I've eaten at The Chili Parlor on South Tacoma Way many times, under many different names (diner names, not my names) and many different owners. This is the type of diner I always look for when I'm on the road visiting a different city or town. Usually, it's run by Mom and Pop. Sometimes you get to hear interesting conversations from the next booth or from a stool yards away from you. Sometimes you get a mixture of flavors, ideas, and dreams. Each little diner has it's own story. This time I met Wayne and he's doing a good job chasing his dream.
My buddy Jim and I have lunch together about once a month and talk about life, Tacoma folk we know, and the latest news and happenings. I usually pick the location. I found The Chili Parlor on Friday morning and by noon we had settled into a booth, talking to Wayne and looking over the menu. I ordered the Chicken Fried Steak. You never know what to expect. I ordered naked. I took it as it came without my usual instructions.
I was prepared not to like the home fries. I didn't like them, but was surprised by them. Next time I'll place my "burnt, burnt, burnt" . . . order and see what happens. Crunchy I think they would be really good, even though they are not the hash browns that I love. I didn't see hash browns on the menu until later. My bad. The chicken fried steak was good, the toast was good and the eggs were good. I was disappointed in the country gravy. The taste was okay, but to me country gravy screams sausage. There was no screaming going on.
Jim ordered Spaghetti 3-Way, which means pasta smothered in chili and topped with a mound of cheddar cheese. He thought it was a little bland, which was probably correct. Wayne calls it "Cincinnati Chili." It has a thinner consistency than you would expect if you think chili should taste and feel like it comes from Nalley Valley. It's prepared with a blend of spices: cinnamon, chocolate or cocoa, allspice, and Worcestershire.
What's Cooking America:
History: Macedonian immigrant Tom Kiradjieff created Cincinnati chili in 1922. With his brother, John, Kiradjieff opened a small Greek restaurant called the Empress. The restaurant did poorly however, until Kiradjieff started offering a chili made with Middle Eastern spices, which could be served in a variety of ways. He called it his “spaghetti chili.” Kiradjieff’s “Five Way” was a concoction of a mound of spaghetti topped with chili, chopped onion, kidney beans, and shredded yellow cheese, served with oyster crackers and a side order of hot dogs topped with more shredded cheese.
Chili, like most foods, is a matter of taste . . . your's or someone else's. I had a friend in the early 80s who claimed to have won the Great Texas Chili Cook Off several years running. He said he won by having lots of hot chili peppers in the chili and by having the very hot Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders serve it. Of course he was from Texas, so I never knew if he was telling the truth, or a Texas Tall Tale. Even so, I think there must be a wide gap between Texas Chili and the Cincinnati Chili that is served at The Chili Parlor. Perhaps the gap is even wider than the Rio Grande, the Mississippi, and the Ohio River combined.
Wayne has regular customers that drive all the way from Oregon, just for his chili. I don't think our northwest population of Mexican-Americans are ready for it, but perhaps if Wayne substituted Mexican chocolate and made a mole sauce with a little chili powder it might convert them. Regardless, my next time for lunch I'll try the Spaghetti 3-Way. I called Wayne after I got back to my office and ordered party trays for a Valentine Day event my Rotary club is sponsoring.
Our local military bases do us a great service. They introduce the Pacific Northwest to countless troops and contractors . . . and their families. Many people who visit here, stay here or return here with new ideas and skills. Even if they don't return here, they remember. I once asked a policeman on the streets of New York City for directions to the Waldorf-Astoria. He asked where I was from and when I said, "Tacoma, Washington," he responded with, "I was stationed at Fort Lewis for a while. I loved it." I like being from Tacoma and the Puget Sound region, you meet interesting people . . . and their food.
Owner Wayne Wahlen:
The Chili Parlor has been a lifelong idea of mine since coming here from the Cincinnati area with the Army. After those day’s every time I made chili anywhere I was consistently trying to get that special flavor that I missed from home. Well I believe I finally got it!!! My idea is to establish a step back in time to the parlor days of the 50’s & 60’s, in a clean wholesome atmosphere where every one of all ages can enjoy it. The Chili Parlor is located at 5640 S. Tacoma Way Tacoma Washington. Since opening on Feb, 15, 2016, we’ve treated every customer like they were a part of our family.