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Saturday’s Forecast: Chili

December 6, 2018

No, I’m not a meteorologist. But I am a dad. And as such, I’m entitled to make a dad joke or two. Especially on my birthday. Which is today.

Let’s not make a big deal about it. Tonight I’ll celebrate with my family by going out to a special dinner. But it’s also Chanukah. So the kids will be the ones getting presents. There’s really nothing that I want, except maybe to be able to make it through a civilized meal out at the restaurant of my choice. That said, it’s one I think the kids might also enjoy.

We’ll see how it goes, and perhaps next week there will be a recap. I am cautiously optimistic that my progeny are now old enough to demonstrate reasonably good manners in public.

Saturday, however, I know is going to be excellent. Because Saturday is the Chili Chowdown in Downtown Schenectady, and once again, I get to be one of the official judges. Is it going to be cold? You bet. But that’s just going to make the chili taste better at each stop along the way.

It’s not even officially winter yet, and if you live in the Capital Region, you can’t let a little chilly weather keep you from getting out. You will miss out on all the fun. Here is a sneak peek at some of the tastes I’m most excited to sample.

You can find the full map and the descriptions of the food at the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp website.

The way this event works is that you walk from business to business, and at each stop, you can pay a dollar for a three ounce sample cup of chili. If you’re into beer, most of the stops will also have a three ounce beer sample you can for another buck. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon, and a pretty sweet deal to boot. Plus, when you’re done, you’ll have a new appreciation for Downtown Schenectady. It’s really much more walkable than you might imagine.

As a judge, the beer sampling will be kept at a minimum to maintain a clear head for the sixteen chilis I have been tasked to evaluate. The official judging panel will also include two other members of the Yelp Elite Squad. There is also a people’s choice category. So if you do come out to participate, all you need to do is try a minimum of eight samples to qualify. Choose your favorite from the eight or more you sampled, and drop your ballot in one of the five collection boxes downtown. Easy peasy.

The official judges will be looking for flavor, texture, and how the chili as a whole comes together. Of course, you are free to use whatever criteria you choose.

Which ones are early favorites?

Of course, it’s impossible to tell, because it’s all about the execution. But there are some that have me excited from the get go. If I were only going to try eight, the below would be my personal short list.

Firestone 151 is making a stout braised short rib chili. I’m prejudiced towards chili that specifies the cut of meat it contains. And I’m more into chunks of braised meat than ground beef. Plus I can imagine how a stout braised short rib could really contribute some great complexity and depth to a chili.

Backstage Pub is making something they call Gram’s Spicy Chili. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the new ownership, direction, and menu and Backstage Pub, and I’m looking forward to trying it with that in mind. Plus I do enjoy a spicy chili. However, if you say something is going to be spicy, it better bring the heat.

Hell’s Grill is going to be on Jay Street at Tattoo Blues. Never heard of Hell’s Grill? Neither have I. But my friend Sue has been there and she loves it. It’s an off-the-beaten-path tavern deep in Schenectady, and I am excited they have partnered with a downtown business to bring a taste of their cooking to this event.

Mad Jack Brew Pub is doing a short rib chili with creamy cheddar polenta on top. Oh yeah. More short ribs, plus polenta? Nice. I just hope the polenta stays creamy. Because much like “spicy” if you promise “creamy” it has to deliver. But this sounds fantastically warming and deeply comforting.

Maria’s Cafe is bringing a habanero vegetarian chili. Look, I don’t need meat in my chili. Beans can be plenty meaty. This one is also vegan and gluten free, which doesn’t scare me one bit. In fact, I’m intrigued. And leading with habanero peppers implies a level of heat which I’m looking forward to trying. I love how hot peppers can warm you up from the inside out.

More Perreca’s is leveraging its most popular dish and has created something called eggs in purgatory chili. I love when a restaurant is able to present a dish that’s a bit beyond what it usually serves, but points back to the core of its identity. Aperitivo did this at the last Schenectady Wing Walk. This could go either way, but I can’t wait to taste it.

Pinhead Susan’s announced a Christmas Ale Short Rib Chili. That’s three contenders using short rib. I’m starting to wonder if there was a sale on this deeply flavorful cut of meat. Doesn’t matter. This Schenectady institution has my attention.

Your eighth selection may depend on your own internal biases towards different restaurants or types of chili. For example, The DillyBean is going vegan and gluten free. Bombers is going more traditional with a Texas Chili. Hunter’s on Jay is going out of the box with a chicken and sausage chili. Or you may just be a big fan of Johnny’s, Katie O’Byrne’s, or Union Inn.

For me, the answer is Slidin’ Dirty, because I’m just into their culinary creativity and use of quality ingredients. Plus chili isn’t something that is on their menu, so I’m eager to taste what they dream up for this event. Maybe, if it’s good enough, it might even find a way into the rotation. After all, chili is a critical part of Wendy’s recipe for burger waste management. Maybe Tim and his crew can take a page from that book.

Anyway, now I’ve got to go and contemplate the growing number of years I’ve spent circling around the sun. Hope to see you on Saturday. Look for me. I’ll be the guy decked out in Yelp paraphernalia handing out Yelp Life fingerless gloves. I shouldn’t be hard to find. Cheers!

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