Choose your own chili: Asheville eateries offer varied takes on a winter favorite

SPICE OF LIFE: Asheville restaurants offer varieties of chili to please every palate. Lucky Otter’s vegetarian chili is packed with beans and spices and topped with cheese and sour cream. Photo by Cindy Kunst

If there is a more contentious meal than barbecue, perhaps it is chili. Not only is there raging debate over what constitutes proper chili, but there is even an argument as to where it came from. Was it cattle drivers on the road from Laramie? Or Aztecs feasting on the corpses of invading conquistadors, seasoned generously with spicy peppers? The legends abound, and the facts are scant, to say the least.

What is known is that by the mid 1800s, there were chili outposts all over the Southwest and Midwest. And according to the International Chili Society, an unnamed legend out of Marfa, Texas, regarded by many as the Johnny Appleseed of chili, famously planted herbs and spices along the well-worn cattle trails to provide an endless supply of flavors wherever he drove his chuck wagon.

The mix of meat, chili peppers and seasonings has earned the title of Texas chili. This cowboy cuisine is traditionally composed of the aforementioned ingredients and nothing else, and many purists will swear by it and decry any variation as not “real chili.”

However, variations of the dish predate even the settlement of the United States, with mixtures of meat, beans and chili peppers being staples of Aztec and Incan diets long before the conquistadors. Green chilis can even be traced back to dishes in Spain, France, China and Middle Eastern countries as early as the 1400s, infiltrating our foods by way of the Silk Road.

But the American version of chili is most assuredly a Texan thing, and while its staggering simplicity is as delicious as it is fiery, equally tasty evolutions have popped up through the years. Beans and tomatoes were added somewhere in the heart of the South in the early 1900s. By 1918, Peter “George” Koufougeorgas, a god among men, created his “Texas wiener,” in, of all places, Pennsylvania, by layering chili and hot sauce on a common hot dog.

Chili even famously, if controversially, became a topping for spaghetti in Cincinnati with the addition of cinnamon and Mediterranean spices in the 1920s. By the 1930s, chili had made it’s way to the South as a burger and hot dog condiment. Dubbed Carolina-style, the idea of adding chili, slaw, onions and mustard to burgers and franks originated around coastal North Carolina. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when vegetarianism became a trend in America, that the meatless variety was developed.

More recently, chili has come to be known by its ancillary seasonings. Cumin, chili powder and dense black pepper have become mainstays for both homemade and restaurant offerings, as have garlic and onion, ingredients hardly considered an option for the trail-riding Texans of yesteryear. And even here in Asheville, the dish has its own breadth of variation.

Let’s face it, when it’s blustery and cold outside, there is no more nurturing, rib-sticking happiness than a big bowl of chili. Even if it isn’t the classic Texas style or the way your mother made it, a bowl of chili is still a great meal that can taste a thousand different ways.

On a recent cold and rainy winter day, I made my way into the new Edna’s location down on Amboy Road where the beancentric beef chili proved to be a mild, cheese-laden offering. Dense and flavorful, it is best consumed with extra cheese and fresh onion. I also recommend pairing it with a beer from the lovely Cascade Lounge next door. If that bean-heavy style is just your speed, you might also want to check out Lucky Otter’s Tex-Mex-inspired bowl, replete with a dollop or two of sour cream. This one has a nice spiciness to it as well.

If you’re looking for something meatier, try Roman’s chicken chili. White beans and chicken make up what I’ve found to be one of Asheville’s only white chili offerings. Or for an intensely hearty dish, head to Luella’s for a bowl of smoked brisket chili: smokey strands of beef with chunks of sausage and kidney beans, rather mild in spice. Over at Creekside Taphouse in Haw Creek, the menu offers a traditionally seasoned beefcentric bowl of Southwestern chili with kidney beans — a perfect pairing with a properly poured pint.

For the vegetarians in the crowd, hippie chili abounds as well. Nine Mile’s Ras Rootz chili is a spicy and colorful mixture of various beans, squash and bell peppers. While Loretta’s is a more traditional and nostalgic flavor wheel, it is heavy enough to make two meals. If you’re looking for the heat, try Rosetta’s tomato-laden veggie-and-bean chili. To make it even more eclectic, I like to ask for it topped with kimchi.

Sadly, there aren’t many places willing to make the investment to cook a truly traditional Texas chili. The costly meatcentric recipe is a rarity now. To find that, I highly recommend checking out any of Asheville’s neighborhood chili cook-offs. Hosted at churches and community centers throughout the area, a chili cook-off is a great way to meet your neighbors and try dozens of homemade recipes — and there’s always the one guy from Texas who does it the “right way.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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