Depending on which search results you trust, chili was the invention of either a beautiful Spanish nun, Canary Island expats, San Antonio chili queens, Mexicans, definitely not Mexicans, the Texas prison system or Gold Rush cowboys. In short, its origins are a mystery, and there’s even less agreement about what chili actually is. It’s a soup, unless it’s a stew, probably meat-based, with beans, definitely without beans, its tomatoes sauced or diced, its broth flavored by any of a hundred spices, its preparation around the campfire in a Dutch oven or on the kitchen counter in a crockpot.
Alas, the only thing anyone seems to agree upon is its appeal. Chili is as much a wintertime fixture as hockey and hibernation, flannel and frostbite, and no list of great comfort foods is complete without it. Indeed, for its aficionados the world over, what matters finally is not where chili comes from or what it’s made from, but where you can find it right now. Finally a question we can answer! Behold our critics’ picks of some of the island’s best bowls, each a terrific way to warm your midwinter bones.
Swell Taco (135 Deer Park Ave., Babylon): Given the thick mortar of rice, corn and several varieties of beans of which it's composed, reasonable folks might disagree as to whether Swell Taco serves chili or the innards of a dissected burrito. But this menu special -- it's available on select days at both the Babylon and Patchogue locations -- makes our list on the strength of its peerless creaminess. Oh, and it's presentation, a model of economy. Tortilla chips accompany chili at plenty of other places, but Swell's serves the two together, courtesy a thick and irresistibly crunchy taco shell bowl that the soup gradually melts into, making the meal a double treat. Couple that with Swell's surf shack atmosphere and fine, fresh-juiced margarita -- just 5 bucks at happy hour!--and your winter blues will soon be a distant memory. (Other location at 30 E. Main St. in Patchogue.) More info: swelltacoli.com
Sempre Fame Gourmet Grill & BBQ Catering
Sempre Fame Gourmet Grill & BBQ Catering (374 Tulip Ave., Floral Park): At this low-key Floral Park smokehouse, brothers John and Chris Cavallo stop tending to the barbecue long enough to make a classic chili with ground chuck, black and kidney beans. The flavor profile is clean and straightforward, with a background of cumin, chili and cayenne. The chili partners with mac and cheese in the "chili mac" and in the restaurant's version of the empanada, the "semprenada." More info: 516-488-7900, semprefame.com
Texicana Grill (2713 Merrick Rd., Bellmore): Owner Steven Scopelitis grew up in a Greek household and first encountered cilantro while working in the kitchen of a TGI Fridays. The scent galvanized him and set him on the Tex-Mex path. At Texicana Grill, the chili is made with coarse-ground meat, pinto and black beans and a spice mixture that includes dried chipotle and ancho chilies, paprika, cumin and a hint of cinnamon. He doesn't want any one flavor to dominate: "It's important that the background singers don't overwhelm the leads," he says. More info: 516-785-9200, texicanagrill.com
Morrison's (430 Woodbury Rd., Plainview): If excellent draft beer wasn't reason enough to visit this Plainview gastropub, stellar vegetarian chili is another -- an especially dense, rich rendition thick with black and kidney beans, bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and chilis, plus chili spices like cumin and garlic. Despite being meatless, it isn't necessarily vegan, as it comes with shredded Cheddar and Jack cheese, as well as sour cream; layer all of that in to amplify the experience. More info: 516-932-8460, morrisonsny.com
Wendy's (multiple locations): This is chain chili that could, the not-so-secret sleeper that has spawned scores of dupe recipes. Cooks endlessly try to figure out this chili's classic proportions of beef, pinto and kidney beans, bell peppers and tomatoes -- and while you can try to replicate it at home, the x-factor might be elusive. A large is potent yet uncomplicated, warming but not terribly spicy, and serves up hits of cumin, cayenne and white pepper. It also comes naked, in a way, with nary a chip, avocado slice, or thread of cheese in sight. More info: wendys.com
Smokin' Al's Famous BBQ Joint
Smokin' Al's Famous BBQ Joint (4847 Merrick Rd., Massapequa Park): Despite their mutual importance to cowboy culture, surprisingly few barbecue places serve fine chili. Smokin' Al's does. Al Horowitz's Massapequa eatery serves the heartiest of versions, a meat-heavy, bean-free bowl with sizable chunks of pork sausage and chorizo. Almost as good -- believe it or not -- Smokin' Al's vegan chili, a rich and hearty stew that Horowitz concocts from plant-based protein and nondairy cheese. "When I decided to make a meatless menu, I decided to use Beyond Meat, reconstructed it and made it our own," says Horowitz, who worked on the recipe for nine months before perfecting it. "I can't tell you how many vegans and vegetarians have come in and thanked us. Lots of places have vegetarian food, they say, but the atmosphere is sometimes sterile. Ours is served in a place that gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling." More info: 516-799-4900, smokinals.com
Del Fuego (multiple locations): At this Suffolk County Tex-Mex mini-chain, the chili takes a few risks: Turkey stands in for beef, with a rich assist from chopped chorizo sausage; beans are black, not kidney; it's served not in an earthenware bowl, but in a cast-iron dish, blanketed with cheese. The flavor profile, a little sweet and scented with cinnamon, has an exotic, almost North African appeal. More info: delfuegorestaurant.com
Chiddy's Cheesesteaks (2189 Jericho Tpke., Commack): Love Wendy's chili, but yearning for a more homespun, assertive version? Chiddy's abides. This casual Farmingdale spot is well-known for its namesake cheesesteak, but the meat chili is a bold must-try -- a chunky, traditional marriage of ground beef, kidney beans, various veggies and warming chili spices, but with a touch more heat than most of its LI cousins. The recipe was developed on Chiddy's food truck before migrating to the brick-and-mortar eatery, where it's developed a cult following. More info: 631-888-3262, chiddyscheesesteaks.com