VIDEO: The Greasy Spoon

Posted In: Destinations, Video

As we meander around North America, we always set aside a little time to stop in local eateries. It’s often rough on the waistline, but many fond travel memories are made at the dinner table.

We’ve found all sorts of fun places along the way. Some new, some old. Some expensive, and some cheap. Some fancy, and some… like Chili John’s in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

We arrived in Green Bay on a steamy hot summer day. What better way to satisfy one’s appetite than a bowl of SPICY CHILI? Admittedly, this is not really summer food.

Chili John’s is one of those places that no doubt thrives on bitterly cold Green Bay weather. I’m sure that in the dead of winter, a heaping bowl of hot chili is just what the doctor ordered. Although we were here in summertime, Chili John’s was nevertheless on our short list of local restaurants. It met all the necessary criteria.

Historic? Check (since 1913…or 1902, depending on which Chili John’s historian you believe).

Unique menu and/or theme? Check (chili!).

Loaded with character? Hmm

First impressions of Chili John’s were less than flattering. The business was founded more than a century ago, and the original recipe hasn’t changed in more than 80 years. So we arrived expecting some sort of historic location. But in fact Chili John’s is now located in a battleship gray strip mall next door to a music shop named Dick’s. If I’m being honest, the exterior is about as charming as a bus station.

But things brighten up a bit once you step inside. The restaurant is dominated by a long central lunch counter. There are also a few tables and chairs scattered throughout the room.

Chili John’s interior decor registers a faint blip on the charm meter, but it holds promise in a utilitarian sort of way. There’s something about the elbow-to-elbow lunch counter experience that recalls days of yore. It’s not hard to imagine long rows of hungry men wearing horn-rimmed eyeglasses and thick wool winter coats, each scarfing bowls of beans and mystery meat.

In the center of the room are large stainless steel pots. Inside those pots resides THE CHILI. Now we’re getting somewhere. Nothing fancy — just huge steaming cauldrons of beans, meat, and spaghetti.

Spaghetti?! Yes, Chili John’s does offer a unique spin on chili.

No, you won’t find truffle oil or pine nuts. This ain’t no stinkin’ gourmet restaurant. This is good old-fashioned stick-to-your-ribs pack-your-stomach blue collar spicy eats.

Here’s the deal at Chili John’s: the spice is actually mixed together with the meat. So an order of “hot” chili contains the most meat, while an order of “mild” contains the least. The chili itself consists of said meat layered upon a bed of beans and, optionally, spaghetti noodles. I was assured that the proper way to order Chili John’s signature entree was to include spaghetti.

From a certain point of view, this “chili” is a form of spaghetti sauce. Yes, it’s technically chili (and lacks the robust tomato twang of true spaghetti sauce), but it’s sort of like piling a huge mound of meat sauce & beans on top of a modest arrangement of spaghetti noodles. Per our usual decadent chili ritual, we crammed our bowls full of extra cheese, sour cream, onions, and jalapenos.

So, how was the spaghetti sauce, err, chili? It was fine. I ordered my chili “hot” because I like hot and spicy food. It was a thick meaty chili. It was almost like a spicy meat sauce (perhaps because it was a spicy meat sauce). At the time of our meal, I was underwhelmed — probably because we were downing a bowl of hot chili in the middle of JULY.

But in the days since we departed Chili John’s, a funny thing happened. I found myself thinking about the chili. In fact, I daresay I began CRAVING a second bowl of the stuff.

Chili John’s spin on chili really is … different. It’s got something to do with the spicy meat. I’ve never had chili quite like this chili. At the very least, you’ve gotta give Chili John’s credit for doing it their way.

If I lived in Green Bay, I’d go to Chili John’s along with the rest of the locals. Maybe often, especially in wintertime when I could wear my vintage wool coat and ear warmers. If you find yourself passing through Green Bay, give Chili John’s a try. Go for the hot! In addition to a satisfying meal, you’ll get a taste of Green Bay history.

And by the way, in an odd twist of history, there’s one other location of Chili John’s — in California. Apparently it was started by a family member, then later sold to a different family in the early 1990s. This sister restaurant is located in Burbank! So if you are in Los Angeles and are craving a bowl of unusual “old school” chili, you too can visit Chili John’s.

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