The first type of chili Mary Hostetter ever served at the Blue Owl Restaurant in Kimmswick wasn’t the bestselling white chili that graces her menu today.
Hostetter, a Texas native who moved to Missouri 35 years ago and opened the Blue Owl in 1985, used to make a beefy chili with ranch-style red beans (she doesn’t subscribe to the notion that Texas chili must be beanless).
“We started to run the white chili as a special, and it became so popular, it just took off,” Hostetter said.
Her kitchen churns out five soups from scratch every day, but it’s the chili — with chopped chicken breast, white beans, green chiles and creamy Monterey jack cheese — that remains the most-ordered. The Blue Owl prepared 100 gallons of it for last weekend’s Kimmswick Apple Butter Festival.
“Needless to say, I know my chili.”
Hostetter said this as we were getting settled into our seats to judge the second annual Soulard Chili Festival this month. Sixteen St. Louis-area restaurants entered the competition and dished out servings for sale to benefit Lift for Life Academy.
The submissions varied widely.
While none was spiced to tear-inducing levels, several samples featured fiery heat from chipotle peppers, cayenne powder or smoked jalapeños. Others used ingredients such as cinnamon powder, heavy cream, even peanut butter to incorporate sweetness.
About half of the entries included ground beef or cuts of steak, but slow-cooked pork and poultry also appeared in a few bowls.
After trying everything, and eating lots of crackers in between, our score sheets pointed to Pointer’s Market in Benton Park as the winner.
Owner Matt Pointer’s house-smoked pork butt infuses his red- and black-bean, tomato-based chili with an incredibly smoky flavor. We also liked its just-right texture of not too thin and not too thick, a balance Pointer said he achieves by pureeing some of the beans while leaving others whole.
His real secret, he said, is time.
“We do a 24-hour dry rub on the pork, then we hardwood-smoke it for 10 to 12 hours in our rotisserie smoker,” he said. “Meanwhile, we cook down a bunch of onions for hours. We add in our beans and pork, and we let that go for a few hours.”
That’s about two days so far. Factor in one more, because Pointer doesn’t serve his chili the day it’s made.
“Like anything tomato-based, it tastes better the second day,” he said.
Luann Denton of the recently opened Soulard Sweet Treats echoed that trick. Her cumin-heavy chili won third place in the competition.
“I made this last night,” she said, scooping her ladle into a slow-cooker to serve a festival attendee. “Chili is always better the next day.”
Judges liked the home-cooked flavor of Denton’s traditional chili, which was laden with ground chuck and had the deepest tomato complexity of the entries.
Perhaps most impressive is that chili is not a dish that Denton works with every day. As the name of her shop suggests, she doesn’t serve savory food. But when she heard about the competition, she decided to give an old family recipe a whirl.
“It’s really a simple recipe,” she said. “I like to use higher-quality meat. And then it’s just a matter of cooking it with lots of cumin, chili powder, garlic, onions, then beans and tomato sauce.”
Will the confidence of a win buoy her toward putting the chili on her menu at Soulard Sweet Treats?
“Maybe someday,” she said with a smile. “It’s fun to make.”
Opinions of what makes a perfect chili vary even more than the recipes.
Kristen Neely of south St. Louis said she thought the sample she tried of Denton’s chili was too spicy. “But she thinks ketchup is spicy,” chipped in Neely’s friend, Kelly Sheehan.
Meanwhile, Shawn Sparr of Lafayette Square said he wished Pointer’s chili had more heat, although he enjoyed its smokiness. His ideal chili, he said, is “meaty, with a bit of a brown-sugar sweetness and a spicy finish” — and made by someone else.