Hard Times Cafe

1117 Nelson St., Rockville

294-9720

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Most items $3 to $4.50.

Cards: MasterCard, Visa.

There are no lukewarm chili lovers. Real devotees cherish and defend their favorite recipes as though they had been handed down on stone tablets, and they can argue without end about cumin and cayenne (how much?), about beans (what kind, mixed in or on the side?), about meat (shredded or ground?) and about tomato and sugar (essential ingredients or anathema?).

Given all that passion and controversy, the best strategy for a chili restaurant is to cover as many bases as possible. That's just what the Hard Times Cafe does.

Chili is the mainstay of the menu here, and not only is it prepared in three styles -- Texas, Cincinnati and vegetarian -- but also the customers get to add the beans, onion and cheese at their discretion. For those who can't find happiness with any of those combinations, there are burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches.

The atmosphere is just right for a chili emporium. The floors and booths are bare wood, and there's a long, brass-railed bar with high wooden stools along one side of the dining room. The decorations are strictly western (even the ceiling has a cowhide stretched between the fire sprinklers), and the jukebox plays only country and western. The prices are just right, too: They're low, pardner.

The chili? Very good. The Texas style, without tomato and made with rough ground beef, is nicely meaty-flavored and spicy, but not the tear-jerker you might expect. And having the beans on the side means they're firm and tasty when you mix them into the chili.

If you're not from the Midwest, you may find Cincinnati-style chili an odd bird, but it's one you can quickly learn to love (unless you're a chili purist from you-know-where). It's made with tomato, sugar, cinnamon and cumin, so it has overtones of Middle Eastern cooking. To make things even stranger, it's customarily served over soft spaghetti and topped with cheddar cheese and raw onion. For the real Cincinnati experience, go ahead and order it that way -- it's an entrancing mush.

Vegetarian chili, made with tomato, mushrooms, green pepper, soy protein (for body) and crushed peanuts (for a little crunch), is actually the most cunningly flavored, and the most peppery, of the three. You'll like this one even if you're not a vegetarian. Bear in mind that all of the chilis may vary a bit in spiciness from time to time. One way to be sure you're getting what you want is to ask for a sampler of the three kinds when you arrive -- have a taste, then decide.

It's not just the chili that's worthwhile. The burgers are nicely flavorful, the grilled ham and cheese on rye is a first-class sandwich, the chili dogs, piled with cheese and onion, are a happy way to get heartburn, and the tuna salad, something of an oddity in a chili joint, is remarkably good. And don't overlook the top-notch onion rings, the firm, crisp slaw and the fine-textured corn bread.

The steak fries have been iffy -- fresh from the fryer one time, dry and leathery another.