Grab a Bowl: A Visit to Texas Chili Parlor
In my own experience, return visits to restaurants whose menu is focused around one dish are few and far between. One trip is often enough experience the gimmick or to curb that craving for a good while. I’m always glad when I do manage to find someplace that can be a solid exception to this rule. As an avid lover of chili, I am particularly glad to have discovered Texas Chili Parlor.
Like any restaurant which has remained open for almost 50 years, Texas Chili Parlor must be exceeding in some respects if its customers keep returning and the overall atmosphere has been intentionally maintained. It is as it was, its purpose unchanged: a hole-in-the-wall bar with homemade chili being served to patrons who desire nothing more than a hot meal and good banter with friends after work.
The Texas Chili Parlor sits in the heart of downtown nearly adjacent to the Capitol. A worn sign dangling from its wooden façade is the only visible way to distinguish the building from the street. A notice board’s piecemeal letters promote the next basketball game, inviting people to enter and watch. Several patio chairs and small tables are set up here, shaded by the lone tree which has likely been growing here for many years. While not eye-catching and extravagant, the parlor does an excellent job in making you feel welcome at its humble door.
Entering the restaurant itself, I could easily see that this place is dripping with charm. Rustic wall art, posters, and traffic plates plaster the walls from floor to ceiling. The numerous neon beer signs cast a slight red and yellow glow on nearby wooden flooring and furniture. Texas Chili Parlor errs more towards the side of cozy than cluttered. Cleaned menus are stacked by the entrance, with sanitizer bottles at the ready for those who decide to visit.
Texas Chili Parlor’s history as a set for Quentin Tarantino’s 5th film Death Proof (2007), featuring Kurt Russell as a psychotic stunt driver/serial killer, is an obvious source of pride for the establishment. In the years since, the owners have maintained the hole-in-the-wall atmosphere of the bar seen in the Grindhouse flick. The framed and autographed photo of Kurt on the wall, normally proudly displayed, was obstructed by a stack of chairs set aside at the time of my visit due to the reduced occupancy and social distancing of the tables.
The restaurant is open quite consistently: 7 days a week from 11 AM – 10PM. One thing that I took advantage of during my visit was the Happy Hour, available Monday – Friday from 4 – 6PM. This allowed me to get my nachos for ½ price and $.50 off alcoholic drinks, including their Mad Dog margarita.
If asked to describe the menu, I would call it “Chili Inspired,” for lack of a better phrase. The parlor serves a large range of American and Tex-Mex classics, often with chili as one of the main ingredients. For my appetizer I decided upon the Killer Nachos: a blend of cheese, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and bean or beef placed atop tortilla chips. For a more evenly distributed array of ingredients per chip, try requesting a dozen “perfect” instead of the traditional stack. I found that, served with a side of homemade red salsa, these were a surprise and one of the best parts of my meal.
Needing to wash down my appetizer with something stronger than water or iced tea, I requested Texas Chili Parlor’s house special and best-selling drink: the Mad Dog margarita. This drink originates from the group of writers, artists, musicians, and other regulars of the bar back in the day calling themselves the Mad Dogs. The late country songwriter and Mad Dog Guy Clark further popularized the drink (who went on to include Texas Chili Parlor and the drink in one of his songs). This drink puts its own spin by replacing the tequila normally used with mezcal and a squeeze of fresh lime which is then shaken and served on the rocks. It was a solid and refreshing cocktail, paired perfectly with the chili which stole the show.
Texas Chili Parlor servers 7 different chili recipes daily, all homemade and ranging in spice level from X to XXX. Beyond the classic house recipe, the restaurant offers more interesting choices such as venison, white pork, or vegetarian 5-bean. Interest piqued, I opted for the sampler platter allowing me to pick out any three I wanted to try. I went with the original House chili with beans (XXX), the vegetarian chili (X), and the venison chili (XX). I ordered some side toppings: a bowl of shredded cheese, some sour cream, and a hearty helping of Fritos to dip and enjoy with my meal.
A courteous waitress happy to answer all my questions placed the spread of food in front of me. Shortly after, I entered a chili induced haze. I don’t recall much of what happened from there, and many of the finer details in the food that should have been savored and shared over the blog were lost. There were no leftovers.
Texas Chili Parlor fulfills its mission admirably. Its no-frills atmosphere and straightforward menu offer an experience that other restaurants in Austin have yet to fully emulate. Beyond the quality of the food, which when regarding its chili is among the best I have had, it maintains legacy. It is not just a place to go in Austin when craving good chili. It is the place to go in Austin for good chili.