I wasn’t sure what to think about this month’s 3-Way Thursday parlor, Chili Time in St. Bernard, before we went. It’s surprisingly close to where I work, but I’d never heard anyone even mention it before. And looking over their website, I found myself a bit unsure of the graphic design they’ve got going (you get a feel for it at their website and can see shot of their main street sign in the Chili Time review at Cincy Coney Quest‘s blog).
I mean, sure, I get the the bowl of chili and the clock face symbols; I’m not dense. But the font, graphics, and all the Oompa-Loompa color pallet make me think of the early 80’s for some reason. I don’t know why, it just does. So there.
But, then, if a place has good chili, odds are I’m not going to give two flying cheese coneys what it looks like, even if that means 80 year-old, dilapidated frat house. And everyone’s been in real frat house, right? Not the big gothic mansion-like structures that you see in movies that are managed by a housekeeping staff for those poor silver spoon-fed student who can barely time out from their busy schedule of persecuting Freshmen to enjoy the lobster thermidor, no, no. I mean that place where actual twenty-something males dwell. A place where the pantry has a nothing but an unopened ketchup bottle, the fridge holds only a few ‘Nati Lights, the living room boasts a beer bottle cap collection picking up dust under the couch, and the door to the only bathroom hangs crookedly and won’t shut all the way. There also may or may not be graffiti.
I know, sounds delightful, right? But I’ll still dig a place like that so long as they bring the 3-Way goodness.
Luckily, both for myself and the coworkers joining in on my adventure, Chili Time does not resemble that frat house. What it does resemble is just what it is: a greasy spoon diner, which, I’ve come to realize, is exactly what Cincinnati chili parlors are supposed to be.
Think about it, outside of a few chains, e.g. Waffle House, Cincinnati really has few straight-up diners. Instead, we’ve have chili parlors, many of which, I realize now, do the whole diner shebang: sandwiches, breakfast all day, a daily plate-special, etc.
So, it should come as no surprise then, that Chili Time reminded me of Mel’s Diner from Alice or, for you slightly younger sitcom viewers, Monk’s from Seinfeld.
So, what about the 3-ways? Well, regardless of the name, it didn’t seem to me that Chili Time really makes a living from it’s chili. Walking through the place at lunch time, there were a whole lot more diner-style dishes being eaten than anything with chili. And for a guy that gets most of his ways at places that do that, first and foremost, it’s a strange sensation. I got the same kind of diner-not-just-chili feel at Blue Ash Chili, but they moved enough of the spicy red stuff while I was there to make me feel at home.
As it turns out though, I had nothing to worry about. The 3-way at Chili Time was not only good, it was very good. The pasta was thin spaghetti, my preferred gage of noodle for the dish, there was just the right amount it, and it absorbed the chili perfectly. Even if I got a mouthful of just the spaghetti, it carried along plenty of chili flavor.
The cheese was sharp, seemed really fresh, and was shredded very finely, enough that it almost had to have been done at the restaurant. And the chili itself was exactly what I’m usually looking for in Cincinnati-style chili. It hit all the right notes with the cinnamon, clove, etc, and still managed to offer a surprising mouthful of heat every so often. It was well-balanced and meaty, and had just the right texture.
That’s not to say it’s without faults, though. Something in the overall result is pretty greasy; whether they butter the spaghetti or the chili is just extra fatty, I don’t know. Either way, before I’d finished eating the 3-way, I could feel an oily coating in and around my mouth. And to some degree, I can even still feel it. It’s not really what I want to be thinking about when I finish a 3-way.
I can’t imagine that’ll help my reputation with the ladies. Hold on while I ask the Puddinette what she thinks of "greasy mouth".
That said, the carry-out rendition of the 3-way was far more disappointing. The "regular" size for carry-out is actually more like a small, as you only get a half pint. A "large" then, is a pint. Most other places, a large is a quart and regular is a pint. Because I was only sampling it, that worked out for me, but if I’d stopped in for carryout and that’s all I got for $5.25, I’d be more than just a little irked.
The carryout version suffered from its diminutive presentation too. At that size, it’s really hard to get a 4-way-bean right and have everything working in balance, and so it was in this case. There was much too much cheese provided for a mere half-pint 4-way and although I didn’t even use half of it, between the cheese, the spaghetti and the beans, I totally lost the flavor of the chili.
So, yes, the carryout way disappointed. But, will it ever be Chili Time again for me? Very likely. I enjoyed the diner-like atmosphere, most all the food I saw looked mouth-watering, my coworkers’ claimed lunch were just plain tasty (that includes the best-looking goetta omelet I’ve ever seen), and the dine-in 3-way was very solid minus the greasiness issue.
In the end, I don’t believe I’d ever think of Chili Time when in need of a carryout "way", which, admittedly, is a big part of my quest. But, still, I’m pretty sure I’ll be back there before long for maybe another 3-way or a proper plate of diner hash browns.