Every self-respecting person has a go-to chili recipe, forged and perfected in the foul depths of innumerable Michigan winters. If not, then at the very least, everyone should have a set of finely calibrated preferences for chili that is served to them.
Like, how much kick? What kind of meat, if any? How chunky/liquidy? Sweeten or don’t? What kind of beans? How much garlic?1
In any case, chili is personal and these equations are not to be messed with.
I’m obligated here to acknowledge The Simpsons episode that most directly addresses this topic: “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer),” in which Homer goes on a hallucinatory vision quest under the guidance of a space coyote voiced by Johnny Cash. What starts Homer on his inadvertent trip is a visit to Springfield’s annual chili cook-off, where he consumes a recipe containing the Merciless Peppers of Quetzalacatenango, “grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum.”
My own vegetarian chili recipe stops just short of insanity-pepper levels of spiciness. We’re pretty attached, which makes me suspicious of — if not outright hostile toward — chili made by other people. This applies particularly to restaurants, which need to present a strong case that their chili justifies the expenditure of dining-out money when chili can be made easily, inexpensively and in large quantities at one’s home.
Thus I embarked on a late winter’s journey to ascertain what kind of chili landscape exists in West Michigan. In short: Robust! And with plenty of beer!
I had no mystical guidance, only an appetite, a nose and one stubborn requirement: The chili had to be a regular menu item, not something that rotates in a “soup of the day” lineup. CHILI IS NOT SOUP. It’s also not a condiment to ease the passage of a hot dog. Below are my suggestions.
The (depending whom you ask) oldest bar in Grand Rapids is the Cottage Bar and each September this local landmark hosts a chili cook-off that pits teams in an outdoor battle for supremacy. Indoors, chili appears on the menu year-round and is available in three varieties: Blanco (diced chicken/pinto beans), 3-alarm (ground chuck/red beans) and 4-alarm (sirloin, no beans).
18 La Grave Ave. SE, Grand Rapids; cottagebar.biz
Stella’s/Hopcat/Grand Rapids Brewing Company
Any corner of this downtown BarFly-owned restaurant trifecta would be a great place to start a chili tour of Grand Rapids. Stella’s spicy black bean vegetarian chili, I will grudgingly admit, outshines even my own. Omnivores can add seasoned beef or walk a couple of blocks to either Grand Rapids Brewing Company or Hopcat, which share a beef-and-pork chili (Hopcat also offers meatless) loaded with jalapeno, chipotle and bell peppers.
Founders Brewing Co.
Founders does chili as well as it does most things: Quite well! The brewery offers a Goldilocks-zone chili. It’s spicy, but not overly. It includes bratwurst and, logically, Dirty Bastard Scotch ale as its base. It’s available in a bread bowl, which, when you consider the ABV of many Founders beers, isn’t a bad idea.
235 Grandville Ave. SW, Grand Rapids; foundersbrewing.com
What they say about everything being bigger in Texas (trucks, belt buckles, gun collections, appetites for meat) is totally true. This Wyoming mainstay credibly evokes the Lone Star state with a barbecue-rich menu that takes chili to extremes unmatched anywhere in the area. Its Texas Chili Emporium offers several options: Regular, deluxe, topped with potatoes, topped with macaroni and cheese, topped with brisket or topped with sausage and brisket. I had to take an antacid just to finish typing that.
3660 Byron Center Ave. SW; dallasdeli.net
Cherry Deli/Two Beards Deli
The sibling delis known for their mind-boggling sandwich menus also produce some outstanding white chilis, both variations on Owner/Chef Scott Schulz’s hearty chicken chili concoction. Cherry Deli, on the day I visited, also offered a spicy vegan chickpea chili that nearly took my eyebrows off.
1For me: Lots; none; happy medium; no, thanks; one can Brooks hot chili beans, then assorted red/black/kidney; way more than seems logical.