Look out, Texas! Cincinnati chili is ready for a duel

Cincinnati does outlandish things to chili. Restaurants pour it over spaghetti. They top it with shredded cheddar cheese. They add spices that make the chili more sweet than hot. In fact, so much goes into Cincinnati chili that people eat the stuff with forks instead of spoons.

The result is enough to knot a Texan's string tie in shame. ''Texans just get livid when you put beans in it,'' explains Joyce Rosencrans, food editor of the Cincinnati Post.

But here in this clean, Midwestern city, a 60-year chili tradition has thrived and won fans from as far away as Boston and Denver. And, some local restaurateurs are beginning to reason, if Texans won't come to Cincinnati chili, maybe Cincinnati chili can come to Texas - and the rest of the country.

Locally, the area is fairly swimming in chili. There is Skyline Chili, Empress, and Dixie Chili. At last count, more than 120 area restaurants were serving Cincinnati chili, which comes in three-way (chili, spaghetti, cheddar cheese), four-way (onions added), and five-way (beans added) variations. Gold Star, the largest of the chains, with 60 franchises, uses 14 tons of cheddar in less than two weeks, says franchise director Raymond Peterson.

Slowly, these chili chains are branching out. Gold Star plans to open a new restaurant next month in Flint, Mich., and another in Canton, Ohio, in March.

One problem is that each chain's chili recipe is a jealously guarded secret. Even the franchise owners don't know the special spices. The Empress franchise in Denver, for example, has its chili brought in by refrigerated truck from Cincinnati.

For years, only Joe Kiradjieff, president of Empress Food Products, and his mother made up the spice blend (although the spices now are mixed by others, he says).

Empress, the original Cincinnati chili restaurant started in 1922 by Mr. Kiradjieff's father. It was followed in 1949 by Nicholas Lambrinides, who named his recipe Skyline Chili, because his restaurant overlooked the Cincinnati skyline.

Local people still debate which chili is better. Even those who move away have their loyalties. ''Skyline, I think, is really the best,'' says one devotee in Columbus, Ohio. ''I fairly drool at the thought.''

''We're educating a lot of the world in what Cincinnati chili is about,'' says Gold Star's Mr. Peterson. Recently, a small classified ad for the chain's new restaurant in Canton, Ohio, brought 100 phone calls in two days, he says.

But will Cincinnati chili ever make it in Texas?

No, predicts Frank Tolbert, an expert on Texas-style chili. ''It's sweet. You could use it for dessert. . . . It's not chili.''

Peterson disagrees. ''We're talking to people in a couple of Texas towns right now.''

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