Daisy May's Takes Top Spot in My 2009 Favorite BBQ Chili List
My apologies for posting this on what may turn out to be the hottest day of the year to date, but there will still be plenty of cooler springtime days ahead to put some of these recommendations to use. I could have posted a list months ago, but due dilligence required a few more tastings that unearthed some pleasant surprises.
1. Daisy May's, NYC
(beans: no; spiciness: mild)
Whether you love or merely like Daisy May's chili is a matter of opinion, but there's no refuting its meatiness. This bowl of red is packed with large chunks of brisket that have grown increasingly barbecue-flavored in recent visits and accented with a thick, peppery-sweet brick-colored ancho lather. It may be mild but there's no lack of flavor here. A plus is that there are no beans to get in the way of your enjoyment; a minus is the pre-packed sour cream that's refigerator cold. Fortunately, a chili this good needs no sour cream. Two things pushed it to the number one slot for me: its consistent quality and the freshness of the meat. I may be wrong or just lucky, but the texture on my last two visits didn't seem like repurposed brisket at all—I'd almost swear it was smoked exclusively for the chili.
2. Big W's, Wingdale NY
(beans: no; spiciness: hot)
I love the simplicity of the brisket chili at Big W's, which dollar-for-dollar is even meatier than Daisy May's, and hotter to boot. I think of it more as choppped brisket with chili sauce than an actual chili, and I mean that as the highest compliment. The tandem of the beef and chicken chilis was a serious threat for the top spot, but as of my last visit, the chicken chili was off the menu (the chili's loss is the smokey chicken pot pie's gain).
3. All Star Sandwich Bar, Cambridge MA
(beans: no; spiciness: medium hot)
Chris Schlesinger sold the joint that held the top spot last year, but All Star Sandwich Bar is in good hands. Not only has the chili recipe not changed, it's still being prepared by the same people who prepared it last year. That said, this chili has declined somewhat, now supplying a thinner, saltier broth. It's still loaded with smoky brisket chunks, but they seem less integral to the dish, as if added at the end rather than cooked in. What I still like about All Star's chili is the unique flavor that's big on cumin and other ingredients not normally found in a typical chili.
4. Hill Country, NYC
(beans: no; spiciness: medium)
Executive chef Elizabeth Karmel has taken many shots, both in print and via word of mouth, from the sizeable camp of Hill Country's armchair critics who love the meat, hate the sides. Aside from the once-lackluster cole slaw that has since been improved, I like her sides, especially her deep, complex chili that has more beer in its makeup than any other on the list. I just wish the brisket that's become Hill Country's signature item could make its way into the recipe.
5. RUB, NYC
(beans: yes, spiciness: medium)
Still my highest ranking among the chilis that include beans (though unobtrusive), mostly due to the high quality brisket scraps. This is a meaty, smoky chili tempered by the inclusion of cinnamon (or possibly nutmeg or allspice; I can't tell them apart in small doses) to keep things interesting.
6. Jake's Dixie Roadhouse, Waltham MA
(beans: no, spiciness; varies)
This one's tough to rank, because the heat level (for temperature as well as spice) keeps changing from visit to visit. The constant is the large mass of tender pulled pork and the pleasing backdrop of piquant condiment.
7. Southern Hospitality, NYC
(beans: yes, spiciness: medium)
Dr, BBQ's chili was surprisingly good and far smokier than any of the meats on their barbecue menu. Like RUB's, this chili has beans and a touch of cinnamon. What makes this one distinctive is the use of green peppers that add an addictively pleasing freshness to the bowl.
8. Bobbique, Patchogue NY
(beans: yes, spiciness: mild to medium)
I like that there's an obstacle course of textures in here, with several kinds of beans, two kinds of meat and a fresh, unique flavor.
9. BT's Smokehouse, Brimfield MA
(beans: yes; spiciness: hot)
A frequent participant and occasional winner on the chili competition circuit, Brian Treitman (the "BT" of BT's) breaks from convention with an in-your-face quantity of beans, but counters with plenty of thick brisket chunks that supply the highest smoke level of any of the chilis on the list. The chili is available at both locations, but I recommend BT's "Snack Shack" in Sturbridge, where you can enjoy it with a cold beer purchased at the Yankee Spirits, whose front right corner constitutes said Shack.
10. Redbones, Somerville MA
(beans: no; spiciness: mild)
This is another joint whose ranking is affected by a second chili, in this case the chili verde. It's a whole different breed, made with pork and more herbs than spices. The Redbones beef chili is hardly mainstream: large chunks of beef in a very thin broth that's closer to soup than chili, but it works.
Chili Head BBQ, W. Bridgewater MA: chunky brisket with adjustable heat that requires a waiver if you aim to high.
Virgil's, NYC: Similar to Daisy May's in flavor, with less impressive meat.
Waterfront Alehouse, NYC: straightforward but very good.
Wildwood, NYC: best presentation (mini kettle, thick shreds of cheese) with an ever-increasing barbecue flavor.
Footnotes and miscellany:
Daisy May's may have risen to the top of the chili list, but I've stripped them of their baked beans crown. The bean blend is still fantastic, but the abundant burnt ends that once pushed it to the summit can now be seen on a milk carton somewhere, because they haven't been in the beans the last several times I've had it.
Among the best chili I've ever tasted was an early version by Fatty Beltbuckles (Rocky Point NY). It had the kind of concentrated flavor that comes from plenty of smoked beef, endless simmering and a copious amounts of dark beer. Sadly, the joint's owner and chef last summer ran into some trouble with the law. All charges were dropped and the restaurant may have survived the ordeal, but the chef and that original chili recipe did not.
Firefly's (three suburban Boston locations) never seemed to serve the same bowl of chili twice. Sometimes it was hot, sometimes it was mild. Sometimes it had beans, sometimes it didn't. Usually it was a beef blend, sometimes it had pork. Even though it was usually very good and sometimes outstanding, owner Steve Uliss recognized the inconsistency and decided to pull the chili off the current menu. He plans to revive it after he develops a recipe that can withstand the high volume production that his trio of restaurants demand.
It's surprising how many barbecue joints out there turn out some excellent 'cue but rather ordinary chili. I love just about everything at SoulFire (Boston MA), but I find their chili just okay. Swingbelly's (Long Beach NY) and Goody Cole's Smokehouse (Brentwood NH) both offer fantastic brisket but not even close to fantastic chili. Texas BBQ Company (Northborough MA) is an up-and-comer for their brisket, sausage and beef ribs especially, but their mild, bean-happy chili is strictly a down-and-outer. Dinosaur's brisket and pulled pork sandwiches? [Insert Marv Albert voice here] Yes! Dinosaur's chili? No. Please, no.
Conversely, great chili is also no guarantee of great 'cue. Many of the joints on this list wouldn't rank high on my list of, say, ribs or pulled pork or brisket. Daisy May's has the chili nailed but you could argue that their brisket is their Achilles heel (they would, however, rank very high on a ribs list).
Some joints offer chili as a side, allowing you to cram even more meat into a platter that's already questionable from a nutrition standpoint. Interestingly, most of those joints are in New Hampshire.