Kentucky Monthly's series 120 Eats: A Quest to Taste Kentucky’s Best finishes up in the November issue. Dana McMahan takes readers to Red River Rockhouse in Wolfe County.
Some people know how to make things happen. They have imagination and passion and will. When they succeed, you might be tricked into thinking it was easy; after all, it looks like it is. But don’t be fooled. Today, crowds might spill out the door of Red River Rockhouse in Wolfe County; ravenous climbers and packs of bikers and laid-back locals may pack into the bright, airy space on Route 11, where they fall on plates of freshly made burgers and burritos, but this didn’t happen by accident.
Aaron Brouwer—a longtime climber who was living in his truck, with a thousand dollars to his name—had always wanted to open a restaurant. Zoology degree? Check. Culinary training? Not so much. But he’d been cooking since he was 15, and had worked construction in stints long enough to save money for another climbing season, so when he saw the empty “rockhouse” perched on a hill on the road that winds through the Gorge, he saw an opportunity.
“I could make a burger and burrito joint,” he recalls thinking. Though his wife, Tina, cautioned that it would be too much work—the building needed a complete overhaul—“it felt like I was in a river, being pushed,” he says.
Aaron handed over his thousand dollars, enlisted a friend to invest, and set to work on the space. To kick it off, “I spent three days by myself,” he says. Donning a Tyvek suit and respirator, he climbed above the ceiling, held the trusses, and “stomped it all down and threw it in a dumpster.” Out with the old, low ceiling, and in with a new, soaring one that allows natural light to pour in through skylights.
Once the physical transformation was complete, Aaron created the kind of restaurant where he’d want to eat. Channeling all his climbing adventures, he thought about the best of every place he’d eaten. That amalgamation was Red River Rockhouse. He wanted a place where staff are warm and welcoming, the food is responsibly produced, and the vibe is good. In the fall of 2011, that’s what he’d built.
But in a county with a population of less than 8,000, how did he know he could staff the kitchen? The team behind the counter in the open—and tight—kitchen the day I visited got lunch in 10 minutes flat to a couple dozen people who had roared up on Harleys.
“Honestly, I just always feel like it’s going to work,” Aaron says. “I make a lot of things work. I never stop until the wheels have come completely off and I crash into the mountain, and even then, I probably wouldn’t call it defeat.”
And now he has a reputation. Employees know it’s a great place to work and come from all over the world to climb and to work at the Rockhouse. Despite Aaron’s high expectations of them, they clearly love it. “Nobody calls off, ever,” he says. Aaron is still in the kitchen most days, checking on the slow-braising pork, making sure new employees are using proper knife skills (“They’re learning the art that is cooking,” he says), and chatting with customers who stop by to thank him for a donation to their cause.
He has a reputation for the food, too. Everything is made from scratch, and tastes like it. The fries, served in a tangled heap fresh from the fryer, are cut from potatoes two or three times a day. His newest concoction, a hot sauce, brings a slow, happy burn to the deep flavors of the barbacoa. The burritos are the stuff of legend among climbers, and to wash it all down, this is the only place on Route 11 to serve beer, so look for local brews (and bourbon, and of course, Ale-8-One).
Red River Rockhouse is so successful now that it’s outgrown its space. “I literally, physically can’t have enough food in the building,” Aaron says. He plans during the off season (roughly December through March) to extend the building 16 feet. The space will be strictly for kitchen use, though; he’s determined to hold steady at 54 seats inside. “I’d consider adding a second location before making it bigger,” he says. That won’t be easy while running this restaurant, raising a daughter, and building a family home up the hill in the woods.
But for some reason, I don’t think that would stop him.