c/o Blake Klein

c/o Blake Klein

Over spring break, I had yet another mock trial tournament to attend. If you’ve been following my recent articles, you’ll know that the hours of preparation we put into competing comes second to my food exploration of brand-new cities. This time, our competition was in Cincinnati, Ohio, a place I likely otherwise would have not had a reason to visit. We set out for our 11-hour drive, anticipating the wonders of the Midwest.

Ohio is famously known for being the butt of internet jokes, the birthplace of Lebron James, and the epicenter of Cincinnati chili. Cincinnati chili originated from the culinary exploits of immigrants from Greece, including brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff. In 1922, the pair opened “Empress Chili Parlor” in downtown Cincinnati and served a dish similar to a traditional Greek stew; the unique form of chili combines Mediterranean spices like cloves and cinnamon with chili powder. Today, Cincinnati chili often comes in the form of the classic “3-Way” (yes, that is the real name), which consists of a bed of spaghetti topped with chili and a mound of cheddar cheese. You can even go for a 4-Way or 5-Way by adding onions, beans, or both.

While many renowned restaurants serve their rendition of the classic 3-Way, including the still-operating Empress Chili Parlor, Skyline Chili is the most famous. The restaurant chain is all over Southern Ohio and is known for its not so secret “secret recipe” that incorporates cloves and cinnamon.

“[The food] is extremely craveable. Some would even say addictive,” reads their website, describing Ohioans’ apparent adoration for the chili.

After about 9 hours of driving, my teammates and I had reached the outskirts of Cincinnati and were craving sustenance. Since Skyline Chili was third in a list of the ten best Cincinnati chili places, I decided to stop there, eager to try the mysterious 3-Way. The restaurant itself has a diner-like, homey atmosphere. The kitchen is right in the middle of the seating, so we could watch workers flipping hot dogs and making chili before our eyes. I decided to order the 5-Way and a “Coney,” another renowned dish that consists of a hot dog topped with chili and mustard. The four of us were eager to eat, having gone six hours without food. I could not wait to enjoy Cincinnati’s quintessential dish.

It was awful.

The chili was incredibly bland and seemed to have no seasoning. There was no sign of the cloves or cinnamon, let alone salt. It was also very thin and watery, more of a liquid than a chunky stew. To be fair, the waiter mentioned that this was the last bunch of chili, so that may have had something to do with its horrid flavor. The steamed hot dog was similarly bland, and the chili did it no favors. Both were served with an excessive heaping of cheddar cheese—there was practically enough for it to be its own dish. As for its taste, the hot dog was incredibly mild and had a rubbery texture resembling Play-Doh.

Despite the dramatic let down, I scarfed it down, my stomach not satisfied by the 10  McNuggets from lunchtime. To my demise, the chili gave me the worst heartburn of my life, and I ended up running to the nearby gas station to buy antacids. Needless to say, all four of us went through the eight pack of Tums quickly. I’ll spare you the details on the gas station bathroom that accommodated us.

Despite my terrible experience at Skyline Chili, I should mention that Ohio’s culinary prowess was not all bad. Although I was too afraid to try any other version of the 3-Way, we did have some very nice meals in Cincinnati proper, including a wonderful breakfast at Waffle House, one of my favorite chain restaurants. However, Skyline’s special chili did not match my expectations. Maybe another location would have been better, maybe this just so happened to be a bad batch, but I digress. If you find yourself in Cincinnati, get your 3-Way at a parlor other than Skyline Chili.

Blake Klein can be reached at bklein@wesleyan.edu.