Chili mac, when are you comin’ back?

Are you familiar with chili mac? According to Jane and Michael Stern’s book “Road Food,” it’s a Midwestern specialty: spaghetti noodles topped with chili.

I’d had it only once, years ago, but read about it in the Sterns’ book before my recent St. Louis trip and was intrigued. Seeing it on the menu at Crown Candy Kitchen, I ordered it. (Later I checked the book again and realized the Sterns had recommended the chili mac at a different establishment.)

Here’s what you get: a soup bowl filled with spaghetti and chili (no beans), and, if you want ‘em, cheddar and onions. I did. Adding to the silliness, on the side you get a package of oyster crackers, those small, six-sided crackers that come with chowder or chili but, um, rarely with spaghetti.

Strange it may be, the platypus of entrees, but chili mac was actually pretty tasty. I cleaned my bowl. Anyone else ever tried this regional specialty, or another one of which most Californians would be unaware?

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  • Jim L

    Back when Bob’s Big Boy was on Holt in Pomona, I’d order their spaghetti chili. Piled high with cheese and onions. Yum. That classic dish is still on their menu but sadly there are fewer Bob’s Big Boys around these days.

  • dmh

    When I was a kid, I used to get “chili size” at Bob’s Big Boy in West Covina (now torn down when the mall was expanded). It consisted of chili, noodles and a hamburger patty at the bottom. And they say kids eat bad now!

  • John Clifford

    Chili Mac with spaghetti? My mom (from Chicago) made it for us as kids, but always with Macaroni (thus the MAC). I guess it would be OK with spaghetti but then wouldn’t it be chiligetti or something?

    I remember that it was one of those favorite Pot Luck dishes whenever the neighbors got together.

    [Chiligetti! I love it. -- DA]

  • Jonnie Owens

    When I was much younger, I was a server at Bob’s Big Boy and we had a chili mac item on the menu. You could get it with or without a patty in it. And…it was topped with a slice of American cheese. Sounds somewhat disgusting, but my kids loved it…and still make it sometimes.

    This reminds me that I was driving on the I-10 westbound last week and the former Chevy’s in West Covina is being reopened as the aforementioned Bob’s Big Boy! Perhaps folks will have an opportunity to try chili mac out for themselves.

    [Thanks for the field report, Jonnie. Not only did she run Pomona's Big Read, she also reads signs. -- DA]

  • Frank S

    Dave,

    This dish is a favorite in Cincinnati Ohio. I have included the link for a chain called Skyline Chili… http://www.skylinechili.com/

    I am not a fan but the people there rave about it!

    I’ll stick to Buffalo wings from the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY!

  • Linda Biscardi

    Hi Dave…I owned La Piccoletta in Claremont for 25 years…1980-2005…and I think “chili mac” is a sin against nature (my nature anyway). Other than that I have always believed what others eat behind closed doors is their own business, so if you like it…enjoy. By the way the new Italian restaurant in Claremont La Parolaccia is pretty good, you should try a pizza there. Happy Thanksgiving.

    [Still gotta go there. And I wish I'd gone to La Piccoletta when you owned it, Linda. Thanks for dropping by the blog. -- DA]

  • Dee

    Ever try a muffaletta? It’s New Orleans cuisine. Big sandwich layered with salami, ham, cheese and a very garlicky olive salad. Served hot. You can get a pretty good one at the Farmer’s Market in LA (or at my house around New Year’s). Not everyone likes it, but there’s no accounting for taste. ;)

    [Had one at Central Grocery, the originator of the muffaletta, when in New Orleans in June. Outstanding stuff. I haven't had the Farmer's Market version at Gumbo Pot but I love that food stand. -- DA]

  • http://diversitown.blogspot.com meg

    I loooooove Cincinnati chili, and Skyline in particular. That said, Cincinnati chili isn’t quite the same as chili mac/chilighetti. The former has a bizarre Greek genealogy and does not resemble any chili you ever had elsewhere.

