Forecast: Chili Today – Real Chili, Milwaukee

real chili, milwaukee, wisconsin
LAX 2 ORD, no. 14

I had been inspired by freshly baked organic whole grain breads, fresh seafood, free-range poultry, and rows and rows of vibrant produce in every color in Mother Nature’s palette. As we were walking out of the Milwaukee Public Market, I asked expectantly, “Where are we having lunch?”

real chili, milwaukee wisconsin - sign
as opposed to “fake chili”

“Real Chili.”

LOL! Guys are funny like that.

The thing is, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. It was cold and windy outside. The sky was turning the color of hard boiled egg yolks when they’re cooked too fast and too long – greenish gray – and it was starting to drizzle. It was miserable midwest autumn weather, but perfect for a steaming hot bowl of greasy, spicy, totally-bad-for-your-body but totally-good-for-your-brain chili.

Even without the weather, I was pretty excited at the prospect of going back to an all-chili restaurant. I grew up on chili. I love chili. I make chili. If ever such a girl existed, then I am a chili girl. There are a few chili places in LA, and I even went to the chili cook-off at the Beverly Hills Farmers’ Market. But come on, chili in Beverly Hills?! Bev. Ur. Lee. 90210. Kelly and Brenda never ate chili. And Donna? Her enormous horse head would have toppled her anorexic body if she even caught a glimpse of all that beef and fat.

I grew up in San Antonio, Texas and chili was beefy with steak, chunky with beans and vegetables and spicy. Served Tex-Mex style with guacamole, sour cream, and a heavenly dose of jalapenos, a bowl of chili was a meal by itself. I spent my high school days in Cincinnati, Ohio, home of Montgomery Inn ribs, Graeter’s Ice Cream and…Skyline Chili. There was Gold Star Chili, too, but I think Skyline was the one where we didn’t have to cross busy Montgomery Road. ;) Cincinnati style chili took some getting used to after the Tex Mex brand that I had eaten for almost 10 years. It’s beefy with ground beef, not cubes of steak, there are no beans in the chili though you could order beans as a topping, and wasn’t spicy at all in terms of heat. It was almost sweet, and to this day, I am absolutely certain that Cincinnati puts cinnamon in their chili. The strangest thing of all to me was that they served chili over spaghetti noodles. I used to get the 3-way, a bowl of spaghetti topped with the sweet cinnamon-y chili, cheese that had been shredded into strands as long as the spaghetti noodles, and fresh chopped onions. I can feel the heartburn bubbling up just thinking about it.

real chili, milwaukee wisconsin - spicy chili, beans, and cheese
chili, beans, and cheese, and make it spicy!

We walked into the Real Chili fairly late in the afternoon, long past any expected lunch rush, and the place was still about half-full. There was a family of five sitting at one of the long, cafeteria-style tables with stool bolted to the ground, and everyone else was sitting at the counter that swooped down one side, held the register in the curved end, then swooped back up the other side, enclosing the center where the orders are put together. We stood back from the counter a bit to review the menu board hanging high on the back wall. It’s not too complicated. You order a bowl of chili in mild, medium, or spicy, then select toppings: beans, cheese, onions, and sour cream. Prices increase by a few cents with each step up in spiciness, but what the hell! This is vacation so give me the spicy! Let’s go all out with everything on it! Sometimes I get all crazy big-pimpin’ like that. ;)

The tiny teenage pixie of a thing with bleached blonde, spiky hair who took our order also put it together. I watched as she trotted back in Dickies folded over at the waist to keep them up from her ratty Jack Purcells. She threw a tangled mess of spaghetti noodles into a bowl that didn’t look big enough to hold the soupy beans she poured on top. Her bony, tattooed arm almost disappeared into the pot when she stuck a long-handled ladle down into the tall silver vat of chili. The final touch was an afro of neon yellow cheese. When she came back and dropped the bowl onto the paper-lined plastic elementary school cafeteria tray, I marvelled that a stray strand of spaghetti, a rebel bean, a single drop of shimmering crimson oil didn’t drop from the bowl. She’s done this a hundred times. And that was just today during lunch.

real chili, milwaukee wisconsin - chili comes with oyster crackers
for clam chowder?
real chili, milwaukee wisconsin - spicy chili, beans, and cheese
is that chili…or oil soup?

Chopped onions came in a tiny bowl on the side, along with a bowl of oyster crackers. I love those tiny, powdery, flour-y hexagon crackers, but they’re usually partnered with clam chowder, not chili. Not even in Cincinnati, though I do remember Dill-lites from my Cincinnati days – I can’t remember the restauarant, but they had the best oyster crackers that were flavored with sea salt and dill. Strange what we remember. Oyster crackers with chili! Only in…Milwaukee.

