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.
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.)
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.
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.
The Chili Shak
At this relatively new Braeburn spot, there are huge stacks of napkins on each tidy table -- and that's because you'll need them for the wonderfully messy chili dogs and chili burgers The Chili Shak sells. True to its name, everything on the menu features chili. You can get a bowl of it all on its own, of course, which tastes like Wolf Brand chili made by someone's loving father. (This is a compliment, I promise.) But it's best on top of a Frito pie with jalapeños and fine shreds of cheese or on a big, beefy burger with mayo, lettuce, melting cheese and crunchy red onions.
Although it's not very Texan, Houstonians love the Greek-style chili at Houston's oldest hot dog restaurant. James Coney Island was founded in 1923 by Tom and James Papadakis, immigrant brothers from Kastelli Gravias, Greece. The Papadakis brothers sold their "secret recipe" chili for 15 cents a bowl and topped hot dogs with it, just as James Coney still does today. And although the ownership has changed since then, the Greek chili hasn't. It's still full of ground beef and beans, stewed together in a faintly sweet sauce that tastes of nutmeg. It's not full-on Cincinnati-style chili, but it's close. And it's still so popular that you can buy it frozen at the store, to go.
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Honorable mention: Jus' Mac
Even though it's not a bowl of chili, the chili-topped Chili Cheese macaroni and cheese skillet at Jus' Mac remains one of my favorite dishes in Houston. Get it with a wedge salad (for a little textural contrast and, my God, something green), split them both with a friend and enjoy this chilly weather while it lasts.