LEBANON, Ohio - With a cascade of pasta, melted yellow cheese, and brownish goo tumbling off Ali Girl's fork, she took her first carb-filled taste of what makes Cincinnati a must-visit for a palate.
"There's nothing I can compare it to," Ali said, warming to the meal's mild spices and strong aroma.
As an American city, Cincinnati may not rise to iconic stature like NYC, or L.A., or even its ugly instate sister Cleveland (sorry, Cleveland, this is a native Queen City boy corresponding here), but its unique chili makes a visit to the Seven Hills of Cincinnati a worthwhile culinary destination.
Just keep in mind that we ain't talking about health food. Alison and I stopped at Skyline Chili in Lebanon, a small rural town north of the city, on our way home following a four-day visit with my parents, and we took a table inside the combination diner/fast-food joint. Patrons could also choose a seat at the diner counter to watch servers dip into hot vats of sauce and overstock each plate with handfuls of cheddar cheese.
Skyline is one of two prominent chain restaurants in Cincy specializing in the Greek-style chili, made of shredded cheddar and ground beef that's cooked in a secret combination of spices, which might include cinnamon and chocolate. The other noteworthy franchise is Gold Star, but their chili compared to Skyline's is not distinctive.
You can order it either over spaghetti or coney-style, and these restaurants may be the only place in the world where you can ask the server for a "three-way" without getting slapped.
Ask for three-way chili and your plate will come hot with spaghetti, chili, and melting cheddar cheese. Add onions, and it's called a four-way. Get all kinds of crazy and pile beans on that mountain of chili and cheese and you have yourself a five-way.
The sauce is thinner than traditional Texas-style chili, and unless specifically ordered, has no beans in it.
Ali Girl and I each dipped forks into steaming piles of three-way chili, twirling spaghetti soaked in the brown sauce thick with melted cheese.
As Chris Seiple, a frequent travel companion, said during his first visit to Cincinnati several years ago, "This may be the most perfect food ever invented."
Chili franchises began popping up around Cincinnati in the 1920s, with Skyline and Gold Star establishing supremacy over the others by the 1960s and 1970s.
While visits to baseball parks throughout the country have traditional meals, you must-try if you attend a game—think crab sandwiches at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Md., or cheese steaks inside Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Ballpark—hot dogs soaked in Cincinnati chili is a summertime tradition when seeing my beloved Reds at Great American Ballpark. Nothing says laid-back like sitting in the upper deck watching river boats pass on the mighty Ohio beyond the outfield wall while your favorite ball club competes on the bright green field below.
Again, don't expect to lose weight eating the delicacy, and if you visit the city, you won't have to go far to find Skyline or Gold Star (they're everywhere).