A Cincinnati Chili Conspectus (C³)
You cannot honestly say you have visited Cincinnati without honestly saying you have tasted Cincinnati chili.
Let's get something straight, right from the start, Cincinnati chili is not so much chili as it is spaghetti sauce (if spaghetti sauce was created by a Greek immigrant in 1922). Also, Cincinnati chili refers to the chili itself, as well as the spaghetti dish it is an integral part of.
Cincinnati chili is made by crumbling raw ground beef in water and/or stock, then adding tomato paste and seasonings such as cinnamon, allspice, Worcestershire sauce, cumin, chili powder, bay leaf, etc. The mixture is then simmered for several hours to form a thin meat sauce. The secret is in the spices used, with each chili parlor having its own secret ratio and ingredients¹. Note that the ground beef is simmered and not browned and the spices include cinnamon and allspice, yielding a chili that is sweeter and thinner than traditional chili.
There is an ordering lingo that would make any Starbucks' barista proud. Called the "way" system, it informs your server how many ingredients² you want with your chili:
Two-way: spaghetti topped with chili (also called "chili spaghetti")
Three-way: spaghetti, chili, and (mild) cheddar cheese*
Four-way onion: spaghetti, chili, onions, and (mild) cheddar cheese
Four-way bean: spaghetti, chili, kidney beans, and (mild) cheddar cheese
Five-way: spaghetti, chili, kidney beans, onions, and (mild) cheddar cheese
* ᴴᵃᵛᵉ ᵃ "ᵀʰʳᵉᵉ⁻ʷᵃʸ"ᵃᵗ ˡᵉᵃˢᵗ ᵒⁿᶜᵉ ⁻ ˢᵒ ʸᵒᵘ ᶜᵃⁿ ᶜʳᵒˢˢ ᶦᵗ ᵒᶠᶠ ᵗʰᵉ ᵇᵘᶜᵏᵉᵗ ˡᶦˢᵗ
Packets of oyster crackers³ are also provided, which can be quite useful:
- As an appetizer, either straight, drizzled with hot sauce, or with a hole pricked in the top filled with hot sauce.
- Randomly place them over top of the grated cheese or create an oyster cracker blanket.
- Put around the edge of the plate to sop up any jus prior to eating your chili.
- To sop up any jus remaining in the bottom of your plate, after eating your chili.
Attention: Do not twirl your spaghetti paisan!! Instead eat Cincinnati chili as if it were a casserole, cutting each bite with the side of the fork, then gathering a representative cross-section of spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions, and beans on your fork and thence to your chili hole. There may be a law that requires every parlor to plate their Cincinnati chili on the exact same oval ceramic plate. Either way, place this oval ceramic plate perpendicular to yourself to allow for easier spaghetti sectioning (eating from one end to the other).
There are over 200 chili parlors in Cincinnati (and environs), most of which are chains, with Skyline Chili being the largest (which has led it to become almost synonymous with Cincinnati chili), followed by Gold Star. Even though Tony Bourdain once visited a Skyline location, I will eschew the chains and restrict this conspectus to the independents, listed from the best to worst:
1. Price Hill Chili: After visiting three chili parlors, I finally realized what was missing from my Cincinnati chili 3 to 5-way. So when I heard that this place was the only chili parlor with an attached bar, I was in. It's a nice set-up with the original 1962 chili parlor on one side and the bar in an adjacent room. We settled in at the aptly named Golden Fleece bar and ordered a "4 Way" with onions ($6.89) and two (well, in the end, four) Coors drafts ($2.50 each). Our bartender Stephanie (a former Skyline employee btw) obliged us with two shots of straight Cincinnati chili (gratis), so we could perform a scientific tasting and the chili was quite good: spicy, a little oily (a good thing), and thick with a slightly thinner shred of cheese. It came with large oyster crackers and lethal hot sauce. Chili: A, Ambiance: A (the adjacent bar put them over the top).
- Steve, the owner was holding forth at the bar with a bunch of regulars and was nice enough to stop by and chat about how the secret recipe was almost lost a few years back and how most chili parlors serve Pepsi (due to a better service contract than Coke). The Missus mentioned that he should pair a shot of chili with a shot of something. He wasn't that enthusiastic at first until in a moment of Hellenic inspiration said: "a shot of Uzo" (a "Greek on Greek"?). So we tested it out, . . . not bad at all (perhaps a better name would be a "Flackopoulus?").
2. Gourmet Chili: Located across the Ohio River in Newport, KY, this place reeks of authenticity from the exterior signage to the interior layout to our server, Dimitra, who came all the way from Sparta, to deliver me a "Regular 4 Way" with onions ($5.98). We sat at the counter (and so should you) so we could see our feast created right before our eyes. The chili was spicy, thick, and a little oily. They have their own hot sauce (three kinds actually, who doesn't want options?). Because Mrs. After Action Report chatted up our server and threw in a "Yamas", we were rewarded with a little gyro meat and yogurt, which solidified Gourmet Chili's #2 Ranking. Chili: A, Ambiance: A-.
