Chili and Chicago seem like they should be destined for each other. I mean, can you think of another dish as perfectly suited to combat this city's notorious winter than a warming bowl of red? So, why was it so hard to find great chili in Chicago? There are chili cook-offs nearly every other week (I even competed in one a few years ago), and yet I nearly gave up the hunt after visiting a half dozen places without luck.
It wasn't that I was looking for some strict version of chili—though I did focus my search exclusively on beef chili, leaving chicken and vegetarian versions out. I'm not an evangelist for Texas or Cincinnati-style, and I've had as many great bowls of chili with beans as without them. It just didn't feel like that many places cared much. Chili is too often an oversight on an overstuffed menu.
And yet, great bowls of chili were out there. Using a collection of sources, including the invaluable GreaseFreak, I was able to locate nine places that actually put care and attention into each bowl.
What I Learned
Unlike families, bad bowls of chili are all alike; every great bowl of chili is delicious in its own way.
The one ingredient that wrecked more bowls of chili than any other was the tomato. Now, I'm not saying that a bowl of chili shouldn't have any tomato in it (though some people do think that way), it's just that too much tomato masks the flavor of the beef and the chiles, making for a glorified tomato stew. That is not chili.
So, what should a bowl of chili have? Well, besides beef, the only distinguishing factor was randomness. Some used ground beef; others went with hunks. Some were spicy and absolutely loaded with chiles; others replaced the chiles with a blend of spices. Inspiration came from Texas, Cincinnati, and other chili hotbeds in the country.
Though I visited a load of places, I'd love to know what I missed. So please let me know if you have any recommendations.
Click through the slideshow above for a full breakdown of the results.
View Chili We Love in Chicago in a larger map