As a born and raised Cincinnatian, a love for chili is in my blood. Cincinnati’s version of chili is thin and sauce-like, filled with unique ingredients like unsweetened chocolate and cinnamon, to be served on top of spaghetti and hot dogs. Cincinnati’s chili is unique, but I was excited to expand my views on “real chili” by attending the 19th Annual Great Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-Off. This was my first year attending in four years, and I wanted to taste all that the competitors could cook up.
I arrived at the festival around 2:45 pm, a little later than I had hoped, but in time for a chili power hour before the cook-off was over. The event was still in full swing, but luckily there was no line to purchase tickets. I decided on the 11 tastes for $10 option and, tickets in hand, prepared my tastebuds for chili. There were fairly long lines for most of the booths, but this could have been because a few of the booths had run out of chili by this time. Over 40 booths lined the center of the Commons as well as the surrounding streets, each offering up generous portions for the guests to try. The competitors consisted of beloved local restaurants, hotels and even a fraternity team, and each attendee was given a ballot to vote for their personal favorites for Best Presentation as well as Best Chili. The following are my critiques of the chilis I was able to taste at the event, although I must have lost a ticket along the way because I ended up with only 10 tastes!
GreenStar’s Pork Chili
With GreenStar’s growing presence around Ithaca, I was looking forward to trying its chili. There were nice chunks of tender meat, and I liked the tomato flavor and large pieces of vegetables throughout the chili. It was a little oily on top, but overall a good contender.
Cayuga Medical Center’s Medicine Man Texas Chili
I was surprised to see Cayuga Medical Center as a competitor, but it turned out to be a strong one. This chili had big chunks of beef and a creamy mouthfeel but was in need of salt. I liked the combination of black and kidney beans, and the spices provided lingering warmth in the back of my mouth after I had finished the sample.
Ithaca Beer Co.’s Texas Brisket Chili with House Made Saltine Crackers
The choice of meat was pretty fatty for my taste, but it was still very tender. The homemade cracker was a unique addition that complemented the dish well and provided needed texture against the tender pieces of meat.
Bickering Twins’ Vegetable Chili
Bickering Twins is a catering company that also does pop-up dinner events. Their sample was a verde chili, which had a bright acidity that was refreshing, especially in comparison to some of the heavier chilis, and the black eyed peas that were mixed throughout provided good texture.
Simeon’s Meat Chili
The critique: With Simeon’s reopening this year, I was excited to see them at Chili Fest. The chili had a mild smoke and a unique combination of beans, chickpeas and mushrooms.
Viva Taqueria & Cantina’s Meat Chili
I’ve been a fan of Viva’s food since I first set foot on campus, and this chili delivered with its distinctive Mexican influence. I enjoyed the dominant pork and onion flavors, and there was a satisfying mouthfeel from the level of fat in the dish. The garnish of a tortilla chip and sour cream was perfect.
Red’s Place’s Meat Chili
Right next door to Viva, I tasted Red’s Place’s chili. This sample had large chunks of beef; I could taste a charred flavor on the meat, and the interesting mix of spices kept me coming back for more.
Ithaca Ale House’s Meat Chili with Coffee and Chocolate
Ithaca Ale House’s chili was definitely unique. I was surprised to see a chocolate-covered chip as the chili’s garnish. As I tasted it, there was an additional burst of orange flavor. The chili itself had a medium spice — a bit spicier than others I tried — but had minimal chunks of meat. The combination of flavors reminded me of the depth of a mole, but there was too much going on for my taste.
Mix Tapas Kitchen and Bar’s Meat Chili
Across the street from Ithaca Ale House, I found a chili with a similar profile to the one I had just tasted. The chocolate mole flavor was deeper than that of Ale House; it was definitely complex and had a stronger meat flavor.
Just a Taste Wine and Tapas Bar’s Chili Verde
This was a great chili with which to end my chili power hour. The chili was bright with acidity, had a good pork and bean ratio, and the acid and fat were in perfect balance to create a craveable treat.
After the ballots were cast and tallied, Monk’s on the Commons in the new Marriott hotel won both awards for Best Chili and Best Presentation for their Short Rib, Pork and Black Bean Chili featuring Life’s So Sweet Chocolate Dipped Local Pork Belly. Moosewood took Best Vegetarian Chili, Greenstar won Best Vegan Chili, and Cayuga Medical Center was awarded Best Meat Chili. I agree that Cayuga Medical Center’s chili was one of my favorites of the day, but I think that Just a Taste and Viva deserved a higher spot in the winner’s circle. Until next year’s competition comes around, I will continue to enjoy chili as one of my favorite winter — and to be honest, year round — meals.