This past weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the 18th Annual Great Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-off and eat some truly memorable chili. Of the 39 competitors vying for the title of best chili, some submitted both vegetarian and meat options and some even provided drinks or sweets as palate cleansers. Though I wasn’t able to check out all 39 stands, I’ve included thoughts on the 11 stands I did sample.
Luna Inspired Street Food
The first chili I tried was pretty memorable. Luna served a chili with chocolate topped pork belly, Monterey Jack cheese, pork shoulder, black beans and chunks of tomatoes. This chili was unapologetically selling itself to meat lovers everywhere. The subtle bitterness of the chocolate really brought out the flavor of the pork and made me think of a Mexican mole sauce. Even though I loved it, a little bit more spice would have made the flavors really pop.
CTB was serving up both meat and vegetarian chili, and because I had come to Chilifest with a friend, I got to try both! The meat variety featured barbacoa pork, which for those who see the word at Chipotle but don’t know what it means, is a form of barbecue. The meat made me think of pulled BBQ pork that you might find at a country fair. The meat itself was a good kind of stringy, the chili was hearty, and the garnish of blue and red tortilla chips added a nice texture.
The vegetarian chili could be described as a mixture of lentils and beans with the seductive whisper of lime. After the first bite, I stopped, thought, and took another bite, thinking, “I enjoy the hint of lime that this chili is presenting me with. Yes.” It made me think of those Tostitos lime chips, which I absolutely love. But even though the vegetarian chili was amazing, the meat version still managed to present a simultaneous mix of nostalgia and novelty.
Leadership Tompkins’ chili could be described as a reverse Sour Patch Kid: It started out sweet and calm until the spice slowly crept in and shockd me back to reality. It was a good kind of kick-in-the-face spice that cleared my sinuses in only the most generous of ways.
The chili tasted more like marinara sauce than chili, which makes sense, since D.P. Dough is known for its calzones. There was a very strong smoky flavor that didn’t work too well with the acidity of the marinara. Unfortunately, it was also incredibly soupy, which isn’t the best thing for a chili to be.
Life’s So Sweet Chocolates
I took a break from chili to visit LSSC’s stand, which was offering bite-sized maple bacon jalapeño truffle fudge pieces. Even though I love spicy foods, this caught me off guard with a rude kind of spiciness. I detected some maple undertones, but couldn’t taste too much of the bacon. The shop was also offering free samples of chocolate — I got a piece of dark chocolate covered caramel.
Cayuga Medical Center
Cayuga Med had a smoked pork shoulder (pork seemed to be the theme of the day) with chorizo and lots of beans. It was really hearty, and even though it was light on the spice, it didn’t even it all that much. Eating the chili made me kind of cozy that my friend described as “wearing a fur hat.”
This was my favorite chili of the day. Banfi prepared a short rib, pork shoulder, black bean and chicharrón chili, topped with a habanero sour cream. The meat was so tender, and the sour cream delivered the spice I had been craving throughout the day, enhancing the flavor of the chili.
Max’s Classic American Grill
Max’s served a buffalo chicken-inspired chili with a celery stalk garnish. The acidity of the hot sauce and buffalo sauce was really overpowering, and could have used some sour cream or celery slices to balance it out.
My friend described the vegetarian chili as “spice for the spice intolerant,” but the vegetables weren’t quite fully cooked. The meat option was pretty much the same, though slightly soupier.
Viva Taqueria & Cantina
The vegetarian option included mushroom, which really set it apart from the other vegetarian chilis. The meat option featured a bit of lime, but wasn’t quite as alluring as CTB’s lime chili. What really made Viva’s chili shine, though, were the tortilla chips it was served with. Not only did they add a nice texture to the chili, but it also provided the perfect amount of salt.
Moosewood’s vegetarian chili tasted how you would describe a friend who laughs when you sneeze in her face: down to earth. The chili featured so many different herbs and vegetables that, after sampling it, I felt as though I had gained a few more years on my life. A combination of chocolate and coffee gave the chili a slight bitterness that enhanced the “fresh green” feel. White beans added substance that grounded this hearty chili.
Overall, the event was a success. I highly recommend attending, as this is an experience you can’t forget. The best part is seeing all different types of cuisines represented through one classic dish.