Cincinnati Chili—What It Is and Where to Get It
With more than 100 chili parlors in the metro area, the landscape of Cincinnati restaurants is covered in a blanket of shredded cheddar cheese. But Cincinnati’s chili isn’t chili in the strictest sense. In fact, it would probably look unfamiliar to a lot of out-of-state chili experts—many places don’t even use the eponymous spice in their recipes. No, this regional favorite has its own tradition, one that started near the banks of the Ohio River and stretches just as long.
Cincinnati Chili is an Immigrant’s Tale
The story goes like this: Greek-immigrant brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff opened up a restaurant on Vine Street in 1922. They planned to serve their native Greek food, but found themselves losing business to other downtown Cincinnati restaurants. So they Americanized one of their Greek stews with chili powder and other spices, added ground beef, and started serving it over noodles. They called their restaurant Empress Chili. The plan was a success, but more importantly, it started the Cincinnati chili craze. (The original Empress Chili has sadly closed its doors, but you can still try the original recipe across the river in Alexandria, Kentucky.)
There Are Some Basic Requirements
Each Cincinnati chili restaurant puts its own spin on the dish, and the specifics of their recipes are guarded secrets. But all have some essentials: ground meat (typically beef), stock, and spices. The latter is what truly sets Cincinnati chili apart, and discerning palates can usually detect cinnamon, cumin, and even unsweetened chocolate as components.
Pasta is as Easy as Three, Four, Five
The chili by itself isn’t enough; it’s more of a topping than an entree. Spaghetti (soft, not al dente) is one of its two popular bases. The best restaurants in Cincinnati give their patrons plenty of room for customization, and it’s good to know the lingo before ordering. Three-way means chili and cheese over a heap of noodles. Four-way adds onions, and five-way throws beans into the mix. Those are the tradition, but some places, such as Blue Ash Chili, get creative. The kitchen there, which was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, serves a six-way with fried jalapeño caps.
The Coney: Not Just an Island
Don’t call it a hot dog. Once it’s covered in a bit of mustard and a layer of Cincinnati chili, the beef or pork link in question takes on the “coney dog” moniker. Just as with spaghetti, chili parlors cap the second of Cincinnati chili’s favorite bases in onions and shredded cheddar.
The Giants on the Scene
If you’ve spent the day exploring Cincinnati and now have a craving for coneys and three-ways, here’s some good news: there’s probably a Skyline Chili or Gold Star Chili within walking distance. Both locally founded chains have dozens of locations in Cincinnati and its suburbs, and they serve the regional chili in all of its traditional forms. That being said…
Eat Beyond the Chains
A lot of Cincinnati natives have warm, slow-cooked feelings for Skyline and Gold Star, and while these restaurants dominate the world of Cincinnati chili, they by no means tell the whole story. One of the top restaurants in Cincinnati is Camp Washington Chili, which was founded by Greek immigrants in the 1940s and was called one of the nation’s best chili spots by Bon Appétit. Also consider Price Hill Chili, another longtime favorite.
Andrew is a senior writer, a singer, and an occasional actor. He spends the rest of his time playing guitar in the back of bars and trying to convince at least one of his friends to go bowling.