Wayne's Texas Chili Odyssey

I'm eating my way across Texas! I hope I last that long. If you have a suggestion for a Texas chili I should try, please let me know!

I provide an "Overall" rating for each dish. What does it mean?

0/5 - I might get sued for saying what I really thought.
1/5 - Edible, but I probably wouldn't order it again.
2/5 - Enjoyed it. This dish would cross my mind if I were in a chili mood.
3/5 - I would drive somewhere just to eat this chili.
4/5 - I would take friends to try this chili, even if they had made fun of me in the past.
5/5 - I would ask the waiter for a wine recommendation, and leave a tip for the chef.

I might refine this rating system as time goes on. After all, I haven't found a "4/5" yet. So, on to the reviews...

Blue Moon Mexican Cafe, Manhattan - April 15, 2007
Waterloo Ice House, Austin - April 28, 2006
Dirty Martin's Kum-bak Place, Austin - April 11, 2006
Dog Almighty!, Austin - March 31, 2006
Alamo Draft House, Austin - November 25, 2005
Jim's Frontier Restaurant, Austin - October 27th, 2005
Texas Chili Parlor, Austin - October 21, 2005
Texas Land and Cattle Company, San Antonio - October 15, 2005
Shady Grove, Austin - October 14, 2005
Rover's Pub, Austin - October 11, 2005
Coming soon:
Phil's Ice House, Austin
The Iron Works Barbaque, Austin
Deluxe Dinner, College Station

Blue Moon Mexican Cafe, Manhattan - April 15, 2007

Yes, you read that right - Manhattan. (I can see the Pace Picante commercial in my head: "New York City?!") My wife and I went there to visit our daughter (and enjoy the fine Nor'easter), and we had occasion to sample a smorgasbord of ethnic cuisines. There were eight choices within two blocks of our hotel on 8th Ave, and Blue Moon was among them. Seeing chili (three kinds!) on the menu, I was honor-bound to try one, and chose the "Full Moon" variety. It was served with sides of cheese, sour cream, jalepenos, big, toasted flour torillas, chips and salsa, all for 6.99 (!). (The margarita eight bucks! How's that figure?) Here's what it looked like: Oops, haha, it looked so good I forgot to snap before I ate! Heaping bowl of very large chunks of falling-apart sirloin, in slightly thin brown gravy, nice aroma. Hot, crisp chips and great salsa.

Meat: very tender large chunks lean sirloin.
Taste: 2/5 - very mild chile aroma, too mild, reallyy. Small chopped onions but no tomato in sight or taste. Little or no cumin taste.
Texture: 4/5 - Tender meat, thin but tasty gravey.
Heat: 4/5 - hot! Who'd a thought?
Overall: 3/5
Aftermath: Yum! I couldn't stop eating the chips after.

Could have used a little more chile flavor, and richer gravy, but this was perhaps the best meal of chili I've had in a restaurant, much to my chagrin. We Texans need to stop resting on our laurals, and start taking our state dish more seriously.

Interestingly, chili can be had all over Manhattan, but I had too many other things to sample for this trip (like, um, Italian?) In any case, Blue Moon serves great looking Mexican dishes, which, sadly, I didn't have time to try. So many restaurants, so little time! I plan to return someday, and you should definitely put it on your NY itenerary.

Based on my short experience, New Yorkers love to eat, and they don't put up with mediocre food or slow service! We didn't find any - a testament to the power of free markets. When another restaurant is only thirty steps in any direction, only the strong survive!

Did I mention that I love New York?

Waterloo Ice House, Austin - April 28, 2006

Waterloo Ice House has been serving homemade burger-type fare in Austin for thirty years ("Since the Hippies Showed Up".) An early live-music venue, there are six locations in Austin.

Their chili was recently recommended to me by a reader, and durned if my boss didn't show up today and say, "we're going to Waterloo for lunch!" Alrighty, then!

I had the $3.99 cup of chili ($5.99 for the bowl.) Comes with onions and grated cheddar. Very nice red color, with a nice sheen.

