Louder Than Life celebrated three years at the triumphantly-titled Champions Park this weekend — a festival that brings in both an economic impact of $13 million and a 5,000-percent increase in used Monster Energy cans to the city. And it conveys its value proposition right in its logo: music, whiskey and gourmet man food.
Gourmet. Man. Food. Last year, I wondered aloud what constitutes “man food,” and I still struggle with the notion of anthropomorphically-gendering food. Did that plate of ribs spend the afternoon tinkering in the garage? Did this turkey leg just buy a buy a bunch of neon beer lights for the basement? Is the burger planning on binging the rest of “Entourage”? Do the nachos drive a truck with a decal of Calvin peeing on, like, a block of tofu on the back?
My friend Amelia Stevens, who runs the ship over at do502.com and does not identify as a man, suggested to me this weekend that maybe it simply refers to the portion size, since, generally speaking, men are physically larger and can eat bigger portions, and that I’m just being contrarian for the sake of writing stuff like “what, is my dinner going to catcall and quote Borat from the plate.” Man, maybe she’s right. I still maintain there’s a better phrase for that than “Gourmet Man Food” though. So Danny Wimmer Presents, hit up your boy over here and let’s have a whiteboard session. I’ll fly out to LA — I’ve been jonesin’ for some Korean barbecue and ratty Venice Beach weed anyway.
As such, for this year’s review of Louder Than Life’s guy grub, I enlisted the help of my friend Trish because, 1) she’s a mensch, 2) as a registered nurse, she’s used to ingesting awful things at odd hours, and, 3) she’d pull no punches, while offering a woman’s perspective on dude chow. The rules from last year stay in place: first, no greens. No wimpy shit. Red meat and grease. Man up. Bacon on all the things like a basic dude. Second, each meal, when necessary, is to be paired with the official high-octane refreshment of choice for real men — Monster Energy, which, if you’re truly woke, you know it’s particularly heavy metal as well.
Finally, each meal receives a ranking that judges the food both on quality and generally-antiquated social constructs of masculinity. Per the former, emojis, to tap into that coveted Millennial audience. The latter receives the official Welp! Gourmet Man Food scale (er, maybe more of a scatterplot this year), rating each dish based on completely arbitrary, but nonetheless recognizable, totems of constructed masculinity — everything from Hulk hands to Trump’s shitty, little idiot hands. Soup’s on!
What: Gourmet Man Food Kick-Off
Where: 610 Magnolia
Pairing: Ed Lee’s liquor cabinet
New this year to Gourmet Man Food was a special kick-off dinner at the Wine Studio of 610 Magnolia the night before the festival, which featured the chef himself, Edward Lee, and SiriusXM’s Shannon Gunz, who brought a dog with the squishy nose. Around 40 people bought the prix fixe ticket for this private meal that included four courses served family style. The attendees skewed older. Whether that’s due to the $110 price tag, or if the Disturbed fanbase occupies a specific demographic, is anyone’s guess.
On the way there, I joked with a friend about how 610 would accommodate the Louder Than Life brand. Would it play a bunch of the artists featured? What is the experiential quality of a nice carpaccio paired with the last song off Ko(*backwards R*)rn’s self-titled record, “Daddy,” the one where Jonathan Davis screams and cries for like three minutes? It’s a fun number for dinner parties — if that dinner party resembles something out of The Invitation. Well, wouldn’t you know, legacy heavy metal thrashers, such Slayer and Megadeth, were played at a very polite volume throughout the evening, proving that any music at the correct level can complement the dining tableau just fine.
Chef Lee, whose favorite Slipknot album remains indeterminate, along with another chef from 610, prepared and plated most of the food in the studio a la open-kitchen style. The evening kicked off with a charcuterie board that included some pretty fantastic duck jerky and a tart, tangy pickled cauliflower in concert with the usual assortment of cured meats and stinky (delicious) cheese. Passed appetizers included the grilled cheese Chef Lee prepared on the season he hosted of “Mind of a Chef,” rabbit spring rolls and fried oysters served with a gojuchang (Korean chili paste) aioli. All delicious and inspired, but you knew that already because Ed Lee (I’m sure he does, too).
Oh, but what’s this between the appetizers and entrees? Arugula salads? Oh, I thought this was the kick-off to Gourmet Man Food, not the kick-off to a “Gilmore Girls” viewing party in preparation for the new season hitting Netflix on Nov. 25 [promoted]. All was forgiven, of course, when the server revealed main courses — prime rib on a bed of grits with collard greens and slow-and-low smoked ribs tossed in a balanced and spicy dry rub. The evening ended with 610’s remarkable and arguably under-celebrated chocolate truffles, a plan to take some to-go gave me quite a bit of pause.
