Drive time:5 hours
As an Ohio native, I always thought of Cincinnati as an also-ran in the competition of Great Ohio Cities That Start With the Letter C. Cleveland had the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and LeBron. Columbus had dynastic Ohio State football teams and Jack Hanna. And Cincinnati had … Nick Lachey and a giant roadside statue of Jesus that got struck by lightning and caught fire in 2010. Compared with my hometown of Columbus, Cincinnati seemed far more politically conservative, more buttoned up, more boring.
However, even I am willing to admit that it has chili good enough to redeem a multitude of sins. For those who haven’t been lucky enough to partake of this ambrosia, it’s not chili in the way you normally think of it. It’s a thin ground-beef sauce, heavily dosed with what tastes like a combination of pumpkin pie spices, bittersweet chocolate, and so much cumin. It belongs either atop a pile of angel-hair pasta that you cut with the side of your fork (never twirl!) or on a hot dog (known locally as a Coney) and heaped with shredded cheddar, onions, and beans. Order it with all the toppings and it’s called a five-way (the noodles and chili counting as two elements); with beans or onions, a four-way; with neither, a three-way. A two-way doesn’t exist because only a monster would order chili without cheese.
Please, mock it all you want — you can even go so far as to call it a “horrifying diarrhea sludge,” as Deadspin put it in its ranking of U.S. regional foodstuffs (where it came in last, behind “being hit by a car”). But the easy scatological cracks belie the truth: Yes, it looks like the aftermath of a terrible stomach bug, but it is my stomach-bug aftermath, and I crave it often.
So I decided to make a pilgrimage to the center of the chili universe to find, once and for all, which joint had the best chili. With help from my iron-stomached boyfriend, Jason, and chili-loving parents, I set the parameters of our quest: one four-way (yes to onions, no to beans to limit GI distress) and one cheese Coney at each place. Alluring as the siren song of chili pizza or chili omelets might be, we resisted veering away from the classics. We would hit six spots in 24 hours. (Seven, if you are Jason, who opted to have a bowl of chili for lunch at O’Hare before our plane took off — “for research.”)
Our first stop was Camp Washington Chili, believed by many a Cincinnatian to embody the pinnacle of the form. It was founded 75 years ago by a Macedonian Greek immigrant, whose nephew Johnny Johnson ran the show until his kids, the Papakirks, took over. I’d been most excited to try this ur-chili. But in my first bite, I tasted a lot of … nothing. Perhaps it was just an off day, but I wanted aggressive spicing and instead got a plate of soggy noodles and meat water.
A similar fate befell us at Empress Chili. It’s credited with being the city’s first chili parlor, though the original location has long since closed. We drove 10 miles in the rain to Alexandria, Kentucky, home of the last restaurant in the once-thriving chain, a squat brick building on a roundabout just off a state road. Scenic! Inside it looked like a pastel-toned Taco Bell, and honestly I would have been happier eating a Crunchwrap Supreme.
Thank the Greater Cincinnati gods, then, for Dixie Chili, a few miles away in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from downtown. At Dixie, finally, was a sauce that tasted of something: in this case, a wallop of cinnamon.
Is Covington, then, the new center of the chili universe? An appetizer at Coppin’s, a restaurant inside a boutique hotel that feels as if it could have been lifted straight out of the Gold Coast, bolstered that theory. Chef Mitch Arens shifted the chili paradigm — rather than slapping it on a plate of pasta, he put his chili (made with nduja, the spicy and spreadable Calabrian sausage) beneath a bevy of beer-battered cheese curds. Serving it this way is almost cheating — fried curds are inherently delicious — but I appreciated this chili’s intensity, even if it came from the kinds of smoky spices you don’t typically find in a four-way.
I had heard tell, through voracious Googling, of a mythical location of Skyline, the most pervasive chain in the business, with more than 100 restaurants in the Midwest. It’s the chili I grew up eating, purchased frozen at our local Kroger or from one of the many Skylines in my hometown. A few articles and Yelp reviews pointed to the storefront in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Clifton as being superior to all the rest. I was skeptical. The chili all starts as a frozen meat product — how much variation could there really be? But indeed it was better — a forceful cinnamon undertow, a borderline obscene piling of cheese. The place was also aesthetically superior to every Skyline I’ve ever seen: immaculate vintage sign, dangling lamps emblazoned with “Skyline” in retro script, an open grill covered in messily arrayed hot dogs. As an avowed Skyline fan, I thought I’d found the pinnacle of Cincinnati chili. But I was wrong.
I hate that I’ve gone through 30 years of my life lying to myself, but I have: I have seen the light, and it is emanating from Gold Star Chili. We stopped in at the Covington location, one of 20 in the Cincinnati area, around 4 p.m., the only customers in the joint, a bloody UFC fight on the big-screen TV in the corner. A single bite of my four-way and I got it: It didn’t go overboard on one particular spice. It just tasted warm, like crawling under a down comforter on a chilly night. Our waitress insisted the secret was that Gold Star doesn’t freeze its meat, which, maybe. But it was the first plate of chili I finished all weekend, and the one I still think about. It’s maybe even enough to make me reevaluate my entire prejudice against Cincinnati. Or not.