Meat: very tender gound beef, with larger chunks.
Taste: 3/5 - strong chile aroma, well seasoned, no discernable onions and tomato. Little or no cumin taste.
Texture: 4/5 - Smooth red gravy, very thick, variety of meat chunk sizes.
Heat: 1/5 - mild.
Overall: 4/5
Aftermath: I shoulda' ordered the bowl.

I had to take a second bite to convince myself I wasn't imagining things. This is perhaps the best restaurant chili I've tasted so far. Strong but just-right chili flavor, not shy on salt. I held the spoon sideways and it didn't want to fall.

Interestingly, it had chunks of that mysterious meat I found at Texas Land and Cattle - not gound, not solid, who knows? However, there were only enough of them to give a variety of size and texture. So, a tentative 4/5, which automatically requires a re-tasting. In fact, I think a re-tasting is in order for most of the entries so far, just to make sure I'm not going soft in the head!

Dirty Martin's Kum-bak Place, Austin - April 11, 2006

Dirty Martin's is celebrating it's 80th anniversary as an Austin and University of Texas landmark. In the old car-hop tradition, they serve burgers, shakes, onion rings, etc, all of fresh ingredients and original recipes.

I didn't plan a chili outing here, it just happened on accident. Oh happy fate!

I had the $3.00 cup of chili ($5.25 for the bowl.) Comes with grated cheese..

Meat: very tender course ground beef sholder (I believe.).
Taste: 3/5 - good aroma, well seasoned, onions and tomato.
Texture: 3/5 - Smooth gravy, variety of small meat chunk sizes.
Heat: 1/5 - mild.
Overall: 3/5
Aftermath: More, please!.

Yummy! Great meat and balance. Could use more cumin and heat. This chili is also served on burgers and frito pie (so I'll have to be going back, soon.)

Dog Almighty!, Austin - March 31, 2006

Dog Almighty! is a new addition to the Austin scene; a weiner-specialty restaurant that caters to hotdog lovers and fun times. Their shop is set in the center of the Austin-Travis County Farmer's Market, has free ping pong, foosball, and outdoor patio. It's a favorite destination for soccer and baseball teams out for an after-game snack.

DogAlmighty has a fleet of New York-style hot dog carts for parties and events, and puts an emphasis on healthy food - they have a vegetarian version of everything on their menu. Their claim to chili fame is second-place finish in the 16th Annual Lone Star Vegetarian Chili Cook-Off, but they have a meat chili for their dogs and serve it by the bowl.

The bowl of red is modest but inexpensive ($2.99), with fine-grated cheese and onions. (I ordered mine without for tasting purposes.) Presentation is fast-food-like. Nice red color.

Meat: very tender ground beef.
Taste: 4/5 - excellent aroma, with definite cumin and chile. Well seasoned, with detectable cooked onions.
Texture: 2/5 - Smooth, nice gravy
Heat: 1/5 - mild, just right for the kids.
Overall: 3/5
Aftermath: I'll have another, please.

I was very impressed with this chili. The other chili's I've had whose service is mainly as a topping usually don't stand on their own too well, but this is a great stand-alone bowl of red. Now I have to go back and try the vegetarian version, and their home-made saurkraut, and their home-made corn dog, and ....

Alamo Draft House, Austin - November 25, 2005

The Alamo Draft House is nothing less than the way we will go out to the movies in the 21st century. A small chain of cinemas started in Austin, Texas, the Drafthouse has evolved from a small, quirky film and special event restaurant cinema into a large, crowded, immensely popular quirky film and special event restaurant cinema!

It takes a lot of ongoing originality and imagination to keep a concept like this going, not to mention good food and drink. I've had a number of really tasty dishes here, including a four-course French meal at a Mother's Day presentation of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, so I had some high expectations for their chili.

