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My travels down Northern Virginia’s chili clearway have led me back to the site of my original sin. I sit in P&P Restaurant, a filling-station-turned-tumbledown-tavern, warily reacquainting myself with the plate of misery and heartbreak before me: chili mac.
It was about a year ago, here, that I was introduced to this humble, formidably caloric entree. The freezing night all but screamed for the warmth of chili, and simple chili is what I would’ve ordered if I hadn’t been, well, chili-mac-eatin’ drunk. I demanded the whole production, and with proper ceremonial delay it arrived, a carriageload of browned beef and beans on fat spaghetti strands with various tools of refinement: chopped onions, grated Parmesan, crackers in wrappers, Texas Pete. I mixed everything together and tucked in, thinking, Man, that’s good. The next morning, woozy, I buried the greasy leftovers in the alley trash.
But now here they are again, back from the dead. “Just try it, son,” rumbles Jim Cox, P&P’s 68-year-old owner. “Everyone loves my chili.” The rest of the bar pipes up in confirmation: “They do!” “That’s the best!” “Never had a complaint!” This is the rule of chili mac in effect: The more gruesome the presentation, the heartier its supporters.
The first forkful brings a shudder of remembrance as the spicy oils and noodle pulp coat my throat. But once the trail’s blazed, the mac goes down well. “Man, that’s good,” I say.
The story of chili mac can be summarized thus: Chili was born in Texas, and the rest of the nation fucked it up. Greek immigrants in Ohio adulterated the austere Southern standard with tomatoes and dumped it onto spaghetti with beans, onions, and cheddar cheese, inventing Cincinnati five-way chili. Other cities substituted elbow macaroni—enter the “mac.” The version in Northern Virginia today is pretty much five-way with the odd component missing and a heavier sluicing of juice.
Referenced in a recipe booklet as early as 1918, the dish persists as an abomination to chili purists. “People from Texas, they probably wouldn’t even talk to somebody who put that stuff in the chili,” says 82-year-old chili historian Ormly Gumfudgin (disappointing nonpublicity name: C. Stanley Locke). Pasta is banned from Gumfudgin’s International Chili Society’s annual cookoffs. “I would be interested in tasting and eating chili mac. But to me, it wouldn’t be chili, that’s all.”
Needless to say, those who regularly eat the abomination consider it the Platonic ideal. The paradigm was established locally at D.C.’s old Hazel’s Texas Chili Parlor, which dished it up in the ’50s alongside buttermilk and crackers. Today, it’s promulgated in a line of suburban taverns that stretches from Clarendon’s Hard Times Cafe (which has a version with soy flakes and peanuts) to Annandale’s Sunset Grille (where a bartender let me in on the porno-sounding “wet Billy’s”). I made the circuit in one day, consuming the dish at each mac shack. After two stops, I had heartburn. After four, I had trouble connecting fork to mouth. After six, I had results:
•Cleanest “shack”: Hard Times Cafe. The suspiciously spotless chain restaurant claims to have chili inspired by Hazel’s. The $8.69 mac, however, tastes overwhelmingly of noodle.
•Largest Republican presence: Sunset Grille. This quasi-biker bar sports a signed photo of George Bush Sr.: “Thanks for the great hamburger.” One wonders why POTUS didn’t mention the salty, savory $7.69 mac, which isn’t bad. It just happens to be mixed into a jellyfish of chewy spaghetti strands.
•Best décor: Forest Inn. Toy and ceramic elephants plod along the bar’s top liquor shelf. The $6.50 mac, boosted on the menu as using “the best” chili, has an intense sweetness that almost overwhelms a bitter aftertaste of chili power.
•Best conversation: JV Restaurant. A man regaled the bar about the time he conducted “business” in a motel bathroom where a roach bomb had just been set off. He couldn’t drive for a while afterward, he said, because he was “seeing spots.” The $7.99 mac, a specialty of the owner’s mother, has powerful garlic mojo and comes with garlic-butter burger buns.
•oFirst, and only, black patron spotted: Vienna Inn. The $4.29 mac is soupy and mild, and it slips down the gullet with no chewing.
•oBlue-ribbon mac: P&P. It wasn’t always so: When Cox took over the bar, 22 years ago, the chili was basically orange grease, and the customers didn’t have the mac pride so evident today. In fact, they were too busy fighting each other to eat the stuff. Cox set things straight: “I took all the badasses, took them right outside. Fought a while,” he says. “Sometimes I got my ass beat; most times I didn’t. And it became a good neighborhood bar.”
Along with the atmosphere, Cox improved the chili using a recipe he claims is almost identical to Hazel’s. He and his friend Arlene Butler prepare it twice a week, simmering down hamburger, suet, jalapeños, and a few spoonfuls of Cox’s dry mix. In Texan fashion, there is no tomato. The result is a buttery, chewy dish that turns up the heat so gradually that you don’t realize you’re done for until it’s too late. Cox says he’s declined offers as high as $5,000 for the recipe. To him, it’s priceless.
“If I was out drinking, the chili mac would sober me up,” he says. “Or if I wanted to go out and drink all night, I’d eat one of them chili macs and never get drunk.”
P&P Restaurant, 445 S. Washington St., Falls Church. (703) 533-8874.—John Metcalfe
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