Habanero Xanadu

Photo by Matt OttoChuck wagon cooks accompanying cowboys on long cattle drives invented chili. Or maybe it was prisoners trying to disguise the taste of the rancid meat that wardens forced on them. But whatever tale is true (or truer), culinary scholars agree that the rich brown stew we're accustomed to originated among outcasts—immigrants, laborers, hobos and miscreants who needed a cheap, quick, filling meal.

Knowing this, you wouldn't expect a chili station to be a tenant in Fashion Island's indoor Atrium Court, a platinum card's flip from art shops selling garish, $10,000 oil-on-canvas scenescapes and $800 model clipper ships that appear purloined from your grandfather's estate sale. Yet there it is, in big, neon letters: Red Rock Chili, a spicy meat-and-bean man's Xanadu, where six varieties of the goop are always bubbling in cauldrons.

You can get your chili just like you'd get it almost everywhere else—plopped into a cup along with bread—but your fellow patrons will laugh at your ignorance. In addition to various kinds of chili, Red Rock offers several serving styles. Ladled onto a plate of spaghetti. Jammed into a bun with a pornographically chubby Hebrew National hot dog. Slopped onto a heaping plate of fat fries. Slathered onto a big ol' baked potato bloated with cheese and onions. Gingerly poured over three scoops of long-grain white rice. Stuffed into a burrito or a bread bowl. Mixed into a salad so you can pretend you're eating healthy. And over a plate of nachos, naturally, though we weren't impressed with this delivery method—the chips aren't thick enough for proper chili hoisting, so consider yourself warned about engineering failures that'll have nachos landing on your freshly pressed shirt.

Once you determine your chili vessel, let the varieties impress you. We liked the veggie chili, with its tofu, its corn and its black beans and garbanzos do-si-doing in our mouth. We savored the namesake Red Rock chili, its pillowy crimson beans and hearty ground beef blend ensuring you'll never again harm your palate with tasteless canned chili. We quickly became enamored of the White Rock, a mildly spicy chili composed of simmered chicken breast and thick with tomatoes, green chiles and white beans. And we partook of the chili of the day (which is the same every day), a tender blend of steak and mushrooms with a slight zing—not overwhelming, but enough to make your nose run and your eyes mist.

But those four choices did not prepare us for the two odd remaining chilis. One was the Cincinnati-style, sans beans and seasoned with allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon. Now, I don't know what the hell's going on in Ohio, but, truthfully, it can't be altogether appealing. For those of us used to hot-ass-hot chili, it's odd to stick a spoonful in your mouth and find sugar instead of spice. But this sort of sweet chili is apparently the fish taco of southern Ohio. Cincinnati, we have since learned, is stupid with chili parlors and hosts more per capita and square mile than any city in North America. So, at least Cincinnati has something to boast about besides being the city that banned Mapplethorpe and sued Flynt.

For those of us who prefer our chili molten, the Hot Rock chili, stewed with the infamously hellish habanero pepper and vanilla-by-comparison jalapeños and chipotles, burns the spot. As exciting and intimidating as this choice looked on the menu—we had visions of our intestines exploding into mushroom clouds, emergency tongue amputations and, to cool down, Tabasco sauce chug-a-lugs—the Hot Rock really wasn't all that painful. A mouth-scorcher, yes, a good gullet singe as you'd expect, but the afterburn persisted a mere 45 minutes from our final swallow. We win!

The Red Rock menu boasts soups, salads and corn muffins as well. You can also get novelties like $15 Red Rock T-shirts, an ominous sign of a franchise just aching to go big. Those are all frills, though, distractions from Red Rock's tasty sludge. It's all about the chili here, baby. Don't let menu diversity convince you otherwise.

Red Rock Chili Co., located inside the Fashion Island Atrium Court, 401 Newport Center Dr., Ste. A106, Newport Beach, (949) 760-0752; www.redrockchili.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $14, food only. Major cards.


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