Being from Chicago, a place with iconic regional food, I love trying “specialty” foods whenever I visit other cities and states. From Michigan cherries to Nashville hot chicken to Florida grouper, I’ve had some really amazing food during my travels around the U.S.
When I found out Cincinnati’s signature dish was chili, though … I was less than enthusiastic about trying it.
It’s not that I dislike chili – in fact, my dad, the best cook I know, makes amazing chili. His recipe includes three types of meat (ground beef, ground bison and beef chuck roast), tomatoes, beans, red pepper and jalapeños. My dad loves to cook for others, and his chili is universally regarded as one of his finest dishes.
“In all fairness and humbleness,” my dad said while discussing his chili recipe, “I’ve been told by many people that my chili is far and away the best they’ve ever had.”
So, yeah. That explains my hesitation to try fast food chili.
Despite my reservations, my good friend and co-editor, Abby Bammerlin, a Cincinnati-area native, finally convinced me to give the iconic Skyline Chili a shot.
One of the first things I noted when we walked into Skyline was how amazing the interior was – genuinely, no sarcasm. It gave similar vibes as the old-fashioned McDonald’s and Taco Bell designs before they made them look all fancy and gentrified. It was my first time at Skyline, but it still felt like a throwback to my childhood.
Abby advised me to order the three-way, and I resisted the urge to giggle at the name because I’m far too mature for that. She also suggested I try a Coney, but hot dogs are sacred to me as a Chicagoan, so I decided against that.
Our food came concerningly quickly after we ordered, and it quickly became apparent what the three “ways” represented: chili, spaghetti and fluorescent orange cheese.
I asked Abby if I was supposed to mix all the ingredients together, and she looked at me like I was an idiot.
“No,” she said, “you just cut it with your fork and eat it.”
Not wanting to look like a tourist, I cut into my noodles the way she suggested. Abby filmed my reaction as I tried my first bite, and it went like this:
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“And?” Abby said, as I pensively chewed my three-way.
“It’s just like … wet,” I replied.
Describing a soupy food like chili as “wet” may sound dumb, but it’s the only word I could think of that suited the strange bite I’d just taken.
Compared to other chili I’ve had, Skyline’s chili is indeed wet. It’s basically just ground beef and broth, unless you splurge for a four-way, which adds either beans or onions. If you’re feeling really wild, you can even get a five-way, which adds both beans and onions.
Even more interesting to me than the wetness, though, was the actual flavor of the chili. It was slightly sweet, apparently because Skyline’s recipe includes chocolate and cinnamon. While I guess I understand the appeal of the subtle sweetness, the chili I’m used to is purely savory – even a bit spicy.
Amid the texture and strange flavors was the strangest part of the entire experience: the concept of pouring chili over spaghetti.
What makes Skyline chili different from spaghetti with meat sauce?
Why is a three-way considered a chili dish rather than a pasta dish?
Honestly, is it still chili if it’s nothing more than ground beef and broth?
These questions floated through my mind as I took a few more bites of my three-way. Once I finished about a quarter of my dish, I decided I was done. I had seen (or tasted, I guess) enough.
I’m sorry, Cincinnatians, but I just wasn’t a fan.
Now, let me assure you that my dislike for Skyline does not come from a place of snobbery. Yes, I said earlier that I’m used to my dad’s amazing chili, but having a dad who’s a great cook doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate fast food. Hell, he makes great burgers too, but I still eat McDonald’s on the regular.
I can’t put my finger on what exactly I didn’t like about it – I think it was a combination of the sweetness and the weird energy of the spaghetti. Or perhaps you just need to be a Cincinnatian to fully appreciate the enigma that is Skyline Chili.
Maybe I’d have better luck if I tried a five-way.