From the hand-painted, neon-accented sign on the top of the curved corner building to the Dorothy Gale red gingham checked curtains in the window, Burbank’s Chili John’s looks like a slice of Americana frozen in time. Although a neon clock above the kitchen door at the center end of the single room advertises that Chili John’s was established in 1900, the unchanged decor dates it back closer to the 1950s. What is billed as Chili John’s of California has, in fact, been at the same location since opening and very little has been modernized (the cash register is a chrome push-button dinosaur with pop-up letter tiles). Although not completely accurate, the centenarian claim is fair – just after the turn of the last century, John Isaac ladled out what he dubbed Texas-style “range” chili at his bar in Green Bay, Wisconsin – by 1917 so many people dug his chili that the bar was renamed Chili John’s and is still in operation (albeit at a different location). In 1946, John’s son Ernie brought the brand to a burgeoning Burbank in 1946 to feed hungry workers at Lockheed; he painted one wall with a mural that dates as far back as the restaurant and depicts a mountain lake region very much unlike the Verdugo Mountains that rise in the distance over Burbank.
The restaurant changed hands in the 1970s and then again when it was sold to the Loguercio family in 1990. Although patriarch Gene Loguercio recently died, the business is still maintained by his wife and two sons, who appear to be the only employees. Although a menu is cheerfully handed to you when elbow an orange vinyl seat at the horseshoe-shaped bar (there are no tables), the fare is just as described on the front of the building: “As You Like It”. All dishes incorporate the chili that is still prepared with respect to Isaac’s original recipe, although the choices have grown to include a bulgur wheat-based vegetarian and a chicken chili that cook Alec Loguercio points out originated during World War II when beef wasn’t always available. In addition to the three varieties, each can be ordered with a medium or hot spice level (although the hot has a mellow, flavorful burn without scalding the tongue in a blaze of flaming stupidity).
Fans of Cincinnati chili will enjoy Chili John’s as you can order two-way up through five-way, or even a Coney (although you won’t need to study the vernacular as the menu only lists the items you can crown with the chili, including spaghetti, beans, hot dogs, etc.). Conspicuously absent are French fries, although leaving them off the menu keeps Chili John’s from having to man a Frialator. The handmade tamales are stuffed with chili and love, although something in the preparation leaves the masa with a somewhat spongy consistency. The menu lists sandwiches but there is nary a ham and cheese to be found – all are variations of the Sloppy Joe, appropriately christened “The Sloppy John”. Debbie, Anthony and Alec Loguercio won’t even flinch if you decide you want spaghetti with tamale, chicken chili and a bun on top – if the component is listed on the menu, they’ll slap it together for you.
As customers file in, they’re generally greeted by name; even though the age range of the patrons spans about 50 years, the Loguercios appear to remember everyone who comes in. Expect to strike up a conversation – to one group of patrons, Alec described a motor he’s building and then switched to the history of chili with me. Ask him where chili originated in the United States, how to make Cincinnati red, or why you want to cook the beans separately and Alec has got you covered. The service is a throwback to a smaller Main Street America of days gone by; your order is written on a green pad of guest checks and your meal is assembled from ladles and forks dipped into vegetable inset pots on a steam table island inside the horseshoe. Bowls are served medium and large (the same bowl is used but filled to capacity for the large portion), but unless you have the appetite of the Von Erichs I recommend the smaller portion to allow room for the ample supply of sport peppers, onions, cheese, and oyster crackers. As Alec was my server, when it came time to pay, he surveyed my bare dinnerware, did a quick calculation in his head, and then levied the damage (which was pretty reasonable for the fiery feast).
As for the chili itself, Alec confided that it cooks for 8 hours; the muscle fiber breaks down to a dusky brown, almost paste-like consistency with a rich and hearty flavor. I opted for a five-way that started with pre-cooked spaghetti that was neither al dente nor reduced to a gelatinous Chef Boyardee mush; the spicy oil from the chili eagerly clung to each strand. Beans were added and then topped with a generous helping of the chili onto which I added chopped onions and grated Cheddar. The chili was outstanding; the family atmosphere and retro ambience resulted in a relaxed and casual lunch that I’d easily repeat any time – it was the perfect meal for a chili day.