A hefty price, sure, but the ticket to this event was only a couple dollars more than the usual price-per-head at 610 Magnolia. Add in the private nature (and the company of the chef, if you’re a Lee Fiend) of the dinner and a couple bourbon drinks included with the ticket (that I took absolute full advantage of), as well as the sheer novelty of fine dining with “Reign in Blood” in the background like some elevated form of Kuma’s Corner, and it becomes a nice treat not too devastating to the pocketbook. It was pretty damn decadent.
The salad was still fantastic, but we still gotta strike a manliness point.
What: Hawaiian BBQ Burger
Where: Master of Patties
Pairing: Monster Energy
Taste me and you’ll see!
More is all you need!
A booth adorned in a logo referencing Metallica’s opus of drug addiction, as well as the usual heavy-metal visual tropes (angular typefaces, the color red), how could we pass up a burgin’ opportunity with Master of Patties! As with last year, a burger is decidedly manly, but not always gourmet. It seemed going exotic would yield the most gourmet results, opting to choose the Hawaiian BBQ Burger, which featured about a quarter-pound ground beef patty, a big ol’ hot slice of ungrilled pineapple, and a mystery sauce that resembled a sort of tangy and sweet chili sauce of which I could only speculate the corn syrup content. It was not good, and it clocked in at $14, which is more than Grind, and the same price as the spectacular Mayan Cafe burger. Trish agreed that the burger was underwhelming, remarking it’s on the same level as what you’d might be served at your neighbor’s barbecue, and even then you could more robustly dress your burger. Master of patties they are not. It was the St. Anger of burgers. Perhaps they should Reload their recipe — you know, like the Metallica album with “Fuel” and “The Memory Remains on It.” Right? Hello? Is this thing on?
Interestingly, while food vendors appear all over the festival grounds, only a specific row of booths receive the Gourmet Man Food label according to the map and on the website. I guess this was just a regular, gender-neutral food then? Perhaps the visit to Master of Patties went outside canon — kinda like how, well, sure, you have to go to Italy to see the Vatican, but those entities are separate, right? So tolly ho onto #GourmetManFood proper!
Where: Momma’s Mustard, Pickles, and BBQ
Pairing: Monster Energy
We went local for the first stop within the sovereign borders of the Gourmet Man Food principality. And there was quite a local presence within the food truck corral, including Welp! favorites Red Top Gourmet and Black Rock Grill. The word around town is that Momma’s recently got the elusive Triple D visit when the crew was in town opening Guy Fieri’s new barbecue concept downtown (read about my experience with that here). And guys, regardless of how you feel about Guy Fieri, he’s certainly a totem of manliness — the Camaro, flame shirts, passion for physiologically-devastating bold flavors — that’s all undeniable guy shit.
Conventional local wisdom suggests Momma’s has some of the best, if not the best, wings in Louisville. This assertion is correct. Succulent wings smoked Kansas City-style and encrusted in a thick, flavorful, complex dry rub — they were incredible. While I found the wings delectable on their own merits, Trish felt they needed a sauce pairing. “I don’t appreciate a good rub,” she remarked — something a man would never say. Am I right, fellas? Folks, that was a dick joke. Be sure to head to facebook.com/welp and smash that like button!
What: Lobster Mac and Cheese
Where: Mac Attack
Pairing: Monster Energy
Lobster is delicious. Mac and cheese rules. Successfully combining the two should be a short order. Not so at Mac Attack. The macaroni came tossed in some sort of cheese food. “I wouldn’t even call this Velveeta,” Trish said, concerned that comparing whatever it was we ate with the flagship processed cheese of Kraft Foods would come off as insulting. The flavor of the few bits of lobster found throughout our cup of man-gruel were overwhelmed by the orange, gelatinous, cheese-algae plaguing innocent pasta shells. Woof. Less than halfway through the cup, we had to give Mac Attack’s culinary trolling of us the ol’ heave ho. Also, if I wasn’t able to expense a portion of my day to the paper, I’d be pretty sore about parting with $10 for it.
Lobster is manly, sure, but New England manly. Candlepin bowling manly. Norman Rockwell manly. The acreage of the geographic states themselves are not of a manly portion.
What: Bacon Gyro
Where: Herbo’s Kitchen
Pairing: Monster Energy
Bacon stood steadfast as a staple of the American breakfast back before we cared about things like nutrition and not depositing awful garbage in our bodies. Back when Frosted Flakes were truly g-r-r-r-eat. But everything comes full circle, and as sure as the sun sets, five-star restaurants started to milk bacon as the protein in their signature dishes over the past few years — as did mixologists with various takes on bacon-forward cocktails too (and that shit needs to stop, mach schnell).
