My kingdom for a morsel: Exploring the cuisine of Kentucky Kingdom

“Fear has bodily expression of an extremely energetic kind, and stands beside lust and anger as some of the three most exciting emotions of which our nature is susceptible. The progress from brute to man is characterized by nothing so much as by the decrease in frequency of proper occasions for fear.” — American philosopher William James, The Popular Science, 1887.

After a thrilling afternoon absorbing engineered forms of extreme existential terror, roving syndicates of children subject to no rule of law above their own, and bodying oneself in sparkling pools of chlorinated piss, you’re famished.

Enter Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay, the former Six Flags and now locally-owned theme park that boasts some of the best water rides in the region, plus a handful of pretty cool roller coasters and a convenient location adjacent to the Expo Center — never mind the low-flying UPS jets descending toward the nearby Worldhub (a particularly unsettling sight when coupled with the sounds of kids screaming in the distance). Despite Kentucky Kingdom being one of the few reputable parks located firmly within a city’s limits, it does not feature any real, nearby dining options, save for the Arby’s up Crittenden Drive. And folks, that Horsey Sauce is no bueno coming back up after a nightmare-reliving jaunt down the Fearfall. Hot crumbs, sounds like you’ll be dining in!

So amusement park food, by its very nature, is generally disgusting. Stomach turning, chemically-altered bad. Existence-of-God-questioningly bad. That kid’s soggy spaghetti during the bathtub scene in Harmony Korine’s “Gummo” bad. If some Final Destination-style Rube Goldberg vision of a roller coaster catastrophe doesn’t already haunt you, tepid stormy-gray ground “beef” will surely get you twisted. It’s an afterthought within a framework of family entertainment, easy to serve out of retractable windows and with handsome margins to pay those engineers who ensure you don’t injure yourself on the Cyclos. But there’s gotta be something not totally gnarly here, no? By King Louie’s grace, here we go…

You know the drill by now. With all Welp! food adventures, I can’t eat all this food by myself. I’m trying to ride some rides too, guys. So I brought along my esteemed colleague and winner of the LEO Weekly Readers Choice award for Best Twitter Feed, Mr. Howell Dawdy. You might remember him, very appropriately, from his smash hit video “Summer Creams.” Or as the good boy of online who creates various viral content, such as the resemblance of our dumb president’s idiot butt to the golden (ha!) spiral. Like me, he’s a liker of summer and fun and doing dumb things for publicity. I also brought along my editor Scott Recker — I know, that’s like taking your sister to prom, no one here promised Welp! was cool — so he can see what the paper’s actually paying for. Scott, don’t edit out that last line, please.

And per all Welp! features, we have our own proprietary scale of quality®. For Kentucky Kingdom, we’ll be rating meals on a sort of congruency to our nation’s preeminent theme parks. So the vanguard of truly gut-wrenchingly awesome coasters, Cedar Point, is our five star, followed by the ever-charming Dollywood (lest you goons forget that Dolly Parton is still queen). The storied American default of summer boardwalks, the entirely mediocre Coney Island, marks the halfway point, followed by the janky, pop-up fair you might find in a mall parking lot or in front of a fireworks emporium — adding extra thrill to each ride knowing the machines were put together with absolute minimal care. Dead last is Disneyworld, because it’s hell, and you will be eaten by alligators and/or any other various fauna staking its claim in Kissimmee.

The Kentucky Kingdom scale

Unless otherwise noted, literally everything is of comparable price between $8 and $11 for a meal, depending on your status as a season pass holder, or if you’re just a regular plebeian.

Taco Tequila
Pork and brisket tacos with margarita

Taco Tequila

Is this… taco-flavored tequila? Or tequila-marinated tacos? Or did they forget the ampersand? What is happening? Er, I’m not quite sure, but Taco Tequila is one of the few sit-down options close to the waterpark side — with air conditioning to boot. After throwing my body, which is my temple, down a bunch of plastic tubes for a few hours, daddy needs a margarita (I’m daddy). And tacos, of course. Each meal at Taco Tequila comes with two of them shits plus a side of your choice. We spring for the pork and the smoked beef brisket, the latter of which seems to be a sort of specialty here, with Kentucky Kaviar, because with a name like that how could you not, and the Black Bean Pico Cotija as the sides.

“Howell, how’s your pork taco?,” I asked inquisitively. “Damp, mostly,” Dawdy said, using an amazingly austere way to describe meat. “It’s a common problem with tacos, where they might get too chewy or the meat is too, um, damp. But this is an unfortunate combo of both,” he added.

