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April 17, 2013

Taste Bud: Chicken-fried bacon!

When my buddy Chuck casually mentioned that he’d eaten at a restaurant recently that featured chicken-friend bacon on the menu, it struck me that he mentioned it a bit too casually. Um, it’s chicken-fried bacon, man. Why are you not shouting this from the rooftops?

So upon his casual recommendation, I ventured in the rain to Old Stone Inn out in Simpsonville, Ky. Yeah, it’s a bit of a haul, but it’s bacon. Chicken-fried, even.

So as I settled down at the slender bar in the small stone structure (thus the name), I felt a strange anticipation. Strangers flanked me, watching The Masters on a small flat-screen TV behind the bar. The bar was full. And I’m about to order chicken-fried bacon as my dinner in front of these people. They hardly noticed I was there, so I placed my order and sat quietly, taking in the surroundings as I awaited my pork-bellied feast.

For $6, I was served a plate of about eight pieces of crispy, batter-fried bacon. When it was placed before me, I just looked at it for a moment. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing. I mean, I’d heard such a thing as chicken-fried bacon existed, but I’d never seen it, let alone tasted it. For me, it was the stuff of legend, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

Yet, somehow, here it was. I hesitated to take a bite because, well, what if it wasn’t any good? What if all the anticipation only led to bitter disappointment? I steeled my will, casting glances left and right as I mustered the courage to proceed.

Finally, I raised a piece of the still-sizzling delicacy to my lips, took my first bite, and … well, I had to squelch an “Oh my god.” I’m not kidding. I was sitting with strangers in a strange place, and I nearly erupted with glee at what I was tasting.

Think about it: Bacon is one of the best things ever — a salty, cured, delicious treat from the gods. Now, consider real, honest-to-goodness homestyle fried chicken. Also one of the best things ever, no? Especially if it was homemade by someone you loved, and my grandmother (“Mammaw,” we called her) fried chicken like a champion. And I am here to tell you that the chicken-fried bacon at Old Stone Inn marries the best qualities of both bacon and homestyle fried chicken.

It just so happened that Old Stone Inn owner Shelley Thompson was sitting at the bar two seats down, talking to some regulars. She’d apparently overheard me tell the bartender I was there specifically for this dish, and after I’d relished a few pieces, she said, “So, how’s the bacon?”

“It’s a mouth-gasm,” was my response.

Thompson said she’d added the fried bacon to the menu two summers ago. It’s an easy fit on a menu that comprises primarily comfort food/homestyle, as well as a minor stroke of brilliance; she even admitted: “I fry everything at some point.” Hey, it’s Kentucky. We fry stuff all the time.

Thompson said pretty much everything on the menu is homemade, mostly prepared by her each morning.

“I treat (the restaurant) like it’s my home,” she said matter-of-factly.

And then we talked about pepper. The coating she uses on her fried chicken — which is the exact same mix she uses on the bacon — is infused with black pepper. It’s kind of her thing. Apparently her grandma and my mammaw were cut from the same Kentucky-fried cloth.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the bacon comes with something in which to dip it. Are you ready for this? It’s country gravy. Yeah, with plenty of pepper. So try and wrap your mind (and your taste buds, if you’re smart) around this: bacon, deep fried until crispy in a peppery coating made for homestyle fried chicken and then dipped in homemade country gravy.

And now my next question is: How in the hell did my mammaw never think of doing this? I’m sure she’s in heaven beating her head against a wall right now. Chicken-fried bacon. It was so obvious!

I gobbled up all eight pieces, and I scraped up every last drop of gravy. When I finished, the bartender said, “Did you want to order anything else?”

I said, “No thanks. If I did, it would just be more of that bacon.”

And soon enough, it will.