Between writing about the newest places to open and enjoying some impressive high-end meals, it’s easy to get a reputation as something of a food snob. But it’s not all truffles and sparkling wine for us by any stretch (well…maybe the sparkling wine part). We’ve got our share of comfort foods and guilty pleasures, and it’s about time we shared one: chili at Hard Times Cafe.
When it’s cold and damp outside, chili con carne has a great way of warming you from the inside out. First the beef, with its just-this-side-of-tough meatiness, warms you as you chew (assuming it’s served hot, as it should be). Then the peppers take over, suffusing you with the warmth of a slow burn that lingers. Got a chill? Fight it with chili.
Here in Washington, chili appears on the menu at a wide range of establishments. More often than not, however, it’s an afterthought; a throwaway alternative to soup up there among the appetizers at the top of the menu. Ask a few questions of your server, and it quickly becomes clear that this is not the kind of chili that warrants a Johnny Cash cameo. Ben’s Chili Bowl is a rare but noteworthy exception, though chili enthusiasts will tell you that theirs is a unique take on the chuck wagon classic.
The other great exception we’ve found around here is Hard Times Cafe. On a recent rainy Wednesday – which just happened to be “National Wing Day” at Hard Times – we paid a visit to the Clarendon location and enjoyed a no-frills chili dinner. It was messy, a little greasy…and just what we were looking for.
Five ways’ worth of flavor after the jump.
Originally opened in Old Town in 1980, this throwback chili parlor has been serving up four kinds of chili in a variety of presentations for almost thirty years now. Along the way, they’ve expanded to sixteen locations, including a stand at Nationals’ Stadium and ten “Cafe and Cue” locations that combine the ambiance of the original with a sports bar (the ‘cue’ in question refers to the ones used to shoot pool). On the walls, posters from old Western movies add splashes of their Technicolored glory to the tile and wood motif.
The Clarendon spot, just across North Highland Street from the Clarendon Metro station, is in the only remaining portion of a strip of shops that had run between Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards. Those shops – which included a classic Vietnamese restaurant and the original “Clare and Don’s Beach Shack” – have been torn down to make way for another multi-story mixed-use space, but Hard Times and its Indian neighbor (Delhi Club) still survive.
When we got there, Hard Times wasn’t just surviving…they were bumping. We had to thread our way through several groups of people waiting for seats before we could give our names to the hostess, and we knew we’d have a bit of a wait. Was it the promotional free wings? The chill in the air? Nah. The crowds are a pretty regular occurrence at this particular Hard Times, owing in part to its relatively small footprint. Tables can seat roughly 40 patrons at a time; thankfully, the volume of conversations, music and cooking noises (not to mention the overall vibe) discourage long romantic dinners, so turnover is fairly steady.
We found a seat at the bar and ordered a round of beers while we waited for the table. In front of us, a bucket of peanuts and a (clean) ashtray. From our vantage point at the corner of the bar, we had a clear view into the open part of the kitchen, where large cauldrons of chili bubbled and were frequently dipped into for serving. A grilltop waited to put the finishing touches on hotdogs and half-smokes. We drank our beers and watched the cooks move from order to order for a little while, until our table was ready.
Hard Times has a surprisingly deep menu, considering its origins, but we weren’t about to entertain any options that didn’t feature chili prominently. Even so, we found ourselves with plenty of options. Should it be the three-, four-, or five way chili mac (chili, spaghetti and cheese plus onions plus beans)? The Frito chili pie? A chili half smoke to rival Ben’s?
And which of the four chilis to choose? The house recipe is Texas style, but they also offer a Cincinatti Cincinnati version sweetened with cinnamon and a ruddier, spicier version known as Terlingua Red as well as a vegetarian chili that includes soy, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, peppers and peanuts.
After giving it some thought, I opted for the three-way Terlingua Red chili mac. My father took it two steps further, getting the five-way. And Elizabeth went for a 1/4 pound chili dog. The chili was just what you’d hope for: meaty and spicy, with plenty of messy tomato-based sauce to splash around as you’re eating. In a bowl by itself, it would make for a hearty meal. Atop a hot dog, it was an exercise in control to prevent the chili from spilling out all over. And ladled over a helping of spaghetti, it was a shirt-stainer in the making.
Maybe it’s my Italian upbringing, but I’m always a bit surprised (disappointed?) that the chili is served over spaghetti instead of elbow macaroni. With the long noodles as the base, it comes across as a Texan bolognese. And because I’ve been trained to twirl spaghetti around a fork instead of cutting it up into more manageable pieces, there are plenty of extra opportunities for stray splatters as it spins. But the peppery chili’s flavor more than makes up for the inconvenience.
And what, you might ask, about National Wing Day? Well we couldn’t find any corroborating evidence to suggest that this was an honest-to-goodness national holiday, but we were happy to enjoy our free half orders of wings anyway. The wings were decent, moderately sized and moist with a light hot sauce burn, but they couldn’t compete with the main event. We enjoyed them as an appetizer, all the while looking forward to the chili that had drawn us there in the first place.
We definitely left satisfied, with plenty of food and beer to wash it down. And the price tag was far more recession-friendly than you’ll find at many restaurants around town, coming in at less than $20 per person after tax and tip. If you’re looking for a low-key evening out or just hankering for some chili done right, Hard Times definitely makes for good times.