The pork itself, tasting like it was stewed in some sort of dark corn syrup with liquid smoke, resembled the little tubs of Curly’s BBQ you find on Manager’s Special next to the hot dogs at Kroger — for those nights when you really gotta phone in the barbecue. Supposedly, the pork was topped with pickle relish, which sounds great, but it got too absorbed into the gelatinous abyss of sugary brown goop that would make Sweet Baby Ray’s taste like Salt Lick. This was not good. And to top it off, the taco was topped off… with an additional squeeze of barbecue sauce. I know I’ve often opined that food is simply a vehicle for sauce, but that’s straight scorched earth. Taco Tequila just wants to watch the world burn.

But the brisket taco though… this quite good. Smoky and perfectly tender, the brisket was succulent and marinated in a balanced spice blend. The taco presentation itself offered a nice texture, topped with cotija cheese and caramelized onions. Or rather, we think they were topped with caramelized onions, but those didn’t quite poke through the flavor profile in a meaningful way. “Surely the fine folks at Kentucky Kingdom wouldn’t rip us off on the onions,” Dawdy said. Oh, absolutely not, and I shan’t entertain the idea. They probably just caramelized these onions into obliteration and now they’re just butter. That’s why they’re so good!

The Kentucky Kaviar with a K was basically black-eye pea salad, but warm. We both agreed this dish, like revenge, would be better served cold. The Black Bean Pico Cotija was, well, exactly that. Legumes, pico de gallo, and cheese. Totally good. Better than the Kaviar with a K.

Howell paired his meal with a margarita that separated him from $11. “Automatic plus one for actual tequila,” he said in review. “Minus four for pretty much no citrus presence.” And the very cute serving size vis-a-vis the price point didn’t do the beverage any favors either. I went with an Angry Orchard, because grabbing something on draught that should taste consistent regardless of environment is always the better move when being served by folks who might not be seasoned bartenders. And $8 is totally fair for a cider within a milieu in which all prices are jacked up a notch.

Rating: 


Shiver Me Chicken Tenders
Shiver Me a Basket of Tendies and Fries

Yes, of course, we have to visit anything called “Shiver Me Chicken Tenders.” That pun… that pun is a stretch. What I would’ve given to be a fly on the wall in the whiteboard meeting that moved forward with “Shiver Me Chicken Tenders.” And if the food is anything like the name… well, heave ho.

In the land of fried chicken, tendies have gotta come up tough. Now, it’s not my favorite food, which might be sacrilegious to say in Louisville, but you come to LEO for the hot takes, no? However, I appreciate a well-seasoned tendie, toothsome white meat encased in a thin and crunchy layer of peppery breading, dreams of Indi’s and Royals dancing in my head.

This was not that.

“Super bland,” Scott remarked. I jotted down “86 flavor” in my notes. With no discernible pepper or spice of any kind in the breading, which you can certainly tell from the detail in the photograph, they resembled a neutered KFC. Coupled with an extremely chewy interior… arg, these tendies be scaliwags!

We both liked the fries, though, since they were actually salty in character. Kinda like Scott. He even went so far as to claim their polite golden crunch was “better than Wendy’s.” Woah, slow down there, pal. I did appreciate that our basket of fried goods was served with a side of honey mustard (albeit Marzetti’s) because as you know, folks, ketchup has only one home. That’s right, in the garbage can, baby.

The upshot here is the share-ability factor. It’s a decent enough snack for two or more people to enjoy next to the wavy human soup, leveraging the power of sodium as fuel. It just doesn’t taste like anything.

Rating:


Pizzeria Villagio
It’s a the Pepperoni Piz-za!

Pizzeria Villagio

“Villagio?” “Authentic Italian,” right there on the sign? A facade reminiscent of both the villas of Cinque Terre and Vitruvius’ “De architectura” with a touch of Queen Anne baroque? Mama mia!

[I will now adjust my prose setting cranked all the way to “Anthony Bourdain”].

Why, I remember my travels to Sicily like it was yesterday. We visited the port city of Messina, known for its gothic cathedrals, majestic public art and eclectic town squares. It was there I devoured perhaps the finest pizza of my life, a slice I grabbed at a counter on the main drag a few short blocks from the Palazzo Cerruti, a gorgeous enclave of French Colonial structures and cobblestone streets under the casted shadows of church bell towers, the chime of Duomo di Messina’s “Ave Maria” bellowing through the narrow streets, carried by the gentle and mild Mediterranean breeze. A prodigious floppy wedge of slightly sweet and airy dough gave way for a bed of fragrant virgin olive oil, potatoes sliced with the craftsmanship of an artisan, fresh cut basil and real buffalo mozzarella. You can’t get buffalo mozzarella in the states despite the claims of some — not real buffalo mozzarella anyway. This perfect Italian pizza pie was transformative, transcendental. Unless looks are deceiving, and surely they’re not, it seems like Pizzeria Villagio shall not disappoint!

