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


  1. Gotta admit, while I probably wouldn't go to Empress for the coneys, I'm sort of intrigued by the idea of chili pizza.

  2. Likewise. Newport Pizza Company, and I think Chi-nati's in Kenwood, have Cincy Chili pizza's as well. We will probably try the Newport Pizza Company chili pizza at some point.

  3. I only do empress for the chili 3 or 4 way. Our family loves it!

  4. Empress Chili rocks! It is THE original Cincinnati Chili. We went to the newly opened restaurant in Hartwell on Vine Street (near Wyoming). It's owned by the family that owns Empress Chili and the menu is impressive, and the chili and double deckers cannot be beat.

  5. It is always good to receive constructive criticism. We will make these changes and hope you will come back to visit us! Aside from the lack of chili on your coneys and the need for better interior design, what makes you like other chili parlors more?

  6. Later on in the quest we visited the Empress in Hartwell ( and enjoyed our visit there. If the Alexandria Empress could emulate some of the things that are being done in Hartwell that would be a step in the right direction. Don't copy totally, do some things are are unique to Alexandria. An old fashioned neighborhood parlor atmosphere can play a big role in the overall experience of visiting a parlor. Some of our favorite parlors (e.g. Price Hill, Camp Washington and Pleasant Ridge) rank highly because we enjoyed the atmosphere. Since Empress is the first Cincinnati chili parlor I would promote the heck out of that and make that part of the experience for customers. Promoting the history could bring in new customers who just assume Skyline is the original Cincy chili parlor.

    Thanks for visiting our blog and commenting. We do enjoy Empress Chili and would love to visit your location again sometime.

  7. This comment is coming late to this post, but my husband loves the chili pizza at Empress (it seems to be unique among the chili parlors in the area). He grew up in the area, so was raised on Cincinnati-style chili (I'm a transplant who had acquired the crave for it!). Don't overlook the deli side of Empress...while Empress is not our first choice for ways and coneys, my husband's family loves the chicken salad there. It is really really good, totally worth checking out!