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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
I rate White’s Billiards in Corbin, Kentucky a half-notch below The Shop-N-Cart.
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.
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:
“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
4020 E State Hwy 552
1100 Cumberland Falls Hwy