Last August when I spotted a stop work order on the Cincinnati-themed lounge cum chili parlor Cinners, building out in a tiny space in Lincoln Square, I wondered if it was a vanity project of some neighborhood kid of Greek extraction whose dad owned the building. After all, in ancient times, Macedonians invented Cincinnati three-, four-, and five-way chili, and though I'm not enough of a food historian to theorize with any confidence, it is tempting to imagine a connection between the Greek dish pastitsio and the Queen City's tomatoey stew, redolent of baking spices, plopped over spaghetti, all covered with cheese. And even though the stuff hasn't often made its way too far out of Cincinnati, the little pocket of Lincoln Square where Cinners is located is kind of like Balkantown, with plenty of Greeks, Albanians, and immigrants from the former Yugoslavia. Why not a hitherto unknown link between the foodways of Cincy and Chicago Greeks?
Well, I'm all wet. Cinners' Tony Plum was just looking for an up-and-coming neighborhood, with a youthful population to support a laid-back lounge. He didn't imagine it as a destination, but when word got out he'd be serving Cincinnati chili and Coney dogs he started taking phone calls and e-mails from desperate expats hungry to know his opening date and curious about the recipe he'd be using. Would it be more like Skyline? Or Gold Star?
Plum has an incredible story about his recipe. He says he's using the original formula developed by Tom and John Kiradjieff, of Empress Chili, who invented the stuff in 1922. Seems Plum's great-grandfather, a beat cop in the 20s, asked the Kiradjieff brothers for the recipe so his wife could make it at home. Plum says the recipe was passed down to his grandmother, mom, and now him.
But would it be real Cincinnati chili without a dash of controversy?
“No, they didn't give it out,” says 78-year-old Joe Kiradjieff, son of Tom, who still sells Empress Chili to supermarkets and franchises Empress Chili restaurants, of which ten remain. “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.
You want the truth? No matter what recipe you're talking about, Cincinnati chili ain't rocket science. It's simmered ground chuck with tomato sauce and an array of spices--cinnamon, cocoa, allspice, cumin, chile powder, Worcestershire, and more. And Plum's isn't bad, with a bit more burn than the style's famous sweetness.
If you want to hear a gripping yarn ask Plum about his Sisyphean struggle to get the place open, involving a four-month battle with landlords to get the plumbing replaced and Kafkaesque entanglements with the city to get the liquor license issued. It's a horrifying tale--ending in an opening nearly a year late and $40,000 over budget--that would send this guy bawling back into Daddy's arms. The sad thing is, such problems aren't unfamiliar to many bar and restaurant owners crazy enough to play the game in this city.
I'll have a more fleshed-out profile of Plum and Cinners in next week's Omnivorous, along with video here at the Food Chain.