In theory, Frito pie should be a relatively difficult thing to screw up. It's just a bag of Fritos and some chili with shredded cheese on top (and onions, if you're not one of those obnoxiously fussy eaters). But in reality, the Frito pie is greater than the sum of its parts: It's an iconic dish made out of simple kitchen scraps that recaptures the memories of Little League games and school carnivals past. And no one wants to screw with icons or nostalgia. That's how wars get started.
The sad truth is that Frito pies are difficult to get right. The chips themselves are a given -- as long as they aren't stale, you're golden. But the chili has to be perfect, the cheese has to have the right amount of ooze, the onions have to be finely diced, and getting the proportions of all four ingredients correct verges on rocket science.
For today's Food Fight, we pitted Frito pies at two of Houston's favorite restaurants: James Coney Island and Onion Creek. We grew up at one and now spend all our time at the other, but which one makes a meaner Frito pie?
James Coney Island's Frito Pie
Although JCI is an institution in Houston -- having been founded in 1923 (which is the paleolithic era, in Houston years) -- and its hot dogs and Frito pies are lauded as some of the best around, I've never been able to get behind its chili. And therein lies the root of its Frito pie problem.
JCI chili was mucked up years ago when it was first created by the Greek immigrants who founded it -- the same nationality, mind you, responsible for that plague of the food world, Cincinnati chili. The chili that coats the Fritos at JCI is all too reminiscent of a can of watery Skyline chili, minus the sweetness. It's all grit and overcooked pinto beans, and it leaves a taste in your mouth like you've just been through a dust storm.
The only good thing about the soggy, gritty mess served at JCI is that it comes with a hot dog and a Delaware punch to wash down the sadness you feel after consuming one bite. And for $7 (that's including the extra 35 cents they charge for jalapenos), there are better ways to get your Frito pie fix.
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Onion Creek's Texas Frito Pie
This is the Frito pie by which all restaurant pies should be measured. Sure, it's not served piping hot in the same greasy foil bag that the Fritos were originally in, but this pie manages to evoke the same magical qualites as the ones from our youth while being all grown up.
Served in a broad, shallow bowl, the chili is thick and meaty -- without any extraneous beans -- and has been generously heaped atop a tangle of salty chips. A regular Frito pie ($3.50) at Onion Creek will be finished off with a handful of thinly shredded Cheddar cheese and a sprinkling of crisp red onions. But you're in Texas, after all -- go whole hog and order the Texas Frito Pie for an extra 50 cents. It comes with creamy squiggles of cool sour cream and spicy pickled jalapenos, making this beauty the best Frito pie in town.
As an added bonus, the constant rotation of excellent beers on tap (try the Fireman's #4 with your pie), when compared with the Delaware punch at JCI just draws that grown-up line in even starker contrast. Stick with JCI on the days when you want to stain your teeth red with fruit punch and eat messy hot dogs; leave Onion Creek and its Texas Frito Pie to the adults.