We narrowed the list of establishments down to past winners of the City Pulse Top of the Town awards, an informal social media survey and good old-fashioned intuition. Each restaurant was graded from 1 to 10 in five sections, with those scores averaged together to get an overall rating for the restaurant. Categories included cost per portion, consistency, flavor and spiciness, with a wildcard X-factor category either adding to or taking away from a particular establishment based on that judge’s overall reaction. And we’re talking immediate reaction, not how warm the bed was later that night.
Harrison Roadhouse: 5.7 out of 10
“Too gritty,” “too salty” and “too thick” were the common denominators in what brought this chili in so low in the ranking. One of our judges enjoyed the “smoky flavor,” but another said “it tasted like a Slim Jim.” The $4.99 crock seemed like a slightly smaller portion than the serving sizes at the other restaurants, costing this chili some points. But the big differentiators were the lack of choices regarding portion size (one crock fits all) or toppings (none available, even if you ask). It did have a wonderful bourbon aroma, though, and it had the fastest delivery time of the night, in about 30 seconds. And with its thickness, one of the judges had the novel idea of “serving it between two pieces of bread, sloppy joe-style.” Your move, Harrison Roadhouse.
Colonial Bar & Grill: 7 out of 10
The owner, who was sitting in a nearby booth, told us that this was his mother’s recipe, so we knew not to expect anything too spicy. That said, any amount of spice would have been nice — several judges asked “where’s the kick?” Likewise, the “soupy” texture earned few fans. The worst that could be said was “this is just your basic chili recipe;” “no frills.” The cost — $3.25 per bowl, $2.75 per cup — was the best deal of the night. But Colonial had probably the best X-factor since the invention of the category three years ago: homemade potato chips, which the owner told us aren’t even on the menu — you have to know about them, and they’re made fresh to order. There was something incredible about dipping the chips into that chili that became a transformative experience. Another Food Fight, another secret in town revealed.
Meat: 7.1 out of 10
This Texas-style (no beans) chili had a “sneaky spiciness” that went toe-to-toe with the “rich smoky flavor.” Credit that spiciness to the poblano and red peppers. The chili was packed with bacon and brisket, but that wasn’t as great as it sounds — the meat “wasn’t as tender as it should have been” and occasionally you got a “golf ball-sized chunk” on the end of your spoon. This is Meat, which means you have to eat out of a Styrofoam bowl with plasticware (“not the most elegant set-up”), but it was determined that the $5 price for the giant bowl ($3 cup) was the best deal of the night. Overall, however, a couple of us got the feeling that they didn’t put much thought into it. As one of our judges wrote, “It’s like they said, ‘Hey, we got meat, let’s throw it all in a pot and call it chili.’”
Leo’s Pub & Spirits: 8.1 out of 10
Let’s cut right to the X-factor: bread bowl. Every self-respecting restaurant that takes pride in its chili should offer a bread bowl as a serving option. For $5.50 at Leo’s, you get just that, as well as a side of cheese (sour cream is 50 cents extra). This chili was “hot on the tongue, not on the throat,” leading us to believe the kick came from Tabasco or some other hot sauce as opposed to being cooked into it (which felt like “cheating,” according to one of the judges.) “Low on flavor” but “high in meat” making it very “stew-like” seemed to be the consensus, and we all agreed it was only “lukewarm.” We like our chili served hot, dammit!
Beggar’s Banquet: 8.5 out of 10
Beggar’s has consistently won chili cook-offs around town, and it was easy to see why. “The sauce had a great flavor,” “the thick cuts of sirloin were cooked perfectly” and “there was just the right touch of spice.” Some found the “sauce had better flavor than the meat itself,” which one of us found “chalky” and “chewy.” Again, no cheese or onions were offered, but this was “a solid stand-alone chili” that didn’t really need it. By the way, Beggar’s also offers a vegan chili, which we didn’t try but appreciated nonetheless.
Barley’s American Grill: 8.9 out of 10
“A great bowl of chili — the kind I’d want to eat after snowblowing,” best sums up this surprise winner. Stocked with green peppers, onion, garlic and, of course, lots of ground beef, this chili was “hearty” and “slightly sweet,” but still packed “a nice chili powder punch.” You get a lot for the $4 bowl ($2.50 cup), but no toppings. As for the X-factor, we enjoyed the big spoons we were given to eat with, but the jukebox was playing “too much Nickleback” that night (three songs in a row!), diminishing that judge’s experience. But when you’ve got the best chili in town, I guess you think you can get away with that.
This is far from a definitive list, but several other places that we wanted to get to on the particular night of this Food Fight had either pulled their soups early (Gibby’s Grinders) or didn’t have chili at all that day (Hobie’s, Fork in the Road, Soup Spoon Café). But in the end, chili is like sex: even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty damned good — and it’s a great way to keep warm at night.
If you’d like to weigh in with your own choices or rip any of ours to shreds, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.