Roadfood Roundup: Chili

We asked our friends Jane and Michael Stern over at to give us their top five chili picks. Here are their choices, with tasting notes.

DOT'S | 3 West Main Street, Wilmington VT 05363 [map]

Year after year Dot's takes the People's Choice First Prize in the New England chili cook-off; and while Southwest chiliheads wouldn't even recognize it as their beloved bowl of red, this true Yankee chili is terrific. It is listed on the menu as "Jailhouse Chili," but it's most respectable. Beefy, thick with beans, spicy but not ferocious, it comes as a cup or bowl under a mantle of melted cheese. Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on

REAL CHILI | 419 East Wells Street, Milwaukee WI 53202 [map]. 414-271-4042
Real Chili serves bowls of chili mild, medium, or hot, with spaghetti or beans, or spaghetti and beans. The full and complete arrangement is known as the Marquette Special. (The original Real Chili parlor has long been a favorite of Marquette University students.) The degree of heat is determined by the amount of meat; i.e. more meat equals more heat. The meat is ground fine, brilliantly spiced, and deliciously oily. It goes atop layers of noodles and beans; and on top of the meat is piled a large fistful of shredded cheese (melting from the heat). You can also get sour cream and raw onions as a garnish. Every bowl comes with a side dish of oyster crackers to crumble on top or to eat as a sort of palate-cleanser between bites of chili.

This true downtown chili parlor (of which the original branch is at 1625 West Wells Street, 414-342-6955) is the sort of beanery once fairly common in big cities throughout the region. With the exception of Cincinnati, where chili has remained a bona fide mania, most of the Midwest has forgotten its chili passions; and old-time chili parlors are a rarity. That is one reason we are so enamored of Real Chili.

Granted, heartland chili gets little respect from gastronomes who prefer the southwestern kinds, but even for the Texas-style chili purist, Real Chili is an inspiring and enjoyable adventure in declasse dining. Sit at a counter or at one of two communal tables with backless stools and accompany your chili with beer or cherry Coke. A super-fast, friendly staff dole out second helpings at half price of the first, and if you need a bumper sticker for your car, there is always a stack of them at the cash register. A while ago, we got one that said, "REAL CHILI: IT'S NOT JUST FOR BREAKFAST ANYMORE." Recently, the bumper stickers have proclaimed Real Chili "A MILWAUKEE LEGEND." Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on

CAMP WASHINGTON CHILI PARLOR | 3005 Colerain Avenue, Cincinnati OH 45225 [map]. 513-541-0061

Cincinnatians are mad for five-way chili, which is spiced meat atop spaghetti noodles, topped with beans, cheese, and onions. Many agree that Camp Washington makes the best. This one-of-a-kind hash house, named after its neighborhood (which had been a Civil War encampment) features all the proper ambiance, including a great gleaming neon clock on the back wall and great vats of bubbling chili visible from the long row of stools that face the kitchen. The air smells of onions and spice; and by late in the morning the dining room is packed with cheap-eats fans who fork their way into plates of five-way and heft chili-cheese Coneys and mile-high double-decker sandwiches.

The proprietor, John Johnson, began working at Camp Washington when he was a boy. “It is the only place I have ever worked,” he says with glee as he stands at a huge pot of simmering chili, stirring it like a sorcerer concocting magic potion. Mr. Johnson’s uncle, Steve Andon, along with partner Anastasios “Fred” Zarmbus, founded the Camp Washington parlor in 1940. When young John Johnson arrived from Greece in 1951, his uncle took him in and eventually imparted the secrets of his spice mix. Finally, in 1977, Mr. Johnson bought the business – along with the top-secret formula. “But you know something,” he confesses with conspiratorial glee, “I have tinkered with the recipe. Not much, and nothing big. A little here, a little there. I believe I have improved it .”

It is sensational. Made from lean beef that is finely ground on the premises and brewed in batches of sixty gallons each day, it is dark and meaty, kaleidoscopically spiced but not painfully hot, and thick enough to blend perfectly with the tender noodles onto which it is ladled. Always fresh, never frozen, it is a meal that has been savored by generations of Camp Washington customers twenty-four hours a day, every day, for the last fifty-seven years … with the exception of the hours from 4am on Sunday to 5am on Monday, when the parlor is closed. But every Monday at dawn, a line begins to form at the locked door: hungry Cincinnatians eager to fork into a morning plate of five-way chili and start the week right. Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on

MIKE'S CHILI PARLOR | 1447 NW Ballard Way, Seattle WA 98107 [map]. 206-782-2808
Mike's is one of an endangered breed of restaurant: the urban chili parlor. Other than in Cincinnati, where chili culture still thrives, there are precious few good, cheap, blue-collar eateries where chili is king.

Outfitted with a billiards table, a few video games, an ATM station and pull-tab lotto, decorated with beer signs and festooned with announcements warning that only cash is accepted and noting such specials as a "Big Ass Bowl of Chili," this joint is the real deal. Seats are available at a couple of communal tables in the center of the room, at the counter and in a few booths. Customers are a tough bunch and the staff can seem tougher. In fact, among the "extras" listed on the menu, such as jalapeno peppers (25 cents) and onions (25 cents) is abuse (free).

As for the chili itself, let us simply say that this is NOT gourmet-yuppie-celebrity chef type chili. It is coarse-ground beef with enough grease that when it is served by the bowl, your spoon will slide through a glistening layer on top before it hits meat. (Oyster crackers are provided, and they are the connoisseur's way to soak up excess grease.) Beans are optional, as are grated cheese and chopped onions.

An old article posted on the wall describes Mike's chili as "Mexican with a touch of Chicago and a pinch of old Greece." The Chicago touch is evident in the item listed on the menu, strangely, as chili pasta: chili served atop a bed of limp spaghetti noodles, a gloss on the Windy City's chili mac. Greek spice pervades the meat which is more Mediterranean sweet than Mexican hot. Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on

BEN'S CHILI BOWL | 1213 U Street NW Washington DC 20009 [map]. 202-667-0909.

The chili with which Ben’s customarily blankets it is sensational stuff: thick, peppery, full-flavored and positively addictive. Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on