In this chili kind of town, there are still brutal arguments over the origin of Cincinnati chili, since neither the concept of chili nor coneys originated here. But everyone agrees the first Cincinnati chili parlor had an Empress sign dangling above it. Even so, Empress parlors did not sprawl across our region, nor did the brand spawn a catchy jingle. You could buy it frozen and visit a few outlying locations, including Vine Street in Hartwell (which is now closed). But when Jim Papakirk purchased Empress Chili in 2009, he hoped to expand the original’s chili footprint in the market. So, how does it taste? It’s the same recipe you got on a hot dog back in 1922. And that’s a good thing. Chili recipes are some of the most guarded secrets around. We’ve always heard that the only two Coke executives who knew the secret formula for the soft drink weren’t allowed to take the same flight. But that urban legend has got nothing on the mysterious Pedro, who showed up at closing time at the Chili Company and concocted his secret recipe in the wee hours so no one ever knew. But I digress. All Empress locations have the chili originals, from a bowl to five-ways, as well as breakfast and double deckers. So is Empress truly making a comeback? Definitely. But the world domination plan is a calculatedly methodical one that’s as secret as the chili recipe. At the current rate of expansion you can expect an Empress on every corner by 3013.
Empress Chili, empresschilialexandria.com
Originally published in the April 2013 issue.