But the thing is, bacon is not actually that great. It’s gristly, greasy, and, by and large, mostly fat — the part of any other meat you generally discard (depending on the cut). It’s the Ugg boots of meats. The fetishization and memeification of bacon is both pervasive and absurd, especially in a city with a rich history of pork production like Louisville.
But hey, I’m not here to bitch about bacon louder than life, I’m here to eat like the Romans eat. And Herbo’s Kitchen puts bacon on literally everything. So let’s eat bacon. Great! Bon Appetit! They even offered bacon-wrapped fried Oreos. As much as I like to abuse my body for my art, I simply don’t have the constitution to digest that. Foul.
We ordered their bacon gyro, consisting of lamb meat, lettuce, tomato, onions, peppers and a homemade tzatziki sauce on a warm pita — ya know, just a traditional gyro. Except — folks, hold onto your butts — they added bacon to it. Just on top of the lamb. Boom! Bacon gyro.
And it was pretty good, just like a gyro you’d get on the street or in a diner anywhere. But with bacon on it. And to me, that just doesn’t elevate anything about the dish other than the caloric intake.
What: Iron Maiden Trooper Beer
Where: Iron Maiden Trooper Beer Booth
Pairing: Monster Energy (them’s the rules)
Iron Maiden has its own beer, and you can have a pint of it at Louder Than Life. It’s called Trooper. Just like the song from Piece of Mind!
A dark ESB, the beer offered a silky mouthfeel and a malt-forward caramel character, with just a dash of citrus. At an underwhelming 4.7-percent ABV, Trooper doesn’t punch the liver in a particularly manly way. But it’s refreshing for a darker beer, for folks who like to keep it dark at the rock show but don’t want to sip on anything too thick after a long afternoon in the pit.
I’d drink it again. Perhaps The Holy Grale might add it to their repertoire at some point, when they’re bored of listening to Cluster & Eno and cultivating their artisanal hops plants.
What: Hot Brown Chips
Pairing: Jack Goddamn Daniel’s (I needed it)
Spudz is a homegrown potato chip purveyor whose cartoon logo — a cowboy potato with soul-searing eyes — catalyzes an acid flashback in me every time I stare at it. The potato’s bulbous eyes summon me to do its bidding, so I answered the call and gripped the hot brown chips — a bed of Spudz traditional with mornay sauce, turkey clumps, tomatoes and bacon. Served in a torn Spudz bag, the dish both looked and tasted like something my drunk ass might’ve come up with at 2 in the morning. Not exactly gourmet, but a totally decent snack. Trish, however, remarked this was her favorite dish so far, right before observing as well that she’s never encountered so much open belching at a public event.
What: Chicken on a Stick
Where: Angry Bird Grill
Pairing: Nothing — my teeth hurt way too bad to drink anymore Monster
Hell yeah. What’s more manly than a colossal hunk on meat on a stick that you can eat like a protein popsicle? Chicken skewers are a street-food delight enjoyed within cuisines on every corner of the globe. What twist will this festival offer the food while a band called Hell Yeah perpetually screamed at Trish and me from the Monster Energy Loudmouth Stage? Girth. An enormous slab of chicken. The Angry Bird Grill chicken-on-a-stick was comically massive. See the hand of a 6-foot human being in the photo for size comparison. Perfectly cooked and saturated with smoke flavor, the chicken was juicy and succulent. Sadly, it was sullied by some inferior barbecue sauce. Probably that Sweet Baby Ray’s junk. When the lady working the booth asked if we wanted barbecue or teriyaki sauce, I should’ve said neither. We ended up sopping up as much as possible with napkins.
The chicken stick was just absurdly, terrifyingly large. Michael Pollan would’ve had a conniption fit. Most human beings of all sexes and genders should not try to conquer it.
While some 40 vendors make up the Gourmet Man Food atoll, the handful we sampled, while varying in approach and portion size, seemed to wane a bit in quality compared to last year’s jaunt. Similar to last year, though, is the unequivocal fact that the best food comes from the locals — another testament to Louisville’s exemplary food scene. And just like last year, a local wins for performance in both deliciousness and manliness. It just so happens to be Momma. Congrats, Momma’s Mustard, Pickles, and BBQ, proving that no matter how tough you guys think you are, your momma can still kick your ass. I believe Aristotle posited that.
I did end up watching some bands this year. Namely Cheap Trick, because obviously. They were badass. If you ever find yourself in Chicago’s Wicker Park, Rick Nielsen has a pizza joint called Piece. It’s real good, real gourmet, and undoubtedly post-gender.