuan Chinese food, real Korean barbecue, real Japanese food in Lexington.” Long interested in the movements and permutations of immigrant food in the U.S., he became so passionate about his hometown culinary scene that he started his own radio show and podcast about Central Kentucky food — titled The Culinary Evangelist — in 2014.
Wu says the local influence of growing immigrant communities has made the culinary scene more exciting than it’s ever been: “It used to be that, if you asked about the best food in Lexington, you would get a list of overpriced, stodgy, Continental restaurants. But especially in the last four years, the food and drink scene has really exploded.”
Wu, and many Lexingtonians, attribute that to the diverse communities adding their flavors to the city. “In the U.S., we have the best cuisine in the world simply because we have the most cuisine in the world,” said Wu — and, as in so many cities across the country, immigrant food is a part of the story of Lexington. This diversity has led to an atmosphere of culinary experimentation that is as exciting as it is delicious.
The city has many other charms, of course: distillery tours, bluegrass festivals, Southern cuisine and stellar cocktail bars. But don’t overlook the culinary traditions that are giving Bourbon and fried chicken a run for their money. Here are Chef Wu’s suggestions for how to experience the city’s rich restaurant scene for yourself:
“Growing up Chinese-American, I always gravitated back toward Asian cuisines as my comfort food,” said Wu. He draws on those memories at this nine-month-old restaurant, located inside Lexington’s first food hall. The menu has traditional ramen styles, but also more off-the-wall creations like the deconstructed CHZBRGR ramen bowl special. “I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity,” he told T+L. “I am not in any regard a traditional person. I make a bowl of ramen that a ramen nerd in Hokkaido would say is not ramen. But I’ve been binge-watching ‘Ugly Delicious,’ and at some point early on, Dave Chang says something like ‘f*** authenticity,’ and that really resonated with me.”
This restaurant has been serving up traditional Szechuan food for around for 20 years, and the menu is full of regional specialties and lesser-known dishes. “The original chef, who is from Chengdu, is now the owner," said Wu. "It's not Americanized at all. Pig's ears, beef tendons, all the legit stuff.”
“There’s a little part of town people call ‘Mexington,’ where you can get pupusas and boots and all kinds of stuff. There are a bunch of little unknown taco trucks and pop-ups, and they’re great.” At Tortillería y Taquería Ramírez, the corn tortillas made from scratch each day go into a variety of tacos, from al pastor to sesos, and are available for bulk purchase. Owner Laura Patricia Ramírez was born in Guadalajara and moved to Kentucky at 16; her restaurant, the subject of a short film by the Southern Foodways Alliance, is now a staple of Lexington's Mexican community.
Mamadou Savané, the eponymous “Sav,” moved to Lexington in the early 1990s with his wife, Rachel. The two had met in Guinea, where Sav was born and raised (and where his mother taught him to cook). He's been serving West African classics like peanut goat with fufu at his restaurant since 2008, and recently began selling his own hot sauces. “It's a campus favorite,” said Wu. “Sav is universally loved.”
Wu described this downtown hangout as a “cult favorite hole in the wall” supplying takeout customers with bold dishes from Northern Thailand. It's standing room only inside, but if you're not getting takeout, you can enjoy your tom kha kai on the spacious patio Nat's shares with the Irish pub next door.
“The Lexington Pasty Company, which runs this restaurant, makes all the noodles for all the restaurants in town (including my ramen!),” said Wu. Owners Lesme Romero and Reinaldo Gonzalez wanted to created a fast-casual restaurant, inspired by their mutual love of Italian street food, without sacrificing quality; you can watch your pasta being extruded fresh in the open kitchen.
“This place is run by two women who are kind of crusty bike punks. It’s two white girls doing burritos, but they have their own attitude and way of doing it,” said Wu. Their distinctive wraps are known around town for their unique shape: they griddle them dorado style, pressing the burritos until they're flat and crispy. After popping up at bars around town, the team opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant just a few weeks ago.
“Yamaguchi’s Sake & Tapas was awesome before it closed a few years ago. But he has been doing popups at breweries around town.” Yamaguchi Hidenori, the Japanese-born chef behind the dearly departed izakaya, is focusing on noodles at his new nomadic project, setting up udon tents in collaboration with local bars and brewhouses. Wu hinted, “there are rumors that he's taking over a new space soon.”