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Jan 7, 2002 10:13 AM

DC Area Chili

  • g

With the weather so lousy, I headed out last weekend to Virginia in search of quality chili. We ended up at Hard Times in Clarendon, about which I had read much and was happy to finally try.

It was a terrible disappointment, chili and more.

The chili --we tried two different kinds-- was loose browned meat plus some oil and seasonings... nothing I would ever classify as actual chili. Our chili nachos appetizer was abominable, with white/pink tomatoes, a a few teaspoons of cheese, about a pound of the Texas "chili" and a cup of cold onion & jalepeno salad, which made it virtually inedible.

Our entrees were as bad or worse. The french fries, I concede, were heavenly. I had heard good things about this place, and was sadly disappointed.

Where can one find great chili in DC? I know and love Ben's Chili Bowl, of course. But there must be more!

I'm talking both meaty and veg/turkey, too. Ben's has killer meat chili, but their vegetarian chili is a real let-down. Who can help me beat these bad-weather blues with a bowl of the authentic stuff I'm looking for? C'mon 'hounds...

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  1. Authentic D. C. Chili (a.k.a. "Hazel's Chili") is an acquired taste. It is served "wet" and "very wet." This means simply that extra grease is ladled on the chili. For some reason back in the '50's (?) when this chili first appeared it was called Texas chili because, well, that was the perception of real Texas chili. There are a few places around that still have it including a "joint" on Lee Highway (whose name escapes me) about two blocks south of West Broad Street and also a place in Arlington (again, the name escapes me). But I've got a good feeling that you won't like it because it's definitely not cookoff quality chili. Interestingly Hard Times was first opened in Alexandria in the '70's as a kind of tribute to the original Hazel's Texas Chili Parlor. I remember the Washington Post running a full page spread on it because they were so impressed. Today it has morphed into a chain that, well, for me lacks it's original personality.
    Chains like Clyde's, Chili's and so forth have their moments but I honestly don't believe you'll find great chili here, certainly nothing as good as what you can make yourself.
    As for Hard Times their vegetarian was always their best but I haven't had it in several years. Their Cincinnati has nothing in common with Skyline, Empress, Camp Washington or Gold Star other than it was topped with grated cheese (different texture though) and onions along with thicker spaghetti. Actually I've always like Hard Times for a good hamburger and onion rings.
    There's a place in Reston called the Cincinnati Inn (Hunter Woods Shopping Center) which, amazingly, has decent Cincinnati style chili. It's really not bad.
    A real cheese Coney is one of the best hot dogs in America and a real 4-way is the absolute best 1:00AM food on the face of the earth! Skyline briefly had two locations here in Merrifield and Union Station and when they closed it was a real loss.
    There must be someplace in D. C. that has exemplery cookoff quality Texas chili...

    9 Replies
    1. re: Joe

      I've always enjoyed the Hard Times Texas chili (served dry w/beans, parm, onion, at the original Old Town Alexandria location), and frankly, it's a good thing for most people that it's not cookoff-quality chili, because cookoff chili is not designed to be eaten as a meal, but rather to impress a judge who is going to eat one spoonful. See link below.

      Years ago I checked out a long-gone place called (I think) the Keyhole Inn, in Arlington near a taxi garage. They made a nice bowl of chili, albeit so hot it made me sweat. Skyline had a place in Merrifield at Gallows Rd & Rt 50 for a time, but it didn't last. I recall making a good replica of their chili using a recipe from Jane Butel's Chili Madness.

      The Hard Times was working for a time with a franchise outfit, but I don't think the major expansion occurred, although they do have some franchises around NoVA and MD.

      The Parkers, who run the Hard Times, are familiar with real Texas chili, in so much as Jim Parker has competed at Terlingua and placed fairly well.


      1. re: Jim Dorsch

        Regardless of the verbiage I simply mean chili that is worth going out of your way for, that really tastes like extra effort went into it and is not simply part of a package product."Murray's Girlfriend's Cincinatti Chili" on page 58 of Jane Butel's book includes beans. Nowhere in Cincinnati will you find beans as part of the chili itself. They are always an add on.
        On page 113 on Jane and Michael Stern's "Chili Nation" is an authentic recipe for Cincinnati "Five Way" which includes the beans as an "add on" that are layered. The order is spaghetti, then chili, then beans, then onions and finally "fluffy" grated cheese. This should be eaten with a fork where you actually slice into it.
        Kroger Foodstores (nearest of which is near Charlottesville) sell Cincinnati Recipe chili mix as well as frozen Skyline.
        "Capitol Punishment Chili" on page 40 of the Stern's book was a runnerup at Terlingua and the best chili I have ever tasted. Make it with a good beef stock for serious depth of flavor.

        1. re: Joe

          Good point re: beans in Butel's recipe.

          One of my fave chili recipes is a really odd one that calls for a large quantity of whole comino. I would have to poke around my old Chile Pepper mags to locate it.

          1. re: Jim Dorsch

            There is only one Chili place that stands out. It is Bar J Ranch on Richmond Highway in Alexandria. Once you eat there you won't go anywhere else.

            1. re: pablo naruda

              'There is only one Chili place that stands out. It is Bar J Ranch on Richmond Highway in Alexandria. Once you eat there you won't go anywhere else.'

              And why is that?

          2. re: Joe

            I recently had the real thing -- Skyline in Ohio -- and it was sooo much better than the imitations around here. (I'm a native Cincinnatian and was weaned on the stuff.) Good advice: Drive to Charlottesville and head to Kroger. But bring a cooler. The frozen Skyline available there is the real thing, and is superior to the canned Skyline that I pick up every so often on trips to Ohio (because canned is better than none).

          3. re: Jim Dorsch


            I worked at the Keyhole Inn when I was a kid. Great memories. I would cook the chili on Sundays.there were a lot of ingredients that went into that chili mac. when they sold the restaurant,one fourth of the price was for that recipe. I sure wish I could get my hands on that recipe today.

            1. re: jhender

              And the winner for resurrecting a THIRTEEN year old thread is...


          4. re: Joe

            The two places you are referring to are the P&P Chili
            Lounge on Lee Highway in Falls Church and The Keyhole
            Inn in Clarendon next to the Red Top Cab Company. The
            chili-mac at the Keyhole has been sustaining cabbies
            (and offending their fares) for more than 50 years.
            The P&P is a place to drink a little beer and maybe
            book a little betting action. Nobody actually eats the
            chili. Try Frank's on Lee Hwy. in East Falls Church
            next to the fire hall. Pretty good chili, even better
            bean soup. Good juke box, too.

          5. And you don't have to spend a fortune in the restaurant at 14th & F - you can get a lunch special "to go" of chili, a roll or tortilla, small salad, apple & cookie for ~$8 in their market. I also like their tortilla soup.
            I still like Hard Times Cafe, we go to the Rockville one. My 5-yr old likes Cincinatti on spaghetti with cheese, I prefer the Cincinatti or veggie chili with cheese & onions, my husband always picks the veggie kind.