Ever spent time in an Italian kitchen? Signore e signori have strict food rules: certain pastas pair with specific sauces. Finito. But we Americans typically have more laid-back culinary attitudes. Want to throw half a bottle of vodka into your red sauce? Go right ahead. And, hey, let’s put barbecue chicken on our pizza while we’re at it. Delicioso!
Our freewheeling enthusiasm comes to a halt, however, when chili enters the scene.
Regional variations rule, from the spicy green sauces of the Southwest to red midwestern stews so thick they’ll hold your spoon upright. Chefs, tailgating enthusiasts, and cook-off champions passionately defend homespun specifics. Can a bowl of beans, beef, and macaroni and cheese constitute chili? Would a roux by any other name taste so sweet?
Our take: it’s all good. From a cheese-crusted cup in rural Vermont to a hominy and soy chorizo concoction out in L.A. to the almost Bolognese-like variety served over spaghetti that’s popular throughout the Midwest. After all, it’s a testament to the power of chili—in our view, a stewlike sop of meat (and sometimes not even that) flavored with chiles and spices—that it withstands so much variety and still comes out kicking.
Whether your tastes lean toward briny bowls rich with local seafood, soy-infused vegan versions, or a classic beanless bright Texas red, the country’s best chili is sure to have you reaching for a bowl. Here’s where to taste the rainbow.