Immigrants have left an indelible mark on the American culinary landscape, introducing us to beloved dishes like Cudighi and the pasty. Among these, chili — or at least the meat sauce version adorning hotdogs — stands out as a regional favorite.
In the article below, I’ll delve into the backstory of the flavorful creation of Cincinnati chili and provide insights into the experience of trying it, along with suggestions on where you can embark on this taste adventure yourself when in the region.
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The brief history of Cincinnati chili
To grasp the essence of Cincinnati chili, a brief dive into the history of the coney dog is essential.
Many folks are surprised when they learn that the “chili” topping their hotdog has roots tracing back to Greek and Macedonian immigrants who arrived over a century ago.
In the late 1800s, Greece grappled with a substantial economic downturn, sparking a worldwide migration surge. By 1920, more than 400,000 Greeks had made their way to the U.S.
As these immigrants navigated through Ellis Island, it’s believed many eventually encountered the hotdogs being dished out at Coney Island.
Meanwhile, some migrants, like Constantine “Gust” Keros, who first ventured to Detroit in pursuit of opportunities in the automotive industry discovered that these Greek-inspired sauces could turn a profit when paired with hot dogs.
This explains why Detroit remains home to iconic Coney dog establishments like Keros-owned American Coney Island (1917) and Lafayette Coney Island (1914) [dates disputed]. It also explains why Detroit is arguably the home of the meat-sauce covered Coney dog.
Similar to the Detroit Coney dog, the culinary journey of Cincinnati chili also took shape from an immigrant story.
This Mediterranean-inspired meat sauce emerged in the 1920s, courtesy of Tom and John Kiradjieff.
Fleeing the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and World War I, the brothers opened a hot dog stand in the early 1920s, adjacent to a burlesque theater named the Empress, which they aptly named their business after.
They introduced their signature sauce to these hotdogs and eventually ended up drizzling it over spaghetti, perhaps drawing inspiration from a Greek dish known as “saltsa kima.” With the later addition of grated cheese, the modern Cincinnati chili was soon born.
Empress dominated the Cincinnati chili scene for decades until it gave rise to two major players in the industry.
In 1949, Nicholas Lambrinides, a former Empress employee and Greek immigrant, who had been working on his own meat sauce concoction for years, launched Skyline Chili at 3822 Glenway Avenue.
And in 1965, four brothers from Jordan, the Daouds, acquired a restaurant from another former Empress employee and rebranded it as Gold Star Chili.
As for the exact ingredients each establishment uses in their Cincinnati chili, that remains shrouded in secrecy due to closely guarded family recipes.
Some versions might lean towards sweetness, while others boast a spicier profile. Nevertheless, you can generally expect hints of chili powder, salt, cumin, cayenne pepper, cloves, allspice, and even chocolate or cinnamon.
Cincinnati chili: where to find it?
As you would expect, you can find Cincinnati chili all over the city and in the surrounding area.
Skyline Chili has expanded its footprint to over 140 locations, not only within Cincinnati but also across other states like Kentucky and Indiana. Gold Star, another major player, is also prominently situated in the same regional territory. There are even related locations in the Middle East.
In addition to the big names like Empress, Skyline, and Gold Star, there are several smaller spots vying for a slice of the Cincinnati chili market. These include Dixie Chili and Deli, along with numerous places like Camp Washington Chili.
Getting ready for your first Cincinnati chili experience
If you’re used to the stewy bowls of spicy goodness and meaty chunks commonly found in Texan or Southwestern chili, diving into Cincinnati chili may call for a bit of taste bud recalibration.
Cincinnati chili stands out with its distinctive flavor profile, often featuring a unique medley of spices, ground meat, and a thinner consistency compared to traditional chili.
Unlike its counterparts served in a standalone bowl, Cincinnati chili typically plays the role of a flavorful topping for hot dogs or spaghetti. Eating it by itself would probably be an extremely curious decision….
Describing the taste can be a challenge — it’s a flavor that defies easy categorization. It’s a blend of hints of chili powder, cumin, and a touch of sweetness. Almost curry like at times.
When it comes to Skyline Chili, the options are aplenty.
The classic three-way involves a bed of spaghetti topped with chili and an extremely healthy heaping of shredded cheese. Opt for the four-way to introduce chopped raw onions or kidney beans, or go all out with the five-way, adding both.
Prepare for a cheese extravaganza, but if you’re mindful of calories, a light version may be available. And for those seeking an extra kick, spicy cheese is a tempting add-on.
For those weirded out to the idea of chili plopped onto a nest of spaghetti noodles, throwing in some crackers can bring a different texture to the table (more like a Frito pie) and make the dish more approachable.
If you prefer something more familiar, the Coney dog, smaller in size but also generously piled with a shaggy layer of shredded cheese, may be the right option.
Skyline Chili also boasts an array of other delectable choices, such as a baked potato smothered in Skyline chili or chili-topped fries. And for dessert, the irresistible funnel cake fries are a warm treat that’s hard to resist.
After savoring the delights of Skyline Chili, our taste buds were ready for the showdown with its rival, Goldstar Chili. Their menu boasted similarities, especially with the 3-ways and 4-ways, so we decided to dive in and sample the three-way, paired with a couple of coney dogs.
The overall flavor was reminiscent of Skyline Chili, making it a tough call between the two. This time around, I opted for a bolder choice, going for one of their spicier cheese mixes featuring ghost pepper cheese. They were careful to not overdo it with a ghost pepper and so it added the perfect kick to the Coney dog, especially for those who enjoy a bit of heat. Trust me, that combo is a spicy delight worth recommending.
To cap off the meal, we indulged in their phenomenal “killer brownie.” Pro tip: ask them to toss it in the microwave for an ultimate dessert experience.
Cincinnati chili is a bit of a rebel in the chili world, stepping away from what you’d expect, especially if you’re used to the Texan or Southwest chili scene. It might throw you a curveball, but trust me, it’s worth a try.
Now, the whole chili sauce on spaghetti thing? Took me a minute to wrap my head around, but once you understand the chili as more of a sauce topping, you are able to appreciate Cincinnati chili for what it is.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.