Chili is to Cincinnati as Pizza is to Brooklyn. Beyond mere food, a platter of spiced ground beef has managed to become the very essence of the city in which it is bountifully served.
Until recently, I had only visited the Queen City twice, each time only long enough to slurp up a platter of the famed chili concoction. But the lunches left me somehow unsatisfied, intuiting that I likely selected the “wrong” chili parlor, and feeling certain that any of the 25 others under a mile away likely were even better. So when the opportunity came along to BlinkPack through the town for a couple of days, I knew it was time to get to the bottom of the matter.
The origins of the spiced stew are a little hazy, though a Macedonian immigration heritage has been generally credited with the invention, with the brothers Kiradjieff launching the locale’s first franchise of restaurants and grocery products known as Empress Chili. A few decades later, entrepreneurs cemented the food as a city idiom by launching two chains of chili parlors, known as Gold Star Chili and Skyline Chili. (This information is only as dependable as Wikipedia itself.)
A little like bad acne on a teen’s cheeks, Gold Star and Skyline locations have popped up in nearly every Cincinnati neighborhood (sometimes only blocks away from another in the same franchise). And hundreds of local establishments have gotten into the chili game as well, each claiming to be the best in the city.
To complicate the matter, the internet machines are stuffed full of blog entries and Yelp posts claiming that one chain rules and the other sucks, or the former tastes like vomit and the latter changes lives. Cincinnati’s dwellers are fiercely loyal to their chili houses, loving the ones they favor and loudly loathing the others.
So what is a BlinkPacker to believe? In the span of two days, I figured I could handle three meals of chili (any more would likely give me the runs). Three chili samplings in a mecca of hundreds of chili parlors means that nothing about my survey could be scientific, but I didn’t particularly care. I would lunch at Gold Star, I would dine at Skyline, and I would nosh at one of the famed local establishments, each time ordering exactly the same menu item: a platter of five-way chili — the famed stew atop a tangle of spaghetti, onions, beans, and a veritable afro of finely shredded yellow cheddar.
The first oval dish was placed in front of me at the Price Hill Chili Parlor. Of all the Yelp reviews I read, I was drawn to Price Hill for its long-standing presence in a working-class neighborhood and its no-nonsense approach to casual, comfortable dining. The white platter of meaty goodness looked as divine as any of the scores I had seen on the review sites, and the piping hot, spicy, twirly-twisty combination of tastes kept me diving in for bite after sultry bite until every last speck of the finely shredded beef had wiggled its way down my gullet. Yum.
Only one complaint for the Price Hill Chili chefs — the dish was a a little watery for my taste. The last bites of noodles were swimming in their steam. Nevertheless, definitely a four-star Cincinnati experience. Well done.
With the local flavors of Price Hill fresh in my mind, I headed for the nearest Skyline Chili store. About the size of a Wendy’s fast food restaurant, and roughly the parlance of a Waffle House, Skyline Chili presents itself as an unassuming diner, and its servers know how to sling some hash in a hurry. The five-way came dressed for the party, and I knew it was love from bite number one. The flavor was brighter, fuller, more meaty. The textures were refined and the tastes blended in a subtle but profound manner. And the pile of shredded cheddar was all the more grandiose. I polished it off. Five stars and hats off to the fine Skyline Chili.
After a full day, it was time for round three. As with Skyline, it was easy to locate a Gold Star Chili franchise only a block away. I instantly felt like the place was more corporate, more standardized, more streamlined. Strike one. The menus came, and though all of the classic Cincinnati fare was on offer, the presentation felt plasticky, like someone was trying hard to capitalize on a local legend. The menus and wall murals were over-designed, like every Chili’s and Applebees at which I have had the misfortune of dining.
Admittedly, the five-way arrived looking just as good, or perhaps a little better, than either of the other servings I tried. But the taste just wasn’t there. The chili was blander and saltier, less refined, somehow more juvenile. Gold Star descends on Cincinnati like a meteorite shower, leaving pocks and craters of unsatisfactory chili all over its landscape. No good. Two and a half stars and a wrinkle of the nose to the subpar Gold Star chain.
Though I almost always prefer a local establishment, I am delighted to crown Skyline the reigning champion of Cincinnati chili. Yours is the finest I had the pleasure of experiencing, and I look forward to more heaping platter-fuls the next time I am passing through.
And now, enter the flood of dissenters who, like all good Cincinnatians would, get down on their haunches to defend their preferred chili house over this southerner’s uninformed opinion. Cheers and good eating to all of you.
The twisty homemade goodness at Price Hill Chili
The legendary Skyline Chili
The good-looking but subpar offering from Gold Star