The "cup" of chili was $4.99, but was a nice-sized, well-filled bowl. The presentation was, well, burger-like. A bowl of chili in a plastic burger basket, topped by a little grated cheddar and a slice of red onion, accompanied by a cold parmesan roll. (A nod, I suppose, to the difficulty of serving food in the total dark on narrow counters while bending over so as not to obstruct the view.) It was too dark to see the color, and I detected no vegetables.

Meat: very tender, large chunks of lean sirloin. Beautiful!
Taste: 4/5 - good aroma, but I could not detect any cumin. Strong chili flavor- almost overpowering, depending on your mood. Lovely meat. Well seasoned.
Texture: 3/5 - Smooth, with enough broth to encompass the meat (which must be cut up to eat politely.)
Heat: 2/5 - spicy, but not hot. The full flavor could have supported a little more heat.
Overall: 3/5
Aftermath: A tums or two will do ya.

The overall rating may be a little understated - I really loved this chili, and I wish I could have seen it better. The meat should be in bite-sized chunks; it's hard to manage the large chunks in the dark. It should also come with a more compatible bread - cornbread or tortilla or even crackers. The roll was simply out of place.

There are lots of appropriate beers to go with your chili - I had the Negro Modelo.

Jim's Frontier Restaurant, Austin - October 27, 2005

Jim's Frontier Restaurant (now called just "Jim's Restaurant") is a Texas chain that has been around for over fifty years. It reputedly started as a watermelon concession in San Antonio's Brackenridge Park in 1947. How soon after they started serving chili, I don't know yet, but they certainly have the right credentials.

I started going to Jim's as a teenager - they were one of the few late-night joints in what was then the sleepy burg of Austin. Not much has changed about the restaurants since then. Strange that this is the first time I've actually tried their chili as a stand-alone dish. (The chili and eggs has long been a favorite of mine.)

The chili is served with fine-grated cheddar, onions, and saltines. At $3.99 for the bowl, it's a bargain. Chunky ground beef in a rich brown gravy, a little fat at the edges (just right), no discernable veggies.

Meat: tender ground beef in course-sized chunks.
Taste: 3/5. No cumin aroma, very well-balanced seasoning, neither bitter nor sweet.
Texture: 2/5 - meat is good for ground, no fat or gristle. Smooth gravy.
Heat: 1/5 very mild
Overall: 3/5
Aftermath: I want more!

I ordered both chili and the tortilla soup. When I finished the chili, I wanted a refill. I would have licked the bowl at home. I will return and ask the manager about the ingredients, etc when I have time.

This is not a chili that will "knock your socks off". No sirens go off, no lights flash, just the constant dipping of the spoon, satisfaction repeated.

Jim's is one of those places that, on Saturday morning, you see a crowd that has obviously been going there for decades. The breakfast tacos are legendary, and the menu has a lot of variety. One of the few places that serve liver and onions, which is now on my agenda. The tortilla soup was great.

Texas Chili Parlor, Austin - October 21, 2005

The Texas Chili Parlor is what we in Texas would lovingly call a "dive". Walls covered in nick-nacks, stickers, and signs, well-worn, well-beloved. Just a few blocks from the Texas capitol building, it has served chili and TexMex to the high and the low for almost thirty years.

The TCP serves it's bowl of red in three heat levels: X, XX, and XXX. I had the dos equis, size small, since this was price-level with the other chilis I've tried - $5.75. In spite of this, it was a generous serving, and the first I've had that "looked" like the stereotypical bowl of chili. Large chunks of beef in a redish brown gravy, served with onions and jalepenos. My cheese was extra, but I'm not sure why. No apparent vegetables involved.

Meat: tender chunks from large 1" to 1/4".
Taste: 1/5. No cumin aroma, no tomoto, strong and slightly bitter chili taste, no balancing sweetness, slightly under-salted.
Texture: 3/5 - meat is tender, only one small piece of gristle. Gravy a little coarse.
Heat: 2/5 mild
Overall: 1/5
Aftermath: tums for desert

I really wanted to like this chili, because it looked so damn good, but I came away conflicted. The waiter opined that the meat was brisket and that there was tomato paste involved. If that was the case it would be saltier and sweeter, but I think it has little or no tomato or anything else, and is made of beef shoulder or similar cut. I think it just has too much chili powder; the gritty feel, bitter taste, and digestive after-effects point this way.

