I figured I’d kick this blog off with one of my all-time favorite spots in Milwaukee: Real Chili (419 E. Wells St.; 1625 W. Wells St.). Hardly an unknown – legend would be more accurate – Real Chili has nonetheless preserved the same unassuming and unpretentious aesthetic they had when they slung their first bowl in 1931.
Inside, it’s a total-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts sort of thing. The red-and-black striped walls are plastered with various accolades and photos of happy customers (of which there have been quite a few in the past eight decades). And behind the U-shaped counter is a white-haired waiter who has worked there for as long as I can remember. Real Chili is nothing much to look at really, but I can’t remember it ever looking any different. That continuity is comforting.
As is the chili. Your standard bowl ($5.25-$6.25) is composed of three equally important parts: spaghetti, meat and beans (get all three). You can order it hot, medium or mild (though I don’t think there is much difference) and with toppings such as cheese, sour cream, onion, jalapenos and oyster crackers (use all five liberally). The final product is a distinctive chili hybrid – the meatiness of Texas, the texture of Coney Island, the accoutrements of Cincinnati – that can only be described as “Real Chili.”
Of course, they have other things on the menu, too – tacos, subs, burgers, salads – but I’ve only ever seen one person stray from the chili. That was my friend Andrew, but he’s from Chicago and orders his Solly’s butter burgers with mayonnaise. So yeah.
Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret, something I wish someone had told me a long time ago. On each table are small bottles of what, honestly, appear to be formaldehyde with preserved somethings floating inside. I spent nearly 25 years of my life being grossed out by them. Don’t be. They’re actually bottles of chili vinegar and sprinkling them over your bowl elevates it to levels I didn’t think possible. Pungent, spicy and sour, try them once and you’ll never go back.
I’ve been eating at Real Chili my entire life. In fact, my mom likes to tell me how she regularly satisfied her Real Chili craving while pregnant with me – no doubt the reason for my obsession today. And, god willing, my wife will force feed this magical stuff to our future children. If not, I will.
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