On The Road With RL Reeves Jr: Eastern Kentucky Chili Bun Trail

On a recent swing through the Cumberland Highlands of Kentucky I did what I always do: ate chili buns like they were going out of style. Their obsolescence is in no danger of happening as chili placed on a hotdog bun with no dog in sight is one of the region’s specialties and has roots tracing all the way back to the early part of the 20th century.

Billy's One Stop via rl reeves jr

Billy’s One Stop via rl reeves jr

There is no authentic timeline on the origin of chili buns but Corbin, Kentucky is believed to be the culinary Mesopotamia of the genre. Long shuttered gems like The Fad Pool Hall, The Lunch Queen and Nevel’s Pool Hall were early exemplars of the form. My parents regularly ate at these historic venues back when a movie was a nickel and a chili bun cost roughly the same.

Eastern Kentucky Chili Bun Trail via rl reeves jr

Eastern Kentucky Chili Bun Trail via rl reeves jr

Nowadays there are dozens of diners, cafes, quick marts and snack bars serving this dish. The genre is in no danger of fading as it’s a cheap, delicious meal that can be served in seconds flat so the eater can get on with his work-day.

Billy's One Stop Between Corbin and Barbourville Kentucky

Billy’s One Stop Between Corbin and Barbourville Kentucky

My first stop is Billy’s One Stop on US-25 East roughly halfway between Corbin and Barbourville, Kentucky. I had just visited Roark Meats, a slaughterhouse and meat market, and while there I inquired as to where the butcher might go if he had a hankering for a chili bun. Without hesitation he said “Billy’s One Stop”

The View From The Parking Lot Of Billy's One Stop Near Barbourville KY

The View From The Parking Lot Of Billy’s One Stop Near Barbourville KY

Billy’s is a gas station and quick mart with a tiny diner tucked away inside. There is a throng of people eating, gossiping and waiting on takeaway orders. I’m barely seated before the waitress barks “what are you having?” I order a pair of chili buns and within 20 seconds I begin to eat. Billy’s uses Mitchell’s Chili, a regional brand that used to be served out of a century old grocery store on the town square in Barbourville. It’s not my favorite. The loose ground beef is heavily flavored with tomato sauce; so heavily that all the other flavors are drowned out. Still, two good-sized chili buns are only $1.95 so there is some value afoot here.

Online Menu For Billy's One Stop

Online Menu For Billy’s One Stop

The Shop-N-Cart Cart is located in Lily, Kentucky an ‘unincorporated community’ that was settled by Swiss immigrants in the 19th century. It’s a quick mart filled to the rafters with Grippos chips, cold Pepsi and one of the best selections of commercial candy in the region. But the real draw is the tiny kitchen that puts out mile-high sandwiches, hamburgers and the best chili bun I’ve ever eaten in a commercial establishment.

Shop-N-Cart In Lily Kentucky via rl reeves jr

Shop-N-Cart In Lily Kentucky via rl reeves jr

The Shop-N-Cart grinds their own beef in-house, seasons it with a mystery blend (they refused to divulge their recipe) then places the chili in a crockpot for quick service. When I walk in, a long line of workmen is on queue at the counter and a trio of hardworking country gals is hustling out the chow as fast as they can move. The chili here is sublime. The beef is so fresh you can practically hear a steer bellowing in the kitchen. Garnished with ballpark mustard and sweet onions and served on a warm pillowy bun, The Shopping Cart is the gold standard that all other chili buns are measured by.

Eastern Kentucky Chili Bun Trail: Shop-N-Cart in Lily KY via rl reeves jr

Eastern Kentucky Chili Bun Trail: Shop-N-Cart in Lily KY via rl reeves jr

I rate White’s Billiards in Corbin, Kentucky a half-notch below The Shop-N-Cart.

