Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Empress of Alexandria

This post is all about Susan's Salon and Spa.

I pride myself on the repertoire of silly songs that I break out at parties and family gatherings, much to the overt annoyance and theoretical amusement of the various friends and loved ones who inexplicably tolerate my continued presence in their lives. Most of them come from old Alan Sherman and Tom Lehrer records or the stack of “Weird Al” Yankovic CDs that filled my teenage CD binder 20 years ago, but while listening to a rerun of Car Talk a few weeks ago, I was reminded of a song that I always wanted to learn. “I’m My Own Grandpa” details an incestuous, but legal marriage that causes the singer to technically become his own grandfather. Naturally, I did the only reasonable thing and played the song on repeat, alternating versions sung by Willie Nelson, Ray Stevens, and even Tom Arnold until I had committed the lyrics to memory so I could loudly sing it at a semi-opportune moment after enjoying a couple of drinks at the next birthday party, wedding, or funeral I attend.

Simultaneous to my study of “I’m My Own Grandpa,” I had been reading up on the history of Cincinnati chili at the suggestion of my friend and fellow restaurant and retail historian Carl Poncherello. The thin stew of ground beef, tomato paste, and Mediterranean spices that was marketed as chili since its earliest days originated at the Empress Chili Parlor, named for its neighbor, the Empress Burlesk (sic) Theater. Macedonian-Greek Immigrant brothers Anthanas “Tom” and Ivan “John” Kiradjieff developed the unique concoction seasoned with the spices of their homeland, and marketed it to Cincinnati's largely Germanic population as chili. The “chili” served over spaghetti and hot dogs became a sensation, and Empress Chili grew to become a local chain. Eventually, their employees and their employees’ employees (grand-employees?) opened chili parlors of their own. Two of those knockoff chili parlors, Skyline and Gold Star, grew into regional chains in the 1970s, but Empress would not enjoy the same growth. The thriving local chain that pioneered a regional delicacy is today a broken chain with one surviving location. Looking at a family tree of all 28 of the chain and independent Cincinnati chili brands that could trace their lineage back to Empress inspired me to write a Weird Al style parody of “I’m My Own Grandpa” with lyrics about the history of Cincinnati chili, because that’s precisely the kind of nerd that I am.

Many many years ago in 1922,
Tom and John Kiradjieff started selling their Greek stew.
They said their stew was chili, but they served it on spaghetti.
The city fell in love with it, and that city was Cincinnati.

They opened the Empress chili parlor near the local burlesque show,
And though initially successful, it was clear they didn’t know,
That their employees would eventu-ally clone their recipe,
And open their own places, leaving Empress in obscurity.

Nicholas Lambrinidies, he was an Empress chef,
But then he founded Skyline. Tom and John were like, “WTF‽”
A bunch of guys started Gold Star in 1965,
Gold Star could trace its history back to Empress. No jive!

Skyline and the Gold Star grew while Empress shrank.
Leaving Empress to do business on the opposite river bank.
They’ve completely left Ohio, and they probably are lucky,
To have just one location left in Alexandria, Kentucky.

The next time that you’re traveling through the Southwest of Ohio,
Take a trip across the river, and give Empress a try-o.
And as you eat your five way join me in this refrain,
Because the original Cincy chili parlor is a broken chain!

It’s a broken chain!
It’s a broken chain!
Yes, a bunch of them closed,
But they’re still not quite hosed!
It’s a broken chain!

These are the cups I received from Carl at Empress. Yes, there really was a time when Captain D's sold hamburgers. 

Now that I’ve gotten my sillies out, I should probably tell you a little about my experience at the last operating Empress Chili. I had planned to meet Carl and his wife Lorelai there at their 11 AM open time on a Sunday morning. Because Carl and I are a very similar type of nerd, we both arrived 15 minutes early, and killed time by taking part in what is akin to a ceremonial gift exchange between diplomats of two friendly nations. I give him branded disposable cups I’ve accumulated in my travels, and he gives me duplicate vintage branded disposable cups from his latest eBay and flea market acquisitions. This time around, I also brought him a bottle of Michigan Big Boy special sauce in response to him bringing me a jar of tartar sauce from the Cincinnati-based Frisch’s Big Boy a few months prior. The flashing LED open sign in the building’s entryway came on just as we were concluding our diplomatic exercise, and the three of us found our way inside. 

The flatscreen modern menu boards are the only nod to modernity. 

I should mash the proverbial pause button here, because we’ve reached the point in our tale where Carl, Lorealai, and I walked up to the counter and ordered our meals, and there is some jargon involved in ordering Cincinnati chili that may sound strange the uninitiated. Most Cincinnati chili joints have a 3 way, 4 way, and 5 way on the menu. Empress invented this system of quickly describing what ingredients you want on your pile of chili and spaghetti. No one eats Cincinnati chili without spaghetti, and you’re sure to give yourself away as a muggle if you order a bowl of plain chili. Instead, locals order chili-topped spaghetti, using a numbered “Way” system to quickly specify their desired toppings. This jargon is generally accepted across all Cincinnati chili joints, not to mention some non-Cincinnati based chains like Steak ‘n Shake and G.D. Ritzy’s who serve Tex-Mex Chili over spaghetti. The generally accepted “Ways” to order Cincinnati chili are as follows:

3 Way - spaghetti, chili, shredded cheddar cheese

4 Way - spaghetti, chili, diced onions, cheddar cheese

5 Way - spaghetti, chili, diced onions, kidney beans, cheddar cheese.

There are also chili dogs, known as coneys, with the same chili and cheese, plus optional mustard and onions at most Cincinnati chili places, yet another menu offering that originated at Empress and was widely copied. 

