3-Way Thursday: Come for the chili. Stay for the philosophical debate

[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.]

It was just supposed to be a trip to a local chili joint, not the beginning of an ontological quandary involving condiments.

Since all Puddintopia readers are inherently smarter, funnier and more attractive than the average blog reader, I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that ontology is the study of the absolute or fundamental nature of things. Since your sense of humor is equally over-developed, you also recognize that the word condiment is funny. Not kumquat or even canoodle funny, but funny nonetheless.

This will all make sense in a minute. Promise.

You see, I really wanted to like Dixie Chili. It has a lot of things I admire: you can still go to the original location on Monmouth Street in Newport that’s been open since 1928. They’re a small local chain with just three locations. I went to the one on Dixie (no relation) Highway in Erlanger and I can’t say enough about how nice the staff was.I walked in and felt instantly comfortable.

It’d been probably more than ten years since I ‘d stepped foot in this, or any other, Dixie Chili before this review opportunity came up. My wife and I went there not too long after we moved here, and we were less than thrilled. I can’t recall what the issue was, but we seemed to make the decision that it wasn’t one of our favorite places and we never went back. When Puddin let us know that Dixie Chili was this month’s Three-Way Thursday candidate, I was actually pretty happy. It’d been a long time. I’ve had a lot more Cincinnati-style chili since then. I figured I could give it a better, more informed, evaluation.

I have to say things went pretty well at first. I went late on a Tuesday afternoon. There weren’t too many cars in the parking lot, but there were enough at an off-hour to indicate that this is a popular place. When I passed through the doors I was greeted by the most wonderful set of smells. Spices. Lots of spices. Cinnamon. Maybe some Allspice. I was also glad to see that they were advertising that they had Gyros. Cincinnati may be a German city, but one of its most identifiable local food has Greek origins and I’m always glad to see that heritage celebrated.

The good vibes continued as I was served. Given the hour, I was the only person in line (though there were others trickling 1 through the doors the entire time I was there). I ordered and paid, got my drink from the cashier and found my order waiting for me at the end of the cafeteria-style line. Piping hot.

I learned from last month’s experience at Empress and ordered a regular size instead of a large. It was a generous amount without being too much, The first thing that struck me was how meaty it was. I think of Cincinnati Chili as being thin and runny, but this clearly had some body to it. I doubt a spoon would stand up in the pot, but it wouldn’t fall over as quickly as some of its competitors. The spaghetti was a perfect al dente and the meat-to-liquid ratio was outstanding. As I mixed in the oyster crackers and saw the cheese melt throughout, I saw each strand of spaghetti get a nice coating of chili that stuck instead of just running off. The aroma coming off my dish was a more intense version of what I smelled coming through the door. I was fully prepared to kick myself for having missed out on more than a decade of coming to this place.

And then I had the first bite.

It was in no way bad. There were no off-flavors. The texture was as pleasing to my mouth as they appeared to my eye. I could taste the cheese and the spaghetti. I could taste the chili. And I’ll be damned if I can tell you what the chili tastes like. It’s not flavorless chili. It’s just bland. It’s like eating a big bowl of beige. There have to spices in there, I could smell them. But try as I might, I couldn’t taste them. Given that I’m a four-way (onions) guy, I get the onions so I don’t downgrade something because something’s missing. I couldn’t taste the onions at all. I could see them, but couldn’t taste them. It was like a salivary black hole.

It’s true that I like hot, spicy things, but I have a very strict requirement about how it’s supposed to work. The hot is supposed to come at the end of the bite, not the beginning. It’s supposed to accent the inherent flavors of the dish, not dominate them. That’s why I was happy to see Frank’s RedHot Sauce as the house sauce there. I grabbed a bottle as I sat down, but I was careful not to use any until I’d had three or four bites. You have to know what the flavors are before you try to enhance them, after all.

So this is were the philosophical debate comes in. I sprinkled some hot sauce on the chili and it completely transformed the dish. Suddenly there was some character, depth, some bite. There was some there there. All of the other positives of the dish were enhanced: the meaty texture, the ratio of cheese to meat to sauce. It all got better once I put on the condiment.

There’s a “safe chili” joke in there, but I won’t.

So what does it mean when a dish is average at best when served in its “native” form, but improves radically when a condiment you can buy at any grocery store is added? What are you really enjoying at that point, the dish or the condiment? I don’t know the answer to that question. All I know is that I was disappointed in the lack of flavor prior to the sauce, and really happy with it after. I should also note, as a fan of Buffalo-style chicken wings, that the flavor wasn’t “Buffalo Style Chili.” It was definitely a unique (and good) taste. It’s almost like the spices in the chili cancelled each other out, and it took the hot sauce to bring out some depth. That’s in contrast to last month’s experience at Empress where the flavors were so light and delicate that hot sauce killed them.

I don’t know if it’ll be another ten years before I’m back at Dixie. I still want to experience the original location. And I still want to like the place.

I’ll just make sure to have a bottle of hot sauce handy.

1 Another funny word!


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