What's the deal with Skyline Chili?
New York has pizza, Philadelphia has cheesesteaks, Chicago has hotdogs and Cincinnati has ... chili?
Cincinnati is the birthplace of an obscure style of chili that is both polarizing and fanatical. Fans of Cincinnati chili are passionate and outspoken. Through no choice of my own, I have come to know about Skyline Chili, and it was high time I learned what all the fuss was about.
Skyline Chili is the quintessential restaurant serving Cincinnati chili. Not only do they claim to be the best, but they appear to be the inventors of the recipe. The story of Skyline is printed right on the back of their menu.
“From a small kitchen in Kastoria, Greece, Nicholas Lambrinides watched his mother prepare authentic Greek dishes. Her recipes were unique, wonderful dishes that brought her family together. Nicholas dreamed of one day bringing these family recipes to America, where he would share them with friends and family. In 1949, his dream came true when he opened a restaurant overlooking the skyline of Cincinnati, Ohio," according to the restaurant's menu. "Since then, Skyline’s Coneys, Ways and table-side service have been enjoyed by generations. Our entrees continue to be made from Nicholas’s original recipes, using his secret blend of spices and the highest quality ingredients. Skyline is dedicated to bringing friends and families together for an experience like no other and we will always be devoted to the American dream of that young man from a small village in Greece.”
Now I am a sucker for a great story, but what was much more important to me was what's inside the menu. Any food critic worth their weight in chili would tell you a story only gets you so far.
I co-opted my friend Brady Barker, a Northern Kentucky native and Skyline fanatic, to help guide me through my first journey to the restaurant.
I ordered a four-way, which is spaghetti noodles topped with chili, cheese, onions and I added sour cream. I was also going to be trying a “chilito,” which was ostensibly what I had just ordered wrapped in a flour tortilla — a secret menu item turned menu mainstay, according to Barker.
After a few short minutes, a shallow dish of spaghetti and chili, beneath a hilariously large pile of shredded cheese, laid in front of me.
A few bites into my meal, I tried to get at what was so important and different about the lunch I was having. It was just chili, cheese and noodles, after all.
“Growing up this is where we came,” Barker said between bites. “Every baseball game, every football game, any sporting event we always had you never had to ask questions you knew you were coming to Skyline.”
Unlike Barker, I carried no allegiances or fond memories into Skyline that day, leaving my taste buds to be the only thing guiding my thoughts.
Skyline chili is not perfect. I like thicker Texas style chili, which Skyline is not. I love spicy chili with flavors of cumin and chipotle chili to be in the forefront, which Skyline does not have. That being said, Skyline was different. The taste of cinnamon and tomato dominates the profile, while the heaps of cheese melt into a gooey parallel to the noodles. Skyline does not play by the rules of your grandpa’s chili recipe, and that I can respect.
All told, I walked away from Skyline with a new idea of chili, a full belly and a pack of oyster crackers in my pocket. I was not particularly blown away, yet, I felt warm and satisfied.
Barker may have said it best when he told me walking out, “Skyline just feels like home.”
I believe that Skyline, to those that love it, echoes a time of nostalgia and comfort. If you’ve been transplanted to a school or city far from home, Skyline might just be the reminder of where you came from and the family and friends that were with you on the journey. That is the heart of Skyline. The chili-topped spaghetti is just the backdrop.
Just as a young Joe Burrow won the admiration of NFL fans and novices alike with his arm talent and postgame sunglasses, Skyline and Cincinnati may have won my stomach with its nostalgic charm and uniquely crafted chili.