When I realized that the target of this month’s 3-way Thursday was US Chili in Camp Washington, I was pretty excited. I actually work little more than a stone’s throw from the place, yet in the 5 years I’ve had the job and eaten some form of Cincinnati chili almost weekly, I’d never tried US Chili’s 3-way. The reason for that, is, well, another post, but the point here is that I was glad to have a compelling reason to stop in. Admittedly, I should probably be as ashamed as a married US Congressman caught texting pictures of his…er…”little constituent” to young women for skipping past it all this time, but then, the whole point of this wacky monthly adventure is to address the fact that I’ve been ignoring chili parlors right under my nose for years.
Speaking of our exercise here, I came to a conclusion after last month. As you probably know, in previous 3-Way Thursday posts, I’ve only tried the carry-out renditions of each respective place’s offering. It has occurred to me that, put simply, that was just wrong, wrong, wrong. As anyone that isn’t totally bereft of common sense and has even limited experience in Cincinnati-style chili can tell you, the dine-in 3-way is the way the dish is intended to be eaten. Yeah, sure, carry-out is available and can be satisfying, but it will never be as good as the version served piping hot by the guy or lady of Greek descent in the white apron standing over a big pot of chili.
The fact is, if I tried to assess a restaurant solely on carry-out as an actual food critic, I’d have chefs chasing me around with the intent of “educating” me with a stainless steel ladle and a rolling pin.
I’ve therefore decided that from now on, if at all possible, I’m going to try very hard to have both a dine-in and a carry out 3-way for each location on our quest (separate visits, of course). I do absolutely still want to find the best take-home way in the city, but I need a good point for reference first.
As for US Chili, their 3-way is a perfect example of just how difficult it can be to get everything just right. I really enjoyed the flavor of their chili itself. It was meaty and rich and I could clearly tasty all the exotic spices that make Cincinnati chili what it is. As a plus, there was even a modest bit of chili heat in the finish. Between that and the aromatic spices, the chili’s flavor lingered in the back of my throat for some time after each bite.
My only complaints for the chili itself refer to it’s texture. I found it very thin and fluid, even for Cincinnati chili. That’s not to say it was watery, though, because it wasn’t. The thinness of it seemed to be kind of oily; it was definitely a part of the chili itself and not water separating out of it. Moses wasn’t clearing a miniature path in my 4-way so that his people could escape Pharaoh en route to the land of milk and hot sauce.
Overall, I liked the chili very much. Unfortunately for US Chili, though, there’s more to a good way than just the chili’s flavor.
My single biggest problem with both versions of my 4-way (bean) was that the ratio of spaghetti and chili was off for my taste. Some of that can probably be attributed to the previously mentioned thinness of the chili, but only some. Otherwise, put simply, the dish really needed more spaghetti. And I’m not 100% sure, but I’m thinking that the spaghetti and chili might have been mixed before hitting the classic, oval-shaped 3-way plate. Maybe that wasn’t the case, but that’s how it seemed to me. Those things together gave me sensation at times that I was pushing one of those foam noodles around in a swimming pool, and that’s really not what someone should be getting from the experience.
Whatever shall we do!? Duh-duh-duh-duuuuuhh! This is a job for Super Crackers!
Wait…um…I mean, crackers usually can help with extra wet chili, right?
With the carry-out as well as the dine-in dishes, I was given two bags of crunchy oysters. In both cases, I used every last little baked nugget and could have used more. Admittedly, these crackers were the tiniest example of oysterhood I’d ever seen, and were thin enough to make me think crazy thoughts, like, maybe someone is splitting each little cracker long-ways to double the number in a bag. As I think it’s safe to assume that there aren’t any “cracker elves” cutting the complimentary crackers at US Chili each night, I figured maybe the little things were just made for Oompa-Loompas to begin with. And the little orange guys may, in fact, love them, but the crackers’ diminutive nature made them pretty ineffective at absorbing chili, which didn’t help me much.
What about the cheese? That usually helps solidify a 3-way once it’s reached its proper molten state, right? Indeed it can. Except, in this case, there really wasn’t quite enough of it to form that full upper crust to add structural support. My 4-way needed a full blanket of cheese, but it only got a heavy dusting.
Ironically, the opposite was true of the carry-out offering. There was plenty of cheese in a sealed, premeasured bag, and it was damn near solid already by the time I began to assemble my 4-way. So it did a fine job covering the take-out bowl. Because it was SO solid and SO thick on top, though, it became something on it’s very own. Rather than the perfect ratio of cheese, chili, and spaghetti with every bite, I had plenty of bites where I tasty nothing but cheese. And when you’re talking about Cincinnati chili, the spices are supposed to be delicately matched with the flavor of the meat, a dance of savory subtlety. But with that brick of melted cheddar, I didn’t have a subtle ballet, I had some crazy Black Swan “I’ll-cut-ya” stuff going on that simply overpowered everything else but the lingering spice in the finish.
I’ll have to admit, after ignoring it for years, I did very much enjoy my dine-in 4-way at US Chili much more than I expected I would. The chili has a very nice flavor, in my opinion, that I’d be happy to eat again. Unfortunately, though, a few of the dish’s component’s hold it back a bit. The chili is very thin, the Hobbit’s crackers aren’t quite up to the task of absorbing it, the way needs more spaghetti, and the cheese wasn’t quite right in either my carry-out or dine-in sample, for very different reasons.
Aside from the cheese, the 3-way drawbacks were magnified in the carry-out version, making it definitely not one of my first choices for picking up. But I’d dine-in again without a second thought.
US Chili gets what I think is the hardest part right; the chili is darned tasty. But the rest of it was kind of a hot mess, and which somewhat handicaps the 3-way in the end.