Chili Challenge: Tolbert's Restaurant vs. Chili's

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Sitting in traffic when it is 105 degrees outside takes a toll on a person's spirit. The heat in Dallas seems worse each year, but we are Texans, and we can handle a little weather.

August was just as hot in the 19th century when the Chili Queens raced around the plaza in downtown San Antonio. Mariachi's blared their familiar tunes as the sirens of chili beckoned passersby, enticing them with chili and hot tamales.

Writer O. Henry visited San Antonio in the 1880s and discussed the chili senoritas in his short story "The Enchanted Kiss". The Chili Queens at that time numbered in the hundreds, and there were plenty of people intrigued by lines such as "Drawn by the coquettish senoritas, the music of the weird Spanish minstrels, and the strange piquant Mexican dishes served at a hundred competing tables, crowds thronged the Alamo Plaza all night." The chili at the time was often described not too unlike what might be served today, consisting mostly of chilies and meat -- venison, goat and sometimes beef.

"My great-grandmother was one of the Chili Queens. My mother would tell me stories of her and the other women who would sell chili in the plaza in San Antonio, and how the city eventually shut them down. Some of the women opened restaurants or sold chili in the Mercado. Most lost their livelihood and San Antonio lost a great tradition," remembers Gloria Faris, who now lives in El Paso with her family.

In 1937 the health department did indeed prohibit these ladies from selling their delicious chili. The laws were thrown out in 1939, briefly reinstating the tradition, but shortly after World War II the Chili Queens were back in the unemployment line, ending a 200-year-old tradition once and for all.

The Chili Queens may have been shut out, but Texans' love for chili is something we carry even in the dog days of summer.

For our Toque to Toque challenge this week we venture into two well-known chili parlors, both with little of the Chili Queens' DNA. Enter Tolbert's Restaurant and Chili's Grill and Bar for what we lovingly label the great Chili Challenge.

For the uninitiated, chili is a meat stew and chile refers to the hot peppers. As the calender draws closer to November, my heart sighs heavy with anticipation of the duo of championship chili cook-offs in the desert of Terlingua.

Throngs of chili fans make the annual pilgrimage to these two massive chili cook-offs -- one that offers a chance to drink and party, another that promises authenticity. The first cook-off is close to town and is the original founded by Frank X. Tolbert and Wick Fowler 44 years ago.

The second chili cook-off is run by the Chili Appreciation Society International. It separated from the original in a flurry of lawsuits in 1983. Since that time CASI has swelled to a massive desert party so large it warrants its own police, fire and ambulance outposts.

Both are amazing fun and serve up the best chili that mankind can offer to the gods.

One early spin off from the Terlingua championship many years before CASI was initiated is the restaurant that can now be found in most any city in our nation, Chili's Grill and Bar. Chili's was founded in Dallas in 1975 by entrepreneur Larry Lavine and sold to Norman E. Brinker in 1983. Brinker International in turn replicated the restaurant and now has a string of more than 1,400 locations worldwide, which tells me that if you give a Texas boy a bowl of red the sky's the limit.

I found myself celebrating an occasion of some sort at Chili's this week, as I have done throughout my life. I am pretty sure I escorted my prom date to the original Chili's on Greenville Avenue and possibly took my ex-wife there on our third date.

On this occasion I would take the opportunity to snap some photos for the good citizens of City of Ate, and I quickly ordered a bowl of chili.

I generally would refrain from a steaming bowl of meat and onions in summer, but there is never really a bad time for chili. I just needed to wash it down with a cold, cold margarita. My first bite rang out with a strong scent of cumin, but a hot cayenne burn quickly took over those taste buds, arousing the familiar flavors that make chili undeniably Texan.

I was genuinely taken aback, finding large chunks of tender beef and a smooth chili gravy. The recipe seems similar to what I might have had many years ago on that prom date, even if it might be made in huge vats in the corporate underbelly. Sure, it takes some hubris to name a chain restaurant after Texas' favorite dish, but Chili's chili is...well...good.

Next we pay a visit to the daughter of the founder of the Original Terlingua International Championship who runs the namesake restaurant in Grapevine. In 2006, Kathleen Tolbert Ryan reopened the famous chili parlor in quaint digs on Main Street. Since then she has made a name for herself by serving up hot bowls of chili, steaks and burgers along with supplying the city with a bevy of bands that she books each night of the week.

I had been to Tolbert's several times, but generally in a more social gathering to hear a band and have never tried Kathleen's chili. I do recall dining at Tolbert's when her father ran the location in downtown Dallas many years ago. The man made a mean bowl of red.

I ordered a simple bowl of chili served with a side of cheese and onions and crowned with a single fresh Serrano chili. I decorated my bowl with the accouterments and chomped into a bit of the fresh pepper. It warmed me. I smiled.

I dug into the bowl of chili that had small puddles of grease floating around the edges. The bowl was crowned with a handful of over-cooked tortilla chips. The first bite delivered the familiar flavor profile that makes the recipe, but it didn't have that kick I was anticipating. I was a bit disappointed, and asked myself if the recipe could actually win in the international competition.

The meat seemed a bit chewy and reminded me of pounded brisket -- dry, but smothered well enough to cover its dirty tracks. Kathleen is a dear, sweet woman, but she needs to look after her precious legacy with high regard, for she is the child of a true Texas legend.

For their consistency at 1,400 locations across the globe we award this weeks Toque prize to Chili's Grill and Bar. I gotta tell you, I didn't see this one coming. It is certainly hot outside, but not as hot as the steaming bowls of chili we tackled.

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