The cheese on top was at that point just before truly melting into ooze, where it still maintains its original individual shape, but has softened into a glimmering, translucent yellow that clings to whatever lumps and bumps of beans and beef are underneath. Liquid fat had separated out from the chili and created an oily red halo around the edge of the bowl, making the entire thing look less like a bowl of chili and more like a bowl of red oil soup garnished with ground beef and beans. I almost had no idea where to begin. Almost. I threw the chopped onions on top, took the spoon,
and went straight for the chili’s jugular – right down the middle. My spoon was a sloppy mess of short noodles, barely anchored by the chili in the spoon’s bowl, and longer noodles tumbling back down into the bowl, unable to hang on against all the oil. There was no way I was going to be able to be a lady about this.

The noodles were very soft – no gourmet “al dente” here. The chili was good, obviously very oily, but not as spicy as I would have expected. Real Chili’s tables have condiments, but I wasn’t confident that adding more oil, even oil that had been infused with chilis, would improve the heat level. The onions added a freshness and mildly sweet spiciness that comes from fresh white onions. The best bites were the ones that were a little bit of the chili beef and mostly cheese and onions.

This may sound absolutely disgusting, but after all the noodles were gone and all that was left in the bowl was a 3 inch circle of oil with the chilli dregs, I dumped in the rest of the oyster crackers. I ate one. It was, oddly enough, pretty good. It kind of tasted like a cracker that had been deep fried in beef lard. LOL! I didn’t taste more than one, though.

Real Chili was good for a cold, gray, rainy afternoon in Milwaukee, but I’m not sure that I’d eat there under any other circumstances because the chili was much oilier than any Cincinnati chili, Skyline or otherwise, and nowhere near as spicy as the Texas chilis. Then again, when I had originally asked about lunch, he had answered “Real Chili,” then followed it with, “It’s so good after drinking.”

OoooOOOoooh. I see.

Guys. LOL!

Real Chili
419 East Wells Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202
414.271.4042

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 kenneth November 30, 2005 at 1:23 pm

I usually just lurk and read but today I thought I’d post.

nice post- I miss chili too.
I grew up in San Antonio but moved to San Francisco a while back.

To get my fix, well the most satisfying fix, I usually wind up making it myself, and I either make a big ol’ vat o’ chile-con-carne or proper tex-mex chili. When push comes to shove I’ll even break out the emergency Wick Fowler’s kit and just replace the water w/ Shiner Bock.

What’s the deal w/ the noodles in that Yankee chili anyway? Seems gross.

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2 Nick November 30, 2005 at 5:16 pm

Real Cincinnati looking chili there – 5 way. I tried making this once before and the first few steps were pretty gross looking, but the finale was quite tasty. Try Skyline chili if you get a chance, apparently its the best mail-order chili available.

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3 bar night club supply December 1, 2005 at 1:34 am

Now that I have a little time I can finally read your posts especially the title this post. Skyline chili? I acidently ran in to it the other day looking for professional bar supply and yours popped up sarah. I was in a hurry and bookmarked it so I could come back later. Well here I am. Keep it up from Las Vegas.

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4 sarah December 1, 2005 at 2:38 am

kenneth: now that’s what i’m talking about. beer in your chili. i must try that for my next indoor tailgate ;)

the noodle thing is what weirded me out initially, as well, but it’s the same as serving Tex Mex chili with tortilla chips or cornbread, or even crackers, i suppose.

hey nick: i remember skyline. that’s the one i used to eat, but i didn’t know until just recently when i checked out their website that you can mail-order it! i wonder how it tastes after being in the mail for a couple of days?!? lol!

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5 Mike December 1, 2005 at 9:20 am

Sarah — have you been to Chili John’s in Burbank? Their bowls look very similar. I’m not usually one for greasy chili, but from the first time my wife took me there, I was hooked. Of course, i mostly get the turkey chili… (my one attempt at least kinda/sorta being healthy)

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6 sarah December 1, 2005 at 6:30 pm

i haven’t been to chili john’s…will have to try it :) thanks for the tip, mike!

and ain’t nuthin’ wrong with turkey chili. :)

trust me, there’s going to be a lot of it around here now after thanksgiving. LOL!

