The old days of Austin, when chili joints littered the eating landscape, have long since passed. I spent hours on the phone wrangling with hostesses at a variety of cafes to find a reasonable amount of restaurants to sample chili from for my recent journey.
I quickly gave up asking for the standard “Texas Red,” as not many had even heard of it. The term “chili” fared a little better, but not by much. I’ve whittled my findings down to three spots to visit for a warm, hearty, signature Texas meal.
This journey down the Texas Chili Trail takes us from the South Lamar corridor through the heart of downtown to one of North Austin’s classic greasy spoon joints.
Black Sheep Lodge
Walking into Black Sheep Lodge in South Austin, a commotion erupts. Two waitresses come running pell-mell toward me. It’s good to be the first customer of the day.
I settle in at a thick, old wooden table and take in the scene. TVs are everywhere as faded NFL stars engage in histrionics over current NFL stars, and a stream of customers slowly begin to file in and partake in cold beer and sports bar atmospherics.
The bowl of chili arrives, and it’s a tomato lover’s dream: The ground beef base has been thickened with tomatoes and onions. There’s a tiny beat of chile heat that slowly builds to good effect. While this chili is not an authentic Texas Red (to me a bowl of Texas Red chili should only have meat, stock, masa, garlic and chili powder in it) it is a good one.
Capitol Grounds Cafe
Stepping out of the brilliant Autumn day into the welcoming gloom of the Texas Chili Parlor, I quickly realize that lunch could turn into quite the production. Every single seat is taken and a queue of humans is milling about near the door anxiously waiting for seats to open up.
I have a genetic inability to stand in line, so I slowly back out the door and start hoofing it down the sidewalk. I don’t make it very far.
Capitol Grounds Cafe has seen the wisdom of placing a gas-powered flat-top griddle inches away from passersby, just a blink-of-the-eye south of the Chili Parlor. I ask the man running the plancha if there’s chili inside and he answers in the affirmative.
At Capitol Grounds, thick hunks of beef are suspended in a rich gravy and garnished with chopped white onions. The chile flavor is faint, but it’s no matter; this is one fine bowl. Capitol Grounds Cafe has an ad hoc look — mismatched everything — that I find really appealing. It’s like a group of friends with a budget of 35 dollars decided to open a cafe.
Jim’s Restaurant is a Texas legend. Established in 1947 in San Antonio, this classic diner is a slice of pure Texana that stands in stark contrast to the modern republic we find ourselves in today. Open 24/7, Jim’s offers Texas cuisine without an ounce of irony. The waitresses will “honey-dumplin’” you until the cows come home, you’ll never run low on coffee, and if it’s a bowl of Texas chili you want, they’ve got that part of the equation covered, too.
I inquire as to the bowl’s provenance and my waiter informs me that it’s made in-house. Sure enough, a scratch bowl of chili quickly arrives. My spoon finds a happy home in the thick broth as a mantle of crunchy onions provides some nice contrast to the tender beef. Though it’s a little unsettling to be at Jim’s at any other time than 3 a.m., this bowl of Texas chili makes my lunchtime visit a pleasant one.
RL Reeves, Jr. writes the food stories of Texas on ScrumptiousChef.com.