HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — The famous chili here, a city across the Ohio River and close enough to Cincinnati so the skyline is almost visible, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
But you can ask for the beans on top. Or diced onions. Or both. And of course, any way you order it, the ground meat mixture is served over a plate of spaghetti with a mountain of shredded cheese. This, Texas red fans, is Cincinnati chili, not a chili as you or anyone else in the country understands it. “It really is more of a sauce,” explains Doug Zang, owner of a local Skyline Chili franchise.
Skyline, whose Greek founders created the local dish in the 1940s and turned it into franchise gold, holds its recipe closely, but ingredients include cinnamon, cloves, and perhaps chocolate, along with ground beef and tomatoes. “It’s part of the heritage of Cincinnati,” Zang says.
Thin, red, and redolent of Mediterranean spices, the chili is poured over pasta and topped with shredded sharp cheese in the basic dish known as the “three-way.” Add beans or onions and you’ve got a four-way. Add both and you’re eating a five-way. At least one of the local chains — there are several, though Skyline is the largest — offers chopped garlic for a six-way, which if not quite heresy, does not seem to be fully accepted in the chili canon.
The spaghetti, Zang notes, must be al dente. And on the side, always, are oyster crackers — for crumbling atop the chili or absorbing any sauce left at the bottom. Or, as he demonstrates, for the “cracker bomb,” filled with hot sauce and beloved of college students. And of course there are Coneys, named it is said, for Coney Island. Here you get a half-size frank covered in chili and cheese. These go down in three sloppy bites.
And sloppy it can be. At Camp Washington Chili, a stand-alone restaurant named for the Cincinnati neighborhood it adorns, a server offers bibs to a pair of diners wearing light colors. Zang says he’s seen grown men pull up to a drive-through windows draped in a towel. For coneys? “Naw,” he says with a grin. “Three-way.”
The appeal is hyperlocal. Zang, whose family has three franchises, says Skyline has “had some struggles” expanding outside of the southern Ohio/northern Kentucky/southern Indiana region — even when opening in Columbus, about 90 minutes north of Cincinnati, the chain needed to work to create chili awareness. (For Cincy snowbirds, there are some Skyline mall kiosks in Florida.)
Among its partisans, though, it is the meal, and one generally purchased rather than made from scratch. Realtor Rick Hubbard, sitting over a three-way at Zang’s outlet, recalls the smell of Cincinnati chili filling his home as a child, and says his wife will sometimes whip up a batch. Old family recipe? “From a mix,” he says, without hint of apology.
Indeed, Skyline and two rival chains, Dixie Chili & Deli and Gold Star Chili, sell their chili canned (with or without spaghetti) and as a powdered mix in the local supermarkets, so no one has to go a day without a professional three-way. Hubbard admits he’d gladly order chili for lunch all week, “but . . .” he says, patting his belly.
Jim Eschenbach walks into the Skyline in Highland Heights from his home nearby and settles at the counter. “I could eat this eight days a week,” he says, spreading out a napkin. “I make it at home, but it’s not like this.”
Looking about the Skyline dining room, his gaze lingers on a table of eight local students with gut-busting amounts of food in front of them. Eschenbach says he usually orders a small three-way. “I’m not a big eater.”
Asked about his favorite, he looks around again and lowers his voice. “Actually,” he confides with a small shrug, “Dixie.” He may be able to walk here, but he’s happier at the competition.
Skyline Chili , 130 restaurants in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Florida, including 1001 Vine St., Cincinnati, 513-721-4715; 199 Martha Layne Collins Blvd., Highland Heights, Ky., 859-572-9500; www.skylinechili.com
Camp Washington Chili
3005 Colerain Ave., Cincinnati, 513-541-0061, www.campwash
Jim Chiavelli can be reached at email@example.com.