If you are a Texas chili formalist, please move along. There is nothing for you to eat at Chili John’s. This is the home of Midwestern-style chili, which means the meat is ground, not chunked, and it customarily is served on a bed of spaghetti noodles along with beans.
Specifically, this is Green Bay chili, which Chili John’s invented over a century ago and which has become a benchmark throughout the upper Midwest. It differs from Cincinnati chili in that cheese and onions are only optional (whereas most Cincinnati plates include them) and, more importantly, in its degree of heat and how that heat is conveyed. Cincinnati chili can be spicy, but is rarely very hot. Here, there is significant heat in the oil that saturates the meat. That means that the more meat you get, the hotter your chili will be. But not to worry. Even extra-hot is not ferocious, at least not like down in Springfield, Illinois, and certainly not like in the chile-pepper-worshipping areas of the American southwest.
In fact, it’s a nicely balanced dish of food, even if it is completely different from traditional chili con carne. Its beans and soft-cooked noodles are just the right balmy cushions for peppery, unctuous beef. And if you need a little more in the way of mouth assuagement, there always are oyster crackers to add on top. They are set out at every place as soon as a customer sits down.
In fact, several decades ago there was a fable going around the food world that credited “Chili John” Isaac, the creator of this brew, with also inventing oyster crackers. To quote an early edition of Roadfood, “some time in the 1920s, he came to believe that the old-fashioned store cracker, at least an inch in diameter, was too unwieldy to garnish his chili, so he convinced cracker manufacturers to downsize.” In fact, that’s not true. Oyster crackers pre-date Green Bay chili. Mea culpas.