Q: What has horns, plays Bob Wills and Hank Williams songs and remembers the Alamo, but is only a few blocks away from the Yellow Line's King Street station?
A: The Hard Times Cafe, an honest-to-goodness Western chili parlor.
There ought to be horses hitched up outside; they'd fit right in with the huge pots of chili steaming behind the bar, and with the walls sporting armadillos, a cowskin, real longhorns (which came from Texas on a first-class Concorde seat), barbed wire and photographs that the owners' father took when he was in Wyoming back in '22.
Hard Times has one of the best country-and-western jukeboxes around -- many foot-tapping customers would bet the ranch on it. One woman, digging for quarters in her skirt pocket, said she comes to Hard Times because of the jukebox; she doesn't even like chili.
But chili is the meat of the matter for the owners, Jim and Fred Parker and Barry Thompson, who opened the Hard Times four years ago to revive the proud tradition of Hazel's Texas Chili Parlor (a chili oasis on E Street NW that closed in '71 after 40 years in business). Recipes include their Texas style, spicy beef and beans; Cincinnati style, sweeter, with tomatoes and cinnamon (and invented by a Greek, according to owner Jim Parker); and vegetarian.
Hard Times is true to chili-parlor tradition in another way: its prices. None of these very filling portions costs more than $3.95.
As for the beer, there's no Heineken here, no-sirree-bob; but you can get a Carta Blanca or Dos Equis and other imports for $1.90; Lone Star, Pearl, Coors and other all-American beers run $1.65.
Hard Times has no hard liquor, but you can get wine or buttermilk if you don't want a beer. And there are sandwiches and salads if you don't like chili.
A line begins to form around 7 and lasts until 9, 10 on weekends. The wait is usually only 15 to 20 minutes, though; and while you wait you can sidle up to the bar, put down a beer and pick out tunes on the jukebox.
As you leave Hard Times, you may notice tears in many eyes. Maybe because Tammy Wynette is crooning "Stand by Your Man," or because they added vinegar hot sauce to their chili, but you can bet your boots it isn't because of the bill. HARD TIMES CAFE -- 1404 King Street, Alexandria. Open 11:30 to 10 Monday to Thursday, till 11 Friday, noon to 11 Saturday, 4 to 10 Sunday. 683-5340.