I’d driven by Kern’s Korner maybe, oh, a gazillion times in my life and had never stopped. Heck, the tiny location near the intersection of Bardstown Road and Trevilian Way would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it, truth be told.
It never occurred to me to stop until my friend Jessica mentioned it as having one of her favorite burgers in town. I’m always game for a tip, and I’m even more game for a burger. So I went.
What I didn’t realize was that Kern’s is sort of the ultimate neighborhood bar. The original bar began downtown, way back in the Great Depression, and has mostly been owned by the Kern family ever since. Today, brothers Bob and Jeff Kern are the proprietors, and often the bartenders and cooks as well. They have cold beer on draft, snacks behind the counter and a few TVs with sports playing.
And anytime you walk in, there’s a good chance you’ll find the counter/bar filled with older men, most of whom know one another. They mostly sip Miller Lites and Bud Lights, and many of them dine on the bar grub (the menu is located on the wall by the bathrooms). One guy was eating a chili dog that was almost as big as my Lhasa Apso. There’s also a neon sign that simply reads “Bullshit,” although it wasn’t lit this particular afternoon.
When I sat down to order my burger, I also learned that one of the house specialties is Louisville-style chili. Holy cow, a burger AND chili that throws back to my childhood? Count me in.
Humorously, a ground chuck burger at Kern’s is $4.50; a cheeseburger (my choice) is $5. But if you read the fine print, Jessica noted, it’s 25 cents to add cheese to any sandwich. So, technically, you could save yourself a quarter by ordering the burger and asking them to add a slice of cheese. You know, if you wanted to be a smartass about it.
(As I waited for my late lunch, I noted that regulars often just help themselves if they need a bag of chips and the bartender is busy. Yes, it’s that laid back at Kern’s.)
While the burger cooked, I noticed Bob place a few noodles into a cup for me. Afterward, he added the chili, which I found interesting, since my mother always cooked it all together. Then I watched as Bob took a spoon and began to chop up the noodles, apparently to make it a bit easier to eat with a spoon.
He slid the cup toward me, and just as I expected, I was quickly transformed back to my childhood — it was classic Louisville chili, with pinto beans, big chunks of ground chuck and a few noodles mixed in. One hunk of meat I found was so big that I dubbed it the “meatberg.” The stock was dark red and tomato-heavy. It was warming, pleasing and tasty, but if you like spice you’ll want to make use of one of the many hot sauces Kern’s keeps on hand.
Next came the burger, which was served with chips and pickles, and dressed if you want it that way, with lettuce, tomato and onions. The juicy burger was just what you probably would make at home — freshly ground chuck, cooked just right, very … well, very Louisville. The cheese was cooked down to goo; the onions were fresh and crisp. The thing is, the burger is nothing fancy, and that’s 100 percent by design. It’s just a hearty meat sandwich. (If you’ve ever had a burger at Robert’s Western World in Nashville, you’ll love the burger at Kern’s.)
Had I been hungrier, I would have gotten the double cheeseburger. I saw someone eating one and, well, it looked like the perfect meaty mess of a sandwich. Next time. And there will be a next time. I have to work up to that chili dog — the one that’s actually as big as a dog — very slowly.