TNT Diner

Tacoma’s first Cincinnati chili parlor sticks to its Ohio roots

Cincinnati Chili served four-way comes with pasta, sauce, cheddar cheese and diced onions at The Chili Parlor, newly opened in Tacoma.
Cincinnati Chili served four-way comes with pasta, sauce, cheddar cheese and diced onions at The Chili Parlor, newly opened in Tacoma.

Do not twirl the pasta.

There should be no mixing, either, of Cincinnati chili, which is a Mediterranean-spiced ground beef sauce served over spaghetti.

In Ohio, it’s a regional specialty with a curious subculture percolating around chains such as Skyline Chili, Dixie Chili, Empress Chili and Gold Star Chili.

Outside of Ohio and parts of Kentucky, few others than Ohio transplants have heard of it, which is why it’s such an unusual find in Tacoma.

The Chili Parlor opened Feb. 15 on South Tacoma Way in the Edison neighborhood. Wayne Whalen is the cook behind the chili pot. He’s from Ohio, but landed in Tacoma via the Army. Fiancee Kathy Rarin owns the restaurant. The restaurant specializes in the chili, chili dogs, breakfast served until 5 p.m., 25-cent cups of coffee and a small menu of sandwiches and salads.

Polly Campbell, the veteran restaurant critic and food writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, was surprised to hear the chili has migrated west to Tacoma. It’s not found much outside the Ohio area “because nobody else likes it,” she said, laughing, during a phone interview last month. “They don’t get it. It’s a really, really strong, locally identified food and it’s just … to other people it’s weird.”

That’s one way to describe it.

Although it’s called a chili and served over spaghetti, Cincinnati chili’s roots are as a hot dog sauce, which is why chili parlors there serve dogs with a ladle of the chili (they’re called Coneys, said Campbell). The chili is made from boiled ground beef that is then simmered with tomatoes, onions and spices including cumin, chile powder, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. The flavor profile leans toward the Greek palate, Campbell said, because it was created by Greek immigrants.

It’s closer to a spaghetti sauce than a Texas-style bean-and-meat chili, but don’t call it spaghetti sauce because those apparently can be fighting words to an Ohioan.

Chili culture in Cincinnati is serious stuff. “The thing about Cincinnati chili is that everybody eats it all the time. It’s not an esoteric thing. People eat it four times a week. It’s not a special-occasion food,” she said.

In some parts of the city, multiple chili parlors mingle on a single street. Whalen described it as the Queen City’s version of a Starbucks.

And nobody better fiddle with it.

“It’s too sacred to mess with,” explained Campbell. Unlike plenty of regional American comfort foods that chefs turn fancy (think lobster macaroni and cheese), you’ll never find chili in Cincinnati made with lemongrass or mizithra.

Along with that rigid culture comes serious protocols.

First: “It’s never served in a bowl, it should be on an oval plate that is just big enough for the chili to fit on,” she said. “You don’t have a lot of room to spread it … or mix it. You cut it with a knife and fork. You don’t twirl it. You don’t mix it.”

When ordering, do so by numbers.

There’s three-way, which is spaghetti, chili and a pile of cheddar cheese that’s “fluffy, always bright orange and grated very fine,” said Campbell. Four-way onion, she said, is all of the above, with a layer of diced onions on top. Four-way bean also can be ordered with a topper of kidney beans. Five-way is “the works” with everything.

And then there are the special orders. “People can order it different ways, with cheese on the bottom or extra sloppy or extra dry,” said Campbell.

About the noodles. “The spaghetti should be very soft, not al dente. It has to be super soft. You get these little packets of oyster crackers, or you get a bowl of them, and a thing of hot sauce.” There should be a Greek salad on the menu. And York peppermint patties for purchase by the register.

So how’d Tacoma’s chili parlor do in regards to Campbell’s hallmarks? Pretty well.

Do note that it’s this newspaper’s policy to withhold criticism of food and service during a restaurant’s first month, which is why the focus here is on the concept.

Conceptually, the elements were just as Campbell described. Here’s the rundown:

Three-way/Four-way: On the three-way, a fluffy toupee of neon orange shredded cheese topped a blanket of the sauce and soft spaghetti ($7.95 small/$10.95 large). The four-way held a topping of diced onions ($8.95-$11.95). Whalen recently added the kidney bean topper to the menu.

Plating: The Chili Parlor’s chili spaghetti was served on an oval plate with a fork and knife. No bowl. No room for twirling or mixing.

Extras: Oyster crackers? A bag of those, plus hot sauce. York peppermint patties are on the way, said Whalen.

Missing in action: Only the Greek salad. One wasn’t listed.

Verdict: According to Campbell’s criteria, Whalen’s concept should sing to an Ohioan’s Cincinnati-chili-loving heart.

The Chili Parlor

Where: 5640 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma; 253-472-6829.

Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.