You can get the chili over tamales, enchiladas, and probably anything else. I saw a lot of great-looking food go by. They also serve three types of "bean" chili, one of which is black-bean with Elgin sausage, which I might be tempted to try. Not technically chili, but sounds good anyway...

Texas Land and Cattle Company, San Antonio - October 15, 2005

Texas Land and Cattle Co. is chain steakhouse with Texas locations, plus one in Albuquerque. They serve the expected meaty dishes with interesting sides, salads and soups. (The baked or mashed sweet potatoe is a favorite with my family.)

The TXLC Chili is served with onions, cheddar cheese, and jalepenos, with a dash of fresh parsley. It is brown and meaty, with no obvious vegetables.

Meat: very tender small chunks of ??
Taste: 1/5. No cumin aroma, no tomoto, straightforward chili taste, no balancing sweetness.
Texture: 3/5 - meat is very tender, in small chunks, no gristle or fat.
Heat: 1/5 very mild
Overall: 1/5
Aftermath: no problemo

This chili is somewhat mysterious. I can't quite fiqure out the meat. I tried forking it apart, and it is apparently not cubed whole meat, but it's not simply ground beef, either. It's as if they grilled their chopped sirloin steak and then cubed it up to make chili with. (Intriguing idea!) There are grill marks on some of the meat chunks.

If TXLC wanted a chili that you could eat with dentures, this would be it. It was pleasant but with no signature elements or other character.

Shady Grove, Austin - October 14, 2005

Shady Grove is another 90's origin eatery, modeled after the Texas state parks architecture of the '40s - rustic block stone and lots of wood. Good "diner" food; hot dogs, burgers, chicken-fried steaks, the "Hippie" sandwich. Features "Airstream" Chili (presumably named after the Airstream trailers often found in the former trailer park the site inhabits near Town Lake.)

"The Grove" is a popular Austin spot, with live music at "KGSR'S Unplugged at the Grove" on Thursdays during the summer, and old movies under the stars.

The Airstream Chili is advertised as being made with sirloin and 10 kinds of peppers. It's served with a flour tortilla, topped with onions, cheese, and jalepenos. It's not particularly red in color, certainly not greasy. There's not much meat, and not a large serving size. There are large chunks of tomato, and dicernable onions. Where the ten types of peppers are, I can't say.

Meat: ground sirloin
Taste: 2/5. No cumin aroma, sweet tomatos
Texture: 1/5 - meat could be more tender, has some gristle. Tomatos are tender, large chunks.
Heat: 1/5 very mild
Overall: 1/5
Aftermath: no problemo

This chili is wonderful over other stuff. I've tried it on the burger, hot dog, fries, and frito pie. However, as a stand-alone chili, it could use more and better beef and more attention. It doesn't compete with the other great dishes.

Rover's Pub, Austin - October 11, 2005

Rover's is an Irish/Texas pub - good food, a little live music, lot's of beers on tap and otherwise. It migrated to Austin from Houston in the early '90's, and has been serving beer diversity to North Austin ever since.

Chili is served with saltines, topped with onion, cheddar cheese and jalapenos. Nice red color, not greasy. Lot's of sauce compared to meat. Dicernable chopped onions.$4.59

Meat: ground chuck
Taste: 2/5. No cumin aroma.
Texture: 2/5 - could be more tender
Heat: 2/5
Overall: 2/5 (works as a whole)
Aftermath: all's well

I tried the new Shiner 96 Octoberfest beer with the chili. I'm not a Shiner fan, but this one is no joke - a great Marzen-style ale that I plan on ordering again.

P.S. Try the pizza, it's divine!

wallen@prismnet.com

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