Alfalfa Restaurant's Main Street face, Lexington, Kentucky

Alfalfa Restaurant's Main Street face, Lexington, Kentucky

This page first appeared in August, 2005, as part of a monthly 300-word "Urban Paradise" series for Nougat Magazine.

Austin has its slogan, 'Keep Austin Weird.' We want one too.

Lofty integrity prevents us from simply changing the proper noun in Austin's slogan. Keep Lexington Weird might set off an epidemic of laughter so intense it interferes with the economy. My neighbor, the Kindly Wag, says a truthful slogan for our fair city might be Make Lexington Weird in the First Place.

A defining city slogan captures something so singular that no other city can steal it—but lots of cities wish they could. For our slogan, I nominate Lexington: Home of Alfalfa's Miso Dressing, because both the place and the product are ours alone.

Although the camel that marks the geographic center of our city is a few feet southwest of the restaurant, the real heart of my Lexington is 141 East Main, Alfalfa's relatively new location. And the heart of Alfalfa's menu? Some think it's Hoppin' John, borrowed from points south. I say it's miso dressing, something early Alfalfa chefs reinvented from ancient recipes and timeless ingredients more than 30 years ago, something ours alone.

I didn't try this strange, tan goop for maybe the first 20 of those years. I listened as friends said they hadn't had a miso fix in—maybe —four hours, so they HAD to follow their taste buds to Alfalfa for a signature cabbage house salad powered by the dressing they couldn't duplicate at home.

I watched as friends with otherwise excellent judgment ordered the house salad with house dressing—a sweet-tart vinaigrette—and asked for a kicker of miso dressing on top. I heard the silence as they took their first, reverent bites.

I tasted, finally. I got bam-bam-country ham-velvet-tang-silk-earth-bite-spice. It tasted like Asia-Africa-Fayette County.

Eventually I saw a likely ingredient list: Ground sesame seeds (tahini); olive oil, ginger, garlic, vinegar, miso (don't ask, but it's alive in a yeasty way, like wine). I admit it took several encounters with miso dressing before I began to feel it calling me to Alfalfa. Miso dressing, like Lexington, can be an acquired taste.

When the idea of "a downtown that never sleeps" first reached Lexington, the Kindly Wag said, "We're the downtown that never wakes up." That was a few years ago. If ever something both legal and edible can wake up our city and make us proud, it's ordinary, earthy, exotic, mysterious Alfalfa miso dressing.

I'll take that first bumper sticker.