Chili that still has the blues
2018 W. Burbank Blvd. (east of Buena Vista)
Phone: 818-846-3611 | map
The photo has not been retouched; this corner building is really that desaturated, a block of white brick with pleasantly fading signage. The scent wafting from its kitchen is stronger than the color, leading me forward from the parking lot.
Chili John's claims to be the oldest restaurant in Burbank (since 1946), and I have no reason to argue with that considering the original patent for the chili* is older than Coca Cola's.
A big U-shaped counter commands the room; '60s psychedelia or old guitar blues plunk from somewhere overhead. The busy island in the middle is populated by the flotsam of a dozen steel pots, each with its own rendition of chili. For chili is what they do--mild, medium, spicy, beef, chicken, veggie--ladled from those metal containers over a hot dog (bun optional), over spaghetti, or over beans. This is not the gourmet-of-the-day sampler of Chili My Soul, nor the made-for-hot-dogs bliss of Pink's, but a familiar, familial, homely experience.
Even after it's delivered, a constant customization of your chili selection continues. Get cheese with that. Spoon in some chopped raw onion. A few shakes from a bottle of apple cider vinegar to remind you of the bitter times. You might even want to dump a few of those oyster crackers out of that carafe onto your plate to soak up some of the oil slick pooling at the bottom. I get a glass of root beer, hissing in a broken crumble of ice, and I can't imagine drinking anything else with this.
When I don't have a nice shirt on, I like the spicy beef over spaghetti: a real workhorse chili, dark and prominent with cumin. It has a rugged burn and everyone warns you about it, but is really not that hot. The spaghetti is past al dente, tonged steaming from its pot, and acts in concert with the chili to form a drippy red reservoir underneath.
My favorite combination is chili over beans. The photo, depicting a trio of medium-spicy beef (upper left), hot spicy beef (upper right) and spicy chicken (lower) does not convey how much moisture is actually in this heap of goodness. The chicken chili is really good, almost a favorite alongside the spicy beef, made for crushing with the tongue against your palate to extract all flavor. The beans are soft and comforting like a warm bed after a day on the chain gang.
The vegetarian chili is an unexpected texture; made from bulgur wheat, it almost seems like a hot bulgur salad than a chili, but it's tasty. Not my thing when I'm faced with meat chili, though.
There's lemon or pineapple pie for a nice cooldown afterward; the lemon is thinly crusted, tangy, and addictive.
Chili John's is its old reliable self until 7pm on weekdays, 4 on Saturday. It has a habit of being closed from June until Labor Day, during which I agonize during hot days when I am really in the mood for a solid, non-trendy tradition.
* There is a nearly nonexistent website called chilijohns.com, for the original location in Wisconsin; I believe the owner's son opened up Burbank's local luminary.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, Burbank/North Hollywood )
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