Four places to warm up with the national dish of Texas
During these Winter Olympics, it's as likely to be snowing in Dallas as it is in Vancouver, so we'll take a little bit of that après-ski party action. Or après-bobsled, or après-whatever it is that curling is.
After a cold day on the slopes or a poignant day watching the figure skaters cry, chili is the perfect winter warmer. Outside of a chili cookoff (or Chili's), it's not as easy to find a bowl of red as you'd think, but here are four places to get a fix.
The Frisco Shop
6801 Burnet Road. 459-6279, www.frisconighthawk.com. Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
If you're feeling cold and lonely, isolated, alienated - in short, if you're an actor in a prescription-drug commercial - the Frisco Shop feels like therapy. The order pad's a prescription, and a hot bowl of truck-stop chili is the only drug you need today.
The last outpost of the once-mighty Night Hawk chain, the Frisco Shop moved in 2008 from its home of 55 years at Burnet Road and Koenig Lane to 6801 Burnet Road, less than a mile north. But the new spot already feels like it has been there forever, with a long lunch counter, wood-paneled walls and the embracing warmth of a place where the people pouring iced tea call the regulars by name.
The chili arrives in the season's most fashionable dark brown, with a sheen that pops flashbulb highlights from the pendant lights overhead. The Frisco does a great job with ground beef, a legacy from decades of laying down chopped-steak dinners. And the big nuggets of beef are surrounded by a deep roux heavy on the chili spice but light on the heat, like old-school Tex-Mex enchilada gravy. You can feel the flour in your mouth and see it in the bowl, scattered like little dumplings.
They don't bother to pretty it up with onions or jalapeños or cheese, just cornbread muffins on the side. Crumble one up and stir it in for something sweet, and you could call it dessert. Not that you'd want to. I've had buttermilk pie at the Frisco that your grandmother would claim as her own, and the case is full of different diner classics every day: apple, coconut cream, chocolate silk.
Order your chili with or without beans for $5.50 a bowl. Then wonder what it was like in the days when a Night Hawk 'Top Chop't' steak cost $1.25 and a bowl of chili was 45 cents. That's how long they've been around.
Texas Chili Parlor
1409 Lavaca St. 472-2828, www.cactushill.com/TCP. Hours: The kitchen is open 11 a.m. to midnight daily, the bar later, depending on business.
Above a table near the front door of the Texas Chili Parlor, there's a panoramic photo of beauty pageant contestants, hotties from a bygone black-and-white decade. The couple we ran around with in the mid-'90s, that was their table. So the manager let us borrow the picture right off the wall, and we made a copy for their anniversary.
Sweet story, right? Well, they're not together anymore. But their favorite place for beer and a bowl of chili is still around, and if the lunch I had there on the coldest and rainiest day of the most recent cold rush is what it's like most of the time, I wouldn't mind taking over their table.
In a scene right out of a Howard Hawks movie, a customer reached up and snagged his LBJ-style cowboy hat off a set of horns mounted over the doorway. Two of the happiest babies on the planet ate chili with mom and dad at a table beside me, while the table behind me looked like supper time at the Waltons' place. How can you fit that many people at one table?
The basic X, XX and XXX chilis ($5.95 small, $6.95 large) placate the meat-and-heat purists who think anything with beans is soup, not chili. The X-factor tells you how many Miller High Lifes you'll need to cool down your mouth at $2 per elegant little bottle. That chili shows up all over the menu, on burgers, tamales, enchiladas, possibly dessert.
But TCP has the courage to put seven different kinds of chili out there, including a five-bean vegetarian number. A sampler plate with three little bowls of your choice is a tour of the chili-verse for $8.95, with crackers, onions and jalapeños.
The XX chili is the house standard, more solid than liquid, with thick cuts of fork-tender beef (not ground) with a bright-hot spice right there on your tongue, daring you to go for the XXX or the habanero chili. Eat it last if you do the sampler. That way, you can appreciate the subtler flavors of the white-bean chili with smoky pieces of pork loin and the big, green flavor bouquet of Hatch chiles. Or the barbecue-in-a-bowl sensation of chili with black beans and Elgin sausage, all campfire and no sloppy sweetness.
Who would've thought chili could have so much personality?
1624 Barton Springs Road. 474-9991, www.theshadygrove.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
I don't imagine the Civilian Conservation Corps built too many ski lodges in Texas. But if it had, they might have looked like Shady Grove, with a low-slung main house of mottled brown fieldstone and a patio wall set with wagon wheels.
In the warmer months, the Grove's oak-shaded patio with twinkly lights draws such a crowd that people have to stand by the road with 'parking lot full' signs. They're drawn in by green chile chicken-fried steak, tortilla-crusted catfish and sweet, swirly frozen margaritas in schooner glasses.
The patio crowd might never set foot inside, which looks like a suburban kids' bedroom from the 1950s, with lariat-framed pictures of cowboy movie stars and paint-by-number horses.
The 'Airstream Chili' is deceptively mild, sweet and tomato-happy at first. But the menu says 10 peppers are hiding in there, and they'll jump up every now and then to set your lips aflame. I mean that as a compliment.
There's also ground beef, tomato, onion and something more - little black-brown shards of thin meat with the texture of beef jerky throwing the bowl out of balance.
The Grove also offers a roasted vegetable chili with beans, dominated by sweet corn and carrots, a kinder and gentler chili that's not as sneak-attack hot.
Both are served over a flour tortilla in a bowl with onions, jalapeños and shredded cheese for $5.49 (or $3.19 a cup).
Multiple locations. www.wendys.com.
I don't always have $10 in my pocket and half an hour to eat. Chili isn't expensive food, but it's nice to have a 99-cent option. Wendy's chili deserves more than just a fast-food punchline.
With ground beef, chili beans, pinto beans, celery, tomatoes, onions and green pepper, this is more like a hamburger stew, sweeter and thinner than chili but also more visually diverse. It's hardly chili-spiced at all, and celery and green pepper flavors dominate.
Judged outside our tougher standards for Texas chili, it's a decent cup of stew and a good value. Or maybe I was looking for an excuse to get a 99-cent chocolate Frosty, still one of the best ice-cream desserts on the planet for the price.
• Billy's on Burnet, 2105 Hancock Drive. 407-9305, www.billysonburnet.com.
• Iron Works BBQ, 100 Red River St. 478-4855, www.ironworksbbq.com.
• Ruby's B-B-Q, 512 W. 29th St. www.rubysbbq.com, 477-1651.
• Waterloo Ice House, 12815 Shops Parkway, Suite 100. 262-3130. More locations at www.waterlooicehouse.com.