The blue diamonds on the room divider are reminiscent of the jewel in the crown of the Empress logo. 

While the tables and chairs give a nice '90s Taco Bell vibe. 

Everything had been thoroughly cleaned, but the artwork had been on the walls for a solid quarter century. 
I ordered myself a 3 way and a coney dog, but Carl and Lorelai ordered a 4 and 3 way respectively, skipping the coney dogs altogether. The cashier told us the day’s first batch of spaghetti wasn’t quite cooked, and that she’d bring our order out to us, so we took a seat in a booth near the front of the sparkling clean dining room with a pink and green color palette from 1992. I amused myself by using my phone to attempt to join the Empress VIP group advertised on the napkin holder at the table, only to be prompted for a serial number on a membership card the napkin holder had neglected to mention and that I lacked the will to ask for back at the order counter. 

Sounds easy, right? 

The napkin holder told me nothing about a rewards card! There are many things to love about Empress, but the cumbersome process needed to join the rewards program is not one of them. 

Not long after that, our order arrived. I’m probably a little too proud that I’m able to note subtle distinctions in flavor between Gold Star and Skyline chili. I’ve long suspected that Gold Star goes a little heavier on the cinnamon, but I soon noticed that Empress chili tastes almost exactly like Skyline chili, which really means that Skyline chili tastes almost exactly like Empress chili since Empress was the originator. Either way, Empress chili had the distinctively delicious, yet familiar flavor of Cincinnati. Likewise, Skyline uses a soft, skinless hot dog that’s remarkably similar to the one I had in my Empress coney. While enjoying my meal, I had a second look at the menu board and discovered Empress also sells single and double decker deli sandwiches for patrons who make the insane decision to not order chili. Suspiciously, Gold Star also features a menu of cold cut sandwiches of varying heights for non-chili eaters. Even with some extra cinnamon in their chili to set them apart, Gold Star’s similar sandwich stacking strategy smacks of palpable, petty plagiarism of the non-chili based offerings at Empress. 

A Cincinnati-flavored feast. 
In the year 2000, Empress came out on top in a taste showdown with both the big chains, Dixie, a minor chain, and Camp Washington, an independent chili joint.

There’s a trick to eating a plate of Cincinnati chili. One has to fight the urge to twirl the spaghetti around a fork, and instead cut individual bites from the pile to ensure even distribution of the distinct layers. I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky where Gold Star Chili has had locations for decades, and had long thought I had mastered the art of consuming Cincinnati chili, but my method was put to shame when, at the conclusion of the meal, my plate was covered in a layer of chili runoff and bits of errant noodles, while Carl and Lorelai’s plates were nearly clean, an amazing feat considering Cincinnati chili is much thinner than the Tex-Mex stuff. When I asked the Cincinnati-area natives how they managed to pick up nearly every bit of the thin chili with only a fork, they only muttered something about the absorbent properties of the oyster crackers that had come with our meals. I was distracted from questioning them further by an employee who offered us each free chocolate chip cookies, which tasted as if they had been baked both recently and perfectly, with a crispy exterior ring surrounding a moist and chewy center. If I were a more paranoid person, I’d suspect the cookies were a misdirect designed to keep me, a relative outsider, from learning some secret chili-eating method known only to residents of the OH-KY-IN tri-state area. Fine Cincinnati. Keep your secrets. You can’t stop me from messily eating your delicious chili. 

I would have loved this cookie almost as much if it weren't free. 

I studied the menu board yet again while I enjoyed my complimentary cookie, and noticed a couple of curiosities I hadn’t seen at other Cincinnati chili places, the first being a “Spagoney,” which is a coney with spaghetti in place of a hot dog, and a chili pizza, a pizza crust topped with chili and cheese. I was put off by the idea of a spagoney, as I was never one for carbs on carbs, but I couldn’t get the chili pizza out of my head as I walked out to the parking lot and exchanged goodbyes with Carl and Lorelai. Once they had left, I headed back inside the now-crowded dining room and ordered a chili pizza to go so that I could shame-eat it in my car, as I had once done with an Emburger in Minnesota. When I ordered, the cashier asked if I wanted my chili pizza microwaved, and I responded in the affirmative without thinking much about it. Presumably, the default state of a chili pizza is hot chili and cold cheese thrown on top of a pre-baked crust, while a microwaved chili pizza has had its cheese melted by science. My microwaved chili pizza looked and tasted about as you’d expect, with stretchy, viscous melted cheddar on a soft, pallid crust overflowing with chili. The doughy crust tore easily with a plastic fork, which was handy, considering it was far too messy for me to attempt to pick up. The chili pizza was unattractive and underwhelming compared to the spaghetti dishes and coneys. It was pretty clear why Skyline, Gold Star, or the myriad other Cincinnati chili places hadn’t copied the chili pizza, but I couldn’t help but think that I could create a better one. 

