Nothing beats a hot bowl of chili on a cold, blustery day. I have a couple of favorite versions that I make at home and will often order chili when I'm out at restaurants during the winter. There is something intrinsically comforting about ordinary beans and beef being transformed into something nuanced and layered with exotic spices from a variety of chili peppers, vegetables, and your own "secret ingredient." Imagine my excitement then, when I heard* about the First Annual Boston Chili Cook-Off sponsored by Church Restaurant.
Thom and I were stunned to arrive at 1:09 to find a line already running down the block. I guess we aren't the only ones in "Beantown" who love chili and really, as evidenced by Boston's love of our hometown teams, we will line up for any kind of competition. Seven local restaurants vied for the title of best chili in Boston. The contenders and their chili (price listed if chili is offered on their menu) were:
Sweet Caroline's: Classic Chili - bowl, $5.99
Fenway Park (Aramark): Classic Chili
Church: Turducken Chili
Sweet Cheeks Q: Smoked Chicken Curry Chili
Thorntons Grille: Texas Chili - bowl, $6.95
Jerry Remy's Sports Bar & Grill: Crock of Chili - bowl, $6
Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar : The Whole Hog
We started with Sweet Caroline's. It had good flavor but no real heat from the spices. The tri-color tortilla chips on top tasted fresh crisp. Thom thought there was a good beef to bean ratio. It could best be described as your best friend's chili. Perfectly good, hearty and satisfying, but no "wow" factor.
Fenway Park was Thom's favorite for their classic chili. We both enjoyed the creamy, layered flavor to the sauce which had an almost unctuous, demi glace quality. They topped their chili with chunks of fresh avocado, scallions, shredded cheese, sour cream and some decidedly pedestrian tortilla chips.
Church's "Holy Trinity" Turducken Chili was incredibly ambitious. Three independent poultry based chilies showing a different style for each. The standout for me was "The Son" which featured a duck mole with pasilla chilies. Pasilla is the dried form of the chilaca pepper, a spicy and flavorful chili pepper classically used in mole. Chef Jon Gilman chatted with me for a moment about the mole, which also features cranberries instead of raisins - a nice nod to our New England location. I would definitely visit Church for their mole sauce which I hope makes its way to their regular menu.
Sweet Cheeks Q, led by chef/owner Tiffani Faison, produced hands down the best dish we ate all day. Theirs was an Indian take on classic chili utilizing ricebeans, coconut milk and curry with smoked chicken that was so flavorful we detected a kielbasa quality to the flavoring. The heat was spot on - rich and flavorful but hot enough to make us grateful for the cilantro-mint chutney that was drizzled over each cup. Sweet Cheeks Q won Judge's Favorite and while it was far and away the tastiest thing we ate all day, Thom and I both felt it wasn't true chili in terms of the competition.
Thorntons was next and unfortunately I can't say anything really positive about it. The ladies were very friendly and the chili was very bland. I didn't finish it.
Jerry Remy's "Homerun Chili" more than made up for the lackluster performance that preceded it. It won audience favorite and mine for classic chili. It featured three meats in a pineapple-habanero sauce dubbed "Sailors Swagger." For Thom it wasn't as good as Fenway's but for me, well, my notes summed it up as, "THIS is chili." I wish Remy's had all the fresh toppings of Fenway's, but it was still great.
Citizen's was the last chili we tried and featured a whole roast pig in the chili and was topped with chicharrones. Although crispy they were painfully over-salted and for me, detracted from an otherwise rich and smoky pork chili. I would love to try their whole roast pig sometime (note to self: get 9 friends together to do this...).
The event was really fun and was a fantastic way to get acquainted with a host of local restaurants in a fun and relaxed environment. Thom and I left wanting to go to both Church and Sweet Cheeks Q for sure. It's too bad neither of them actually has chili on their menu! Oh well, there's still nothing better than hot chili and cold beer.
* We were granted free admission to this event. We paid for all our own drinks. Opinions and observations are my own. All persons photographed gave permission and were informed the photographs were to be used in a blog post about the event.