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The Villagio, this tribute to the home-cooked cuisine of the osterias throughout the Tuscan countryside, specializes in made-to-order flatbreads, roughly 12 inches long, cut diagonally, sprinkled with scant cheese and, at least on my pie, four large pepperonis on top of cardboard crust. This was, basically, an elevated Tony’s pizza, the soupy marinara sauce reminiscent of Ragu with a Bisphenol A-forward profile and a certain gas station chic. Kinda sucked. The pepperoni was tasty though. But cured meats are relatively foolproof. Even Gordon’s Food Service can’t screw the pooch on that one. Typically, pizza should be a safe option anywhere, but thin crust is difficult to pull off when one must cut corners to protect the margins. And it ain’t like Kentucky Kingdom’s bread is buttered by the food.

It is worth mentioning that the service here was extremely friendly. I was impressed with the cheery teens on the other side of the counter. I worked a number of menial jobs when I was younger, and I didn’t have nearly the friendly disposition these kids did. You’re not gonna believe this, folks, but I’d go as far as to say I was kind of a shit. The kids are alright. Ben fatto!

Rating:


Bayside Grill
Burgin’ and beerin’!

First, praise be unto Scott Recker to hippin’ me to the fact there’s a second lazy river. Did y’all know this? Why didn’t y’all tell me this? Good grief, with friends like these…

So hey, on the way to the noodle river, you can burg if you want to. Bayside offers the traditional shredded cow guts, and yet also a veggie burger option. We got both.

The traditional meat burger had that high school cafeteria swag about it, that JMT foods, 16-count patty, bulk package at Sam’s Club vibe keepin’ the kids’ lunch turned up. And it’s dressed with not one, but two slices of that yellow good good, that delectable illustrious American formaggio. If generosity were hamburgers, well, we’d be eating two of them. I honestly don’t remember what it tasted like. I didn’t write any notes. I suppose that’s a review in of itself.

The veggie burger is a black bean burger, one that Scott noted “had a bit of a kick.” Speaking as [I push my glasses up the bridge of my dumb nose] a former vegetarian, I detected pretty quickly this patty was of the MorningStar variety, or at least prepared by a similar manufacturer. But hey, we’re eating food served on styrofoam trays, so let us temper our expectations, because you could honestly do worse here. The veggie burger comes with either a fruit cup or salad in lieu of fries as a side. I went for the salad, and lo, upon peeling off the lid from the molded black plastic tray I did behold — feta! This salad was, for carnival food, totally great. The lettuce wasn’t brown and wilted. The cherry tomatoes were juicy and relatively fresh. And feta cheese! And they respect the palate by giving you the dressing on the side. Ain’t nobody got time for a pre-dressed salad.

Oh, but then — are you sitting down? — our esteemed LEO editor figured out a hashtag life hack. “The burger would’ve been better if it was dressed,” Recker said. “Why don’t you put some of the salad on the burger?” So now, our black bean patty is topped with lettuce, tomato, and feta, and we’ve got a bangin’ burger. Let it be known that there’s a healthier food option at Kentucky Kingdom, and it ain’t bad.

As one might be wont to do, we paired the burgs with a beer — The Storm Chaser Ale, named after the park’s newest coaster. I haven’t ridden the ride yet, though I hear it’s badass. I have tried the beer though. I’m not sure who makes this signature beer, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was Miller Lite.

Rating: 


Craft Beer Garden
Craft beer! But also wings!

Craft Beer Garden

New for 2017 is the 4,000-square-foot Craft Beer Garden. And it’s actually a biergarten, with the requisite picnic table style amenities and Edison bulbs hanging overhead. They serve two of the state’s finest offerings on draught, our fair city’s Against the Grain and Lexington’s Country Boy Brewing (which really nails the spicy beer recipe, a rare feat). It’s like a Germantown oasis in the back corner of the Kingdom.

We notice three things immediately upon entering. First, the canopy offers a nice reprieve from the afternoon heat. Second, there was hardly anyone in there. Third, that includes kids. Now, I’m not a kids hater. I love children. They are our greatest resource. But they’re also annoying and stupid as shit. So this, too, is a nice reprieve. You can grab a pint or a 20-ounce for roughly the same price you would anywhere else, or you can try two-ounce samples for a dollar. This. Place. Rules.

