Fact is, no one remembers the day those foreigners invaded Cincinnati — they don’t teach it in the history books — but that influx of folks from Greece and the Macedonian region early in the 20th century has left its tasty marks on the region.
Those marks take the form of a small army of chili parlors — but not just any chili parlors: They serve it “Cincinnati style.”
There are more than 200 such shops in the region, and the star of the show at each is the soupy, spicy concoction that, despite the name, bears little resemblance to what most Americans consider chili. Further, it’s tough to guess what’s in the chilis because no one wants to talk recipes.
Steve Martin has operated Empress Chili in Alexandria, Kentucky, for 35 years.
“Empress is the original,” he says. “It all started in 1922 with brothers Tom and Jeff Kiradjieff; they were Macedonians. Empress is the best.”
Martin says a three-way with a cheese coney is the most popular order at his parlor. When asked if there are specific ingredients that set Empress’ chili apart, however, he’s mum. “There are,” he says slyly, “and I can’t tell you what they are because it’s a secret.”
The Kiradjieffs began ladling their special meat sauce, originally made with lamb in the old country but with beef in America, in front of the Empress Theater (the marquee read: Empress Burlesk Pictures) in downtown Cincinnati — thus the name. Others followed, like Greek-born Nicholas Sarakatsannis, who founded Dixie Chili in 1929; Nicholas Lambrinides, another Greek, who founded Skyline Chili in 1949; and Jordanian-born Dave, Charlie, Frank, and Basheer Daoud, who founded Gold Star Chili in 1965. The list goes on. But for Martin, owning the first Greek-recipe parlor in Cincinnati means Empress has earned the title: the first edition of a Cincinnati tradition.
“Once you get out of this area, some people don’t perceive it as a chili because they’re used to country-style chili, with beans and tomatoes in it, and different spices,” Martin says. “It’s just a matter of informing people that it’s a Greek-style chili and not a country chili.”
The Cincinnati difference
Cincinnati-style chili is unquestionably unlike its many cousins. The super-thin base is made with finely shredded ground beef, served over a bed of spaghetti, and topped with your choice of some combination of onions, beans, and cheese. Rumors of cinnamon, cloves, and dark chocolate haunt conversations among folks who try making their own, but whatever’s inside, it definitely doesn’t resemble the hearty, thick chilis common across the rest of the nation. Cincinnati-area chili connoisseurs, of course, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Maria Papakirk’s been operating Camp Washington Chili, another family-run single-location chili parlor, for more than 20 years, after taking over from her father. The former corporate attorney says making chili beats practicing law, hands down.
“It’s so much more fun than being stuck in an office and dealing with other people’s problems all day long,” she says. “I grew up around the business, and during high school, I was a cashier and would make orders.”
No slowing down
Camp Washington is open 24 hours through the week, closing only on Sundays — “for a break,” Papakirk says. “Honestly, I think we’d go insane. It’s the one day my cellphone is quiet and I can sleep.”
The current Camp Washington building is a modern, art deco affair that stands a couple hundred feet from where the original site opened in 1940. A city road project forced the move about 20 years ago, and while people still wax nostalgic about the “old” Camp Washington, they happily patronize the new one. In Cincinnati, it’s not about the building, location, or decor. It’s about the chili.
Camp Washington’s No. 1 seller is the cheese coney. “For sure, all the way. We sell over a thousand a day,” Papakirk says. “With onions. Because that’s the way.”
William Newton, a business analyst, actor, and frequent customer, stands at the counter waiting for his lunch order: some cheese coneys and a pint of chili with beans.
“I’ve been eating here since the old building, when I was a kid,” he says. “My stepfather used to take me here when I was little because I always chose Camp Washington for lunch. So now here I am working just a block away. It’s like a dream come true.”
Cincinnati chili cheat sheet
- Two-way: spaghetti topped with chili
- Three-way: spaghetti topped with chili and cheese
- Four-way: spaghetti topped with chili, onion, or beans, and cheese
- Five-way: spaghetti topped with chili, onions, beans, and cheese
- Don’t forget the little bowl of oyster crackers on the side!
- Coney: bun, hot dog, chili, onions, and mustard
- Cheese coney: bun, hot dog, chili, onions, mustard, and cheese
- Chili sandwich: bun, chili, mustard, and onions
- Chili cheese sandwich: bun, chili, mustard, onions, and cheese
James Proffitt is a freelance writer from Marblehead who refuses to share his own recipe for Cincinnati-style chili.