Not to get all Gordon Ramsay, but this might have looked better had it not been microwaved. 
Crust detail

I’d been holding on to a hard to find can of Empress chili that Carl had procured at the only grocery store he knew to carry it and given to me in a previous diplomatic gift exchange. A few days after eating at the last Empress Chili, I set out to build a better chili pizza, mainly just for fun and so I could write about it here, although I also briefly entertained the thought that I could open my own chili pizza place, ripping off one of the last bits of Empress that had not yet been re-purposed for a profit. Since they’re seemingly the only menu items that don’t have analogs at Skyline and Gold Star, the chili pizza and Spagoney comprise the stump of the Empress Chili Giving Tree, and I couldn't help but think that at least one of these innovations of the original Cincinnati chili chain had some untapped potential.

This... this...

...equals an almost pizza-like result.

I decided to keep it simple, as the Empress chili pizza had set the bar low, so I simply spread some Empress Chili directly from the can on a Boboli pizza crust, then threw the whole thing in the oven, following the instructions on the pizza crust package. When the savory, saucy dough circle emerged from the oven, I piled some freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese on top. I opted not to bake the cheese because nearly all Cincinnati chili dishes are topped with cold grated cheese, and unmelted cheese on top of hot pizza is not unprecedented. DiCarlo’s, a chain of no frills carryout pizza joints in the Steubenville, Ohio area tops their crispy rectangular pizza slices with cold shredded mozzarella. I’ve even heard it called Steubenville-style pizza. 

Some cold shredded cheese improves the appearance. 

My take on the Cincinnati chili pizza was more sliceable and easier to eat with my hands than the Empress interpretation, and I suspect it would benefit from the addition of diced onions, kidney beans, and/or cut up hot dogs to transform a basic 3 way pizza into a 4 way, 5 way, or coney pie. Sadly, however, the residual heat from the crust and chili eventually melts the cheese into a bit of a gluey mess, and the pungent sharp cheddar overpowers the flavor of the chili a little bit. It might benefit from a milder cheddar, and the addition of some low moisture mozzarella in the cheese mixture to improve the overall flavor and texture. I’ll keep tweaking the recipe in my spare time. That way, if my fast food blogging career doesn’t take off, I can open my own restaurant which I’ll call Famous Original Zap Actionsdower’s Authentic Cincinnati/Steubenville Style Chili Pizza Shanty. With a name like that, how could I not be as successful as my fellow Empress imitators? 

A nice slice of Cincinnati. Yes, my kitchen is even more dated than the dining room at Empress. 

It gets pretty melty if you let it sit for a few minutes. 

Ridiculous restaurant concepts aside, as a lifelong fan of Cincinnati chili, I’m glad to have experienced the sole remaining location of the brand that started it all. For anyone interested in the history of Cincinnati chili, the Alexandria Empress should be a mandatory stop when exploring the area. Apart from its historical significance, it’s a pretty great place to have a meal, and the locals who were packed in the dining room on a Sunday afternoon, despite the restaurant being half a mile north of a Gold Star and a mile south of a Skyline would probably agree with me. They even seemed to like the chili pizzas, as two others came out of the microwave while I was waiting for my own. I’ll therefore think twice before opening a Famous Original Zap Actionsdower’s Authentic Cincinnati-Steubenville Style Chili Pizza Shanty anywhere near Empress Chili. 


  1. I've never tried Cincinnati style chili, or chili on spaghetti. Both are things I should remedy sooner rather than later.

    1. I highly recommend both should you have the opportunity

  2. Going to leave these here for when things open back up so you can take this international. Off to Jordon for your next Cincinnati Chili adventure.

  3. Thank you for the story of Empress Chili, and the history of Cincinnati Chili. I didn't know the story of Cincinnati Chili, having only heard of Skyline thanks to the late Anthony Bourdain's taking his local friend and fellow chef Michael Ruhlman there. (I'm a bit saddened Bourdain didn't do more of a deep dive into the history of Cincinnati Chili, despite doing quite the deep dive into a huge plate of a Skyline 5-Way!)

    For myself, I tried Skyline Chili while I was driving home from Kansas City (my wife and niece were flying, but I didn't want to fly and wanted to have the car with us in KC), and loved it so much I bought six more 4-Ways and put them in the travel cooler. I occasionally found cans of Skyline at Wegman's, but it's not a regular thing.

    I did not know about Cincinnati Chili until I tried to buy cans of Skyline Chili on Amazon, and mistakenly ordered a 10-pack of Cincinnati Chili powder instead! Made myself some last week using tomato paste and ground beef, and while it's not quite Skyline it's still pretty good.....