- Though the sign outside says "Enjoy Coca-Cola", don't be fooled. This is a Pepsi establishment, as it appears this is a prime example of Greek thrift.
- The only complaint I had is the oyster crackers could have been a little bigger (you know there had to be at least one).
3. Blue Ash Chili: I was really looking forward to sampling Blue Ash's fare because it was highlighted on an episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives (and that it has a liquor license). So I was stunned when my server informed me that there was no beer here. There are three Blue Ash Chili locations, the original (on Kenwood Rd.), and two sequels. Due to a catastrophic error in navigation, I went to the location on Princeton Pike (which is "dry") and not the location on Kenwood (which isn't). While this whole kerfuffle could have affected my analysis of the "4-Way" with onions ($6.39), it did not (I'm a professional). The chili was excellent, as this was the tastiest and thickest Cincinnati chili I encountered, with enough zip to get the job done. Also, the amount of chili ladled was the most generous I have come across. An added benefit for Mrs. After Action Report was this was a rare Coke establishment. Unfortunately, the Coke wasn't enough, so off we went to the Kenwood Rd. location for a beer and a "cheese coney" chaser. A "cheese coney" is a hot dog with chili, mustard & onions, and shredded cheddar (this subspecies is beyond the scope of this conspectus). Strangely, the chili at this location was completely different than the prior location, in both color, taste, and thickness (it was quite thin). Also, the chili was ladled much less generously on our "cheese coney". My Yuengling was cold though, and economical ($2.79). If I had written this review immediately after my "4-Way" at the Princeton Pike location, Blue Ash Chili would have been the clear #1, but due to the lack of consistency with the consistency, it fell to #3. Chili: B, Ambiance: B.
Note: I made a photo montage for Blue Ash Chili, not so much to better document my experience, but because I've been learning how to use a free Photoshop alternative called GIMP.
4. Camp Washington Chili: The streamlined interior reminded me of an art deco version of Johnny Rockets, though the floor could have been a little cleaner ("cleanliness is next to chiliness"). The proof is in the chili and this "5 way" ($7.25) was pretty good, as the chili had the right amount of spiciness and the oyster crackers were quite large (though no hot sauce was provided). Chili: B+, Ambiance: B- (the parlor was forced to move to a new location in 2000 in order to widen Hopple Street, which may have negatively affected its ambiance rating).
- This place is perhaps the most "accoladed" chili parlor in the world: a James Beard award, CBS News "Best Chili in the nation", Bon Appétit's sixth "Best Chili Spot" and the Smithsonian 6th Most Iconic Food Destination. There's even a Lonnie Mack song named after the joint.
5. J&J Restaurant: A typical Greek diner set-up located in a strip mall, with a couple of fixed counter stools and 12 booths, though the menu was quite narrow focusing on chili and sandwiches. We had ours, "four-way onion" ($5.60). J&J's chili is not as spicy or thick as I would like, a little bland if you ask me, which is why the provided red and green McIlhenny's Tabasco was a nice touch. There was a panoramic photo of downtown Cincinnati mounted over a panoramic photo of downtown Athens, which added to the authenticity. Chili: C+, Ambiance: B-.
6. Empress Chili: I wanted to visit this place as Cincinnati chili was invented by Empress Chili, but knew from research the original location is no more and its current location left a lot to be desired (what if White Castle opened a chili parlor). Due to covid, the "Dining Room" was closed, leaving drive-thru as the only option. After a 45-minute drive, I was pissed and seriously thought about canceling the entire operation. Mrs. After Action Report instead suggested we turn it into a Cincinnati chili picnic, so a "4 way" with onions was ordered ($5.90) and eaten at a nearby medical office picnic table (thank you St. Elizabeth Physicians Primary Care). The chili was the worst chili I have ever eaten, lacking depth and zip (and no hot sauce was provided). The bag of oyster crackers was even substandard. Chili: D, Ambiance: not rated.
- This place also serves a chili pizza, which according to the menu is pizza crust, mustard, onions, chili, and cheese. Just typing that gave me an upset stomach.
