Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
No matter how much Austin changes, chili parlors serve up delicious Texas red.
What would Guy Clark say about all the Californians, the Bay Area refugees, building skyscrapers stacked like toy blocks in downtown Austin? Waterloo used to be a sleepy town; now the Austinites all live in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Marfa. What would Guy Clark say to the tallest condo building west of the Mississippi? It isn’t the same Austin anymore. It hasn’t been the same Austin since a Starbucks replaced Les Amis. Maybe Austin hasn’t been the same since the day they closed down the Armadillo.
Guy Clark is dead and gone, God bless. But there is at least one old place that still survives from the Austin he loved: the Texas Chili Parlor. Californians may not know about the Chili Parlor; the tech folks prefer Torchy’s Tacos and the like. Still, Guy Clark immortalized the bar in “Dublin Blues” in 1995, on maybe his best album since Texas Cookin’:
Well I wish I was in Austin
At the Chili Parlor bar
Drinking Mad Dog margaritas
And not caring where you are
Is there any better place to go for a bowl of red today? Back in 1976, the year that the Texas Chili Parlor opened—which was, coincidentally, the same year that Guy Clark put out Texas Cookin,’—chili was still a running concern.
That was the year that Paul Vonn—the owner of the deed to the border town of Terlingua, a ghost town where all the chili-heads went down to compete over who could make the meanest chili in the state—banned Frank X. Tolbert from setting foot in Terlingua ever again, even though Tolbert was a food columnist for The Dallas Morning News and pretty much the dean of Texas chili. Everyone was just too drunk and out of hand. It was a divisive year for chili, but also a decisive one. The state legislature pronounced chili the state food of Texas the very next year.
Maybe it’s a bad idea to ask Guy Clark about the Californians. He could be mean. There was that one time, I forget the circumstances, when he was down on his luck and drawing folks’ portraits for $10 a pop. A documentary filmmaker asked him, on camera, if he could get a drawing. Guy Clark snatched the ten out of his hand and ate it. The point being: While Guy Clark may or may not agree, Californians definitely need homes, too, and why wouldn’t they want to live in Austin? Better to build those towers as high as they can rise than to displace even one old-timer who still haunts the Chili Parlor bar.
I’m not one of those old Austinites, not by a long shot. My own memories of the Chili Parlor don’t go back so far. I do remember hoping to win the favor of a waitress on a New Year’s Day at least a decade back. It didn’t work out, as my friends are happy to recount for you. Maybe the Chili Parlor is a place to be alone, the way Guy Clark has it.
Outside the Chili Parlor, you can still find a bowl of red in Austin. There’s Billy’s off Burnet Road or Jim’s off Research Boulevard or Lucy’s off South Congress. So long as they sell Gebhardt’s chili powder at the HEB, there is bound to be good Texas chili in Austin.
Some of the old debates have yet to be settled. I don’t think you’ll find a chili in Central Texas made with farkleberries, for example. That’s exclusively an East Texas thing, even if—to be fair—Albert “The Old Aggie” Agnor’s chili recipe did win the Terlingua Championship Chili Cook-Off in 1976 and even if his secret ingredient (the farkleberry) did play a role in convincing the Texas state legislature to adopt chili as the state food. Agnor’s farkleberry chili beat out shrimp gumbo, menudo, chitterlings, and a rogue candidate, châteaubriand.
Everyone needs a place to return to in their minds. For Austinites, that can be a place or a marker of old times, like the Armadillo World Headquarters or Liberty Lunch. For any Texan in the wide diaspora, former Austinites among them, home is a food as much as it is a place. A bowl of red, spicy and chunky but also goopy and true with a deep, deep flavor. No beans; that’s not chili. Served with some fixings, maybe over Fritos, at a perfect spot, one that feels like home with friends who feel like family.
Did we leave off your favorite Texas chili spot? Tell us in the comments.