[Pudn’s note: The author of this first 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.]
I love me some chili, no two ways about it. I grew up in Texas, where it’s considered a basic food group. The thing you come to realize about chili in Texas after a while is that there’s really no such thing as the One True Texas Chili©. Oh, sure, there are some qualities most agree are necessary: thickness though the use of corn flour, a varying degree of spiciness derived from various combinations of ancho and other dried pepper pods, and the use of beef as the main meat. Everything is religious war: tomatoes v. no tomatoes, ground v. cubed meat, and, of course, the ur-conflict: beans v. no beans. For the record, I’m tomatoes, cubed and no-beans by nature. I have, however, enjoyed chili that pretty much went the other direction on everything.
All of that is to explain why I approach the Cincinnati-style chili wars with a bit of amusement. And don’t misunderstand me: I love the stuff. I think it’s one of Cincinnati’s crowning gifts to the world. This plane of existence would be a much poorer place without it. But let’s be honest. It’s Greek spaghetti sauce. With cheese. Glorious, glorious cheese. Unlike some Texans I have no problem calling it ‘chili’ because, as I pointed out, there’s no standard recipe even there. The “Chili Queens” of San Antonio’s Market Square used their cultural memories to make a wonderful stew that they could sell as street food. So, too, did Tom Kiradjieff when he and his brother John started selling a stew at their hotdog stand next to the Empress Burlesque Theater on Vine Street.
Back in the day when the late, lamented Houston Oilers would take on the then-often-competent Cincinnati Bengals, the Houston newspapers would inevitably run a story on that weird stuff people in Cincinnati call chili. “It has chocolate in it, people,” the stories would say, “chocolate!” This was not seen as a postiive thing. I’d more or less forgotten about it until I was getting ready to move here from Philadelphia in the late 1990’s. When I interviewed for a job at UC I noticed all Skyline and Gold Star locations, but I didn’t have the time or inclination to try it. When I came here to look for a place to live, I took the plunge. For the record, Gold Star was my first. And I was hooked from Day 1.
You know you’re in Cincinnati when you can have a long conversation about cornhole and 3-ways and no one giggles. Much. That’s why it’s so much fun that Pud’n is allowing me to invade his corner of the Interwebtubes to talk about <snicker> 3-ways </snicker>. And it’s entirely appropriate that we start with the descendent of the place that started it all, Empress Chili. Our mission, as given, was to try a 3-way at the Empress on Alexandia Pike in Alexandria, KY. I cheated. I got a 4-way. I gotta have the onions. If I didn’t have the onions I feared I’d unfairly say something was missing. I think I’ve pretty well established that I’m not from ’round here. I’ve developed my taste in Cincinnati chili with onions, so that’s how I’m going to talk about it.
To me, one of the thing that makes or breaks Cincinnati chili (hereafter just ‘chili’) are the ratios. The ratio of spices is both important and closely guarded, obviously, but the meat-to-liquid ratio in the chili itself and the spaghetti-chili-cheese-(onion) ratio both figure into my evaluation. So here’s how it went at Empress:
The day I had it, it was a meaty chili. Not thick in any sense of the word, but there was a high ratio of meat to liquid. It had no problem coating all the spaghetti thoroughly, but when I was finished there wasn’t a thick layer of liquid in the bottom. There was just enough to use what remained of my oyster crackers to soak it up. That’s a solid win in my book.
I was surprised how delicate the flavor was. I got a lot of cinnamon and clove. I tend to use hot sauce on my chili, but I found I had to be really careful with it because it was really easy to lose the nice flavors of the chili itself. The onions were kind of hot that day, and I found that just a little hot sauce and the onions made it pop enough for me. I liked that the texture wasn’t mushy (at least until the cheese really had a chance to melt in, but that’s the way it’s supposed to work).
The portion I had was heavy on the spaghetti. Note that I’m not saying it was light on chili. If I’d had any more chili it would have possibly upset the meat-to-liquid ratio and that wouldn’t do. This could well be a one-time thing — maybe the noodles clumped up for a second when mine was getting dished up. It’s hard to say. It sure didn’t make the meal any less enjoyable.
If the ratio of spaghetti-to-chili was slightly off, the ratio of cheese to everything else was dead-solid perfect. I love cheese, but I will take the controversial view that you can have too much cheese on chili. My rule of thumb is that after a couple of minutes the whole mass should congeal into a soft shell. If the strands are still individually identifiable after a couple of minutes, there’s too much cheese. I’m happy to report that my serving had the perfect amount of cheese.
All in all, I enjoyed this one very much once I figured out that there was both a depth and a delicacy to the balance of spices in the chili. In an age where everything has to be extreme-and-in-your-face, Empress seemingly hasn’t given into that. I wish there were a location closer to where I live. I’d visit a lot. Then again, maybe my doctor is glad there isn’t one closer.
See Pud’n? You’re not the only one who can knock out 1000-words on a 250-word topic. Can’t wait for the next one!