Tuesday, November 30, 2010

History of Dixie Chili

It is appropriate that the first stop on the quest after Empress is Dixie Chili. If Empress is the father of Cincinnati style chili, then Dixie is one of its sons. Eighty years ago an employee of Empress Chili, Nicholas Sarakatsannis, decided to leave Empress and set up his own parlor and give birth to a new flavor of Cincinnati chili.

As a teenager Sarakatsannis escaped to the U.S. from Greece, a country in violent battle with Turkey at the time. He worked in Greater Cincinnati area candy stores and hot dog stands as a young man until he became an employee at Empress Chili.

Seeing the potential in this product and believing he could improve the recipe, he decided to start up his own chili parlor in Newport. Despite having been founded at the beginning of the Great Depression, his restaurant has not only survived the test of time, it has thrived. Dixie now has two additional locations in Erlanger and Covington, and can be found at local grocery stores. The original location is now the oldest chili parlor in Northern Kentucky.

Dixie Chili, the pride of the Sarakatsannis family, boasts its thick, spicy, and freshly made chili. It is made in the Newport Commissary by Sarakatsannis's sons who maintain the original, and very secret, family recipe. Since the beginning of the quest, Dixie Chili has been one of the most recommended by readers. We will soon find out if Dixie lives up to its reputation.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cincy Coney Quest Stop #2

For the most part the process of choosing what order the Cincinnati Coney Quest will go on is random. We put all the chili parlor names on slips of paper and draw the name from a hat. Only exceptions to this are making Empress stop #1 and planning on doing Gold Star and Skyline later in the quest since we are more accustomed to that taste.

Today was the first drawing of the quest...

...and the 2nd parlor will be:

Quest stop #2 will once again take us across the border, to try out Northern Kentucky's very popular Dixie Chili.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cincinnati Coney Quest on Social Media

Not only can you follow the Coney Quest here on blogger, we are also active in social media. If you are on Twitter or Facebook, click on the links below to follow us in the social media world.

Twitter: @CincyConeyQuest

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cincinnati-Coney-Quest/120163264714334

We also have our Twitter feed and Facebook fan badge on the right side of the blog. You can also share our articles on various social media sites via the Share This button on the bottom of each post.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Poll: How do you like your coney?

There are a couple of ways one can enjoy their cheese coney. This blog is a perfect example of this as I prefer mine plain (just chili, cheese, hot dog and bun) while Alison prefers hers with everything (onions and mustard). So how do you like your coney? Just plain? All the fixings? Just onions or just mustard? Or do you like to add a different ingredient from the norm such as "The Aligator" does at Dixie Chili (Aligator features mayo and a pickle spear)?

Answer the poll on the right side of this page. If your choice is "Other", let us know what you like to add to your coney.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Empress Chili (Alexandria) Review

Empress Chili is the originator of Cincinnati Chili. Because of this we both really wanted to love Empress. Unfortunately Empress failed to impress. Yes that witty pun was intended. We did not dislike Empress, in fact there was some stuff we really liked, but we both walked out thinking it could be a lot better.

Before we get to our thoughts of the coneys, some background information of the restaurant.

Empress Chili is counter service, which means you walk up to the counter and order, no waiters or waitresses. Then you take your food to your table. The restaurant has a cafeteria/fast food restaurant feel to it. It's fairly nondescript, there is a photo of the original Empress behind the counter, a couple of wreath like decorations on the walls. The restaurant was clean, well lit and (even though a Kentucky location) non-smoking.

The menu was a combination of standard Cincy chili parlor and deli. One side of the menu had your 2/3/4/5 way's, cheese coneys, something called a "spagoney" which I'm not exactly sure what it is but assume its some sort of coney/way combination and chili pizza. The other side of the menu featured various deli sandwiches if you aren't having a chili craving. If you have room for desert they also have milkshakes and cookies. If beverages are important to you when choosing a chili parlor Empress has Pepsi products, iced tea and even coffee if you want a little pick me up with your chili. The prices were reasonable, with a coney costing $1.60, however if you like oyster crackers with your chili they will cost you 25 cents. They also have a white board which features their weekly specials.

