Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Oh, What They've Done to the Chili!

Kiss my grits, Mel!

The past few days have been the coldest so far of the winter in my Metro Detroit home. This past weekend, the abysmally frigid temperatures sapped my motivation to leave the house, and saw me remaining at home for all but the most necessary outings. I passed the the time watching reruns of Mama’s Family and Night Court on my 1980-vintage 12 inch black and white Philco TV, onto which I recently connected the necessary adapters for it to pick up the digital broadcast signals from the local stations, many of which air programming that is period appropriate to the very device I’m watching on. These days, nearly all of my television viewing is done using various streaming services which allow me to watch any of their offerings whenever I want. It seemed like an eternity since I sat down and channel surfed until I found something that I could watch that happened to be airing independently of my schedule.

From what I saw, it appears everyone under the age of 70 also abandoned so-called “appointment TV,” because the commercials that aired between the reruns were targeted squarely at the elderly. As I sat through the endless commercials for term life insurance, hearing aids, and scammy reverse mortgages, I was reminded of a much warmer day a month or so back. Counter-intuitively, I was in Minnesota, and it was the Winter Solstice.

I’d been driving around The Land of 10,000 Lakes all day, having dined at both the Zantigo in St. Paul and the Bonanza in St. Cloud. My last Minnesota meal of the day came around 3 PM, an hour or so before sundown on the shortest day of the year. I was in Mankato at the last operating Happy Chef Restaurant.

Like Sign of the Beefcarver back in Michigan, the lone surviving Happy Chef was also the very first location, opening in Mankato in 1963. The chain grew to around 80 units in Minnesota and surrounding states. Downfall came in the ‘80s as the Happy Chef brand grew increasingly dated with each passing year, and failed to adapt to a younger clientele. Locations began to slowly close, leaving only the original location in Mankato open.

The first thing anyone who visits the Mankato Happy Chef will notice is the titular chef character out front. The sheer size of the statue puts even the biggest Big Boy to shame. The Happy Chef stands with a wide grin, holding a massive wooden spoon skyward, and gesturing toward the door with his other gigantic fiberglass hand. He towers over the building, despite being severely bowlegged, attracting attention from everyone driving by on highway 169 as he has for more than 50 years. Local newspaper articles claim that the long dormant speaker system that resides within the bowels of the chef had recently been restored to operating condition, allowing him to shout pre-recorded phrases at passers-by. Maybe I didn’t walk by the correct spot to trigger the system’s motion sensor, or maybe there was a malfunction, but on the day of my visit, the Happy Chef had nothing to say to me. 

When I walked inside, the lone waitress said I could sit anywhere. I chose a booth near the kitchen in the surprisingly small dining room. Aside from myself and a table of six or so active seniors, the place was empty. The decor felt, dated, and surprisingly bland, given the 30 foot chef out front. The atmosphere had an inoffensive pastel late 1980s palate, like a cheap nursing home. As the table of oldsters next to me discussed their views on the current political climate and provided to one another various graphic descriptions of their respective physical maladies, all in accents that made them sound like bit players in some long forgotten deleted scene from Fargo, I thumbed through my menu and found it to be full of typical American diner food.

The view from my table, dated, clean, inoffensive

The overflow dining area could pass for the rumpus room at grandma's.

When my waitress returned, I ordered up the most distinctive food I could find on the menu, a pork tenderloin sandwich, a cup of chili, and a glass of Rochester Root Beer, a brand I hadn’t encountered before or since. A few minutes later, my order arrived, and my waitress offered me a ominous “Good Luck” as she gestured toward my sandwich whose breaded meaty innards extended several inches past the bun in all directions. I proceeded to fold the porcine patty into thirds like a deep fried wallet and add some of the tangy barbecue sauce and vegetable garnishes from my plate to the sandwich before taking a bite. As pork tenderloin sandwiches go, this was a good one. The breaded hunk of swine in the middle had been prepared from scratch and was moist without being fatty or chewy. Likewise, the Rochester root beer was pleasantly sweet and thick with strong notes of vanilla and sassafras. Rochester must be a root beer that is marketed strictly toward the elderly, though, as there appears to be no information about them anywhere on the internet. Likewise, the chili was clearly formulated for the geriatric palate. 

