Inside, the aroma of nicotine, bacon grease, freshly brewed coffee and onion rings was positively intoxicating. A giggly younger waitress, her dark hair pulled up on top of her head and tied with a baby-pink ribbon, sang along with Joe Nichols on the jukebox: "She Only Smokes When She Drinks."
The skinny guy on my left was eating breakfast, and the chubby guy to my right was sipping coffee and inhaling deeply on a Marlboro. Although I prefer to dine at Town Topic only after midnight (my favorite diner combination is a patty melt, tater tots and coconut-cream pie), that evening I was on a mission.
During an unusual cold spell a few weeks earlier, I'd started thinking about chili. Unlike a lot of my friends, I don't have a particular passion for chili, and I don't pretend to be a chili expert. I didn't grow up eating a lot of the beef-and-beans concoction because my father the son of Sicilian immigrants who'd had a tough time during the Depression considered it to be a "hobo dish," something cheap and filling but ultimately unsatisfying. The concept of chili mac or "Cincinnati Red" (spaghetti topped with a layer of chili) was especially repugnant to my old man, who wouldn't consider eating it in his own house.
Dad was right about one thing: Chili was a popular, cheap Depression-era dish at diners like Town Topic because a small bowl and a lot of crackers made a comforting, inexpensive meal. By today's standards, it's still one of the cheapest dinners in town. I paid less than $3 for my bowl of beans and ground beef in a brown, bland, soupy liquid, which came with five packages of saltines. I didn't detect a bit of onion or garlic in this chili, but there was a faint tang of packaged chili powder. So it wasn't the best chili I'd eaten, but I have to say it was one of the better bargains. For less than five George Washingtons (including tax and tip), I was well-fed until the following afternoon.
My friend Bob notes that Kansas City has always been more interested in its image as a barbecue town, so it has never cultivated the kind of reputation that other Midwest cities say, Chicago, Cincinnati or even St. Louis have for celebrated chili. His hometown of Joplin, with its legendary Fred & Red chili parlor ("Famous Since 1923"), has more cachet as a destination point for chili devotees than Kansas City.
But Kansas City's most iconic chili joint, Dixon's Famous Chili, is famous enough that it gets mentioned in books, including Bill Bridges' The Great American Chili Book, which serves up the same story that Walt Bodine likes to tell: that it was one of Harry Truman's favorite places to eat. Bodine's version is more elaborate, recalling how Truman and his entourage were driving by the original Dixon's location at 15th Street and Olive (a building that was torn down years ago) when Truman made his Secret Service men turn the car around so he could get a plate of Dixon's distinctive dry chili.
When Vergne Dixon opened that first location in 1919, it was the first real chili parlor to be listed in this town's City Directory. I respect that history, and the fact that Dixon's current owner, Terri Totta-Smith, does a superb job maintaining the snappy service and spic-and-span interiors at the existing restaurants in Independence and Lee's Summit. But I have to say that I just don't get Dixon's chili.
At the 38-year-old location on U.S. Highway 40, a printed note on the tabletops explains that Dixon's chili is "cooked in our famous seasoning and consists of a perfect blend of spices." But the ground beef that's delivered to the table for mixing with ketchup a condiment not permitted by Vergne Dixon in the old days as well as onions and chile-flavored vinegar is, in its naked state, pretty tasteless. It's essentially a plate of crumbly, cooked ground beef that can be ordered with or without a layer of beans or tamales, if you're really adventurous.
"Loose meat," you might call it, but not the kind of seasoned loose meat that vintage drive-ins (including the nearby Mugs Up on 23rd Street) serve as hamburgers. The signature Dixon burger is little more than a mound of the bland chili meat spooned onto a hamburger bun. Pick it up, and most of the meat tumbles off the bun and onto the plate. I left the place still hungry, which goes against everything I believe chili to be: a hot, filling meal.
If you want that kind of chili in Independence, you can polish off a bowl of chef Carl Blair's hearty but damned spicy homemade stuff at the Courthouse Exchange across from the town's courthouse. A bowl of Blair's thick, tomato-based chili costs less than five bucks and is the rib-sticking equivalent of a four-course meal. But there's a lot of cayenne and white pepper in it; I drank three glasses of iced tea before I was halfway done. It made Dixon's chili seem downright pallid.
Folks who are fans of Dixon's can get the same stuff on the opposite side of town, at a spotless storefront on West 75th Street called Fritz's Chili. The red-and-white linoleum floors, the gleaming stainless-steel machinery behind the counter, the tables set with baskets of crackers and containers of chili powder and a squirt bottle of hot vinegar it's a dead ringer for the Dixon's in Independence.
"That's because this used to be a Dixon's," explains co-owner Diana Fritz, who has run this chili parlor with her husband, Bruce, since 1982. In the 16 years before that, Bruce's folks ran a franchise of Dixon's; it became Fritz's when Bruce took over the business.
Diana likes to show newcomers a laminated sheet before they order anything. The handout carefully explains that the chili served at Fritz's isn't like homemade chili: "It's not served in bowls and does not have a tomato base." That's a fair warning because, as at Dixon's, the stuff served at Fritz's is simply a plate of cooked 100-percent ground chuck that can be ordered with beans or without. It can be served soupy (with extra bean soup), dry (no soup) or greasy (with a splash of meat grease) and tricked out with chopped onions, grated cheddar, ketchup or pickles.
I patiently mixed my chili and beans together with all the condiments on the table and was still unenthusiastic about the "chili" I had concocted. It wasn't bad it just wasn't my idea of chili.
A few days later, I ordered a $6.95 Frito Chili Pie special at Jerry's Woodswether Café in the West Bottoms. There, the "homemade chile" is listed under the heading "Side Orders," although for $3.69, you can get an impressive bowl of thick, old-fashioned chili blanketed (upon request) with grated cheese and chopped onions. The waitress insisted that owner Jerry Naster makes a fresh batch every day. Like the concoction at the Courthouse Exchange, it's heavy on the tomato sauce, but it isn't nearly as fiery. It's not bland, just more mildly seasoned than I expected.
My early winter quest for a truly memorable chili ended at the least likely place: Nara, the Japanese robata grill and sushi joint downtown. There, chef Terry Barkley has created his Szechwan sirloin chili by mixing black beans, ground sirloin, crushed tomatoes, yellow and green bell peppers, fresh jalapeños and a custom-made chili-powder blend with crushed Szechwan black peppercorns, ground jalapeños, anise and cumin. Served with rice and a fried wonton instead of saltine crackers, it's totally untraditional. And yet, it was one of the most satisfying versions I've tasted all year.
Better yet, at $5, it was even cheap.