Local reveals his top picks for the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Pigeon Forge
My day job is to observe. I look, I listen and I ask questions. Then, I relay the facts as I have learned them through the written word. Most days I like to think I’m good at it. But then there are times when I have a clear read of a situation, I see something undoubtedly to be true. And then I find myself on an island. Reasonable people have taken in the same information as I have and come to irrevocably, horrendously wrong conclusions.
For instance, as part of my research on hole-in-the-wall restaurants, I consulted Mr. Google for ideas. The suggestions included Local Goat in Pigeon Forge, Pancake Pantry in Gatlinburg and a variety of other hole-in-the-wall places among the best restaurants. Indeed, I think they are some of the best places to go out to eat in the Smokies. But the Old Mill Restaurant is not a hole-in-the-wall place.
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What do I mean by hole-in-the-wall?
To me, a hole-in-the-wall is a unique place that is mom-and-pop owned. A lot of them serve several kinds of sandwiches – because sandwiches are cost-effective – or Mexican food, Italian food or southern classics like the best BBQ you’ll ever eat from a gas station. These great local restaurants are some of the best in East Tennessee. And while these local favorites may not be your typical Smoky Mountain restaurants, they offer delicious food:
1. Pigeon Forge Deli
Located around the corner from a nail salon and across from a tattoo parlor in a strip mall at 159 E Wears Valley Road, the Pigeon Forge Deli offers good food just a little off the beaten path. The menu features a variety of signature subs – including The Chub Sub and Chicken Salad Chub, Open Pot Roast Sub and also a classic Italian sub. They also have a classic pimento cheese BLT, which is what I recommend. In addition to a variety of soups and salads, the deli also delivers a variety of hot pretzels. And if you’re thinking of a picnic in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the deli is surely the perfect place to start.
2. Smokies Cuban Cafe
Located at 3526 Parkway #4 on the strip next to a string of CBD and tobacco shops, Smokies Cuban Cafe may be the only place in town to get some authentic Cuban food. In fact, I’m surprised there aren’t more places that serve Cuban coffee along the main strip. It seems to me shoppers could use that caffeine rush only authentic Cuban coffee can provide. But then again, maybe the tourists couldn’t handle it. It seems cliche to recommend the Cuban sandwich, but you can’t get a good Cuban everywhere, so grab hold when you can.
3. Boss Hogg’s BBQ Shack
Let’s go back to the mid-to-late 90s. There is a magical hole-in-the-wall eatery on Wears Valley Road in Pigeon Forge. It was one of the most popular places in the region with great food and a terrific atmosphere. Specifically, Chef Jock’s Tastebud Cafe was one of the best places I’ve ever eaten in the region. Jock was something of a local culinary celebrity in the days before the Food Network and such. Today, Boss Hogg’s BBQ Shack carries on the legacy of serving some of the best food in the Smokies from the same location at 1198 Wears Valley Rd. It’s a far cry from the five-star dining experience on a 2-star budget that Chef Jock tried to create, but I like to think every great chef can appreciate the beauty of perfectly smoked meat and pork sandwiches. It may not be Chef Jock’s bowtie pasta, but I bet he’d approve.
4. Talita’s Restaurant
Nothing fancy here. The menu is a bunch of pictures hanging from the ceiling like you often see in quick-service Chinese restaurants. No frills at all in this slightly off-the-beaten-path eatery. Located at 2961 Veterans Boulevard, Talita’s offers delicious food and traditional Mexican dishes at great prices. It’s not the overall dining experience offered at some of the other Mexican places in the surrounding area, but its food will give just about any one of them a run for their money.
5. Lil Black Bear Café
If you’re looking for something small, out of the way and delicious, you can’t do better than the Lil’ Black Bear Café. With limited hours, the café does breakfast and lunch only. They offer soups, salads and sandwiches and coffee. All of which are made to order. The menu isn’t complicated but it doesn’t have to be. The breakfast is rave-worthy. The pancakes are beloved. The omelets are so good, that chickens volunteer their eggs in tribute. The sausage, egg and cheese sandwich on the breakfast menu is the food of the gods. But we are here, my friends, to discuss two menu items in particular: The Reuben and the Patty Melt. An artist lives at the Lil’ Black Bear, and that artist works in rye sandwiches.
The Patty Melt is a hamburger patty on grilled rye with grilled onions and two slices of provolone. The Reuben has real corned beef. Too many places in the South try to make a Reuben with something else and it is an INSULT to places like the Lil’ Black Bear Café. Swiss cheese, kraut, 1,000 Island dressing. It’s perfect. Lil Black Bear is located at 3068 Veterans Blvd.
Do you have a favorite hole-in-the-wall eatery? Let us know in the comments!