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What Is Cincinnati Chili (and Is It Really from Cincinnati?)

What Is Cincinnati Chili (and Is It Really from Cincinnati?)

Cincinnati Chili is about as divisive as it gets in the food world. Fans sing its praises, and if you’re visiting Cincinnati, you’ve got to try it. 

But this classic Rust Belt dish has little in common with its Texas cousin. The brainchild of two Macedonian immigrant brothers, Cincinnati chili caught on in the early 1920s. And it hasn’t slowed down since. 

Join us as we take a look into the origins of this dish and how it differs from traditional chili. 

Let’s dig in!

What Is Cincinnati Chili?

The United States welcomed many eastern European immigrants in the early twentieth century. Macedonian brothers Tom and Jonh Kiradjieff fled a politically unstable region for the relative quiet of Ohio. 

But they missed the flavors of home and decided to open up Empress Chili Parlor in 1922. Inspired by the popularity of Texas chili, the brothers created a dish that looked similar and called it chili. However, their version has little in common with the Texas favorite. 

Using a Mediterranean meat stew as a base, they began selling their Greek stew to fellow immigrants. Folks in the area loved their dish because it reminded them of home. 

These days you can find Cincinnati chili all over town. Skyline Chili and Gold Star Chili have over one hundred locations around the area.

What Does Cincinnati Chili Taste Like?

When Tom and John created Cincinnati chili, they took a page from the Greek cookbook. Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove give the deep-red meat sauce a warm and comforting flavor. 

Cooked down to a Bolognese consistency, the chili isn’t chunky like Texas chili. In fact, most people who see a dish of Cincinnati chili for the first time think it’s spaghetti Bolognese. 

You heard us right, spaghetti. Made from a base of tomato and ground beef, Cincinnati chili is usually served on a bed of noodles and smothered in a mound of shredded cheddar. 

It’s similar to Greek moussaka, a dish consisting of tomato and potato or eggplant, and baked pasta with meat sauce. The brothers included a small amount of chili powder in their dish for a little bit of sweet heat. 

Some recipes even include cocoa powder for a richer flavor and color, but that isn’t typical. 

Is Cincinnati Chili Real Chili?

At the beginning of the 20th century, after the 1895 World’s Fair, chili restaurants popped up all over the US. The Kiradjieff brothers rode the Texas wave but in a totally different flavor profile. If we drill down to the essence of Texas chili, we’re talking about chili con carne. 

This preparation involves simple ingredients and long simmering times. Meat, peppers, garlic, and spices come together in chili con carne, but you won’t find tomatoes in traditional chili. Bite-sized chunks of beef swimming in a spicy, flavorful broth made red from the dried peppers are essential. 

Outside of Texas, folks put tomatoes, beans, and ground beef in chili con carne. The flavor profile, however, remains the same. Spicy, smoky, and satisfying. 

Because the brothers tried to replicate what they saw rather than tasted, Cincinnati chili has little in common with what most folks call chili. Their dish includes a different range of spices, ground beef cooked to almost nothing, and spaghetti. The recipe doesn’t have any chiles, either. 

If you expect your Cincinnati chili to taste like chili con carne, the dish all chili descends from, you’re out of luck. It’s something altogether different, but still delicious and satisfying.

How Do They Eat Chili in Cincinnati?

In Cincinnati, there are four ways to order, and you must know the lingo to get what you want. We recommend the classic three-way since it’s the most common. Check out this list, and you’ll be ready to order it however you like. 

Two-way comes with spaghetti and chili only. Nothing fancy, just the sauce. Three-way is the most commonly seen version with spaghetti, chili, and a mountain of shredded cheddar. 

Four-way comes with spaghetti, chili, cheese, and raw chopped onions. Five-way comes with spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions, and beans. 

You’ll also see Cincinnati chili slathered on hot dogs with mustard and onions, called coneys. Between New York City and Chicago, the coney is another hot dog debate waiting to happen. But we’ll save that for another day. 

Where to Find the Best Cincinnati Chili

If we’ve fired up your taste buds and you can’t wait to sample this local delicacy, you’re in luck. You can’t throw a rock in Cincinnati without hitting a chili spot. These three are iconic and represent the best of Cincinnati chili. 

Empress Chili

Empress Chili, founded by brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff in 1925, is the original. The burlesque theater it got its name from is long gone, but the Greek-inspired chili is still going strong. 

Owned by the Papakirk family, the cafe still serves chili from the original recipe. Every pilgrimage begins with Empress. They’re open every day of the week, except Sundays. 

Camp Washington Chili

James Beard Award winner Camp Washington Chili opened its doors in 1940 and hasn’t stopped since. With only one location, you’ll have to go directly to the source for this Cincinnati chili icon. 

Greek immigrants Johnny and Antigone Johnson opened the restaurant in 1951 and serve the same quality food today.  They’re open 24 hours, six days a week. Sundays are their day off. 

Skyline Chili

While the Kiradjieff brothers opened Empress Chili in 1925, their cook Nick Lambrinides claimed the authentic recipe belonged to him. In 1949, he left Empress and opened his first chili restaurant with his three sons. 

Named for the Cincinnati skyline, which he could see from the original location, there are now more than 160 restaurants in Ohio. They’ve expanded to Indiana, Kentucky, and Florida. The oldest standing Skyline Chili is in the Clifton neighborhood and is open seven days a week! 

Would You Try Cincinnati Chili?

From Empress Chili Parlor to the hallowed James Beard Awards, Cincinnati chili isn’t going anywhere. Born out of a love of country, both new and old, and the need for a hot, filling meal, Cincinnati chili divides chili-heads. 

The trick, we think, is to leave behind the idea that chili con carne, Texas chili, and Cincinnati chili should be the same thing. Then it becomes a question of whether the flavor profile is something you’d enjoy. 

For our money, it’s worth a taste. And with hundreds of chili restaurants in Ohio alone, tens of thousands of fans agree. 

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