[Pudn's note: The author of this Puddintopia contributor post, Crankybear, aka Tom, is actually the 'Tom' half of Tom and Carla, the couple that created and maintain Hoperatives.com. He's the one who rather infamously offered me the chance to ramble incoherently over there from time to time instead of wasting all my rants here. I was and continue to be honored with the opportunity to write for them, and I'm likewise both honored and very fortunate that he decided to chime in on our 3-way quest.]
Any town worth a damn has at least one set of rival restaurants. In Philly it’s Pat’s and Geno’s for cheesesteaks. In Detroit it’s American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island for chili dogs. In Cincinnati it’s complicated because:
- It seems like every Indian restaurant with a name that starts with an ‘A’ hates all the others that start with ‘A.’ There have apparently been actual assassination attempts. That’s hardcore.
- The rivalry between Skyline and Gold Star is epic. I remember it being a bit more strident 10 years ago, but I’m fairly sure each would be OK with the other suddenly disappearing.
- Cincinnatians are champion grudge-keepers and I suspect there are rivalries around town that are so old and obscure at least one of the parties isn’t even aware the rivalry exists.
I don’t remember any of the details (and don’t really care to), but I’ve always understood that there’s a rivalry between U.S. Chili and Camp Washington Chili, two old-school chili parlors located right across Hopple Street from one another. When the call went out for this month’s 3-Way Thursday and U.S. Chili was chosen (anointed?), I have to admit that my first thought was “Oh, it’s the place that isn’t Camp Washington Chili.” I’ve eaten at Camp Washington a lot (though breakfast is when I’m likely to be in the area). I’ve seen U.S. Chili. I knew it was there, but I’d never been in.
I’m glad I’ve remedied that gap in my life experience. I have a feeling there are people who’ve been to U.S. Chili a lot who’ve never ventured across the street to “that other place.” There’s more than a street dividing the two places. I think it’s a mindset.
U.S. Chili is timeworn to the point of timelessness. A lot of people have passed through those doors. There are scuff marks on the floor that will never come out and memories that will never be remembered, The tables and chairs stoically persevere because they don’t know how to do anything else. There’s a massive vault door set in one wall that seems to say “I’ve been here a long time and I’ll be here a long time” and everything else in the place has decided to follow its example. The newest thing in the place is the young lady behind the counter. She was friendly, efficient and attentive with the nice-sized lunch crowd she took care of when I was there.
Come to think of it, the food is newer because they make it every day. That’s why people people keep coming though the doors.
So how was the chili? My usual disclaimer holds: I get a 4-way with onions because that’s what I always order and I don’t want to put any of the places we’re trying at a disadvantage because I think “…something is missing.” That being said, my answer is … complicated. From a pure taste perspective, U.S. Chili is easily the best I’ve had so far in our adventure. The chili was fragrant with the aroma of spices that might be cinnamon and allspice and, unlike our past locations, the taste built off the aroma without a letdown. It wasn’t overly spicy. I took a couple of bites to make sure I had a bead on the flavor and then I was reaching for the hot sauce to give it a bit of a kick. It only took a few drops, I’m happy to report, and I could still taste the chili.
All was not perfect, however. The liquid-to-solid ratio was … strange. The liquid was runny and the meat was clumping together and they seemed to be just tolerating each other like the heroes in the first half hour of a two-mismatched-souls-thrown-together buddy movie. It all mixed together fine, but the initial appearance was odd. The cheese seemed stiffer somehow than the usual cheddar, but it tasted just fine. The onions weren’t diced finely, but that’s OK by me. The oyster crackers were, in a word, awful. When I go back — and I probably will — I won’t bother to open the packages. The only flavor they had seemed to be just the slightest hint of staleness. It’s the only part of the whole experience where I thought there was some skimping going on.
There is nothing fancy about U.S. Chili. It’s for people who work for a living. They come through the doors for the food. The lack of artifice is just part of the deal. I doubt the vault door would allow anything fancy. I can’t be sure because it’s not talking, and everything else in the place seems to follow its lead.