A hot plate piled high with chili, cheese and fixin’s lands quickly on the table at Hard Times Café. I did not even have chili in mind for dinner when we entered the dimly lit restaurant that only seats 60 people, downstairs. Located on King Street, in the main drag of Old Town Alexandria, sits a restaurant famous locally for their authentic Texas chili.
We randomly chose the restaurant from an Eenie-Meenie-Miney-Mo approach to choose among the restaurants on the street corner. Home cooking sounded good, but my husband Joe, who was running the DC Marine Corp Marathon the next morning, specifically warned that Chili was not on the menu. Yet, here we were with two piping hot plates of chili, not bowls, plates.
I should have known this was not just any ordinary chili restaurant when I noticed the headless horseman and his horse (it was Halloween Weekend). Propped up on the back of a restored 1941 Brown and Black Chevy Stove Bolt Pick-up, it sits in front of the restaurant.
The entrance also sported what must be a 16-foot Colonial American Flag hung from an invisible wire, suspended above the pickup truck. Or maybe the 15 American flags adorning the entranceway of the 100 years plus Federal Style House provided a clue. Either way, it was quickly clear this would be no ordinary bowl of Chili.
The Chili at Hard Times Café
Our waitress worked at a fast and efficient pace offering us chili samples before we sat down. “Sure,” we agreed not knowing what to expect. I laughed and said to my husband, “I guess we will try the Chili”. After looking over the menu, Chili seemed to be the primary focus. And after trying the four samples delivered by the waitress, I knew why.
Upon agreeing to chili samples, a laminated sheet listing descriptions on its four corners highlighted the flavors of our chili choices sat before us. The waitress also brought a unique dish with four small but connected bowls to taste their selections.
As I asked for more detailed descriptions of the flavors, I learned the Texas Chili represented an old family recipe created by the grandfather of owners Fred and Jim Parker. The Cincinnati Chili, on the other hand, was created based on authentic Cincinnati Chili. Developed while they were in college, it stays true to the German roots of the Cincinnati Chili sauces. It includes sweeter spices and a hint of Cinnamon.
Our favorite was the Terlingua Red, which features redder, bolder flavors with a kick. They also offer a vegetarian chili made from soy flakes and vegetables including tomatoes, mushrooms, and jalapenos. We were so impressed with the rich, tangy flavors we ordered a plate of chili over spaghetti, which is how they traditionally serve their specialty.
More than Just Chili
In addition to their famous chili, Hard Times Café has a selection of specialty burgers and wings. Craft beers also complement the atmosphere. With low lighting a half dozen booths, a few tables, and bar seating, there is a cozy atmosphere that made me feel at home. The Antique Jukebox that used to play 45s, was refurbished to look like the Alamo. The country sounds brought us back to my husband’s Texas roots.
I asked the manager, Fred Hof, about the Tuesday Mic Night advertised on a flyer. In response, he led me up a narrow staircase to an upstairs room, which seats an additional 55 people, with a completely different feel. In the single large room, perfect for parties and large groups, there is five flat screen TV’s on the wall, playing various popular sporting events. A large US Flag hangs on another wall, with large tables, and small booths dotting the room.
On Tuesday night, Fred explains, the small stage under the televisions converts to a Mic Night where singers, poets, and other artists can perform their crafts. Fred expresses surprise at how popular it has become and the crowds that gather to support local talent.
The American Flag Adoption Program
Fred and Jim Parker, Hard Times Café owners, are very patriotic. They display their patriotism with American flags hanging freely throughout the restaurant. On September 11, 2001, in a show of patriotism, they placed 15 US flags over the front door of the restaurant. The flags honor the fallen in the 9-11 attacks. When the flags wear out due to weather, the wind and facing the elements, the restaurant sets up a drawing among customers to adopt the flags. In 2016, the adoption drawing took place on Veterans Day, to 15 lucky patrons, including a few local veterans.
When visiting the Old Town, Restaurant on King Street, request Booth 16, dedicated to the famous Chili Bill. The story goes that in 1984, Fred Parker convinced a local congressman to introduce HR 337. The bill, better known as the Chili Bill, declares chili as the official American food.
The bill still lingers in Congress and has never received an official vote. However, its introduction and re-introduction over the years have led to fun discussions and lots of press coverage on the topic. Booth 16, is a memorial displaying the fight to have chili recognized as America’s official food.
Where it All Began
The location on King Street was the first Hard Times Café, opened in 1980. The two brothers conceived the restaurant concept from the Western Chili Parlors that sprung up after the railroad replaced the cattle drive industry. They adjusted their grandmother’s chili recipe and created the Hard Times concept. Their mission – preserving the American Culinary Institution of the Chili Parlor. The concept is so successful they now have ten restaurants that are either company owned or franchised in the Washington/Baltimore area.
The restaurant keeps the tradition, and history alive with old black and white family photos hung on the walls, reminding guests of their Texas roots. The Parker family still competes and judges Chili competitions around the country and USA Today recognized Hard Times Café as having one of the best chili recipes in the Nation.
Next time you are in Alexandria, Virginia, head to the Hard Times Café at 1404 King Street in Old Town Alexandria, for the best chili in town.