Monday, March 28, 2011

Cincinnati Chili

To my actual Cincinnati peeps, I apologize for dubbing this food “Cincinnati chili”.  But that is how most of the rest of the world refers to it (and yes, I’m sure it’s world renowned).  I am aware we just call it “Skyline”. 

I guess this is the month where I’m feeling nostalgic for Cincinnati hot spots.  First Thai Café, now Skyline.

For those unfamiliar with this special “treat”, Cincinnati chili is very different from the kind of chili most of the rest of us grew up with.  For starters, it’s thin & runny and you put it over spaghetti and top it with an actual mound of shredded cheddar cheese.  And you don’t eat it with a spoon.  Not to mention that the taste is far from the Tex-Mex chili you find elsewhere.  Since the recipe is “secret” I can’t be certain how the original really is made, though it is widely known that cocoa powder & cinnamon are common ingredients.  So yeah, it’s different.

My first introduction to Cincinnati chili was when Jake & I were visiting the city for a wedding about a year before we actually moved there.  And I wasn’t impressed by this particular "delicacy".  It wasn’t very appealing in either appearance or taste.  The fact that it was so popular astounded me.  (Much as the prevalence of cilantro astounds me.) 

The originator of this distinctive dish is Skyline Chili.  It’s the first, the best.  (They actually tore down the original location when we lived in the Nati, which was near to where we lived & worked.)  There are many copycats (hello, Gold Star).  But in the city of Cincinnati, no other restaurant is as popular as Skyline.  Not even McDonald’s.  Let that marinate for a moment. 

The price is right.  You can get a full meal for under $5 at Skyline.  (Unless inflation & the economy have jacked that up.)  And it’s a sit-down place, though it’s quick.  You have a range of menu options, from the aforementioned spaghetti (aka a “3 way” or make it a 4 or 5 way with onions and/or beans) to chili dogs or even a Greek salad.  This makes it a staple for every high school / college kid and family in the tri-state area.  Sure, it’s a greasy spoon of a restaurant.  It doesn’t try to pretend that it’s anything but.

And for almost 3 years, I spent every midday Monday at my local Skyline.  I got to know the waitresses by name.  I probably ordered just about everything on the menu that doesn’t come with the chili (not a lot of options in that category, by the way).  I enjoyed being a “regular” with my co-workers for our Monday ritual lunch before staff meeting time. 

But I never “got” what the fuss was about.  I just figured it was because I didn’t grow up on it.  Sure, there were transplant people like me who enjoyed it, but I guess I lumped them in with the “cilantro” people of the world too.  And bread people.  I’m not denying I can be picky.  And Skyline just wasn’t my cup of tea.  I missed several restaurants when we moved away, but Skyline wasn’t one of them.  We visited a couple times and made our list of all the restaurant musts & Skyline didn’t make the cut for either of us.

And then.  A couple years ago we went back for a wedding and the couple served Skyline as their main course.  Real Skyline, not some homemade version that someone cooked up to copycat.  They had it catered in.  And I loved it.  What?!  Where did that come from??!!   

And now, every so often I sort of crave it.  But not the kind of craving that won’t go away & MUST be satisfied.  Just a fleeting thought.  Still, I’m baffled by this.  I’m sure I could get one of my friends to send me a can (yes, they sell it canned in the grocery stores, as well as frozen meals, & people use it to make a popular dip: chili spread on top of cream cheese & then topped with shredded cheddar, served with tortilla chips – that’s YUM, people!).  But I’m not that desperate.  Yet. 

Have you tried Cincinnati chili?  Love it or hate it?  Indifferent? 

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