During the Free Will Baptist Convention in Cincinnati, I occupied some of my time tracking down chili parlors. There are about 180 of them in the city, and many of them were started by Greek immigrants in the early-to-mid 1900s. Cincinnati chili has a secret ingredient. Depending on the recipe, it has a bit of chocolate, cinnamon, and/or nutmeg to enhance the flavor. It’s typically served on a small plate over a heaping pile of spaghetti, and, if you get it “five-way”, it’s covered with beans, onions, and a mountain of shredded cheddar cheese.
Two of these restaurants have morphed into big chains—Skyline and Gold Star. They’re hard to beat. But here are four great mom-and-pop chili parlors that I enjoyed, and if you’re going to be in Cincinnati you might want to check them out.
My favorite was Pleasant Ridge Chili at 6032 Montgomery Road. Part of the charm was the ambiance. This is a storefront parlor, not in the finest part of town — an old-time, 1960s café with canopy-covered booths, small tables squeezed down the middle, a counter at the front, and a juke box in the corner. It was started by an old Greek fellow who still works there. He told me he emigrated from Greece in the early 1940s and about six years later opened this restaurant with his own chili recipe. His grandson now runs it. I thought it was just great.
Camp Washington Chili is also a single-shop outfit, and it, too, was started by a Greek immigrant in the 1940s. But the building is new, clean, and spacious; and the walls are lined with reviews from local and national magazines. The chili didn’t seem to have as much of that unique, quaint Cincinnati taste, the noodles are a little thicker, the sauce was a little oilier, and the beans were pintos, not kidneys. Jeff Nichols and I enjoyed it very much, but it probably wasn’t my favorite.
Blue Ash Chili has two locations, and I stopped at one near the interstate just north of the city. This chili was great; not much different from Skyline, but their open air patio gave me the option of dining outside, which is always my favorite (weather permitting). On the downside, I thought the chili had too little sauce and too much cheese.
Empress Chili is often rated the best by CinnChili aficionados. I stopped there as I was leaving Cincinnati, but by that time I was just about chili-ed out. But it was piping hot with that wonderful distinctive flavor, arranged in perfect proportions on a larger plate, and it probably deserves its applause. If I’d had it earlier in the trip, I would have rated it the finest.
This little excursion into taste-testing and restaurant-reviewing took a toll, but someone has to do the research. And although it’s going to be a long time before I want to look at another plate of Cincinnati chili, I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to taste a bit of meaty Midwestern, five-way, Greek-inspired Americana.
PS – Tomorrow’s sermon at The Donelson Fellowship is also about food, in a way. The subject is the Fruit of the Spirit, in Galatians 5:22-23. You’re invited to join us at 8:45 or 10:15.