Thursday, February 8, 2007
Part 2: Chili's Red is Dead! Long Live The Red!
You've heard the expression, "Don't Mess With Texas". Well, there's a lesser-known version of that saying that goes, "Don't Mess With a Man's Texas Chili!" This is what Chili's restaurant has done; another indication of the further dumbing-down and homogenization of America. Local color and authentic flavor are dying faster than Lindsey Lohan's brain-cells!
Before I explain what Chili's has done, let's get some back-story: Chili's started in Dallas in the late '70s. I'm sure it's goal was to be a national chain right from the git-go. Dallas is the home of national food chains such as Friday's and Bennigans. I lived in Dallas back then, and I was fond of lunching at one of the first Chili's on Belt-Line Road in Carrolton. Why were we drawn to Chili's? Shoot, for the chili, silly! Yeah, way before the "Baby Back Ribs" jingle, the place was known for its "Texas Red". There was a big sign over the door which read, "Eat More Chili". And yeah, the name of the freakin' restaurant is Chili's...hello! We were under the impression, correct or not, that this was an award-winning Texas Red recipe, as indicated by all the photos on the wall from the famous Terlingua, Texas Chili cook-off. This event takes place every year with hundreds of contestants and chooses the supreme Chili of Texas...no small feat! And what is "Texas Red", the non-Texan might ask? It is a BEAN-FREE, all meat version of Chili native to Texas, characterized by its red-chili-pepper induced heat and masa-flour thickness. That's right. No beans! Never had 'em, never will. That would be a sin. Or worse; that would be yankee chili!
In later years, I found it funny when we'd go to Chili's here in Boston or elsewhere and find people who had never had Chili's chili. That'd be like going to The Lobster Pot and having a hamburger. As Chili's "national" brand identity evolved, we found that even the waitresses thought of the chili as a side-dish, an appetizer, or on-occasion were not aware of it at all, especially if you asked for "Texas Red". To me and my wife, the Red was the heart and soul of the menu and almost the only reason we went there. You could go to any Chili's anywhere and get it, even if it wasn't on the menu (which for a while was the case), and it was always the same good recipe. Our "bowl o' Red".
Now chili snobs are going to say, "Drewcifer, this is really COMMERCIAL chili!" Bunk, says I! Sure, there's better chili being slopped up at some little road-side shack south of Austin. I make an incredible bowl of Red about twice a year myself, but it's time-consuming and messy. Chili's Red was very good, and very reliable and very consistent. It would vary in heat from visit-to-visit, but we saw that as a sign of its authenticity. Yes, Chili's is a huge chain, but the chili WAS authentic. Especially by the poor standards here in New England, this was the best bowl around. That includes the offerings of very well-intentioned small restaurants attempting to make the real deal. Too bad, but true. We have been to some Chili contests here in the area and have not tasted anything as good. If Chili's entered those contests, their Red would win the blue ribbon.
So, back to the present. About a week ago, as we do on a regular basis, we call in our pickup order: Two bowls of chili, a bag of chips, and side of guac. When I get there to pick up, and after a quick Presidente margarita, the girl tells me that the chili has been changed, somehow knowing that this was important to me. What?! No!! You're joking, right? No joke, the Texas Red has been discontinued. Aaargh! This is not happening! Go to my happy place...go to my happy place...Don't tell me it has beans. Oh God please don't let it have beans! Yes, it has beans! NIGHTMARE!!! I am seeing white. The room is spinning. I am disoriented as my reality falls away. It feels like the floor has dropped out from under me. What, just at this location? No, all of Chili's. I have fainted dead away.
OK I didn't really faint. But I was apoplectic to the point she called the manager over, who was very apologetic and offered to comp us the order. He explained to me that Chili's makes these decisions based on "national tastes", and only in Texas do people demand bean-less Chili. Right! So, the fact the company is Texas-based and loosely Texas-themed no longer has a bearing on the classic, authentic Texas chili. "People expect beans," he explained. So I sampled the new stuff: Thin, soupy, beany and a bit less spicy. And clearly lacking the masa-harina corn flour ingredient. So, what makes this any different than what Uno's or Friday's offers? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
This is just another indication that we are heading in the direction of a world where nothing's original, nothing's authentic, nothing's unique. All must appeal to a larger and increasingly LOWER common denominator. The dumbing-down of everything. More Wal-Marts, more Targets, more Ikeas and Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts and Burger Kings and malls with all the same stores as every other mall. Is there ONE of anything anymore? My kid's being born in to an America very different from the one I had.
On top of my anger at Chili's, I am just sad. Christ! I really LIKED that chili. I'm going to miss it. Of course I sent an outraged email to their corporate headquarters expressing my displeasure and requesting the recipe for the Red. To their credit, they actually responded and, surprisingly, DID give me the recipe. (It's astonishingly similar to mine, only without the diced tomatoes and green chilis that I use).
CHILI'S TEXAS RED, RIP 1978 - 2007
It's All About The Tone, Baby!