Check out pictures from the Chili Shak's kitchen in our slideshow.
'You've gotta get in here," my friend Linda told me through a full mouth as she handed over her chili cheeseburger one afternoon with a slight look of reluctance. Although it was wet and chilly outside, the snug confines of The Chili Shak were as welcome as could be. I'd been warming my belly with bites of sour cream-and-jalapeño-topped Frito pie so good I had meandered into a bit of a daze, recalling the classic Texas dish as it was first presented to me by my father some 30-odd years ago.
Linda shoving the burger in my face snapped me out of my reverie, though, and soon I was crunching through the thick red onions that topped The Chili Shak's burger into the delightfully messy marriage of ruggedly charred burger patty, melting shredded cheese and oozing chili below. "The onions make it," I said aloud. "They're perfect."
"Yep," nodded Linda. I could see her waiting anxiously for me to hand the burger back, but had to go in for another bite. Even without the chili, I mused, this would still be a great burger. After handing it back, I dove into the fluffy pile of white napkins that sit waiting for the inevitable smears of chili that will be left behind on happy faces or the streams of chili that will dribble down fingers as you try to finish a fat chili-cheese dog with as much grace as possible. (My suggestion: Give up the grace and dive in face-first.)
Those napkins are vital, because nearly every dish at Bernard Montgomery's family-run restaurant in the Braeburn neighborhood — just down the street from Houston Baptist University — features his secret-recipe chili. Those memories of my father weren't just triggered by the Frito pie itself, but also the chili. Montgomery's signature burnt-orange-hued dish reminds me of classic Wolf Brand Chili made by someone's dad. And please understand that this is a compliment; Wolf Brand Chili was a vital part of my childhood, having been knit into everything from queso and Frito pies to baked potatoes and casseroles. Besides, Will Rogers loved the stuff, too, and that's good enough for me.
Montgomery's recipe, however, improves upon the canned stuff with a bright array of spices that somehow never mask the naturally sweet flavor of the ground beef that makes up the majority of the chili — thankfully, there are no beans here, as the Texas chili gods have decreed it. There is plenty of chili powder, however, but of the milder variety that won't make any noses run, along with some bright garlic (in just the appropriate amount, so that you don't smell like the pungent bulb all day long) and what I'm pretty sure is basic tomato puree.
Interestingly for a Texas restaurant, I don't detect any cumin in Montgomery's recipe. But that's likely because Montgomery isn't Texan — he's from Los Angeles. In fact, the recipe comes from his grandmother, who served the family recipe over cornbread and rice while Montgomery was growing up in south central L.A.
That's right: A California boy is currently making the best chili in Houston.
Despite being given elevated status as the official state food in 1977, chili isn't one of those dishes that most Houstonians go out to eat. We make our own chili at home or peruse the offerings at chili contests, mostly content to create our own endless versions of and variations on Texas red in Crock-Pots for game days or nights in with the family.
This could be one of the reasons Houston doesn't have a seminal chili-centric restaurant. The Metroplex has Tolbert's. Austin has the Texas Chili Parlor. San Antonio has its rich tradition of "chili queens" — street vendors dating back nearly 200 years — and yearly Chili Queen festivals. Even Washington, D.C., has Ben's Chili Bowl.
The Chili Shak became, in fact, the first and only chili-focused restaurant in Houston when it opened its doors in July 2011. That's when Montgomery finally gave in to years of demands from his family to open a restaurant that would showcase his chili recipe, one which has garnered him awards from here all the way back to California. In Los Angeles, he told me one day, he started out just preparing his grandmother's recipe for family gatherings. But the chili was so popular that soon Montgomery was making giant batches of it for church functions and other large-scale affairs.
It wasn't until relocating to Houston for work in 2005, however, that Montgomery really got the push he needed. After his boss encouraged him to jar and sell the chili, Montgomery began seriously considering leaving his career in corporate America for the restaurant life. By 2011, The Chili Shak was born.
Inside the small, tidy restaurant that's tucked into a corner of a strip mall between a game room (hours: an ungodly 8 a.m. to 4 a.m.) and a pharmacy, Montgomery now sits behind a counter every day and greets guests to The Chili Shak with a friendly smile and soft-spoken gregariousness. He writes down each order deliberately before passing it off to the kitchen, where everything is made to order.
"That baked potato is going to take about ten minutes," he told me one rainy afternoon. "I hope that's okay." He added with a sheepish but unnecessary grin: "I don't like to cook them ahead of time; it makes them gummy."
Unless you're ordering something quick and easy — chili-topped nachos, for example, or a Frito pie — the general rule of thumb here is to relax and let Montgomery and his kids take their time prepping your food. Watch ESPN on the flat-screen TV or strike up a conversation with a friendly regular. It's worth the wait.
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The cornbread that The Chili Shak serves is how I imagine Montgomery's own grandmother made hers: lightly sweetened and cake-like, ideal for crumbling into a hot bowl of Texas red. And the rice that goes into the massive chili burrito (along with beans and green onions) shows a deft, old-school touch in its fluffy texture as well.
Not everything is homemade, of course, like the french fries that are best when topped with a dusting of cheese and a lava flow of chili. But that doesn't matter. As a friend pointed out during my second visit: "I don't care about the fries as long as they can hold up to the chili without getting soggy." These thick-cut, fluffy fries can — even if they come from a freezer.
You can even get chili on top of a mountain of spaghetti here, but don't expect it Cincinnati-style just because of the pasta base. Instead, you'll find a Texan version of spaghetti bolognese, with the thick meat sauce of the chili wrapping itself around every slippery strand.
No, Houston doesn't have a seminal chili-centric restaurant of its very own. But we at least now have a chili-focused restaurant with The Chili Shak. And given enough time, I think it could very well be the seminal — if still the only — chili restaurant in town.