Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 19, 2011

National Chili Month: Cincinnati Style

There is a unique style of chili that’s popular in my home city, Cincinnati. It’s often known by the brand name of the restaurant that originated it, but we’ll stick to the generic term here. That chili is an institution of great local popularity, and you can also find Cincinnati chili parlors (yes, they’re called “parlors” by long tradition) in several cities in Ohio, plus Indiana, Kentucky and Florida (that bourne to which all Ohioans are bound when their days of labor end).

There are a number of unique things about Cincinniti chili. It has a spicy flavor, yes, but not the flaming-hot ping from jalapeños, habañeros or other powerful chiles. The originator was Greek, and this chili features aromatic spices like allspice and cinnamon, giving Cincinnati’s dish a defining tang that distinguishes it from all others.

In addition to the ingredients and flavor, there are several optional ways to serve it, instead of just in a bowl or with cornbread or rice. The primary accompaniment is pasta noodles. To that, you can make it a “three-way,” with cheese; a 4-way with onions; and, finally, red beans make it a 5-way.

None of those ingredients are cooked together. Cincy chili is lunch-counter food: big pot o’ chili, big pot o’ spaghetti, and containers of cheese, onions and beans stand ready for cooks to dish them out on order. Pasta fanciers beware: the noodles are nothing to relish in particular; they stand fully cooked in their steam table, so depending on how long it’s there, you can end up with a glutinous mass hardly resembling pasta. We’ll address that matter when we get to today’s recipe.

Another item on the menu in Cincinnati is a cheese coney — essentially a chili dog with cheese and/or onions. Cincinnati was once a nexus of the meat-packing business. Early settlers included a strong contingent of German immigrants, so the town’s food traditions are full of weiners, bratwurst, mettwurst und so weiter. Therefore, the cheese coney is a natural by-product of having plenty o’ chili and hot dogs handy. Plan to order two or three per person, or don’t bother showing up.

The official recipe of the restaurant chain’s chili is a secret, and much gastronomical espionage has been conducted to attempt to replicate the unusual flavor. Today we’ll feature a recipe that adapts portions of two other recipes, one from the book I’ve mentioned before, The Vegetarian Chili Cookbook, plus one that faithful reader Piano Nan shared with us. THAT comes from a collection of local Cincinnati recipes, In the Beginning. Thanks, Nan.

In keeping with the tradition here at the Under Western Skies Kitchen of Adventure, we’re going to make a vegetarian version of this chili, although, make no mistake, the original contains plenty of ground beef. This one uses The Counselor’s idea of substituting lentils for the ground beef, although you can also find seitan and other soy products to simulate the texture of a meat-based chili. In addition to combining some of the ingredients from the two original recipies, I’ve adjusted the quantities to produce a smaller amount for the smaller group of people who were eating it: two.

Under Western Skies Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili

You need:

Water, olive oil, a chopped white onion, 8 oz. can of tomato sauce, 2 or 3 whole allspice (maybe 1/2 tsp if you use ground, be cautious), 1/2 tsp ground red pepper, 1/2 tsp. ground cumin, 2 TBSP chili power (or more or less, you’re going to have to adjust this for your taste), 1/2 oz. ground bitter chocolate (or use 1 TBSP brown sugar: opinions vary; we liked the chocolate version), 2 cups dried lentils, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 TBSP vinegar, a bay leaf, some cloves (be careful here. Add cautiously. I overdid it. You need it, but it can overpower the dish. Start with a scant 1/4-tsp if you’re using ground cloves), 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 tsp or a little more of salt, 1/2 tsp cinnamon.

Sautee the onion ’til soft, add the tomato sauce and all the spices and mix up with the onion. Add 1/2 to 1 cup water, and stir in the chocolate, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce. Add about a cup of water and the lentils. You’re now going to cook everything on simmer for at least an hour, but probably two, stirring regularly, making certain your lentils are cooked.

All that’s left is to determine your “way.” Depending on whether you’re having 2, 3, 4 or 5 ways, you’ll want pasta, grated cheese (mild cheddar is traditional), chopped white onion and/or kidney beans.

We had ours as a 2-way, over pasta. But, since we were cooking for ourselves, we had some good al dente pasta. We also had one vegetarian chili dog each on whole wheat buns.

Vegetarian Cincinnati chili 7214 (640x480)

It tasted … good, not not devastatingly good. It would’ve LOOKED better on a different color plate, because it looked appealing enough.

Afterwards? Well, the chili parlor menus in Porkopolis all say, “Ask about dessert!” but no human has ever been witnessed actually asking. There, you head to Graeter’s for ice cream. For the rest of us, Graeter’s ice cream is available now in many grocery stores, especially those that are part of the Kroger chain: that’s Ralph’s in California.

Still almost two weeks of National Chili month remain. Enjoy!

To see other Under Western Skies chili posts and recipes, click the links below:

Three Fast Sisters Chili (2011)

Holiday Party Chili (2010)

A more detailed, better illustrated chili dog recipe

Copyright Brad Nixon 2011, 2017


  1. Great to see the much overlooked mettwurst get a mention here. Burt Melzer would be proud!


  2. Brad,
    Looks awesome!!
    I’ll take a 4 way please! I will have to try it out.
    Thanks for sharing


  3. it IS delicious!


  4. […] I’m still eating it! My uncle Brad is writing about his adventures in chili this month on his blog.  His most current post discuss Cincinnati-style chili, an October institution in our house. My […]


  5. thanks for the recipe! you know, aunt marjorie took me out for some one day, i’m surprised not to see the cup of sugar listed.


  6. I’ve enjoyed the real Cincy chili (no brand name mentioned), and loved it, so will try this recipe as I’d love to try more vegetarian recipes. Thanks for including the recipe. I know that the chocolate makes it special.


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