Clint's Review

I grew up in Mount Lookout right down the street from an Empress Chili (which is now Ramundo's Pizza). Even though it was only a minute walk to Empress, whenever my family went out for chili they chose Skyline. After finally seeing what Empress has to offer I can see why they passed on the convenience of Empress. Its not that Empress was bad, it just felt very incomplete.

I mentioned above there were things to like about Empress. Mainly it was the buns. They were very soft and tasted like some of the most fresh hot dog buns I have had. They were also thick enough to be able to handle many toppings. The buns were so good I want to go back and ask if I can just buy a pack of them for next time I am having hot dogs.  The cheese was also good and you got plenty of it.

The problem I had with the Empress coneys was the chili, or really lack there of. From what I can tell the chili tasted fine, not quite as sweet as other Cincinnati chili, but wasn't a bad taste. Unfortunately it was kind of hard to get a good judge of the taste because they didn't put a lot of it on the coney. There were a couple of bites I took that tasted like I was just eating a hot dog topped with cheese. At first I wondered if maybe the chili was just bland and I wasn't noticing the flavor (which could still be part of it), so I took a closer look at my half eaten coney and noticed there just wasn't a lot of chili there. Typically I'm a pretty messy coney eater, but my plate was fairly clean afterward. You will see a little bit of chili dripping out of a coney in my picture to the right, which would make you think the coney was overflowing with chili, but the picture is deceiving and that may have been half the chili that was originally in the coney.

One other improvement I would make is Empress, at least this location, should do a better job promoting its history. The only mentions of it being Cincy's first parlor are the small sized cups which say "Cincinnati's Original Chili" and the photo behind the counter. I'm no interior decorator, but I would have old photo's throughout the restaurant and have more references to it being the original Cincinnati chili parlor. A big reason why people would visit Empress is because of its history. Embrace and promote the history, let patrons know as soon as they walk in that this is the originator of Cincy chili. The interior was so bland it felt like a work cafeteria.

Overall Empress was very "meh". It certainly isn't bad, and I think with some tweaks here and there it could be good. It will get a chance to redeem itself later when we run the grocery store bought portion of the quest, as you can buy Empress frozen at select stores. For now I give Empress a 2.5 out of 5.

Alison's Review

The best part of this coney was most definitely the bun.  The bread tasted fresh-baked and was melt-in-your-mouth soft.  When loaded up, it didn't become soggy or fall apart at the seam.

It was a very neat coney, and aside from the mounds of cheese on top, I didn't lose any of it on the plate. That being said, the amount of chili was greatly lacking.  The bun definitely could have handled more.  I really can't comment on the quality of the chili itself because I couldn't taste it.  It was completely lost under the strong white onions and potent mustard. The onions and mustard should bring out the flavors of good chili, not mask it.

The cheese and hot dog were fairly average.  Nothing bad about them.

There was a steady stream of customers, so there is obviously a good deal of loyalty to Empress, but I couldn't tell you what die-hard fans name as the stand-out quality or feature of their beloved chili.  There is a lot to be said for the history, but as Clint said, so little evidence of this in the restaurant.

Partially due to the food, but even more so due to the locations, I can't foresee myself going out of my way to visit Empress Chili again.  I give Empress a 2 out of 5.

Empress Chili on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 21, 2010

History of Empress Chili

Stop #1 of the Cincinnati Coney Quest brought us to Empress Chili. We chose to go to Empress first because Empress Chili is the originator of Cincinnati Style chili. In 1922, brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff created their iconic chili by experimenting with a Greek style stew over hot dogs and spaghetti at their hot dog stand which was located next to the Empress Burlesque Theater on Vine, between 8th and 9th street. The original location is no more, but there are three parlors remaining: Alexandria, Delhi and Hartwell. You can also find Empress Chili in the frozen food isle of various tri-state grocery stores.

