Every now and then someone will try to convince us that the Internet is making the world a stupider place. Most of these claims come from morons or paper farmers, but some of them come from otherwise intelligent folk indulging a contrarian-for-the-hell-of-it streak. I confess to having such a streak my own thick self (I don't really hate the Beatles; I'm just a little burned out), but I can no longer indulge anyone who denies that the Internet makes me smarter every day.
Today's little jolt of genius resulted from trying to figure out how to categorize the chains of inexpensive quick-serve restaurants that are better than fast food but lack waiters and (usually) liquor licenses. They are called "fast casual," a very pleasing term that led me to the great fast casual.com—I now know ¾ of everything about this kind of establishment. I'll wait here while you catch up.
Cosi has long been my favorite fast casual chain, but that's mostly by default. My few memories of Cosi are positive, my experiences at Panera have been negative, and I don't get out much otherwise. Cosi's not huge yet—150 or so domestic locations in 16 states and one District—but it's marched steadily along since its founding in 1996, and now there's one a couple miles from my house.
If you put cranberries in a thing, I'll eat it. If you call a thing "chili," I'll eat it. So if you offer a seasonal Steak and Cranberry Chili, I'm doubly certain to swing by for an inspection, and if it's any good I might be disinclined to leave. Let's cliff-hang for a second before reading on to find out if I now live at the Cosi in Kendall Square.
Permanent Cosi domicile proved impossible due to domestic concerns and health regulations, but if it were a strictly chili-based decision—why oh why can't more decisions be strictly chili-based?—I'd definitely consider it. Cosi didn't invent the brilliant concept of adding whole, real, tartness-retaining cranberries to beef and bean chili, but theirs was the first version I've tried, and I could live happily in a world where it's the best available.
A large (15-ounce) order of chili and a hunk of very good wheat bread set me back a modest $5.99. The chili was substantial for the price and also for the nutrition stats: This is a very tasty way to trade 381 low-fat calories for 22 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber. Does this mean the chili was a little steak-shy? Well sure, but that's OK. There were plenty of tiny cubes of good lean beef swimming among the kidney beans, cranberries, and company.
The beans were fairly firm and intact (unlike the exploded ones in the justifiably popular Wendy's chili), which is good since they were the major support staff: The diced tomato was scarce and the scallions did what they do, i.e., added some color to a bowl of brown. The chili would have benefitted from more onion or at least onion powder. The broth was silky and good, if a bit heavy on the thickener. It was very lightly seasoned, with just a light dose of garlic powder and hot pepper coming through.
This would have been a problem in a less ambitious chili, but in this case it came across as a magnanimous concession to the cranberries, which were perfect—when they showed up. They tasted like proper berries should, but there was one downside to going the honest route rather than just making a chili cosmo full of sweetened jellies or juices: There was scarcely any cranberry flavor in the roughly half of my spoonfuls that didn't contain any actual berries.
But it's hard to get too worked up over any flaw that can be corrected by simply taking bigger bites. Cosi's Steak and Cranberry Chili is one of the best $6 meals I've had all year.