Oh but then… a poster on the wall above the taps reveals they have food, real pub food — big soft pretzels and hot wings. We might’ve already had chicken in the form of tendies today, but I’ve got a feeling in my gut, that has nothing to do with anything we ate earlier, that these wings might be fire. Optimistic for a theme park, sure, but for less than $7 (with a season pass) to gnaw on some possibly legitimate hot wings?

Good gamble. The hot wings were really good. They’re dry-rubbed, Memphis-style, and made-to-order — they came out in a basket piping hot. The spice blend could’ve pumped the brakes a bit on the brown sugar but I still ain’t mad. Paired with a Nacho Bait Habanero Ale and a Rico Sauvin IPA, your boy was wildin’.

For my friends of drinking age who find themselves at Kentucky Kingdom, this is your Valhalla, your Camelot, your safe space. Do good works here. For my friends under 21, these wings are better than anything in the rest of the park, save for perhaps the aforementioned brisket taco. For dear readers who’ve not yet hit puberty, this place sucks, avoid at all costs.

Rating:


Triple Treat
Various expressions of soft serve

Last stop before the park exit: Triple Treat! Which becomes Triple Threat if you add an H. (Spooky stuff, man.)

More likely, Triple Treat refers to the fact the menu boasts three offerings. My good friend, TV’s Howell Dawdy and I got two of those items, and, as the soothsayer Meatloaf once pontificated, two out of three ain’t bad. I enjoy… er, I didn’t enjoy… I got plain vanilla soft serve in a waffle cone. Just like the plain vanilla rube I am. Howell moved forward on a refreshing root beer float. Howell… well, he sounded off. He did write the smash hit “Summer Creams” after all, proclaiming he’d never let his root beer float sink. He’s an authority. “Usually when you go out to eat ice cream, and you’re not that satisfied with what you get, your primary feeling is jealousy of people who get something else.” This is also known in the Welp! community as “food remorse.” “Well, I’m not jealous of you at all. I know exactly what you got. So there’s no jealousy that I didn’t get a cone instead of a root beer float. But, I know this is a very subpar root beer float.” We then engaged in a dialogue about whether or not it’s counterintuitive for a summer park to not nail a good ice cream swirl. Dawdy described his float as “extremely volatile,” like he’s a goddamn nuclear scientist, with lumpy soft serve that enhanced slightly as it melted. “It’s basically a malt now, which is a little better,” he remarked. My soft serve… well, it’s vanilla, so expectations were met. You do get a whole lot of soft serve for $4, but the serving size is a false value ultimately, because no one can, or should, eat this much.

I don’t know what this means as of press time, but upon exiting, we were treated to Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” on Kingdom Radio. There has to be meaning in that, right? Leave a comment, dear readers.

Rating:


OK, so, we’ve goofed a little bit on Kentucky Kingdom’s food here because it’s not hard to do. But as Howell pointed out, you spent $50 to get into the place, assuming you don’t take advantage of the season pass value, so you’ll maybe grab a slice of pizza or a funnel cake and that’s it. You’re not looking to spend a lot of money once you’re in the park, and you’re certainly not searching for a gourmet experience, despite whatever marketing copy exists on Taco Tequila’s menu. You’re here for thrills, spills, fun and to not vomit on yourself. Kentucky Kingdom is thankfully once again a locally-owned facility, and it’s fun. And the Craft Beer Garden is great!

Regardless of my or your experience with a meal in the kingdom, it’s worth mentioning, according to Ohio Valley Coasters, that Kentucky Kingdom spends around 43 percent of its budget on higher quality food, as compared to the industry average of 31 percent. That’s commendable, Shiver Me Chicken Tenders notwithstanding. And I am a proud season pass holder looking forward to finally stepping onto the Storm Chaser, not the beer of course, and ordering another round of hot wings before the summer’s end.

About the Author

My kingdom for a morsel: Exploring the cuisine of Kentucky Kingdom

Michael C. Powell keeps his spear sharp in many creative endeavors, freelancing as a writer, designer, and photographer whose work has appeared in VICE, The Guardian, PASTE Magazine, The Daily Swarm, IMPOSE, Consequence of Sound, and many others. Michael, who sometimes authors under the nom de plume Kenny Bloggins, loves Twitter and actively abuses the platform at @kbloggins. He is the creator of Welp!, LEO Weekly’s food features gone gonzo.

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