CINCINNATI — If you lived here, you could close your eyes, throw a rock and hit a place that serves decent chili. Chances are you’d break the window at a Gold Star or Skyline, which must have 150+ locations in the greater Cincinnati area.
The chili memories of my youth were forgettable, bringing to mind some spur-wearing Texan stirring a cast iron pot of thick, beef and bean-studded slurry. That’s probably because most came from a tin can with letters in Maverick font. No matter, there were better things to eat in Seattle than tin can chili.
When I solicited for eating destinations in Cincinnati, a number of people told me to avoid Skyline or Gold Star, saying it was overrated and cliched. It would be like recommending Pizzeria Uno to Chicago visitors, they’d said. Instead, a few directed me to family-owned Camp Washington Chili, with just its one location several miles north of downtown.
We told the waitress: “We’re just Chicago boys. We don’t know what to order.”
“You gotta do the way,” she said. ‘The Way’ must be shorthand for 5-Way, the five points of the CIncinnati chili star: chili, cheese, beans, onions and spaghetti. It arrived with a massive cheese-fro, what I’d imagine Eugene Levy would look like with a head of cheddar. We also got two Cheese Coneys, a chili dog with a comparable amount of cheese sitting atop.
The dogs were terrific, not the sodium bombs I expected them to be, and at $1.60 each, there was no shame in ordering more than one (We had one each, alas). The spaghetti we weren’t too fond of, only because it tasted of five separate elements with little cohesion. We wished there was more chili, or the cheese more integrated.
But I had high hope for the chili, so we ordered an extra bowl as is, the one-way, without cheese, beans or onions. Unlike the chunky stew-style of chili I sorta remembered, Camp Washington’s version was thinner, the beef more granular, without the acidic tendencies of tomatoes, and a gentle spicing of (I think) cumin. It doesn’t leave you with that pit-in-your-stomach feeling from consuming heavy foods. I appreciated the chili’s balance and nuance.
Of course, the exact recipe they’ll never reveal. Our waitress told us the restaurant’s longtime owner, Johnny Johnson, comes in five days a week at 4 a.m. to make the chili before anyone arrives. Only he knows the ingredients and proportions — he makes the spice mixture in a room with two locks. Our waitress told us, with bulging eyes, no one dares go inside.