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A five-letter word that means fun? I know: “Chili” immediately comes to mind. Do you doubt it? Four reasons chili is fun: 1. The ties that bind: meat, beans, tomatoes, onions. 2. You can eat it with a spoon or fork. (Although some argue chili should be thick enough to eat with a fork.) 3. […]


A five-letter word that means fun? I know: “Chili” immediately comes to mind. Do you doubt it? Four reasons chili is fun:

1. The ties that bind: meat, beans, tomatoes, onions.
2. You can eat it with a spoon or fork. (Although some argue chili should be thick enough to eat with a fork.)
3. It has practical uses – chili dog, chili mac, chili cheese fries, chili burger and so on.
4. The word lends itself to rhyming. As in, “silly chili,” “chili gives me the willies” (it sodoesn’t), and Chili Lili’s,a new restaurant in the Third Ward where chili comes in many – some unexpected – guises.

Owner Jay Schiek looks like the cat that swallowed the canary. The excitement of chili – and is there ever excitement – registers on his rosy countenance. Three decades of Schiek’s past have been spent in restaurants. It was when he worked at Miller Park’s former .300 Club that he met Andy Tenaglia, then the ballpark’s executive chef. Tenaglia now runs his own place, Lagniappe Brasserie, but he collaborated with Schiek on the menu at Chili Lili’s. Michael Bressler, Coquette Cafe’s former chef de cuisine, is Lili’s head chef.

The key to the menu’s deliciousness is it doesn’t lose sight of the fun. If, for instance, you (and you alone) can finish the chili parfait – three pounds of chili with a pound of cheese, plus sour cream, jalapeños and croutons – in 50 minutes, they’ll call Bell Ambulance. No, what really happens is you get the $27 production for free.

The menu begins with a mishmash of chilis – as of this writing, there’s Cincinnati-style, Texas, vegetarian, Buffalo chicken, Southwest roasted corn chicken, and spicy pizza. Additional varieties rotate weekly. Any can be served in a bowl or over cornbread, garlic bread or mac and cheese ($5-$9). The Cincy chili comes with your choice of props, or what are called “ways.” (“Three-way” is chili, spaghetti and cheddar cheese; add Vidalia onions and red beans and you have “five-way.”) Then there are the incarnations, of which chili nachos, chili burgers and sloppy Lili are examples.

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The chili-challenged can get a Wagyu beef burger, chicken sandwich, veggie ranch salad and more.

Despite the fact that – or perhaps because – Milwaukee lacks a strong chili identity (unless, I suppose, you count Real Chili), Schiek might have found a winning niche. My one proviso is the location – a lonely corner across from the Italian Community Center’s parking lot. It’s not a commercial strip, à la Broadway a few blocks west, though it could draw well from the apartments around it.

It’s more casual than its fine-dining predecessor, Holiday House, but the space is laid out the same – the oval bar in the main dining room surrounded by two- and four-tops. The difference: Bowie’s “Suffragette City” and songs of the like animating the room, and giant decorative forks and spoons mounted on the wall. Sports on the flat-screens. Schiek bopping around the room in a Chili Lili’s T-shirt.

I can rank my chili favorites, starting with the Southwest roasted corn chicken chili. It’s like a stroll through Santa Fe, with strips of seasoned fried tortillas, cilantro and sour cream gracing the top ($5 for a bowl, up to $9 for a chili platter with mac and cheese). Dark and mysterious, the vegetarian is lovely, chunky, substantial – eggplant, zucchini, Portobello mushrooms and soybeans. The mulato chiles in it lend a smoky flavor. The chili isn’t complete without the garnish of goat cheese and chopped heirloom tomatoes. The sweet, dense cornbread holds up well to a scoop of this chili poured over the top.

Cinnamon and a bit of cocoa powder are the calling cards of Cincinnati chili. When paired with finely ground beef, they make this chili sweet and spicy, but not hot. If you forgo beans, don’t opt out of the spaghetti, onion and cheese. It’s about enhancement.

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The rich, deep-brown Texas-style is manly – chunks of chopped beef and applewood-smoked bacon. Cascabel chiles do a toasty-roasty number on the flavor, which suits the creamy, but restrained, mac and cheese you can order with it (garlic bread or cornbread would work nicely, too).

Of the non-chili cousins, that Wagyu burger is juicy goodness. Wagyu comes from cattle that is well-marbled, and while the menu labels it a “Kobe” burger, technically it’s only “Kobe-style” beef, since it’s from American (not Japanese) Wagyu cattle. Wagyu quality varies, but this is pretty good stuff. The grill imparts a charred flavor, and adding nine-year-aged cheddar leaves a residual sharpness ($10).

A mellower taste defines the turkey burger, a thick, moist patty that loses its subtlety with a slice of habanero cheddar ($8).Schiek rattles off restaurateur maxims about changing people’s “perception of chili.” The place is certainly “out of the bowl.” Just so its location isn’t too far off the beaten path.

Chili Lili’s: 525 E. Menomonee St., 414-897-0555. Hours: Mon-Thurs 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Prices: chilis and accoutrements $5-$12; salads $7-$12; sandwiches $8-$12; chili parfait $27; desserts $3-$5. Service: They speak the language of chili. Dress: Bring a sweater. It might feel, um, chilly. Credit cards: M V DS. Handicap access: yes. Reservations: no.

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