Cincinnati chili dates back a century to Empress Chili, a parlor run by Macedonian brothers John and Tom Kiradjieff. According to lore, the brothers were serving a Bolognese-like meat sauce over spaghetti, until a customer suggested topping it with cheddar. A classic was born — one that would forever confuddle visitors to the Queen City.
The confusion starts with the appearance: It’s served as a sauce or a topping, primarily over heaping plates of spaghetti or hot dogs, both typically finished with shredded cheddar. Then there’s the Greek-influenced spice mixture — cinnamon, cumin, allspice, oregano, cloves, chili powder — which creates a sweet, spicy flavor beloved by locals but controversial outside of the Midwest (and that’s putting it generously — its detractors are loath to call it chili at all).
Then there’s the language barrier. You can walk into any one of the more than 300 chili parlors in Cincinnati — each with its own variation on the recipe — and order using the same terms. Chili over spaghetti is called a “way,” and the standard is a three-way: spaghetti topped with chili and cheddar. A two-way omits the cheese, a four-way typically adds either onions or kidney beans, and a five-way throws it all on. A coney, the other dish found at just about every chili parlor, consists of a hot dog topped with chili and cheese, often served with mustard and onions. Leave off the hot dog and you have a chili cheese sandwich (served in a bun). Chili parlors are also known for high-stacked sandwiches and deli offerings, along with hamburgers and — in a nod to the Greek heritage of many owners — gyros.
The Cincinnati chili scene is dominated by two large chains, Skyline and Gold Star, but neighborhood chili parlors dot the city, including some that trace their lineages back to Empress. Each musters its own army of fans claiming that it is the city’s best. Any of the options on this list makes a great choice — just don’t ask for Texas chili or chili con carne.
Andy Brownfield has covered the bar and restaurant scene in Cincinnati for nine years. His work for the Cincinnati Business Courier can be found here.Read More