The list of menu items that come topped with owner Bernard Montgomery's chili -- based on a secret family recipe passed down from his grandmother -- reads like a comedy skit at first: chili cheeseburgers, chili hot dogs, chili Fritos (his version of a Frito pie), chili baked potatoes, chili fries, chili nu-nus (this is spaghetti; I'm not sure why), chili cornbread, chili burritos and more. But it's not a joke, and neither is Montgomery's chili.
In this week's cafe review, we visit The Chili Shak in Braeburn (a neighborhood not far from Sharpstown and down the street from Houston Baptist University), where Montgomery and his family have been topping anything you can imagine with chili since July 2011.
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 that 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 Queens festivals. Even cities like Washington, D.C. have Ben's Chili Bowl.
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And while The Chili Shak is still very young, the quality of Montgomery's chili and the affable warmth of his smile that lights up the small restaurant with every new visitor could make it a classic one day. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's just dive into a hot bowl of chili on this cold winter day.