Many people know about Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, the amazing tour of the state’s bourbon distilleries. But, few know about a lesser known trail called the Kentucky Chili Bun Trail. The trail consists of several towns just off of Interstate 75 south of Lexington, on 25E starting in London and progressing on 25 to Corbin, Barboursville, Pineville, Middlesboro, and out 119 to Harlan, Kentucky. There are even a few drive-ins and groceries across the border in Tennessee that proudly serve the Kentucky chili bun.
To Cincinnatians familiar with our cheese coney, we might call the Kentucky Chili bun a ‘phoney coney’ without the dog. Skyline Chili calls its version of a dogless coney a ‘chili sandwhich’, and has a
‘chili cheese sandwich.’ A first cousin of the coney island , the Kentucky chili bun consists of a steamed bun, filled with a heaping portion of coney dog chili, without the dog, chopped sweet onions, and a healthy dollop of Plochman’s yellow mustard from nearby Illinois. The buns are typically accompanied by Pepsi, Ale 8, made in Kentucky, or with a homemade root beer, along with Grippos or Mike Sell’s potato chips from Cincinnati, and Dayton, Ohio, respectively. The chili in the Kentucky chili bun is all meat, no beans, and bit drier than that used on coney dogs, but is nowhere near the consistency of a sloppy joe, to which some folks try to compare it.
Kentucky Chili buns were born in sin in the pool halls of southeast Kentucky, as Ronni Lundy, author of the Heart and Soul of Country Kitchens claims. “They have little redeeming social or nutritional value, but they could be one of the tastiest things you’ve ever had”, she adds. Locals claim the secret ingredient might be a bit of pool chalk dust in the chili, but regardless, these dogless versions of the coney island have been in existence since at least the stock market crash of 1929. And maybe that’s the reason for the cost cutting measure of no dog.
Legend has it that Terrell Halcomb first served the chili bun at his Dixie Billiard Parlor in Corbin, Kentucky in 1929, so Corbin is the epicenter of the trail. Corbin, Kentucky, is probably more famous for being the birthplace of another more well-known food legend – KFC. Colonel Harland Sander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken enterprise, was started in his humble gas service station a year after the chili bun was born in Corbin.
Dixie has moved around in location since its inception, and was even an Italian restaurant for a while. But, it reopened in 2012 under the name Dixie Café with a new chili recipe and a new fervor to reestablish the old landmark and its delicacy, the chili bun.
From Corbin the chili bun went as far north as London and as far south as the Tennesse border. Many of the places that serve chili buns use Mitchell’s chili. A meat cutter in Barboursville, in 1929 . E.C. Mitchell invented his own chili that he served in his chili buns, in his grocery on Town Square. He survived the Depression and his great grandson Greg Mitchell owns the business, where until a few years ago one could get a chili bun for 75 cents, about 20 cents less than the Grippos or Mike Sells potato chips most buy to go with. The grocery itself sits in an ancient building on the Barboursville courthouse square. The real treasure was at the rear where a cafeteria hot line is set up. Although the grocery is no longer open, Greg supplies meats and his chili to commercial operations in and out of state. The Chili consists of pureed tomato and ground beef with a primarily sweet flavor, with only faint notes of cumin.
Weaver’s Pool Hall in London Kentucky, in Laurel County, is a heavy hitter when it comes to the chili bun. Legend has it that Carl Weaver, the current owner’s, grandfather, bought the chili recipe from a man from Corbin for $25 who was on his way to Mexico. Carl tweaked the chili recipe a bit, making it his own, and this is what the Weaver family has been serving on their chili buns since 1940. Originally just a pool hall with 10 tables, Carl’s son, Jerry Weaver expanded it to a restaurant before passing the business on to his son, Judd Weaver. Jerry added the vintage booths with hardboard seats that remind you of your ancestor’s wagon ride across the Cumberlands. Many locals enjoy seeing the photo wall which is a virtual history of London and the restaurant. One 1955 photo shows Kentucky Governor and Baseball commissioner A. P. “Happy” Chandler in the restaurant. Judd gets up at 4:30 AM every morning and makes the chili fresh from Kentucky Proud Grade A beef, serving about 10 pounds of it a day. Local families have a Memorial day tradition of stopping at Weaver’s for a plate of steaming hot chili buns before decorating the family graves in the local churchyards.
Other recommended places in London to get a chili bun are House’s Pool Hall at the corner of east 4th and Hill Street, and the Dairy Dart. A long gone pool hall famous for its chili buns was Nevel’s Pool Hall in Corbin, Kentucky, which began serving in the 1930s.
Some recipes like that at Tommy’s call for flat beer and a variety of spices, more similar to the Greek coney island sauce with sweet apostoulos like nutmeg allspice, and ginger and spicy apostoulos like chili powder, celery, garlic, and onion salt. However some recipes also call for ketchup, something that would not be allowed in a purely Greek sauce.
Some of the heavy hitters who served the bun have gone out of business like the Fad Pool Hall in Corbin on Main Street, but many still exist today. The popularity of the chili bun spread out of the pool hall to the variety of dairy bars, root beer stands, drive-ins, gas stations, and family restaurants in the area. The drive-in culture is still very much alive in this part of Kentucky and is surely a unique experience. People in and around the Kentucky Chili Bun trail look forward to warmer weather when the root beer stands, dairy bars, and drive-ins open so that they can enjoy their chili buns.