The peculiar regional specialty known as Cincinnati three-way chili—ground chuck simmered slowly with tomato and a mix of baking spices, plopped over spaghetti, and all covered with cheese—was invented by a pair of Macedonian restaurateurs trying to make a living in a city full of Germans. But Tony Plum says it's pure coincidence that he located Cinners, his Cincinnati-themed bar specializing in the stuff, in a Greek pocket of the German neighborhood of Lincoln Square.
"I can't imagine these guys even have any idea of what it is," he says of the taciturn old-timers who spend their days drinking coffee around the corner at the Apollon Cafe or the Olympic Club. "I think they'll like it when they try it because it has a lot of that Greek spice and flavor to it, but if I told them 'Hey, I'm doing Cincinnati chili,' they'd be like, 'Who cares?'"
Plum is a 38-year-old Cincinnati native who could pass for 15 years younger in his "Man Law: You poke it, you own it" T-shirt. "It's all that clean living," he laughs. "You have to smoke and drink a lot, apparently." Plum, who grew up in Cincinnati's Mount Healthy neighborhood, spent the last 20 years in the bar business, getting a job straight out of college with a company that franchised the America Live! multiclub adult theme parks. He traveled the country opening the venues and troubleshooting, but like many in the Cincinnati diaspora, he nursed a deep longing for the hometown bowl, which is pretty hard to come by anywhere else.
In 1922 brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff began offering it at their small restaurant, located next door to the Empress Theatre burlesque house in Cincinnati's Englewood neighborhood. Originally the chili, spiced with cinnamon, allspice, cocoa, cumin, Worcestershire, and more, was dolloped on steamed Coney dogs, and later it was served atop pasta with grated cheddar cheese and oyster crackers on the side. This was known as a three-way. Raw onions or kidney beans made it a four-way, and fully loaded it was called a five-way. Chili parlors spread all over the region, and the dominant chains, Skyline Chili and Gold Star Chili, inspired fierce partisanship among customers, though many independent chili parlors persist, and imitators exist in other cities (for example, Real Chili in Milwaukee and Madison).
For his part, Plum sees little difference between the two big names. He used to hang out in a Gold Star after high school football games, but every time he returns home he goes to Skyline with his grandfather and father. No matter where he goes, "I don't look at the menu," he says. "I walk in and say, 'Give me a three-way with two cheese Coneys.' I usually do it without onions because your breath tends to be bad enough from the chili."
Plum moved to Chicago a little more than two years ago to help open the Four Corners (now the Drum & Monkey), an Irish tavern in Little Italy, but when that partnership broke up he started looking for a quiet, laid-back place of his own that he could launch quickly. The chili was an afterthought: "I figured I'd have to kind of educate people to it in Chicago," he says. But as permitting, construction, and licensing delays set back his opening date month after month, more and more Cincinnati expats got word of his plan. A Yelp thread started, and he began receiving e-mails and queries about his recipe.
"I went back and kind of revamped the whole idea and thought, 'I'm gonna just go full out,'" he says. And so he did. Small as it is, Cinners is a bit of a nostalgic theme park, with red-and-black walls covered in photos of old Reds ballplayers, Cincinnati streetscapes, and beer cans from defunct Queen City breweries. The refrigerator has been painted and dubbed the "Big Red Machine," after the dominant National League team of the 70s. And Plum will be serving Little King's Cream Ale in seven-ounce bottles. "Anybody who grew up in Cincinnati in the 70s or 80s—that's what they drank in high school," Plum says. He's so sure Cincinnati expats will flock to his place he's set up a cafepress.com account to hawk a line of merchandise emblazoned with his logo—everything from teddy bears and ceramic tiles to greeting cards and thongs.
But what about the chili? The ace up Plum's sleeve is his recipe, which he says comes from a legendary source. "My great-grandfather and my father were both cops," he says. "And my great-grandfather's beat was downtown in the Fifth Street area, and he used to go into the Empress Chili. Eventually he asked the brothers if he could get the recipe from them so that my great-grandmother could make it at home. The guys didn't realize at the time that it was going to be this huge phenomenon, so they gave him the recipe, and it's been kind of passed down."
But would it be real Cincinnati chili without a dash of controversy?
"No," says 78-year-old Joe Kiradjieff, son of Tom, who still sells Empress Chili to supermarkets and franchises the restaurants, ten of which remain. "They didn't give it out. No, sir. No way. Uh-uh. No. I don't think my father would do anything like that. Or my uncle." Kiradjieff did offer to sell his chili to Plum. He thinks it would go over big in Chicago.
Wherever Plum's recipe came from, he and his 22-year-old chef Sam Hetland—formerly a three-way virgin—experimented with volume, simmering and stirring their batches for six hours before refrigerating them overnight to further develop the flavors. Plum considered premixing spice bags—so Hetland couldn't take the recipe when he moves on—but he doesn't seem too concerned about it now, and he even allowed me to watch them put together a batch (you can see them in action on the Food Chain at the Reader's Web site).
What does bother him are poseurs, and he scorns the few versions of Cincinnati chili he's found here. He says he once sent a Cincinnati chili special back to the kitchen at Weber Grill, and Lakeview's Chili Mac's 5-Way, which offers Texas, turkey, and tofu chili over pasta in addition to Cincinnati chili, is beneath contempt: "Nobody who's doing Cincinnati chili would try and do it with other types of chili," he says. "So I can't imagine it being real." v
For the Cinners video and more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.