Bill White At White's Billiards In Corbin KY via rl reeves jr

Bill White At White’s Billiards In Corbin KY via rl reeves jr

An unassuming pool hall in an old shopping center on the south end of town, White’s is housed in a former Shiloh’s Roadhouse. While their focus is on providing a place for gentleman to shoot pool, White’s puts out one of the best chili buns in Eastern Kentucky. They’re not cheap at $2.50 apiece (with or without dog) but the ground beef is fresh, lightly seasoned with chili powder and served on a warm bun. Garnish is up to the patron but a chili bun without chopped white onion and Plochman’s mustard (or a reasonable approximation) is a naked fraud.

White's Billiards Chili Bun via rl reeves jr

White’s Billiards Chili Bun via rl reeves jr

I love the old black and white photos at White’s Billiards. One features Harold Blankenship, Berle Gabbard and One Eyed Tony Howard at Frontier Lounge in Chicago. It’s captioned thusly:

Eastern Kentucky Chili Bun Trail via rl reeves jr

Eastern Kentucky Chili Bun Trail via rl reeves jr

“Cornbread Red told Berle when they first met in ’63 that you would need two machine guns to get out of this (Frontier Bar) place with the money. He said it was the worst Tush Hog Joint in South Chicago, maybe the north, east and west too.”

I love a good rough and tumble pool hall but White’s is not that place. It’s tidy, orderly and you’re more likely to hear the men talking about their various ailments than the next ass they’re about to whup.

In my next installment I’ll discuss the historical importance of The Dixie Cafe; we’ll visit a country diner in Bimble, Kentucky and we’ll try to get to the bottom of why the Bait Bucket shuttered.

Billy’s One Stop
28 N Ky 3438
Barbourville, KY
40906
(606) 546-6146

The Shop-N-Cart
4020 E State Hwy 552
Lily, KY
40740
(606) 878-0854

White’s Billiards
1100 Cumberland Falls Hwy
Corbin, KY
40701
(606) 523-5035

About RL Reeves Jr

I'm a writer living and working in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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14 Responses to On The Road With RL Reeves Jr: Eastern Kentucky Chili Bun Trail

  1. Sheridan Owens says:

    Travel on toward Pineville. On the right side of the road is a small drive-in called Engle’s. I haven’t ever eaten their chili buns but I was told today that you can’t just eat one.q

  2. RL Reeves Jr says:

    Thanks for the rec. I ate there once but I had the fried chicken and it was pre-fab. rl

  3. Ken Tucker says:

    Engle’s isn’t bad. My favorite chili dog with everything of all time all everywhere is Tommy’s Root Beer Stand in B’ville.

  4. RL Reeves Jr says:

    Tommy’s was pretty good. Unfortunately a Chevy Citation pulled in next to me and kept their patchy muffler running the whole time I was eating. Got nauseated.

  5. Ken Tucker says:

    Lots of patchy Chevys there. BTW, a drive-in has been at Engle’s location for at least 50 yrs. That long ago there were several other drive-ins in the near vicinity but my Mom refused to let Dad stop at Engle’s for some now unknown reason. Probably she noticed Fonzie in his leather jacket there some time or another.

    For a real treat, get further off the hwy. B&B Market in Stinking Creek has great food. A store/restaurant has opened up with new ownership at Swan Pond, that I look forward to trying. Places like that have wood stoves in winter and the atmosphere is just great.

  6. Ken Tucker says:

    No, that’s somewhere in TN. Stinking Creek, KY has great historical significance regarding Johnson’s war on poverty. BTW, it is D&D Market, not B&B. Sorry. Its coordinates are 36.905605, -83.699637. Wonderful food and hosts.

    Info about the area:
    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/economy/2008-12-25-stinking-creek-kentucky_N.htm
    http://www.amazon.com/Stinking-Creek-Portrait-Mountain-Community/dp/0525209980

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  9. Beverly Clemons says:

    Nice to meet you at The Dairy Dart in London today. Also check out Weaver’s while you are in town.

  10. RL Reeves Jr says:

    Pleasure meeting you as well. Thanks for the tip. I went to the old location before it burned down but haven’t visited their new digs yet. RL

  11. Pingback: The Eastern Kentucky Chili Bun Trail | Scrumptious Chef

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