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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Overcast
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Chili Time
When the weather turns cool, enjoy some of the hot stuff

Wouldn't you know it? As soon as the weather turned chilly, the chili left State Street. We were sad to see Real Chili close its doors recently. But that just spurred us on to find a decent bowl o' red in Madison.

First, a little chili history. Traced to Texas in 1828. Popularized at the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago. And it's not Mexican. In fact, one Mexican cookbook describes it as "a detestable food with a false Mexican title which is sold in the United States from Texas to New York." In Cincinnati and Milwaukee, they put it on spaghetti. In Texas they use cubed beef and never add beans. At your mom's house she used ground beef and kidney beans.

OK, enough history and fascinating facts. In our search for the perfect bowl, we convened the Isthmus ad hoc chili committee. I personally selected eight representative samples from around town, transferred them into eight identical, numbered bowls, so the committee had no idea where any of these chilies came from. Fair enough?

We then rated each of the chilies on a ten-point scale and came up with a winner.

The eight unwitting contestants were: The Avenue Bar; Chili's Grill & Bar; Dotty Dumpling's Dowry; Mickey's Tavern; the Memorial Union Rathskeller; Monty's Blue Plate Diner; Wendy's; and, just to add a base line, a can of Hormel Chunky Chili.

I asked the judges to rate each sample for flavor, hotness, meat quality, and overall enjoyment. Of course the last judgment was the most important. The hottest chili was the Rathskeller's. The mildest was Hormel's. And the favorite for both flavor and meat quality determined the winner.

Who was that winner? I won't keep you in suspense any longer. It was Mickey's Tavern, on Williamson St. Owner Janie Capito has recently introduced a new menu of bar food there, and obviously has a winner with the chili. Some of the judges' comments included: "Good balance of meat and beans...very smooth, great balance...good quality meat...could use a little more heat, but I could add that myself."

Close behind was the Rathskeller's bowl, which uses ground beef: "This is my idea of chili - saucy, smooth, good heat...not much meat in here...slight burned taste."

Ranking third was the Avenue Bar's entry: "Nice blend of flavors...would like meatier chunks, but a nice, complex flavor...good dense texture...very pleasant flavor, and just enough heat."

In the number four spot - Dotty's. I remember when Joe's hot chili at Dotty's was easily the best in town. Now, the judges comment: "Not my fave. Interesting spice, but can't identify it. Mushrooms? Hmmm...Nice blend of meat, including bacon...had a sweet essence that I'm not sure belongs in chili...needs more cumin."

In fifth place, Monty's Blue Plate. This was the only vegetarian chili (sin carne) in the group, and contained an assortment of vegetables including mushrooms and black olives. Said the judges: "Liked the veggies, but no very complex flavors...just an average chili, nothing to get excited about...very tasty - lots of good stuff in here...nice chunky veggies." The word "nice" was generally applied to this bowl, but I'm not sure that's the best compliment for a serious bowl o' red.

Now, the above five chilies were all grouped fairly close together. The following three are several notches below. If I had to use the Cook's Illustrated device, I would say that the first five are "Recommended," while the following three are "Not Recommended."

In sixth place, then - Wendy's. This is truly chili like mom used to make - and mom was of Welsh-German descent and knew absolutely nothing about making chili. Wendy's product was described thusly: "Bland, tasteless, meat ground to mush...nothing to recommend it...nothing to say about this one."

Worse than Wendy's was Hormel Chunky Chili. Two judges immediately identified this one, and anyone who has tried the Hormel product will recognize that special Hormel flavor (and aftertaste). "Tastes like canned meat...the beans dominate this one...industrial flavor...Give me another Saltine." But hey, it's only $1.79 a can.

Then, the last-place entry, liked even less than canned Hormel, was Chili's Terlingua Chili from Chili's Grill & Bar, "Inspired by the home of the original chili cook-off in Terlingua, Texas - Our signature chili." There are two Chili's restaurants in Madison and, unfortunately, they both serve the same recipe. The judges comments: "Seriously bad...a very odd flavor...had an aftertaste that did not make me want to have seconds...slimy texture, but the meat is good if you can get past the rest of it."

So, buckaroos and buckarettes, there you have it. You can get a good bowl o' red in Madison, if you know where to look. And to all those restaurants and taverns with great chili that I didn't get to, my apologies. Email me at and I'll be seeing you on the next roundup.

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