    If anyone knows where to get cans of Skyline besides online, post it here! Until then, maybe I’ll make chilighetti one cold night when we’re in need of a fix…

  • Grayson’s Bama

    I grew up in El Monte and remember eating this at the counter of the local Thrifty’s Drug Store luncheonette. Loved it as a kid but it doesn’t sound too appetizing now.

  • Bob House

    I agree with Ms. Biscardi that Chili Mac and its variants, such as “Cincinatti Chili” (with spaghetti + onions + cheese: so you can order it “2 Way,” “3 Way”), are abominations — definitely not chili. Especially with the Cincinatti version, the “chili” is something thinner and soupier that tastes more like spaghetti sauce than real chili.

    Another similar old-school diner/luncheonette item is the Chili Size — hamburger patty covered with chili (sometimes served like an open face “Sloppy Joe” on hamburger buns).

    One source says the name comes from a sign at the place that invented it. The sign said “Size” at the top and showed 3 dishes of the entree — for small, medium and large. Apparently many people looked at the sign and ordered “a large plate of size.”

    The Midwest is the heartland and all, but it’s no place to order chili.

    [I've read what purports to be the explanation for "chili size." In this version, as I recall it, the restaurant (could it have been in L.A.?) had two sizes, chili size (the lunch portion) and steak size (larger). Maybe they weren't even on the menu that way but the counterman would yell to the cook, "Chili size!" Somehow, "chili size" became the common name for an open-face burger with chili on it. -- DA]

  • http://pomonaartscolony.blogspot.com/ Susie

    You’re making me hungry! I love chili on spaghetti! I come from Savannah Ga. and grew up eating Brunswick stew, that and boiled peanuts are the two foods that I miss the most!

    Brunswick stew is my favorite comfort food. It’s a stew that is usually eaten with Southern BBQ.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brunswick_stew

    here’s the recipe: http://www.officialguide.com/gistew.html

  • Bill

    When I was growing up in Detroit, my mom used to make what she called quick spaghetti, same thing but made with macaroni. I still make it sometimes.

  • Jim L

    Another uniquely Midwest/heartland specialty item that never successfully extended itself beyond the Midwest is the “made right” — a loose ground beef sandwich.

    [Ah, the loose meat sandwich. There's a chapter about the Maid-Rite chain in "Feasting on Asphalt," a book by the Food Network's Alton Brown, which is how I heard about the sandwich. Haven't had one, or been to a Maid-Rite, but as the chain is said to be launching a mini-comeback (www.maid-rite.com), perhaps I'll get the chance next time I'm back home. -- DA]

  • Don J

    I thought Maid-Rites were good, Dave, not quite sloppy joes…you’re right — they’re outta Iowa/Illinois, you might remember “Roseanne” the show, which took place in your stomping grounds, always referred to them.

    Bob’s (the oldest) Big Boy in Toluca Lake (fancy term for South Burbank) has chili spaghetti on the menu.

  • DAve

    The Bob’s in Diamond Bar (SW corner 60/57) is worth a visit to investigate their status as a chili source and yes they still serve the chocolate shakes in those sweaty steel goblets…

    Tho the burgers and the goblets seem to have shrunk as much as I have grown larger simultaneously…

    Taco Bell used to serve loose ground beef in their “Bell Beefer” which was a fave of mine… for some reason I believe that Baker’s may have one too…

  • Desdave

    Heres a recipe for all our your readers, something I throw together on the quick for my family when I am in a pinch for time:

    Desdave’s Chili-Mac

    2 boxes of Macaroni & Cheese (Kraft is my prefered brand)
    1 can Stagg Chili Laredo (With Beans)
    Grate up some Tillimook Sharp Cheddar Cheese (I never measure, but I don’t like cheese… I like EXTRA cheese)
    1 spoonful of Sour Cream (None of that ‘lite’ crap either!)
    A dash of pepper

    Make the macaroni and cheese as you usually would, add the chili, cheese, sour cream, pepper and mix together.

