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5 Places to Get Your Chili Fix in Houston (While It's Chilly)

Chili two ways at The Chili Shak.
Chili two ways at The Chili Shak.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

Most of the time, I'm the type of person who thinks that -- like barbecue -- chili is best made and enjoyed at home. It's simple stuff that dates back nearly 500 years to the first chili recipe, when Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of Hernan Cortez's captains, described the Cholulan Indian stew in 1519 as containing "tomatoes, salt and chiles." (What's often left out in this tale is that the missing chili ingredient -- meat -- was meant to come from the conquistadores' slaughtered bodies after the Cholulan Indians killed all of Cortez's men.)

Today, despite chili being the official state food of Texas, it's not a meal that most Texans go out to eat. We go to chili competitions and sample the entries studiously and engage in fierce chili cookoffs, yes. We scream bloody murder when someone suggests putting beans in chili and will argue endlessly with one another over this one ingredient for days. (I've seen that here at Eating Our Words.)

But what about just seeking out a bowl of comfort when it's cold outside? Below are five suggestions for a bowl of red -- not all of them Texan, though.

Chili the Texas way at Armadillo Palace.
Chili the Texas way at Armadillo Palace.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

Armadillo Palace

Armadillo Palace offers my platonic ideal of what a bowl of chili should be: good-sized chunks of meat cooked in a red sauce that's thick but not soupy, well-spiced but not sweat-inducingly spicy. The sweet bites of venison are given depth with a cumin-laced chili sauce and livened up even further with some crunchy raw onion and fresh jalapeños -- which are served separately, for you to add to the chili at your own discretion. (Now if only someone would tell Armadillo Palace that the wonderful chicken-fried steak should be served the same way, with the cream sauce on the side.)

Wild boar chili Frito pie: Wednesdays at Haven.
Wild boar chili Frito pie: Wednesdays at Haven.
Photo courtesy of Haven

Haven

Haven's wild boar chili epitomizes the sort of upscale down-home Texas cooking that chef Randy Evans specializes in, presented elegantly but without fuss. On top of the chili is a tangy crema in lieu of sour cream (although they're virtually the same thing), minced onions, jalapeño Cheddar cheese and what Haven calls a "corn stick," tilting out of the bowl at a jaunty angle. It's as if someone took the hushpuppies at Catfish King (where my East Texas folks at?) and made them better. I know. Sacrilege. But it's true. And on Wednesdays, that same chili is atop a Frito pie as the day's blue plate lunch special.

Twin Peaks

The venison chili at Twin Peaks actually fits the odd hunting lodge aesthetic of the place and is served very simply, with just a scattering of pepper jack cheese and green onions for bite. This is not a chili for the thinking man; it's a chili that's best enjoyed while grunting at a football game on TV, drinking a "draft beer so cold that ice crystals form in the glass," and taking in the view of the staff's own, very prominently displayed Twin Peaks. (Hey, there's a chili out there for everyone!) Beware of going in the evenings, however, when wait times for a table can start at 90 minutes.



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