Dining » Restaurant Reviews

Expedition to Chili

Winter’s arrival inspires a yearning for beef and beans.

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It wasn't bone-chilling, as winter nights go. But it was cold enough that I wished I'd worn a warmer jacket as I shivered outside Town Topic — the one that stays open 24 hours — and snuffed out a cigarette with my shoe. I'm not sure why I wasted half of a perfectly good Marlboro before walking through the glass door, because almost everyone sitting at the little counter was puffing away.

Inside, the aroma of nicotine, bacon grease, freshly brewed coffee and onion rings was positively intoxicating. A giggly younger waitress, her dark hair pulled up on top of her head and tied with a baby-pink ribbon, sang along with Joe Nichols on the jukebox: "She Only Smokes When She Drinks."

The skinny guy on my left was eating breakfast, and the chubby guy to my right was sipping coffee and inhaling deeply on a Marlboro. Although I prefer to dine at Town Topic only after midnight (my favorite diner combination is a patty melt, tater tots and coconut-cream pie), that evening I was on a mission.

During an unusual cold spell a few weeks earlier, I'd started thinking about chili. Unlike a lot of my friends, I don't have a particular passion for chili, and I don't pretend to be a chili expert. I didn't grow up eating a lot of the beef-and-beans concoction because my father — the son of Sicilian immigrants who'd had a tough time during the Depression — considered it to be a "hobo dish," something cheap and filling but ultimately unsatisfying. The concept of chili mac or "Cincinnati Red" (spaghetti topped with a layer of chili) was especially repugnant to my old man, who wouldn't consider eating it in his own house.

Dad was right about one thing: Chili was a popular, cheap Depression-era dish at diners like Town Topic because a small bowl and a lot of crackers made a comforting, inexpensive meal. By today's standards, it's still one of the cheapest dinners in town. I paid less than $3 for my bowl of beans and ground beef in a brown, bland, soupy liquid, which came with five packages of saltines. I didn't detect a bit of onion or garlic in this chili, but there was a faint tang of packaged chili powder. So it wasn't the best chili I'd eaten, but I have to say it was one of the better bargains. For less than five George Washingtons (including tax and tip), I was well-fed until the following afternoon.

My friend Bob notes that Kansas City has always been more interested in its image as a barbecue town, so it has never cultivated the kind of reputation that other Midwest cities — say, Chicago, Cincinnati or even St. Louis — have for celebrated chili. His hometown of Joplin, with its legendary Fred & Red chili parlor ("Famous Since 1923"), has more cachet as a destination point for chili devotees than Kansas City.

But Kansas City's most iconic chili joint, Dixon's Famous Chili, is famous enough that it gets mentioned in books, including Bill Bridges' The Great American Chili Book, which serves up the same story that Walt Bodine likes to tell: that it was one of Harry Truman's favorite places to eat. Bodine's version is more elaborate, recalling how Truman and his entourage were driving by the original Dixon's location at 15th Street and Olive (a building that was torn down years ago) when Truman made his Secret Service men turn the car around so he could get a plate of Dixon's distinctive dry chili.

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