06 September 2009

Cincinnati Showdown

Taking the most direct driving route between Chattanooga, TN and Buffalo, NY put me in Cincinnati, OH at just about lunch time. It was a happy situation to find myself in because Cincinnati is home to a unique style of chili that, even while maintaining allegiance to the Texas variety, I enjoy. Unlike proper chili, Cincinnati chili does not involve chilies. Or, if it does, it involves them in an oblique way, in the form of powdered cayenne or something. But what it lacks in the originary ingredient, it makes up for in what was for me an ass-to-head-composure-inverting surprise: allspice, cinnamon, cocoa.

It sounds sort of funny for the uninitiated, I know, but it really does work in sort of the same way mole works even when it doesn't have all the proper ingredients. And to add to the fun, they provide several options for eating the stuff. To begin with, you have up to five "ways" to choose from. Order it 1-way and you get just a bowl of chili. 2-ways and your bowl of chili comes poured over a plate of spaghetti. 3-ways and they'll add kidney beans to that mix. 4-ways means you can expect fresh chopped onions on top. And ordering it 5-ways will get you a pile of cheese to go with it that nearly out-weighs the chili itself. Now, if you happen to be in the mood for finger food, Cincinnati chili makers accommodate that craving, too, by offering a chili coney-dog. No spaghetti, no beans, but you still get the onions and cheese.

The whole experience turns out to be pretty exciting. As is the case with most regional culinary treasures, however, finding the right purveyor demands careful consideration and sensitive tastes. Tradition, method, freshness, ambiance (and more!) all factor into finding the best place. On this front, Cincinnati makes life difficult.

To begin with, the most soulless and expansive chili chain in Cincinnati, Skyline, is actually pretty decent. That is, if you don't mind the sterile atmosphere of a fast food restaurant. In a pinch and without other options, though, Skyline's chili really is tasty. Take it to go and you avoid the risk of regurgitating your lunch on one of their sports promos.

If Skyline is somewhat paradoxical, however, things get really complicated when venturing out to Colerain Ave. Just northwest of downtown, Colerain Ave. runs more or less parallel to I-75 for about a mile. Situated across from each other on that stretch are two of Cincinnati's best chili parlors: Camp Washington, named after the neighborhood, and U.S. Chili, named after the entire country. Anyone can see which is the more ambitious restaurant, but that doesn't necessarily make deciding between the two any easier.

Camp Washington is older. It started serving up Cincinnati style chili in 1940 and runs around the clock, 24-hours a day, six days a week. I think it serves the better tasting chili, but in 2000, after 60 years in the original building, it moved into pre-fab-looking shit shack, not so different than any "retro" dinner you'd find in a suburban mall. Across the street, U.S. Chili operates in an old bank. The building has been slightly renovated to fit a kitchen, but retains its charm and still proudly displays the old vault, now protecting the men's bathroom. The chili isn't quite as flavorful as Camp Washington's, but the ambiance easily trumps its modernized neighbor. Furthermore, U.S. Chili opened its doors only 23 years ago, well after Camp Washington had established itself as Cincinnati's premier chili parlor. Now, normally age bequeaths a certain feeling of authenticity, but in this case, by stridently exercising the underdog audacity it takes to open shop across the street from a firmly entrenched institution, U.S. Chili takes first place for "keepin' it real."

I first visited Camp Washington in the summer of 2005, while on a road trip with CMS between Asheville, NC and my father's hometown, Michigan City, IN. We spent a couple days in Cincinnati visiting the amazing Contemporary Arts Center, walking around the historical neighborhood Over the Rhine, and eating across the river in Covington, KY. Before leaving town we paid a visit to Colerain Ave. to eat dinner at Camp Washington Chili. We noticed at the time that sitting across the street was a rundown sort of place called U.S. Chili. My best instincts told me that was the place to be eating, but unfortunately, they close early. So Camp Washington it was and Camp Washington was good. So good, in fact, that I insisted on stopping back through on our way home to Asheville.

I hadn't been back to Cincinnati since that trip, but plotting out my route back to Buffalo I realized my good fortune and made plans to visit U.S. Chili. It was a lot quieter than their neighbor/competitor across the street. Two guys sat drinking tea over empty plates of chili, talking about work or gossip or both. They seemed to know the owners by name. For a while it was just the three of us in the big dinning hall. Then it started pouring rain and in came an itinerant looking man with a bicycle. The gentleman owner came out from the kitchen, looked at the guy but didn't say anything. After shaking off a bit, the man with the bicycle looked up and said, "Schenz's lets us sit under his awning when it rains. He's a humanitarian. What are you?" "A business owner." "You think you own this street?" "Yeah, my name is Colerain. You want something or what?" "You know what I want..." And then, setting his bicycle off to the side, he walked straight toward the owner and past him, moved behind the counter and poured himself a cup of tea. "So, how's it been around here? Pretty slow?"

You won't see that sort of thing across the street, which is why I come down on the U.S. Chili side of Cincinnati's chili parlor showdown. I am still confused, however, about what to do with the tray after finishing lunch. At Camp Washington they make it clear that you are to bus your own table, just like at a fast food place with Thank You trash cans that have a space for trays on top. At U.S. Chili there was no place to put dirty dishes or trays, but the dinning room looked pristine. Probably that was because there weren't very many people there, but I hated to sully the image by leaving stuff on the table. So, feeling pretty homey, I gathered up my lunch detritus and sauntered over to the counter where I planned to put my tray off to the side. The owner and the man with the bike each gave me a crooked look, which sent me teetering and spilling some stacked cups full of ice. I apologized quickly and ran out the door, calling over my shoulder that I'd see them soon.

Not soon enough, I suppose, but I'll definitely make an effort to get through Cincinnati between 6:00am and 4:45pm on my next trip South. If I arrive early enough, perhaps I'll try the goetta for breakfast.


  1. After going through this article I have decided to bookmark this site found this really interesting & thanks a lot for keeping the blog Lively with such interesting blogs.

  2. Esan Man,

    Thanks for reading. I'll try to keep it exciting!

    -dee es