Without Empress Chili, two of Cincinnati's beloved chili parlors would not exist. Dixie Chili and Skyline Chili were both created by former Empress employees who tweaked the Empress recipe to create their own brand.  Even though Empress is the first Cincinnati chili parlor, it does not have the market share of chili kings Skyline and Gold Star, however, owner Jim Papakirk would like to change that. In an interview with Cincy Magazine, Papakirk indicated that he would like to expand Empress beyond its current locations and put Empress back on the Cincinnati chili map.

Tomorrow we will share our reviews of Empress Chili (Alexandria) and if we felt the original Cincinnati chili stands up today.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The 2010-11 Cincinnati Coney Quest Tour

Over the next 3-4 months the Cincinnati Coney Quest will be going to the following chili parlors (list in no particular order):

Empress Chili - 3 locations, we will go to either Alexandria or Delhi
Skyline Chili - multiple locations, we will go to Clifton (Ludlow)
Gold Star Chili - multiple locations, we will go to Mt Washington
Blue Ash Chili - Blue Ash
Pleasant Ridge Chili - Pleasant Ridge
Price Hill Chili - Price Hill
Chili Time - St. Bernard
Dixie Chili - multiple locations, we will go to Newport
Camp Washington Chili - Camp Washington
U.S. Chili - Camp Washington
Delhi Chili - Delhi
Covington Chili - Covington

We don't have a set order that we are following but we do know the first parlor on the tour will be Empress. Since its the first Cincinnati Chili parlor its only right to begin the quest there. If there are any parlors or restaurants we missed please notify us and it will be added to the list.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is that it?...wait, this is DELICIOUS!

Most out-of-towners cannot spend a single day in Cincinnati without being asked at least three times "Have you tried Cincinnati Chili yet?" But as a newbie to the city, I managed to spend an entire year without tasting this Cincinnati staple.

It was not that I was opposed to it. But when I arrived in town five years ago start my music degree at UC, I was immersed into the music conservatory lifestyle where nearly all my freshmen peers were from out of state and were equally as clueless about 5-Ways and Cheese Coneys. Little did we know that in a few years most of us would be stumbling out of Ludlow Avenue bars after last call to wait in the freezing cold to get into Skyline, which on Saturday nights required a bouncer at the door to keep the restaurant under capacity.*

However, it took me and my classmates awhile to get on the bandwagon, and In the beginning we blundered through our first experiences. Twirling our spaghetti instead of cutting it with a fork. Having to look at the menu to remember the difference between a 4-Way and a 5-Way. And even after becoming bold enough to bring home a can of store-bought chili to prepare for ourselves, there would still be someone there to correct us when we tried to pour the chili in the bun before putting the hot dog in.

My personal first experiences with the food were similar to what many others have explained to me as The Three Stages:

First Cincinnati Chili Experience -- "Meh, I don't see what the big deal is. Actually, this stuff is kind of gross."

Second Cincinnati Chili Experience -- "Hm. This isn't so bad."

Third Cincinnati Chili Experience -- "I am prepared to eat this every day for the rest of my life! What do they put in this stuff?!"

Some will claim to have enjoyed it the very first time, but ultimately we all end up as addicts.

The unfortunate side of my love for Cheese Coneys is that I've only ever eaten Skyline. In fact, I was hardly aware of any other legitimate chili parlors besides Goldstar or Skyline until recently, when a peer of mine proclaimed that he much rather preferred Price Hill Chili over Skyline. It made me realize that I need to experience the many chili options this city has to offer even if it means venturing out to Price Hill...just kidding westsiders.

Well, Clint and I are up for the challenge, and what could make us better loyalists to the 513 than a Cincinnati Chili Tour?

*For the record Clint and I have vowed to undergo Coney Quest in a sober state so as to avoid an alcohol induced variable of "OH MY GOD! This is the best cheese coney I've EVER eaten!"

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What is Cincinnati Chili?

When someone visits Cincinnati one of the first questions they will ask is, what exactly is "Cincinnati Style" chili? This isn't always an easy question to answer since the true recipes are kept pretty secret, but I will attempt to explain the uniqueness of our beloved hometown food.

