Editors' pick

Hard Times Cafe

$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005

IT'S NOT every restaurant that can make money off the Great Depression, even belatedly. But Jim and Fred Parker, who 25 years ago opened a budget-friendly retro chili kitchen in Old Town Alexandria, have managed to coax their personal chili itch and a century of anecdotal Americana into a successful regional chain.

No advertising agency could have come up with a family history so appealingly folksy. According to the story, the Parkers' grandfather Ira Goodfellow (see what we mean?) picked up his version of chuck wagon chili along the Chisholm Trail at the turn of the 20th century, a style that his daughter, i.e., Aunt Irma, re-created in the '40s when she opened a chili joint along old Route 81 outside Oklahoma City.

In the 1960s, when the Parker brothers stumbled onto Hazel's Texas Chili Parlor in downtown Washington, it gave them that familiar burning sensation in the stomach, an oddly inspiring combination of heartburn and nostalgia. And in 1980, they screwed up their nerve and moved into a then-neglected part of Old Town, fitting out an exposed-brick rowhouse with sepia-style photos, old farm implements, a horseshoe or two and a Wurlitzer bubbler full of classic country and western swing.

It was four years before they branched out to Rockville and six more before they opened a third cafe near the Clarendon Metro; but with a little extra capital from franchise partners, the Parkers began to expand more rapidly, and today there are 14 between Frederick and Fredericksburg, some of which have "cue clubs" attached.

In the early years, dining at Hard Times was something like the old real estate joke, "Location, location, location": You could order chili, chili or chili. Texas-style was the Parker family recipe of ground beef in (moderate) cumin and chili powder; Cincinnati chili was the Greek immigrant version, more finely ground, a little sweeter and with an obvious Middle Eastern brown-spice boost of cinnamon, allspice and cloves. The vegetarian chili, a rather forward-thinking option for its time, was a pleasant, if uneven, dish of textured soy protein, mushrooms and peanuts; in the intervening years, that recipe has settled down and is the personal favorite.

From there, however, you could customize the bowl, and the formula remains pretty straightforward. You can have your chili with spaghetti, cheese, raw onions or, if you insist, beans; with fresh chopped jalapenos or tomatoes; over french fries or even as "Frito pie," chili and the works over a bowl of chips. And you could add it all up and still make it with a $10 bill, the bargain-basement pricing being something that hasn't changed much in 25 years either. (And that doesn't count the number of happy-hour, after-hour or kids-eat-free specials.)

Menu options beyond chili have increased over the years to include sandwiches and burgers and a handful of tavern staples, including grilled salmon, barbecue ribs and a sort of Tex-Mex take on chicken cordon bleu with bacon and Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses. (The last is two large breast halves, and the one you take home in the doggie bag makes a pretty good sandwich.) Grilled chicken, cheese and barbecue sauce are, like the chili makings, available in various combinations that become layered chicken entrees, more or less spicy but always substantial sandwiches and nacho-style salads. Some of the parlors even have a steak or two, pretty large and relatively prime for $14 or $15.

The chili menu has actually expanded as well, thanks in no small part to Jim Parker's continued participation in CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) competition. The Terlingua Red, which sticks to the CASIapproved formula -- Terlingua, Texas is the site of the annual world chili championship -- is, as the name suggests, ruddier and somewhat spicier, thanks to the addition of cayenne. It's the saltiest by a bit, too, which is also par per Terlingua.

However, one need not be too wary of any of the chilis as served, which is probably because so many of the patrons have kids (or parents), sensitive digestions or plain old suburban palates. The spaghetti is just as bland, and as blanding an addition, as ever, still reminiscent of grade-school cafeterias. And when the kitchen is a little flurried, it doesn't always take the time to pour off the greasier surface sauce. But there are plentiful condiments -- notably Hard Times' own chili-flavored vinegar, which is almost essential for those oilier portions -- to boost the heat to your own pleasure. (The cornbread is of the sweet, cake-smooth, box mix type, which I guess helps if you overcompensate with the hot stuff.)

Among pre-chili nibbles, the chicken wings are a good bet, grilled rather than battered and bathed in pepper sauce. Beer-battered onion rings are surprisingly good, with a thin, pleasant crust; the "Santa Fe egg rolls," fried tortillas stuffed with chicken, black beans, corn and cheese, are okay; they come with a dip that tastes like a combination of ranch dressing and barbecue sauce. The french fries are not great, but pretty good.

One other notable bit of modernization. The original Old Town Hard Times, which was originally not wheelchair accessible, now has an exterior lift. For a list of locations, visit www.hardtimes.com.