There are times when a good burger and a bowl of chili hit the spot for lunch or a casual dinner. One of my favorite places for this inexpensive and laid-back meal is the Hard Times Cafe.
Located just off Dobbin Road in Columbia, this self-described American chili parlor is a throwback to the Depression era of the early 1930s in the Southwest. The fare here is simple and well prepared. The burgers are big and juicy. Chili is served in several different styles. The recipes are authentic versions of chili made during turn-of-the-century cattle drives of the Southwest and served in Cincinnati chili parlors.
The Columbia restaurant opened in 1998, and current owner and franchisee Andrew Parks took it over May 1, 2001. "We attract a diverse crowd of diners. Regular customers who like our chili are the core of our business here," said manager Michael Hendrigsman.
During a recent visit to Hard Times, we started by sharing the Texas wings ($6.50). They were rather small but meaty, coated with a tangy sauce and accompanied by the traditional blue cheese and celery.
My chili cheddar burger ($7.45) was a nice and thick, prepared to order, with a generous portion of homemade roadhouse fries on the side. The half-pound burger was seasoned with a touch of garlic and pepper, bringing out the flavor of the beef.
The 1940s-style Frito Chili Pie ($6.99) consisted of a large bowl of Frito chips, topped with a choice of chili, shredded cheddar, sour cream and diced tomatoes. We also sampled the Hard Times Cafe chili dog ($5.99), a quarter-pound all-beef hot dog served with a choice of chili, shredded cheddar, onions and a side of fries. The 5-Way Chili Mac ($6.95) was an interesting combination of spaghetti topped with a choice of chili, cheese, onions and beans.
Hard Times, of course, takes its chili very seriously. The original Texas chili blends coarse ground beef in its own juices with an old family recipe. This one tends to be the most flavorful but also the greasiest. But let's face it: Fat tastes good.
My favorite is the Terlingua chili, a tribute to the Texas ghost town that hosted the very first chili cook-off. It is deep red and has a nice, spicy kick to it.
Other options include the legendary Cincinnati chili, invented by Greek immigrants. This one has a finer grind of beef, a tomato base and sweeter spices, notably cinnamon.
Naturally, there's also a vegetarian chili available. Textured soy protein flakes cooked in a tomato base are combined with fresh mushrooms, onions, green peppers, jalapenos and peanuts.
One of the nice things at Hard Times is that it offers a chili sampler so you can taste each of them before deciding what to order. Be sure to ask, if it's your first visit. There's also a kids menu available. While there is no microbrewery on site, Hard Times features its own gold medal-winning lager beer, brewed by Old Dominion in Virginia.
It showcases other local brews as well; the current one is Backfin Ale from the Claypipe Brewery in Westminster, Md. Hard Times will have a private tasting of holiday and seasonal beers at 6:30 p.m. Monday. The cost is $25 per person and includes food with a sampling of a dozen microbrews.
The original Hard Times Cafe was opened in 1980 by Fred and Jim Parker in Alexandria. Since then, the chain has grown to 14 locations, most of them in our immediate region. Two new ones are planned, one in Frederick, the other in London.
Decor at Hard Times is what you would expect from the name. The "child in the washtub" logo is reminiscent of the Depression era. The polished oak and terra cotta tiles gives the place a simple look. Dining booths are all wood and very spartan. The walls feature photographs of Western life in the 1930s, mixed with Hollywood Western movie lobby posters. Even the background music here fits the Western theme.
The owners of Hard Times Cafe are well-known for their community support. Over the years, they have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars at their various locations for the National Kidney Foundation, Children's Hospital, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and local public radio and television stations. More information about Hard Times Cafe is available at their Web site at www.hardtimes.com.
Hard Times Cafe, 8865 Stanford Blvd., Lakeside Retail Center, Columbia. 410-312-0700. Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Reservations for parties of seven or more.