Chili dogs are all-American, even if they vary dramatically from place to place. Chili buns are unique to Appalachian Kentucky. The differences among them are subtle. The basic formula is to put mustard and onions in a bun with no-bean beef chili. That’s all there is to it.
Chili buns are in the $1-2 price range and are sold in almost every convenience store that has some sort of kitchen, as well as in drive-in restaurants. It would take a heartier gut than mine to try to sample all or even most of them, but armed with a few locals’ tips as well as a story written by R.L. Reeves, Jr. about his experiences on the Chili Bun Trail, I tried a few and can say with certainty that the one served at Lily Shop-N-Cart is my second-favorite. (The best, meatiest, most boldly flavored one is at the Root Beer Stand in Corbin.)
Mr. Reeves describes the Shop-N-Cart’s chili bun as, “the gold standard that all other chili buns are measured by.”
Rhonda, who works behind the counter, agrees, telling me, “I grew up eating chili buns my whole life, and this is the only place I will eat them. The chili is made here every day.”
Apparently, many chili bun chefs simply open cans of chili to pour into the bun. Some sad buns do taste like that. But at this bustling store in Lily, the chili is without doubt made from scratch. It is assertively beefy with a complex spice profile that includes notable pepper bite. As you eat, it begins to tickle the back of your tongue like some sort of exotic Caribbean chile pod. In addition, the bun is fresh and spongy-soft; onions are crunchy. The textural mix of all these elements is as much fun as their flavors.