It’s a mouth-watering Green Bay tradition that’s been around for a century – Chili John’s chili.
The legendary dish is most-often served over a bed of spaghetti noodles, topped with kidney beans and occasionally shredded cheese, onions and oyster crackers. But the real star is the spicy chili itself.
The recipe has remained a secret since founder John Issac opened up a tiny restaurant at the foot of the Main Street bridge in 1913.
Go to just about any bar that serves food in Northeast Wisconsin, and they are bound to have a similar cup of chili on the menu. However, it’s never quite the same. There’s something about the blend of spices, or perhaps the way the meat is cooked in the secret oil. It’s certainly possible to find a good bowl of chili elsewhere. But Chili John’s is the standard by which all others are compared.
Wisconsinites who’ve left the state behind will get these irresistible cravings for Chili John’s. Since it’s available at area grocery stores, many stock up whenever they’re in town. Others ask their mothers to send them frozen containers for Christmas.
We don’t have any insider information about the highly-guarded, secret recipe for Chili John’s signature dish.
We do know about something that will make your homemade chili taste as close to the real-deal as humanly possible. It’s extremely easy – and it just so happens to be made right here in Green Bay.
The Secret Weapon – A Bowl of Red
Just off of Main Street in east Green Bay – not too far from where the original Chili John’s was located – you’ll find Badger Wholesale Foods. Inside that building on Cedar Street is where they keep A Bowl of Red – Original Texas Style chili seasoning.
It’s interesting that the mix is branded “Texas-style” especially since Chili John’s is typically compared to “Cincinnati-style” chili.
Chili history buffs will tell you that Chili John’s actually pre-dates the arrival of Cincinnati chili by about 17 years. But that’s all besides the point.
What’s really important is that this is pretty much all you need to make your own Chili John’s at home. You’ll find instructions for making your own chili on the back of the container.
One thing that might pop out at you…the recipe calls for suet. Yes, the fatty lard stuff they stick bird seed in for winter. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “eat like a bird.”
I suppose you could call suet the other secret ingredient to making delicious chili. Let’s be honest – fat tastes good, greasy chili tastes good.
My grandma makes it this way, and when she stores it in the fridge, the fat coagulates on top of the meat in a crust of orange lard. It is a little bit yucky – until you warm it up and the seasoned grease melts all over the meat and noodles.
If you want to make real, authentic-tasting Chili John’s chili – follow the directions on the back of A Bowl of Red. That recipe also calls for an entire 8 oz container of the seasoning (the 16 oz is pictured above). That might be too spicy for some. You’ll still get plenty of flavor if you use about 4 oz of the seasoning.
I have an uncle who visits the area in the summertime. He eats Grandma’s so-called Hot Chili almost every day for lunch. It’s a mystery how his colon can handle it.
A Somewhat Healthier Option…
While Grandma did it the good old fashioned way – my mom chose to make what Hot Chili sans lard. It may not be quite as authentic – but if you do skip the suet step – you can still have chili that tastes a lot like Chili John’s.
One thing you can do is leave the grease that naturally cooks off the ground beef in the frying pan when you add the seasoning. It’s also smart to add about a cup of water to help create a saucy juice. You don’t want to serve up the chili meat dry.
Even if you aren’t a red-meat eater – you can still whip some of this up with ground turkey or chicken.
Add kidney beans and other traditional toppings if you like them. Other than cheese and diced onion, a dollop of sour cream is a nice finishing touch. Jalapenos are a good choice for those who like a little extra bite. And don’t forget the crackers!
Where Can You Get This Stuff?
You can find A Bowl of Red at local grocery stores such as Festival Foods. Tracking it down can feel like a treasure hunt sometimes as its location in the store seems to change on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s near the deli, but it could be by the normal chili seasoning too.
One place you can always find A Bowl of Red seasoning is at Badger Wholesale Foods. Order it Online – or you can also stop in and take advantage of the company’s Cash and Carry option (1111 Cedar Street, Green Bay).
If you’ve never tried the real Chili John’s – set a date to do so. They are now located in a west-side strip mall at 519 S Military Avenue near the Mason Street intersection. For a time, Chili John’s was also featured inside the Lambeau Field Atrium – but sadly it was replaced by other eateries in 2010 after an operating contract with the Packers expired.
Folks in the Milwaukee area have a chili parlor that’s likely pretty close to Chili John’s style. Real Chili has been around since the 1930s. But before the diner’s founder opened up shop, he worked for John Isaac at Chili John’s in Green Bay. Find out more in this article from OnMilwaukee.com.
Finally – if you happen to move the Los Angeles area, you’ll be happy to know there’s actually another Chili John’s on the west coast located in Burbank, California. It was actually featured on the Food Network celebrity chef Guy Fieri visited the California Chili John’s.
Isaac’s son Ernie opened the west coast restaurant – which was apparently sold to the Loguercio family along with the recipe.
They call it Famous Chili John’s rather than the original. The California version opened in 1946 – 33 years after Green Bay’s Chili John’s.
Check out the video to see Chili John’s in Burbank, California
Let’s Hear from You!
Do you have any homemade chili secrets? Got any great stories about Chili John’s?
Tell us what you think!