Saturday, September 5, 2009

Reminiscenses of a Chili Freak

by Ambrose Blake (Tom Emch)

Chili, also spelled chilli and chile, is a term used to describe, usually, the international dish chili con carne. South of the Border it is used to describe salsa, a peppery sauce found on restaurant tables, with which intrepid Mexicans smoke up any number of national dishes.

In a purer sense, chili refers to the chili peppers, the bright red chile colorado, the potent light green chile jalapeno and others of varying degrees of tongue-scorching strength.

In most American restaurants, the word "chili" on the menu refers either to chili con carne or chili with beans, which is nothing but chili con carne with less meat.

There is power in the word chili. You can test it for yourself on friends. Few people are neutral on the subject.

"Good chili?" says a colleague. "Only my aunt Sophie knows how to make chili."

Another says: "I had a bowl of chili once in El Paso..." He can still remember what it tasted like, describe the restaurant and the brand of Mexican beer he used to put out the fire.

Chili arouses emotions. It is controversial, beautiful or damned, and nearly always memorable, if made right.

This chili freak, brought up on peanut butter sandwiches, weak vegetable soup, potato pancakes and other bland Midwestern fare, recalls with mind-searing accuracy his introduction to chili.

We had stopped for lunch at a small roadhouse on the highway from Torreon to Monterrey. My companion, a Mexican who knew about such things, ordered machaca, tortillas, beans and chili. I did likewise. The chili came in a separate bowl.

What was impaled on the fork was transferred to my mouth and - surprise - I had to stifle a scream. Perspiration burst forth on my brow and my Mexican friend burst out laughing.

From that moment on, I have been very respectful of anything called chili, whether it comes as bright colored peppers, dark red with beans, or with meat and onions and garlic.

Chili, almost everyone knows, produces an effect when it hits the palate that is the opposite of cottage cheese. It is much more wonderful, intriguing, changeable.

Chili can be subtle, but it is more often seductive. As with women, one should never come too close without caution. If care is exercised, the rewards can be fantastic.

Most of my adult life I've been eating chili. It has been a holy quest that has taken me into the barrios of many countries, into the little greasy spoon restaurants found near railroad and bus stations, into the Latin Quarters of all the major cities of the United States.

It has been a search for the PERFECT BOWL OF CHILI. And the search must go on, because somewhere there is a bowl better than the last, seasoned precisely for my palate, with the right amount of meat, the most tender beans and exactly the right balance between garlic, onions and chili powder.

Although the perfect bowl of chili is perhaps unattainable, there are some that have come close.

John's Chili Parlor in Houston, deservedly famous throughout Texas, dispenses a potent but not overpowering bowl of chili that has a following among oil tycoons and visiting Arab shieks. King Hussein of Jordan had some brought to his suite in the Rice Hotel a few years back.

The Rice Hotel itself serves a bowl of chili that has some renown as a hangover cure, particularly if ordered in the coffee shop at two in the morning along with scrambled eggs.

The Texas Cafe in Brownsville serves chili with authority, so do a number of small restaurants in Austin, Texas. Austin, of course, is the stamping grounds of Wick Fowler, known as the "Chili King" for his internationally famous homemade chili. Fowler once beat out H. Allen Smith in a chili cook-off in Terlingua, a Brewster County ghost town. (Smith later claimed that Fowler had cheated, broken the rules at the last minute and influenced a judge.)

Fowler has given his basic recipe - but not some of the secrets - to the Naitonal Press Club in Washington, D.C., one of the few places in the East where you can get good chili.

Fowler once cooked his chili in the White House for LBJ, and his chili was served to President Ordaz of Mexico at Johnson's ranch on the Perdernales River.

Chili, far from being just a peasant dish of no particular merit, has had an effect on the cuisine of some important cities.

Dave Chasen's Restaurant in Los Angeles got its start serving a notable bowl of chili late at night to pub crawlers and theatrical folk a little short in the pocket. It's still on the menu, although Chasen's is now a gourmet restaurant.

And that little-known fact is what got this piece started. I happened to mention one day that I was a chili freak, and my editor says: "You know Chasen's used to be a chili joint. Why not find out if there's a good bowl of chili in San Francisco."

That did it.

I have now gone through about eighteen bowls of chili in The City, and I haven't found one yet that ranks much higher than the lunch counter chili at Union Staiton in Chicago.

But there is at least one good bowl of chili in San Francisco, in an unexpected place. More about that later.

In the Mission District small authentic Mexican and Central American restaurants abound, yet you won't find an outstanding bowl of chili.

Why? Frederico Hernandez explains: "Chili? You mean salsa. That's what we call chili. If you are talking about a Mexican dish. Chili con carne is an anglo dish. You will not find much chili con carne in the Mission."

Verdad. He speaks the truth.

