By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2008 Gourmet Magazine
The persistent voice from our car’s GPS sounded like that of a prim librarian having a nervous breakdown. “Recalculating … recalculating … recalculating.” Our overtaxed digital assistant directed us to one dead end after another at the railroad tracks separating downtown Topeka from the isolated enclave known as Little Russia. We were trying to get to Porubsky’s Grocery, on the other side of the Santa Fe right-of-way, where tall grain elevators loom over a neighborhood of modest wood-frame homes. The grocery is in a weather-beaten building, the only retail business on what some might call the wrong side of the tracks. No traveler would ever find it by accident, but for the truly committed chilihead Porubsky’s is not just a place to eat. It is a destination in itself.
The chili is a fine bowl of heartland comfort. On a cool day, Charlie Porubsky will grind some 80 pounds of chuck in the morning and cook it with a judicious measure of chili powder and other spices, then add the meat to a battered old pot of simmering beans. Dished up in a disposable bowl, it is a very satisfying lunch. What transforms it into irresistible temptation and one of the most unusual chilis anywhere is an application of Porubsky’s unique garnish. Charlie Porubsky Sr., who died ten years ago, began making horseradish pickles even before his son Charlie started to apprentice in the kitchen at the age of 12. Charlie Jr., now 50, is happy to share his father’s simple recipe: dill pickles steeped in brine, with hot horseradish, Tabasco sauce, and powdered mustard. The result is ferocious: a boldface, large-font, screaming-red exclamation point for that otherwise gentle dish of protein and starch.
The custom is to scatter a mess of chopped pickles on top of the chili along with crumbled Lance crackers to cushion the pickles’ heat. The beef-bean-pickle combo is nothing like chili in Texas or Cincinnati or anywhere else: meaty, thick, and shot through with a devilish pucker that leaves careless novices gasping for air after a couple of mouthfuls.
Chili is strictly a cold-weather dish at Porubsky’s, sold from October to the end of March, but Charlie makes and sells pickles year-round. From April through September, they accompany lunch trays, which are the humblest meals imaginable, costing all of $2.98. (Chili also goes for $2.98.) At about nine o’clock each morning, Charlie’s mother, Lydia, sits down at a long table in the taproom and prepares 100 plates, each one arrayed with a selection from a cold-cut repertoire of ham, salami, turkey, honey loaf, ham-and-cheese loaf, and barbecue loaf, plus American cheese, Pepper Jack, and Swiss cheese: four meats, two cheeses, every day. Her arrangements are meticulous. “See, this is a tray,” she tells a stranger, holding out a Styrofoam rectangle topped with a lovely mosaic of meat and cheese. Using a tightly rolled piece of ham for a pointer, she indicates its highlights. “You put your regular pickles here, your hot pickles here, two whites and two wheats here.” Lunch trays are the only entrée on the menu when it isn’t chili season. Side dishes are limited to macaroni salad, potato salad, baked beans, and bags of chips. For dessert, a small assortment of candy bars is available.
No chili is served on Friday, because that has always been the day when the Porubsky family unloads trucks to stock the shelves; besides, Friday is when people come to shop for weekend groceries. Porubsky’s is so small that lunch customers can sometimes get in shoppers’ way. The grocery store is only two tight aisles overflowing with canned goods, cereal, detergent, fruit, and vegetables. At the back is a butcher counter, its glass case filled with lunch meats and cheeses. Behind it is the white-enamel, four-burner gas stove on which chili has been made for customers since the 1950s, when Charlie Sr.’s mother, Catherine, originally offered some to a man who came in for a bologna sandwich, got a whiff of what she was making for the family’s lunch, and talked a bowlful out of her. Soon the word began to spread. Bypassed by urban planning and on the road to nowhere, the little neighborhood grocery store became a destination for blue and white collar workers on their lunch hour, for politicians eager to meet ordinary citizens, and even for passing trainmen with 15 minutes to spare.
Through a narrow door to the right of the butcher counter, a carpeted step leads down into a wood-paneled taproom where lunch is served. It feels even more cramped than the adjoining grocery, its tables, booths, and bar sandwiched between a low ceiling and a concrete floor. Booths are tight, and the benches that flank a pair of communal tables can hold four big Kansans or perhaps six regular-size folk each. Maximum capacity of Porubsky’s dining room is no more than three dozen people, and at the height of chili season it is not unusual for devotees to start arriving at 10:30, a half hour before lunch is served. Orders are taken as soon as customers are seated; the food arrives in less than two minutes.
You can drink beer or soda pop, but one beverage not available at Porubsky’s is coffee. “We had to stop serving it,” Lydia explains. “The women would eat a bowl of chili, then sit and sip their coffee, sit and sip, while men were standing outside waiting to come in for lunch.” Now, no one lingers more than 30 minutes for a meal in this busy place. Proper etiquette is to eat fast, then vacate your seat so someone else can sit down.
While you can buy all the pickles you want in pint, quart, and gallon containers—and they are dandy eye-opening snacks for bold-tongued road trippers—orders of take-out chili are limited by the capacity of Charlie’s grandmother’s stove. “We don’t like to sell more than twenty-five pints to any one person,” Charlie says. “It’s not fair to people waiting in line for lunch to cut it short like that. Even during cold or rainy chili weather, when we might make fifty gallons or more, we can run out before everyone gets fed.”