America's Best Chili
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.
The Institute of Chili, San Antonio, TX
Sidle up to this food truck near the Alamo to taste Texan history by the bowl. Using historic recipes from the Institute of Texan Cultures’ archives, local cook Ana Fernandez has been doling out the red stuff since 2012. Rather than risk excommunication from the Texas diaspora, she eschews beans, chili powder, and tomatoes. Instead, Fernandez creates a base of house-roasted serrano, ancho, and jalapeño peppers, to which she adds a plenty of ground beef and slow-cooked brisket. Giddyup. instituteofchili.com
Dot’s Restaurant, Wilmington, VT
After this homey diner literally floated down Deerfield River during 2011’s Hurricane Irene, a grassroots fund-raising effort helped owners John and Patty Reagan resurrect their decades-old business in December 2013. Now loyal locals and weekending city folk fill its oak-paneled booths again, ordering berry pancakes and endless cups of its spicy Jailhouse Chili. Served in mugs beneath a layer of baked cheddar cheese, Dot’s version vaguely resembles French onion soup, but this all-American comeback kid is 100 percent red, white, and bean. dotsofvermont.com
Winter Park Fish Co., Orlando, FL
Sustainability is the word at this casual Keys-like fish shack serving the sort of ridiculously fresh seafood that would make any waders-wearing Gloucesterman proud. When the nets catch ahi, the kitchen uses it in an unusual tuna chili, grinding the fresh fish into chucklike consistency and simmering it in a freshly cut tomato-and-onion stock that’s been spiced with a house blend of paprika, white pepper, and both dried guajillo and fresh chiles. The resulting mix is sharp, tangy, and sure beats the breakfast buffet over at Chef Mickey’s. thewinterparkfishco.com
C. W. Porubsky’s Deli and Tavern, Topeka, KS
Like your favorite holiday, chili season comes but once a year to this crowd-pleasing greasy spoon in Topeka’s Little Russia. Since 1947, from September 1 to April 1, the Porubsky family dishes out bowlfuls of humble, hearty beef chili made with red kidney beans and served with a packet of Saltines and its signature, sinus-clearing horseradish pickles. Grab a stool at the counter, and savor your bowl alongside a friendly mix of local construction workers and CEOs, plus the occasional Route 66 road-tripper on a culinary detour. 508 NE Sardou Ave.; (785) 234-5788
The Brooklyn Star, Brooklyn, NY
At this North Williamsburg soul food spot’s popular weekend brunch, a stylishly bespectacled crowd of neighborhood regulars clamors for bowlfuls of the Star’s tripe chili, a meaty mix made with bacon, ground beef, beans, cilantro, and radishes. Served with crema and a bag of Fritos on the side, it can convert even the most reluctant offal eater. (Next up: fried pig tails, another of the restaurant’s offbeat standouts.) Don’t forget to add a splash of house-made jalapeño vinegar for extra kick. thebrooklynstar.com
Real Chili, Milwaukee
According to local lore, only seven people have ever known founder Francis Honish’s closely guarded family recipe—and just three are alive today—at this 83-year-old institution, Milwaukee’s front-runner for late-night post-bar bowls. (Online re-creations point to unsweetened baking chocolate as a key ingredient.) Insiders order the Marquette Special, named for the nearby university: fine-ground beef served over spaghetti and beans, then finished with a dollop of sour cream and fistful of shredded cheddar; oyster crackers, onions, and vinegar optional. Still hungry? Real Chili will top you off with seconds for just $2.87. realchili-milwaukee.com
Ben’s Chili Bowl, Washington, D.C.
Now in its 56th year, this family-run U Street institution dishes out dogs, burgers, and chili con carne to a democratic mix of college kids, neighborhood residents, and flag-pin-wearing Hill staffers, not to mention presidents elect—Obama famously ate here a few days before his inauguration. Bill Cosby is such a fan of the rib-sticking chili (made with ground beef, green peppers, and onions) that he recorded an ad-libbed ode that now serves as the restaurant’s telephone hold music. Pony up the extra 40 cents to have your bowl topped with shredded cheddar and fried onions, or try it on a signature half-smoke (pork and beef sausage) with a squirt of yellow mustard.