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7 Sam December 6, 2005 at 8:38 pm

Chilli isnt Asian, Sarah. C’mon now, you have to at least take part in your own meme :P

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8 roman September 21, 2006 at 8:57 pm

Well…only almost a year late for my 2 cents but…fun posting. Lived in Milwaukee for many moons and worked a block away from Real Chili. Ate there 2-3 times a week. Just wanted to say that it’s not as grease laden as it seems…once incorporated into the whole dish, it balances out. The peppers in the jar are not in oil but vinegar. Adding that cuts through some of the grease and gives it a really great tang with a little heat. A very southern thing to have as a condiment. Overall, surprisingly good chili that cures hunger, hangovers, and good breath…oh how I miss Real Chili!

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9 Gary November 14, 2006 at 4:56 am

I’ve lived in Milwaukee my entire life. Although I’ve traveled out west, I never had the pleasure of trying the chilli. I just want to inform everyone that ‘Real Chilli’ is an extremely popular place for people working, drinking or just hanging around the area, but spaghetti noodles in chilli is NOT the norm in this town. Saltines or a slice of buttered bread is the usual preference… and as for oyster crackers- they work, but it’s unusual to see them in chilli anywhere else in Milwaukee.
In my own chilli, ground beef AND chopped steak are added. Unfortunately, all the eating establishments that i’ve visited just use ground beef.

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10 kevrob January 15, 2007 at 10:34 am

You didn’t go to the “mother church” of Real Chili, but to its branch office. The “home office” is over near Marquette University, @ 1625 W Wells Street. You hit the one near the Milwaukee School of Engineering. There’s a theme here. RC has always been very popular with the students, both the ones who have moved out of the dorms and aren’t on a meal plan, and those who have just closed the bars. MU is the home of 1 of the state’s only 2 law schools, and a short walk from the county courthouse. As a result, you are as likely to run into a lawyer at lunch at the West Wells location as you are a student trying to scrape up the coins for a “Marquette Special” – medium heat, with beans and spaghetti.

Real serves their version of “Green Bay” chili, which originated at Chili John’s. The California CJ’s was started by a member of the family that started the Wisconsin parlor. I grew up back East, and came from a very bland food tradition. (Irish. Get something white and boil it. At least The Famine is over.) Trying the mild bowl was a challenge the first time I ate there. By the time I was ready to graduate I was ordering “hot” and adding the extra chili oil. If I ever visit TX or NM I’ll expect to eat even hotter.

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11 Anonymous June 10, 2007 at 3:45 pm

Go Marquette! We had a Real Chili’s just a block from our dorm. GREAT PLACE! Great food. Not the nicest, cleanest place but great for a college campus. I miss my chili!!!!!!

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12 Anonymous September 25, 2007 at 5:02 pm

real chili’s recipe is, in fact, a copy of chili john’s (where real chili’s original owner used to cook). i haven’t been there for several years, but at one time, they served a heckuvan oyster stew. great food for cold days/nights!!!

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13 John A October 27, 2007 at 3:43 pm

I’m a regular of both Chili John’s Green Bay & Real C.
My Dad took me to the “original” Real Chili when they were on 12th & Wisconsin & have since moved at least twice.
Real Chili has a slight edge over John’s as it is more moist & hotter.

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14 Anonymous January 23, 2008 at 10:09 pm

pretty sure that both Green Bay and Cinci style chili have cocoa in them. I find them pretty similar.

I am a former Marquette student, and get myself a bowl pretty much every time i visit Milwaukee.

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15 Anonymous January 26, 2008 at 4:56 pm

Real Chili is the best drunk food ever conceived – they had opened one in Madison, but it closed. When it closed it was like a part of me died.

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16 Pete H. August 17, 2009 at 11:08 pm

As a former Marquette student, I was lucky enough to enjoy RC whenever it suited me—which was pretty much daily. From 1972-76 Real Chili was one block east and on the other side of the street from the current location. Fortunately, it was also next to the Avalanche Bar (working man’s prices), an establishment so loved it even became a nickname for the lucky few. Both establishments were torn down when Marquette built housing on the land…..even Blairs Meat Market was not spared and it was the butcher shop of the carriage trade.
The restaurant was owned and started by a lovely, warm older man named Mr. Francis. We never knew his whole name but I now know that Francis was his first name. He was assisted by a wonderful woman named Blondie (stir it up, boys) and a few I can’t remember. One shy, younger waitress was hired in our 4th year (76) and I am lucky enough to to still see her when in town. I believe that she has recently retired.
Wells Street between 15th and 16th can never be the same, but I do love walking up the street to the newer location and enjoying the memories almost as much as my son, the Marquette senior loves the chili…..constantly. PRH

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17 CGSchaeferjr December 17, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Ross was an older gentleman who did the dishes for Mr. Francis way back when, and Blondie would say” mix it up boys!”

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