I had been inspired by freshly baked organic whole grain breads, fresh seafood, free-range poultry, and rows and rows of vibrant produce in every color in Mother Nature's palette. As we were walking out of the Milwaukee Public Market, I asked expectantly, "Where are we having lunch?"
LOL! Guys are funny like that.
The thing is, I wasn't the least bit disappointed. It was cold and windy outside. The sky was turning the color of hard boiled egg yolks when they're cooked too fast and too long - greenish gray - and it was starting to drizzle. It was miserable midwest autumn weather, but perfect for a steaming hot bowl of greasy, spicy, totally-bad-for-your-body but totally-good-for-your-brain chili.
Even without the weather, I was pretty excited at the prospect of going back to an all-chili restaurant. I grew up on chili. I love chili. I make chili. If ever such a girl existed, then I am a chili girl. There are a few chili places in LA, and I even went to the chili cook-off at the Beverly Hills Farmers' Market. But come on, chili in Beverly Hills?! Bev. Ur. Lee. 90210. Kelly and Brenda never ate chili. And Donna? Her enormous horse head would have toppled her anorexic body if she even caught a glimpse of all that beef and fat.
I grew up in San Antonio, Texas and chili was beefy with steak, chunky with beans and vegetables and spicy. Served Tex-Mex style with guacamole, sour cream, and a heavenly dose of jalapenos, a bowl of chili was a meal by itself. I spent my high school days in Cincinnati, Ohio, home of Montgomery Inn ribs, Graeter's Ice Cream and...Skyline Chili. There was Gold Star Chili, too, but I think Skyline was the one where we didn't have to cross busy Montgomery Road. ;) Cincinnati style chili took some getting used to after the Tex Mex brand that I had eaten for almost 10 years. It's beefy with ground beef, not cubes of steak, there are no beans in the chili though you could order beans as a topping, and wasn't spicy at all in terms of heat. It was almost sweet, and to this day, I am absolutely certain that Cincinnati puts cinnamon in their chili. The strangest thing of all to me was that they served chili over spaghetti noodles. I used to get the 3-way, a bowl of spaghetti topped with the sweet cinnamon-y chili, cheese that had been shredded into strands as long as the spaghetti noodles, and fresh chopped onions. I can feel the heartburn bubbling up just thinking about it.
We walked into the Real Chili fairly late in the afternoon, long past any expected lunch rush, and the place was still about half-full. There was a family of five sitting at one of the long, cafeteria-style tables with stool bolted to the ground, and everyone else was sitting at the counter that swooped down one side, held the register in the curved end, then swooped back up the other side, enclosing the center where the orders are put together. We stood back from the counter a bit to review the menu board hanging high on the back wall. It's not too complicated. You order a bowl of chili in mild, medium, or spicy, then select toppings: beans, cheese, onions, and sour cream. Prices increase by a few cents with each step up in spiciness, but what the hell! This is vacation so give me the spicy! Let's go all out with everything on it! Sometimes I get all crazy big-pimpin' like that. ;)
The tiny teenage pixie of a thing with bleached blonde, spiky hair who took our order also put it together. I watched as she trotted back in Dickies folded over at the waist to keep them up from her ratty Jack Purcells. She threw a tangled mess of spaghetti noodles into a bowl that didn't look big enough to hold the soupy beans she poured on top. Her bony, tattooed arm almost disappeared into the pot when she stuck a long-handled ladle down into the tall silver vat of chili. The final touch was an afro of neon yellow cheese. When she came back and dropped the bowl onto the paper-lined plastic elementary school cafeteria tray, I marvelled that a stray strand of spaghetti, a rebel bean, a single drop of shimmering crimson oil didn't drop from the bowl. She's done this a hundred times. And that was just today during lunch.
Chopped onions came in a tiny bowl on the side, along with a bowl of oyster crackers. I love those tiny, powdery, flour-y hexagon crackers, but they're usually partnered with clam chowder, not chili. Not even in Cincinnati, though I do remember Dill-lites from my Cincinnati days - I can't remember the restauarant, but they had the best oyster crackers that were flavored with sea salt and dill. Strange what we remember. Oyster crackers with chili! Only in...Milwaukee.
The cheese on top was at that point just before truly melting into ooze, where it still maintains its original individual shape, but has softened into a glimmering, translucent yellow that clings to whatever lumps and bumps of beans and beef are underneath. Liquid fat had separated out from the chili and created an oily red halo around the edge of the bowl, making the entire thing look less like a bowl of chili and more like a bowl of red oil soup garnished with ground beef and beans. I almost had no idea where to begin. Almost. I threw the chopped onions on top, took the spoon,
and went straight for the chili's jugular - right down the middle. My spoon was a sloppy mess of short noodles, barely anchored by the chili in the spoon's bowl, and longer noodles tumbling back down into the bowl, unable to hang on against all the oil. There was no way I was going to be able to be a lady about this.
The noodles were very soft - no gourmet "al dente" here. The chili was good, obviously very oily, but not as spicy as I would have expected. Real Chili's tables have condiments, but I wasn't confident that adding more oil, even oil that had been infused with chilis, would improve the heat level. The onions added a freshness and mildly sweet spiciness that comes from fresh white onions. The best bites were the ones that were a little bit of the chili beef and mostly cheese and onions.
This may sound absolutely disgusting, but after all the noodles were gone and all that was left in the bowl was a 3 inch circle of oil with the chilli dregs, I dumped in the rest of the oyster crackers. I ate one. It was, oddly enough, pretty good. It kind of tasted like a cracker that had been deep fried in beef lard. LOL! I didn't taste more than one, though.
Real Chili was good for a cold, gray, rainy afternoon in Milwaukee, but I'm not sure that I'd eat there under any other circumstances because the chili was much oilier than any Cincinnati chili, Skyline or otherwise, and nowhere near as spicy as the Texas chilis. Then again, when I had originally asked about lunch, he had answered "Real Chili," then followed it with, "It's so good after drinking."
OoooOOOoooh. I see.
419 East Wells Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202