LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It’s not often that condiments can cause confusion. But that’s precisely what ensues against a soundtrack of raw, twangy country music on a Tuesday night recently at the Silver Dollar. Our soft-spoken waiter delivers a plate of warm corn bread and gives us the skinny on three squeeze bottles of sauces tucked into slots of a cardboard beer-bottle carrier. Ancho, the mildest, is like a mole without the chocolate. The savory arbol is the chef’s riff on the classic Texas Pete sauce. An emerald dressing is green chili-spiked salsa verde, heavy on the cilantro.
When an aromatic steak arrives, slathered with a coffee and spice rub and accompanied by poblano sauce, it is at once clear that this is a long way from home. As the song goes, from my old Kentucky home.
The Silver Dollar opened in November on a once vibrant, then desolate, strip of Louisville’s Clifton neighborhood. When visitors to the Kentucky Derby descend upon Churchill Downs next weekend, they’ll find the city’s neighborhoods in the throes of revitalization. A nearby district has even been baptized “NuLu” (for New Louisvillle) because of the many restaurants, galleries, and shops that opened in quick succession in the past few years.
Larry Rice, a local industry veteran, had long had his eye on the Hook and Ladder Co. No. 3, a brick firehouse built in 1890 that was fully operational until 2009. When he took over the abandoned space, he left untouched the weathered brick walls, yellow fire pole, metal roll-up door, and giant turn-of-the-20th-century city map. He used wood from a shuttered bourbon distillery to make shelves and parts of the bar. He stocked those shelves with more than 60 native bourbons. And from that Kentucky-to-the-core foundation, the sensibility migrated to the west. A whirling honky-tonk ambiance pervades, down to the crackle of vinyl spinning on the record player.
The crowd is lively. Boys in skinny jeans and T-shirts are hunched over bottles of Lone Star beer at the bar. Women in tailored suits finish up a round of margaritas in a wooden booth. Wait — margaritas? Indeed, beside that shelf of bourbons are a dozen bottles of tequilas and mezcals.
Just as every municipality has an Irish pub and a take-out Chinese joint, Mexican restaurants turn up in unlikely places. Much as this might seem like Louisville’s local cantina, it’s not. It’s a loving tribute to Bakersfield, an agricultural town in California’s San Joaquin Valley; migrant workers from the Midwest and South drifted there during the Dust Bowl years. They mingled with the locals, and so did their traditions. Residents like Buck Owens developed the “Bakersfield sound” by infusing Nashville’s popular swinging country with the strumming Mexican conjunto music he picked up in local bars. Southern regional cuisine developed a spicy Mexican accent.
And so it goes at the Silver Dollar. Chef Jonathan Schwartz, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has done stints at New York’s celebrated Daniel; his wife is Mexican. He thoughtfully redirects Southern staples by way of Southern California. The ketchup is smoked. Pork spare ribs are dressed in a bourbon glaze. The barbecue chicken is basted in a piquant guagillo pepper sauce. Those pillowy empanadas loaded with braised beef are Schwartz’s mother-in-law’s recipe.
The chef takes cues from his own mother’s Texas heritage for the barbecue and smoked flourishes he puts on regional standards. He says it’s the simple, flavorful, spicy characteristics of Latin cuisine that he wants to mix with local comfort foods to create something new. Just as the Bakersfield sound was engineered in SoCal, there’s a distinct flavor that emerges at the Silver Dollar.
Call it Lex-Mex.
The Silver Dollar, 1761 Frankfort Ave., Louisville, Ky. 502-259-9540, www .whiskeybythedrink.com.
Liza Weisstuch can be reached at