7. Dixie Chili & Deli: For obvious reasons, until y'all change the name, I will not partake in y'alls chili.
• Arnold's Bar and Grill: I knew going in that this place did not serve authentic Cincinnati chili, but an opportunity to wash down their Greek Spaghetti ($18) with a Miller High Life (or two) at Cincinnati's oldest bar (est. 1861) could not be missed. The place also serves a much-decorated Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili that has unfortunately fallen victim to a Covid-19 edited menu. Chris the owner, who bought the place in January 2020 (they say timing is the key to life) was nice enough to give me a short tour that highlighted an original Shepard Fairey mural (he's the guy who created the Obama "Hope" poster), an original Vhils⁴ mural etched into an exterior wall (payment made in trade) and Peanut Jim's peanut cart (you gotta be a Reds' fan).
- Remember the tv show "Harry's Law"? Well neither do I. Apparently, Arnold's was replicated on a Hollywood set to allow Kathy Bates et. al. to discuss, once per episode, the finer points of the law and the Queen City. Only worth seeing if you're the fan of the show.
- Oh yeah, the Miller High Life was quite refreshing.
1. The third "c" in Cincinnati chili is not capitalized, as the generic noun in any dish, the “salad,” in Waldorf salad, the “fries,” in French fries, and therefore the "chili", in Cincinnati chili is always lowercased.
2. Apply provided hot sauce if the chili isn't spicy enough.
3. It appears there is a law that requires you to be Greek in order to make Cincinnati chili, as every parlor in this conspectus is owned by one.
4. Want to create your own conspectus? This more comprehensive, but less literate blogspot ranks almost every chili parlor in Cincinnati.
5. This celebration of Cincinnati chili getting to be a little too much? You may be onto something philos, one owner I spoke with called his product "meat-water" and Deadspin ranked Cincinnati chili the worst regional food in all the 50 states: right behind Nevada (which has no authentic local food), Connecticut (a steamed cheeseburger) and getting hit by a car.
Epilogue. After reading all of this you must be thinking "how can I eat some Cincinnati chili?". Well my friend if you don't live in Ohio, Indiana, Northern Kentucky, or Florida, you have but two options:
• Make it yourself: After finishing my conspectus, I decided to make my own Cincinnati chili from scratch and "what one man can do, another can do!" It is the ultimate one-pot meal.
- The official After Action Report recipe can be found using this link.
• Buy a can of Skyline chili at the supermarket (or online). At $3.75/can, it's a little steep, but hey, you only live once. The back of the can provides detailed instructions on how to create your very own 5 way.
Note: You may be wondering what you should drink while eating your dine-in, homemade, or semi-homemade feast. Well, I've done some analysis. Since this is a heavy meal with a very distinct flavor profile (spicy and sweet), red wine just doesn't seem to work. Therefore I recommend an economical ice-cold domestic lager or ice-cold champagne⁵ (a rosé sparkling wine could be particularly piquant).
PS: During a subsequent visit to Cincinnati a year later in June 2021, I visited an additional chili parlor:
- Pleasant Ridge Chili: Located in the pleasant Pleasant Ridge neighborhood since 1964 and is known for its "friendly service and dishes topped with its famous chili". And I'd agree with the first part, as my server was friendly and humorous. The chili ($6.20) on the other hand was lackluster and zipless, with Mrs. AAR subsequently commenting "this is the worst chili we've had" (though I think she had purged the memory of Empress chili from her mind). Greek-owned and operated of course, though this joint is a Coke establishment (and dry). Chili: C-, Ambiance: C+.
- Apparently, one person disagrees with my wife's assessment though, as former Reds shortstop, "Mr. Automatic" Leo Cárdenas is a regular.
Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details which while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.
¹ While many Cincinnatians believe chocolate or cocoa is an ingredient in their eponymous chili, according to the most trusted source on Cincinnati chili, this is a canard.
² About the Cincinnati chili ingredients, Tony Bourdain states ". . . you've got the New England oysterette thing going on here . . . you got chili from the Southwest, spaghetti from our brethren from Italy, this is America on your plate, this is the story of America"
³ The origin of the term "oyster cracker" is unclear, but it may be that they were originally served in the Northeast with oyster stew or clam chowder or merely that they look like an oyster in its shell. Other names include "water cracker," "Philadelphia cracker," and "Trenton cracker".
⁴ Vhils is the tag name of Portuguese graffiti/street artist Alexandre Manuel Dias Farto. Ok, yeah, now I understand why Señor Farto chose to use a nom de tag.
⁵ Champagne is an appellation⁶, that requires the sourcing of grapes exclusively from designated places within the Champagne region of France, specific grape-pressing methods, and secondary fermentation of the wine in the bottle to cause carbonation. This was reaffirmed by the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI (Article 275). Since the U.S. did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the term Champagne can be used more freely in the U.S., though only those products that had the approval to use the term on labels before 2006 may continue to use it and only when it is accompanied by the wine's actual origin. This is also what allows Miller High Life to be styled "The Champagne of Beers".
⁶ Appellation is a legally defined and protected geographical indication used to identify where a product is made, its production standard, as well as other quality standards.