    It’s damn good if I don’t mind saying so myself.

    [Bon appetit! -- DA]

  • Zee

    After reading this blog post, guess what I made for dinner? I don’t understand it, either, but it is one of my husband’s comfort foods — his family traveled cross country quite a bit when he was young, so I guess this was one of those midwest things they brought back home with them. Interesting to see so many people fond of it :)

  • JMac

    Isn’t the twist to “Cincy” chili the addition of cinnamon as a spice component? I’m a fan of chili combinations in any form. Love the chili size. Those wonderful ladies at The Deli turn out a heart-clogging version for about $3.

    [The Deli, for the uninitiated, is at Archibald and Foothill in RC. -- DA]

  • Charles Bentley

    GREETINGS:

    I told myself I wasn’t going to mix into this discussion, but now I feel the need (and have a spare moment).

    First, I agree with the person who said “chili mac” isn’t made with spaghetti, it’s made with macaroni. Spaghetti and chili is just that, although I have heard it called “Spaghetti Size” and “Texas Spaghetti.” My first memory of this was at Bob’s Big Boy, but I’ve seen it quite a few other places (and never as “chili mac”). And it always had a big slice of American cheese on top.

    Second, Cincinnati chili is to chili what canned spaghetti is to spaghetti. It may have a similar appearance, but that’s it. A very dear friend of mine is from Porkopolis (home of the flying pigs statue) and she assures me that Cincinnati chili is an “acquired taste” that even most residents of the Queen City never acquire!

    Third, there are a host of places that serve up a great Chili Size. Years ago the Marie Callendar’s in Claremont made a great Chili Size (ah, but no longer). The best usually are found at roadside burger joints that let the chili simmer all day so that it’s perfect about 11 o’clock at night.

    Finally, how about a “shout out” for what was the most popular lunch item in the high school cafeteria when I was in school (sooo many years ago). How many remember Chili Boats, which consisted of Fritos served in a paper tray or “boat” (thus the name) smothered with chili and topped with shredded cheddar cheese? Some places this was called “Fritos pie,” but that was served on a plate and usually included onions.

    Did this ever float in the Midwest, David?

    [Never heard of the Fritos pie. But your description of the “boat” did give me a sinking feeling! — DA}

  • Larry

    Chili mac, chili spaghetti and Fritos pie may sound strange but all things considered are actually pretty tasty, albeit unhealthy. Now, if you REALLY want to register big on the gag meter with a regional food, try scrapple… or lutefisk.

  • Desdave

    We used to call your Fritos dish “Pepper Belly” when I went to Chino High… they served them in the actual Fritos bag, sliced open, and smothered with chili and cheese.

    Fritos are damn good with chili and cheese.

  • http://www.myspace.com/the_ron Ronald Scott

    Desdave, I also remember the “Pepper Belly’s from Chino High…that was so good on a cold day.

    Hey Dave, I finally made my way to Farmer’s Market in L.A. after attending the Auto Show and could not believe all the good food that they have there. I have to go a few more times so I can try everything they have in there.

    [There are a lot of places there I haven't tried. I seem to go once a year and always gravitate toward Gumbo Pot. -- DA]

  • jim

    hi,
    I used to go to a place near the bus stations in DC to get my “clili mac.” Spaghetti based and a bit hot. This was in the early ’60s.Then they moved to Alexandria,Va.

  • Jennifer

    Hi,

    D.C. used to have chili mac. My husband is constantly talking about it, since he used to buy it in D.C. Do you know the name of the place and where they moved to in VA?

  • Matthew W

    chili mac is huge out east where im from its made popular from a company called steak n shake which i do believe has about 200 locations in the mideast the only location on the west coast is on the strip in las vegas check out http://www.steaknshake.com if your interested i think they have been around for about 50 years