Cincinnatians are mad for five-way chili, which is spiced meat atop spaghetti noodles, topped with beans, cheese, and onions. Many agree that Camp Washington makes the best. This one-of-a-kind hash house, named after its neighborhood (which had been a Civil War encampment) features all the proper ambiance, including a great gleaming neon clock on the back wall and great vats of bubbling chili visible from the long row of stools that face the kitchen. The air smells of onions and spice; and by late in the morning the dining room is packed with cheap-eats fans who fork their way into plates of five-way and heft chili-cheese Coneys and mile-high double-decker sandwiches.
The proprietor, John Johnson, began working at Camp Washington when he was a boy. “It is the only place I have ever worked,” he says with glee as he stands at a huge pot of simmering chili, stirring it like a sorcerer concocting magic potion. Mr. Johnson’s uncle, Steve Andon, along with partner Anastasios “Fred” Zarmbus, founded the Camp Washington parlor in 1940. When young John Johnson arrived from Greece in 1951, his uncle took him in and eventually imparted the secrets of his spice mix. Finally, in 1977, Mr. Johnson bought the business – along with the top-secret formula. “You know something,” he confesses with conspiratorial glee, “I have tinkered with the recipe. Not much, and nothing big. A little here, a little there. I believe I have improved it .”
It is sensational. Made from lean beef that is finely ground on the premises and brewed in batches of sixty gallons each day, it is dark and meaty, brilliantly spiced but not painfully hot, and thick enough to blend perfectly with the tender noodles onto which it is ladled.
Chili isn’t the only unique Cincinnati food served at Camp Washington. For those unfamiliar with Queen City diner culture, here are thumbnail definitions of some of John Johnson’s other specialties:
Goetta: a slab of breakfast meat that is reminiscent of scrapple, but made with pin oats instead of cornmeal and laced with sweet bits of onion. Goetta is spicy, porky, unctuous, and rib-sticking, like sausage but even wickeder. It is sliced thin and grilled to a crisp, and its traditional role is as a companion to a plate of eggs and fried potatoes.
Double decker sandwiches are not, technically speaking, exclusively Cincinnati’s; but no place comes close to the Queen City’s passion for mile-high sandwiches made with three slices of toast and ridiculous amounts of cold cuts, bacon and eggs, cheese and tomatoes. Most chili parlors offer double-deckers; Camp Washington’s are particularly lofty and beautiful: amazing monuments of food that are quite literally impossible to fit between one’s jaws.
Coney Islands are minuscule hot dogs: pale pink, lightly grilled, customarily served in a soft white bun on a bed of mustard and topped with chili and chopped raw onions. A fluffy mantle of shredded cheddar cheese is a popular option that makes an ideal Coney crown.
And finally, it must be understood that Cincinnati chili bears little resemblance to chili served outside the Midwest (it IS similar to Green Bay chili from Wisconsin), and is virtually a different food group from Texas-style bowls of red. To a Cincinnati cook, chili always means meat sauce piled onto a bed of soft-cooked spaghetti noodles. There are multiple variations: “Two-way” chili is simply noodles and sauce; “three-way” adds cheese; “four-way” includes either beans or onions; and “five-way” is the whole shebang with beans and onions. There is also a variation known as “chili bean,” which lacks the layer of cheese. Aside from the fascinating stratification, what makes Cincinnati chili so intriguing is the meat sauce itself. It is spicy but not fiery hot, curiously sweet, and deliriously aromatic. We have long believed Camp Washington’s chili is the very best.