At one of the most respected Mexican restaurans in the Mission, Guadalajara de Noche, 2981 24th Street, chili beans is not on the menu. A waitress looked confused when I asked for some.

At Mario's, a fine little Mexican restaurant on the corner of Bush and Taylor Streets, there is likewise no chili. Chili rellenos, yes. But chili con carne, no.

Some of the popular Americanized Mexican restaurants in the Avenues - El Sombrero and Tia Margarita on Nineteenth Avenue - serve what San Franciscans have come to think of as good Mexican food. But they have no chili of the Wick Fowler or H. Allen Smith variety.

You can get an occasional bowl of chili beans on Mission Street, however at El Zocalo, 3230 Mission, at The Chili Bowl, Mission and 22nd Street. And on 24th Street at 2817, the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor. Except for the latter, one suspects the chili beans came out of a can, like Hormel's. There are of course many other places in the Mission and many small places on Howard Street and all over town that serve chili beans. They're from a can and an honest cook will tell you so.

One proprietor of a small Howard Street establishment admitted: "Ours is from a can - Monarch. Sometimes we make it here, but it's a lot of work. Good chili you have to cook a long itme." He adds that most customers can't tell the difference anyway.

He's wrong. Any discriminating chili eater can tell the difference immediately. And there are some experts who can even tell you the brand name of the chili powder used in the recipe.

No decent bowl of chili in San Francisco? There may be others, but I have found only one. In a restaurant that has the honesty to use real diced beef, instead of taking the ground meat shortcut. And pinto instead of red beans.

The place is Talmale Joe's. It's hidden away at 203 Stevenson Alley, off Third Street. Open for lunch only. Afficionados call it simply "Joe's". Some fans claim Joe has the best chili rellenos in town; others show up weekly for the chili colorado, served only Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Strictly speaking, the chili colorado is not a bowl of chili. It comes on a plate with rice and beans on the side. But the meat and sauce is almost identical to that in Joe's dish called chili beans.

This masterpiece arrives steaming hot in a standard size chili bowl full to the brim with tender beans and diced beef, seasoned just enough so that you know you're eating the real thing.

There is still another chili dish at Joe's: straight chili. This is simply and beautifully the sauce, the beef. No beans. There are customers who work at Pacific Telephone and other offices in the neighborhood who swear by Joe's straight chili and chili beans, giving them the highest accolade of all:

"Better than I make at home."

This is one thing all chili freaks have in common. They've all tried making it at home, controlling the ingredients and cooking time and seasoning themselves to suit an exacting taste.

One of the best homemade chili recipes is this one based on the Wick Fowler recipe, but toned down from the original four-alarm firehouse concoction to maybe three alarms. Even at that you are advised to have some cold beer standing by if the roof of your mouth is tender.

(serves eight)

1 1/2 C pinto beans * 3 slices bacon * 1 1/2 lbs. chuck, diced into 1/2 inch cubes * 1 clove garlic, split * 1 T flower * 1 C tomatoes, peeled and sliced * 1 1/2 T. chili powder * 1 T. salt.

Wash beans, cover with cold water and let stand overnight. Next day, drain beans and place in large saucepan with two quarts of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer about one-and -a-half hours. Drain and reserve one cup lidquid.

Cut up bacon slices, saute in Dutch oven two minutes. Add meat which has been browned and drained of all but one tablespoon of grease. In separate pan saute onion and garlic until tender, about five minutes. Mix in flour and add bean liquid, tomatoes, chili powder and salt. Add meat and bacon and simmer covered for one hour. Then, add beans and simmer one hour more, or until meat is tender.

The above recipe is peculiar in that it must be followed exactly to obtain top results. Even minor deviations destroy the delicate balance. Also it is wise to remember that while it is easy to add chili powder to make the dish hotter, it is impossible to take it out. Be careful.

There is a variation that some chili freaks claim is acceptable, even necessary. They add one teaspoon of mashed cumin seed to the onion and garlic before simmering. This produces a distinctly South of the Border flavor that you may find desirable.

Fanny Farmer, the Boston lady and cookbook writer, has a recipe for chili con carne that calls for red kidney beans instead of the authentic pinto beans. She also allows the use of tomato juice instead of fresh whole tomatoes. This is pure blasphemy, and a transgression serious enough to get her cookbook banned in Brewster County, Texas.

Of course there are differences of opinion amoung chili experts. H. Allen Smith insisted the final product be of a soupy consistency. Fowler leans toward the meat stew school of thought.

Both are very careful with the potent chili powder. Too careful for a true chili freak.

My own feeling is that I want to know I'm eating highly seasoned chili. I want to feel the perspiration jump out on my forehead, and then reach for the cold bottle of Carta Blanca or Dos Equis beer.

A bowl of proper chili is not a dish for the timid. It is for the brave. And you worry about the bicarbonate of soda later.

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle April 1973