Addiction Bistro, Los Angeles
The 2009 closing of Encino’s beloved Chili My Soul left many southern Californians with capsicum-shaped holes in their hearts. Fortunately, in 2010, a Hollywood farmers’ market stand named Chili Addiction graduated to a brick-and-mortar storefront in Beverly Grove. The resulting Addiction Bistro serves homemade sausages and sauerkraut, plus a rotating, eight-chili roster that might include Israeli couscous or prime rib. Insiders ask for the off-the-menu vegan chili options, such as a surprisingly delicious mix of hominy and soy chorizo. theaddictionbistro.com
Sam’s No. 3, Denver
In January 2014, Denver mayor Michael Hancock publicly challenged New Mexico to a chili cook-off, heralding the superior flavor of his state’s Pueblo-grown green chiles while inciting capsicum-hot-and-heavy trash talk from his southwestern neighbors. See what the fuss is about at Sam’s No. 3, a Denver diner renowned for its Kickin’ Green Chili. The thick, smoky stew is made with Pueblo’s best and brightest, and has tender chunks of pork and diced tomatoes throughout. Do as the locals do, and order yours by the bowl, with a flour tortilla on the side. samsno3.com
Timmy D’s Deli & Catering, Cheltenham, PA
First-time walk-ins to this 12-year-old Philly transplant might think they’ve come in for a sandwich, but larger-than-life proprietor Tim Durney knows better. He personally hands out cups of his award-winning chili to customers, confident it will stop them in their tracks. Made with 26 ingredients, Durney’s tomato-based blend uses ground beef and pork, plus two kinds of beans. He once sold 21 gallons in one day, and proudly refused a Philadelphia restaurant owner who offered him $10,000 for his recipe. timmydsdeli.com
Slim’s Last Chance Chili Shack, Seattle
Sometimes, you want to savor an award-winning chef’s haute-cuisine interpretation of a down-home classic. Other times, you want to drink whiskey and eat some chili while listening to local, unsigned bands. For those leaning toward the latter, this Georgetown shack, home to one of America’s best comfort foods, is for you. The no-frills hall serves four types of chili: all-meat Texas red, brisket and bean, pork chili verde, plus a killer turkey chili, slow-cooked with cannellini beans and serrano chiles in a hearty broth. Dish ’em up over macaroni and cheese or with a steaming plate of white cheddar grits. slimslastchance.com
Big Bad Breakfast, Oxford, MS
What’s better than waffles for breakfast? Waffles smothered in cinnamon-and-cocoa-spiked beef chili for breakfast. In this heart-stopping affair, James Beard Award–winning chef and noted minimalist John Currence tops a fluffy waffle with a split and griddled hot dog, coleslaw, mustard, chopped jalapeños, and a spoonful of beefy chili for what he calls “hangover’s worst enemy.” (And yes, purists can just get the chili by the bowl, too.) Eager to take this bad boy on? A second location of this southern hot spot—also serving one of America’s best sandwiches and best traditional breakfasts—is under way for Birmingham, AL. citygroceryonline.com
Camp Washington Chili, Cincinnati
More than 140 chili parlors may vie for meaty dominance in Cincinnati’s metropolitan area, but Camp Washington is the one to beat. Despite 70 years of service and recognition from James Beard and the Smithsonian, this down-home diner remains decidedly of the people. And what the people want is its mild, sweetly spiced beef chili served in the classic Cincy way: on top of spaghetti, with a handful of bright yellow cheese and optional beans or chopped onions. Locals also request theirs piled high on a Coney, an all-beef hot dog named after the Brooklyn boardwalk’s legendary links. campwashingtonchili.com