It is, without a doubt, one of the weirdest local variations on a classic I’ve ever tried. A slightly sweet chili (no beans) served on top of spaghetti with a mound of cheese the size of your fist, the classic three-way is the default method of eating Cincinnati chili. It is one of those foods one either seems to love or hate, and I have to admit, I fall in the former category. Each visit I make to Cincinnati (and I’ve made quite a few since my father has lived in the area for most of the last decade plus), I make sure to have this treat once at least.
But what makes Cincinnati chili what it is, and where did it come from? And where should you go to experience it if you visit the Queen City? Here is all you need to know.
In 1921, Tom and John Kiradijeff immigrated to Cincinnati from Greece. The two opened a hot dog stand next to the Empress burlesque theatre, and began serving their dogs (reminiscent of a Detroit coney, which by the way is also awesome) with a Mediterranean style stew of meat and sweet spices like cinnamon. For the local population, it was similar to chili, so that’s what it was called.
Over the years, the chili became the star, rather than the hot dogs, and the brothers began looking for new vehicles for it. Chili spaghetti was born, with the chili replacing a traditional meat sauce on top of pasta. Later, grated cheddar cheese was added, and the “way” system was born, which is currently in use at every Cincinnati chili restaurant.
The “way” system of ordering Cincinnati chili is as follows: a basic three-way is chili on spaghetti with cheese. A four-way adds diced raw onions, while a five-way adds beans to that. (Yes, you can get a four-way with beans instead of onions as well.) I find the extras to not add much, so the basic three-way is my go-to.
In 1949, a former Empress employee started Skyline Chili to compete with his former restaurant, and in 1965 a hamburger restaurant renamed itself Gold Star Chili. Today, these two chains have more than 220 locations between them, most in Cincinnati but I’ve had Skyline in Louisville as well. Personally, I prefer Skyline to Gold Star, as I find Gold Star’s chili a bit soupy, but as with any two major competing chains like this, both have their diehard followings.
Other one-offs and small chains have also sprung up all over the Cincinnati metro area, and chili is on the menu of all sorts of restaurants that specialize in other things. Blue Ash Chili began in the Blue Ash neighborhood on Cincinnati’s northeastern side. They have a slightly new take on the “way,” offering a six-way that adds fried jalapeños. The spice makes a big difference for those who enjoy a bit of heat in their chili, as Cincinnati chili is more sweet than anything else.
So what is actually in real Cincinnati chili? I’ve mentioned cinnamon, but most also have allspice, cloves, and nutmeg in addition to the traditional chili powder and cumin. And, contrary to rumor, no true Cincinnati chili is made with any chocolate, despite the wishes of some to associate the flavor profile with a Mexican mole. All Cincinnati chili is made with beef (although Skyline and other chains also serve a vegetarian black bean chili it is not made with the same spices and is therefore a totally different food group) and tomato, though it is ground beef rather than a Texas chuck. And the cheese is always yellow cheddar.
If you visit Cincinnati (click here to read all about amazing things the underrated city has to offer), trying Cincinnati chili is a must. You may hate it (my dad does), or you may love it as I do. But you’ll have tried one of the truly unique dining experiences in the country, and that’s worth something.
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