Just when I thought chili weather was going away, it’s back in Texas with a vengeance. Not that I really mind, because it gives more time for me to indulge in a recent chili obsession. But not just any chili, we’re talking smoked brisket chili, which is finding its way onto an increasing number of Texas barbecue joint menus. That’s a good sign, but I fear it’s not being used to its fullest potential.
Smoked brisket and chili have a somewhat contentious relationship in Texas (as we’ve written about before), but together they can become something magical. This is why it puzzles me that more barbecue joints don’t offer it, if only for a way to use up leftover smoked brisket. I like it better than the “sloppy joe” style of chopped brisket mixed with sauce and doled out by an ice cream scoop. Besides, as a pairing of two treasured Texas dishes, smoked brisket chili just feels more Texan.
It’s hard to remember the first bowl I had, but the first to make an impression was several years back at the Slow Bone in Dallas. Jack Perkins was the owner, and he handed me a bowl of chili-mac, which is simply a bowl of half chili, half mac & cheese. The creamy pasta and spicy beef played off each other perfectly in a dish that brought all the comfort of mom’s home cooking. Current owner and chef, Jeffery Hobbs, is a proud chili slinger, too. He starts a batch with ground pork and beef, then adds chopped, smoked brisket toward the end to round it out. It’s just the right amount of chunky, and is equally good over Fritos or an order of crispy tater tots. If only they offered stuffed baked potatoes.
The Slow Bone may use brisket chili to its full potential better than anyone, but I’ve had great bowls of (smoked brisket) red elsewhere, too. They know their chili-mac at One90 Smoked Meats in Dallas, and keep an eye for Bill Dumas’s brisket chili on the special board at Stiles Switch BBQ in Austin. Ever since a stop at Burger Fixins, a burger and barbecue joint in Celina, which agreed to serve me a chili cheeseburger with sliced brisket instead of a burger, I’ve been obsessed with the combination.
They grind the leftover brisket before adding it to the chili at 18th & Vine BBQ in Dallas. It makes up about a third of the mix along with fresh ground beef. The dish is a little finer than a traditional chili con carne, but the spice and overall depth of flavor were superb. It would top a hot dog (or maybe a smoked sausage) quite nicely, but the only option on the menu is as a burger topper or a cup on its own. So I scooped 18th & Vine’s chili generously atop a Basie Sandwich, already stuffed with chopped brisket, jalapeños, and pepper jack cheese. The flavor was spectacular, but the textures of the chopped beef and chili were too similar. I needed the heft of sliced brisket.
In Pearland, I sat down with Killen’s Barbecue pitmaster Manny Torres and a hulking sandwich I hoped he would split with me. Torres builds Killen’s chili with coarsely ground beef, then adds coarsely chopped brisket at the very end of the process. He said he hadn’t been hungry for barbecue in a while, but the sight of the sandwich I’d just built gave him a mid-afternoon hunger. We split it and both smiled the whole way through. The heavy bark on the juicy brisket provided the foundation I was seeking, and Killen’s makes a great chili. This chili cheese brisket sandwich no longer seemed like a gimmick.
I’d been posting every chili combination I could sample on my social media, so the day after Killen’s I was pleased to see a post from Evie Mae’s Pit Barbeque. They were touting their special of the day, a sliced brisket sandwich topped with brisket chili. Somebody else seemed like it was a good idea.
— Evie Mae’s BBQ (@eviemaesbbq) February 16, 2018
Evie Mae’s owner and pitmaster, Arnis Robbins, said the combination is par for the course. “Whenever we have chili on the menu, people order crazy combinations,” he said. I enjoyed it all by itself a couple years ago, but it was made with smoked brisket back then. Robbins said it’s all brisket, but they grind the raw trimmings, so it’s still technically leftover brisket. It became imperative when he weighed the scrap he was throwing away, and it averaged out as about a pound of waste per brisket. It’s waste no longer.
I couldn’t make it up to Wolfforth for a bite, so I headed back to where it started at Slow Bone. They don’t really advertise chili as a topping for the sandwiches, so I ordered a brisket sandwich along with an order of deconstructed chili-cheese tater tots. Split the chili and cheese between the tots and the sandwich, and add a few pickled jalapeños on top. Let’s hope the brisket chili and cheese sandwich makes it onto more menus. Until then, it’s a DIY combination worth the effort.