"Good luck"
The crackers were the spiciest thing in this chili. 

Actually, to call it chili would be generous, since both cumin and chili peppers are requisite ingredients for chili. I tasted no notes of either in what was essentially a tomato, beef, and bean stew. I'm not even certain salt was added to it. While the chili was the definite low point of my meal, it was, like my surroundings inoffensive, if bland. Like much of the rest of Happy Chef, the unnervingly mild chili appears to have been concocted to cater to a clientele with an average age of 85, whose digestive systems a spicier blend might not agree with. Still between Happy Chef and Zantigo, I'm beginning to realize why Minnesota isn't known for its chili. 

While I'm a solid 40 years younger than Happy Chef's target demographic, I'm glad I got to experience it, and take a step back into the past while dining with people who may well have been eating at that very Happy Chef since it opened. While the experience wasn't terribly unique, it was comforting, like a day spent watching bad TV while swaddled in a couple heavy blankets as snow gently falls outside. Just as are better ways to watch TV, than connecting the rabbit ears to the old Philco, there are better restaurant chains than Happy Chef, whether they be thriving or broken, if you're not too set in your ways to seek them out. However, when you're in the right mood, a bowl of mediocre chili or a few hours in front of a tiny, ancient cathode ray tube, can be immensely comforting. 

Anyone who can tell me piece of culture the title of this post is referencing will receive an imaginary high five from me.

(Yes, I stole the obscure cultural reference shtick from Judge John Hodgman. What's he going to do, sue me in his imaginary internet courtroom?)

Also be sure to check out the Broken Chains Facebook Page, where I announce new posts, and post occasional bonus content. 


  1. The culinary commentary is creative, the social commentary is scrumptious. BTW about 75% of our programming is streamed and we're cutting the cable soon.

  2. The Happy Chef! I can't even count the times I've driven by that place. It was always kind of a comfort to see when coming into Mankato. Never had a chance to stop. Kind of a shame that it's so ordinary, I suppose.

    Anyhow, I really enjoy your writing, I was born and raised in Detroit, so it's neat to see some of that local color too. I think I used to go to the White Tower in Hamtramck you mentioned in another post.

    1. Hiya. Thanks for reading. It's a shame that Campau Tower stopped serving the old White Tower food, but it's nice the new owners kept the old signs up.

  3. After I finished dry retching, and saying the Texas Pledge of Allegiance to absolve the transmuted horror of that "Chili", I was drawn in by Rochester Root Beer. I did some research, and found that Rochester Root Beer was likely the first mass produced root beer. I first found someone's review of it. They mentioned that the syrup is manufactured by ConAgra under the "J. Hungerford Smith" brand. Who by the way will ship you a free sample! The history of J Hungerford Smith was located in a book published by Cleveland State University. "Incorporated in 1879 by Jay Hungerford Smith (1855- 1932), this Rochester, New York-based company sold delicious fruit syrups for ice cream and soda fountains" Rochester Root Beer was first registered in 1913. In addition to selling their own version of root beer, they acted as a private label manufacturer for others, including A&W.

    Info on Founder of the Company: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/10534072/jay-hungerford-smith

    Cleveland State University Book: http://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=msl_ae_ebooks

    Review: http://handyfather.com/rochester-root-beer-review-j-hungerford-smith/

    Conagra: https://www.conagrafoodservice.com/products/root-beer-double-concentrate-1-gal-jugs

    1. Once again your patience for doing research outshines my own. Thanks for digging this information up. I may have to try and get a free sample sometime.

  4. I went to a Happy Chef in McPherson Kansas maybe 30 years ago. I remember having to push a button to get the giant chef to talk.

    1. I'll have to see if I can find a button the next time I'm there.

  5. Sounds like the chili I make for my mother, who is in fact 85. After I serve hers, I usually throw a few shakes of Tabasco and some sriracha into the rest of the crock-pot for myself and everyone else.

  6. Being a nerd, I would like to point out you could buy a cheap HDTV ($129 for 720p, $199 for 1080p), and use those same rabbit ears to pick up local Digital television signals. It would be a lot less hassle, and if you got the Roku set you could stream as well!