Chili in summer?" scoffed a friend recently, as if the notion of eating hot food after Memorial Day was impossible to wrap his head around.
What is it, precisely, that makes it culinarily acceptable to eat a steaming bowl of delicious chili in February but not June? Last I checked, beef isn't exactly seasonal like asparagus or rhubarb. And it's not like we stop eating hot and spicy foods come summertime. Geez Louise — I had half a mind to hand my pal a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
What he would find when he got there is a funky, art-driven café that specializes in all matter of spicy brews. Launched in April by local artist Ian P.E., Palookaville Chili is the latest in an increasingly long line of hyper-specific restaurants. The focus here — no surprise — is chili, or, as the folks at Palookaville like to call them: "Hot pots o' soul."
Set in a former Ohio City print shop, the breezy diner is decked out to resemble a casual backyard barbecue. Faux trees rise from various pots and planters, while others are handpainted directly onto the walls. The rest of the vertical space is covered in edgy, graffiti-style art. Diners sit on stools at high-tops, at the petite six-seat bar, or at one of the other few tables.
While art is his stock in trade, the owner says that chili is his most recent obsession. He has spent the better part of a year perfecting his techniques, all of which are rooted in southwestern tradition.
And in regard to that con-carne conundrum that finds folks deriding summertime chili, P.E. says that where he comes from — on the West Coast — every season is chili season.
I tend to agree with him. What's not to love about a hot crock of bubbly beef stew? Especially when it's made from hand-chopped meat, fresh chiles, and proprietary spice blends, as it is here. Palookaville offers three house versions: a dark and brooding bean-free Texas beef, a bright and faintly tart white-meat chicken in salsa verde, and a super-spicy vegan concoction with remarkable depth. Two new flavors — white-hot pork and Indian-spiced spinach tofu — came online just recently. Each variety is available straight up or ladled over rice or elbow macaroni. Bowls are topped off with your choice of cheese (cheddar or feta), green onion, sour cream, and jalapeños.
Chili also finds its way onto something called the Cleveland Steamer, a funny name for what is essentially a kick-ass chili dog. A meaty all-beef weenie is tucked into a sturdy hoagie bun and buried in Texas chili, cheese, onions, and peppers.
To all outward appearances, the Sloppy Jose is simply the bigger, beefier, and more badass brother to trusty ol' Joe.
For a few extra bucks, all sandwiches and bowls can be kicked up into meals, which include two sides. The apple and cabbage slaw is a vivid and refreshing foil to the earthy chili. Thick and smoky campfire-style beans are studded with real bits o' bacon. Cornbread — thick, dense and not altogether moist — is pocked with kernels of corn. The chili-dusted tortilla chips are decent for dipping, but they're undoubtedly better topped with chili and cheese as they are in the nachos grande.
New menu items (and real plates, as opposed to the plastic ones they've been using) have been added since our last visit. Chili-stuffed tacos, southwest-style chicken wraps, and a garden-fresh salad sporting chili vinaigrette are all part of the newly expanded menu.
And because even a chile-head like P.E. enjoys a little summertime relief, he has added bracing bowls of gazpacho, frosty root beer floats, and creamy milkshakes.
Despite the limited scope of the menu, this is not "fast food." Items are ordered and paid for up at the counter and delivered, approximately 10 minutes later, to your table.
The down time provides the perfect opportunity to browse the resale and vintage threads at the adjacent (and physically connected) Rag Refinery, which is owned and operated by P.E.'s business partner, Leigh Ring.
If you're chilly, maybe you can pick up a sweater.