When the temperatures turn arctic, there's only one way to do the math: chilly = chili. And because cold snaps are few and far between here in the land of eternal sunshine, this is chili-eating weather as we seldom see it.
Nobody really knows the origins of chili, but Texans love to say they invented it, and there's evidence to support that claim. Back in the late 1800s, San Antonio -- a town built on cattle, the railroad and the military -- was known for its "chili queens," Latinas who made spicy dishes of meat and chile at home, then sold them from wagons to soldiers on the plaza.
Ultimately, it's probably safest to say that chili is an all-American dish, as varied as the cooks who make it, although it often reflects regional styles and preferences. Just to stir the proverbial pot a bit, we're pitting Texaz Grill's justifiably famous bowl o' red against the Midwest-style chili at Matt's Big Breakfast. Who makes a better bowl?
In this corner: Texaz Grill
The setup: Native Texan Steve Freidkin opened Texaz Grill (originally called Lone Star Steaks) back in 1985, bringing a kitschy, cluttered slice of good ol' boy Texas to 16th Street and Bethany Home. Twenty-eight years later, this dimly lit diner and neighborhood bar -- heavily decorated with license plates, smart-ass bumper stickers and billed caps (the official head gear of rednecks everywhere) -- is still cranking out legendary chicken fried steaks, smoked prime rib, fried catfish, and of course, Texaz Red -- Freidkin's version of Texas-style chili. When it comes to appreciating a good bowl o' red, this dude ought to know. He's been a judge at the annual chili cook-off in Terlingua, Texas for the past 24 years.
The Good: Heaped with shredded cheddar and sliced white onion and served with packaged Saltines, this is exactly what chili ought to look like. Because this is Texas chili, there are no beans in the bowl -- just brisket, ground in-house and cooked with toasted whole cumin seeds, oregano, chile flakes, chili powder and cayenne, (the spices soaked for a while in Texas beer), then simmered with onions, garlic and tomato sauce. When it's all done, the meat is ultra-tender, the onions translucent, the overall texture thick and rich, a bit like a Bolognese, only spicier. This is hearty, delicious stuff.
The Bad: Nothing at all wrong with this chili. I don't even miss the beans and I thought I might. The heat level could be kicked up a notch (I expected as much, given Texas chili's reputation). John Thorne, who wrote Simple Cooking once said this: "It can only truly be Texas red if it walks the thin line just this side of indigestibility: Damning the mouth that eats it and defying the stomach to digest it, the ingredients are hardly willing to lie in the same pot together." This is not Thorne's chili, not some hellfire and brimstone situation that just flat out punishes. It's an approachable, easy-to-love version that goes down easy -- with no heartburn later. But chile-heads might long for more chile heat.
The Price: Cup, $3.50; bowl, $4.50; salad and a bowl, $7; Frito Pie, $5.
In the other corner: Matt's Big Breakfast
The setup: After eight years in its original shoebox-size digs, Matt's Big Breakfast moved up the street to a space about twice the size. Now this insanely popular breakfast icon more readily accommodates the crowds of tourists, locals and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives devotees who've been willing, all these years, to wait an hour or more for a crack at Matt and Ernie Pool's simple, hearty breakfasts made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Although Matt's is definitely big on breakfast, it also cranks out some great lunch options, including a bowl of chili you won't want to miss.
The Good: Pool once called his chunky, faintly spicy rendition of chili "Cincinnati Chili," a regional style characterized by ingredients such as cinnamon, allspice, clove and chocolate, as well as the addition of spaghetti to the bowl. But he took so much grief from self-proclaimed Cincinnati-style chili experts (who probably wondered what the hell happened to the spaghetti, which Matt's doesn't serve), that it just seemed safer to go with a label like "Midwestern." Call it what you will. This is wonderful stuff -- not unlike the chili you may have grown up on. Imagine ground beef, onion, kidney beans and chunks of tomato (as well as hints of cinnamon and chocolate), all jostling around together in a thinnish but flavorful broth. Topped with shredded cheddar and diced white onion, the chili is served with oyster crackers (another Cincinnati thing) and a bottle of hot sauce (in this case, Tapatio). Although stories vary, there must be some truth to the legend that Cincinnati chili was invented by Greek immigrants who hoped to attract American customers by creating something a bit more accessible than pastitio and moussaka.
The Bad: This is excellent chili. Nothing wrong here -- although some people might object to the taste of cinnamon in their chili.
The Price: $5.95 for a bowl.
The Verdict: There are no losers here. Both Texaz Grill and Matt's Big Breakfast make mighty fine chili (they're arguably the two best versions in town). So it's really just a question of what style you prefer. I love them both, but if you put a gun to my head, I suppose I'd pick Matt's because I like beans in my chili as well as the slurp-ability of broth. So Matt's it is, by a chile-induced runny nose.
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