First thing one should know is, it isn't really chili, at least not in the technical sense as most know it. There are no chili peppers in our version of chili. So if one is expecting a Tex-Mex style chili on their hot dog or spaghetti they are going to be disappointed. I like to say its a chili-like sauce for hot dogs and spaghetti. You aren't gonna kick back and enjoy a bowl of Cincy chili on a cold winters day. It's a different kind of "chili" and that is ok. Although I've never tried it, I don't think I would enjoy Tex-Mex Chili over spaghetti, so Cincy chili works they way its intended to.

Aside from the lack of chili powder, a big difference between Cincinnati chili and traditional chili is Cincinnati chili is more sweet in taste.  This is due to ingredients such as cinnamon and chocolate being incorporated. I personally have never bitten into a cheese coney and though, wow this is chocolatey and meaty! But the sweetness is noticeable.

A common label I've seen applied to Cincinnati chili is that its Greek. That is true to an extent. Cincinnati style chili was first concocted by two Greek immigrates, Tom and John Kiradjieff. Like many chefs they were experimenting with different foods to drum up business at their hot dog stand, and ended up modifying a traditional stew like food from their homeland of Greece and served it over hot dogs and spaghetti.  They then turned the hot dog stand into the first Cincinnati chili parlor, Empress Chili. So yes, Cincinnati style chili does have some Greek backgrounds, however don't expect to go to Greece with hopes of finding cheese coneys and 3/4/5-ways. It truly is a Cincinnati food.

As someone who was born and raised in Cincinnati, all of this sounds completely normal and delicious to me. However out-of-towners think oppositely and can need some convincing to give our brand of chili a try. Alison is one of those transplants and will later describe her initials thoughts of Cincinnati chili and how she became a fellow cheese coney enthusiast.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Quest for the Holy Cheese Coney

Cincinnati is known for many things, some good and some bad: Pete Rose and The Big Red Machine, mediocre "professional" football, WKRP in Cincinnati, the stigma for being 10 years behind the rest of the country, Nick Lachey, Mayor Jerry Springer, the 2001 riots, etc. These are just some of the images people may have when they think of Cincinnati, Ohio.  However if you bring up food and Cincinnati, only one image will pop up in peoples minds: Cincinnati Style Chili.

A couple of months ago, me and my girlfriend were enjoying an evening of fine dining at our local Skyline Chili and came to the realization that even though there are plenty of options in town for Cincy style chili, we always frequent Skyline for our cheese coney cravings. Not only is Skyline our go to option, we haven't really tried out any of the other parlors. I have been to the other two chains in town, Gold Star and Dixie (only once and I was not sober however), while Skyline is the only place she has been. This is understandable for her as she moved to Cincinnati 5 years ago for college, I however, have lived here my whole life but have not once been to the mom and pop chili parlors that help define Cincinnati. We found this to be highly unacceptable and vowed  to rectify this.

There are two food items that are most commonly associated with Cincinnati chili: the cheese coney and the 3/4/5-way. While I like the occasional 3-way *insert sophomoric joke here*, I much prefer the cheese coney. Alison is a transplant who loves Cincy chili, but doesn't care for chili over spaghetti. Thus, this journey we are embarking on will be to find the best cheese coney in town. We will of course make note of any food items that make certain chili parlors stand out, but the focus will be on the cheese coney. Admittedly, I don't go too crazy with my food, therefore I like my coneys to only have the bun, hot dog, chili and cheese. So I will be representing for the plain eaters out there. Alison on the other hand likes mustard and onions on her coney, so she will have those with more exquisite taste buds covered.

On our quest we will hit up the large chili parlors, the iconic chili parlors that hipsters like to brag about going instead of going to get chili served by the man, and the chili parlors that even the native Cincinnatians might not be aware of. Along the way not only will we post reviews and pictures of every coney ate, we will post various tidbits and fun facts about Cincinnati chili, do polls, and give the history of the parlors we visit. We also welcome any recommendations about which chili parlors to visit, we currently have a list of 13 that we plan on going to (some are listed on right side of blog, full list will be revealed in a post later this week), but definitely want to be alerted of any place we may have missed.

After the quest is over, we hope to find the perfect Cincinnati style cheese coney and can consider ourselves true Cincinnatians.