In 2008, Steven Forster, owner of the Chili Tank, was travelling in Germany. In a town called Oberwiesenthal, he happened upon an old army field kitchen—a two-wheeled metal wagon with large vats attached to it, used to heat and serve food to troops in wartime. Forster was delighted to see it being used to sell meals at the bottom of a ski hill. “What a great idea!” he thought to himself. He immediately imagined putting the mobile kitchen to use in Vancouver selling hot, rib-sticking chili.
The next year, with the help of his dad, who was living in Germany, Forster acquired a 1943 Czechoslovakian military field kitchen and shipped it to Vancouver. Since then, with his army-green chili field kitchen—fuelled by logs made from used coffee grounds—he’s been offering hot beef, chicken, and vegetarian chili at local farmers markets.
Forster’s business is one of the many in town that take their chili seriously. At his stand at Nat Bailey Stadium’s Saturday farmers market, six bucks gets you a 354-millilitre bowl of steaming chili topped with Cheddar and mozzarella cheeses and sour cream, and served with organic bread from European Breads Bakery. All three chilies share a base of black beans, tomato, garlic, onion, ground pepper, and house-ground ancho and chipotle chili powder. (Forster also sells the chilies frozen [750 millilitres for $10, 1.5 litres for $20], and they’ll be available shortly in local supermarkets.)
The chicken version features diced dark and white chicken meat, while the beef chili uses grass-fed, free-range Empire Valley Beef from Williams Lake. Forster doesn’t like to break down the ground beef too much, as it’s the star.
“In my beef and chicken chili, the biggest chunks are the meat,” he explains. Veggie lovers, however, will be pleased with the vegetarian version, packed with organic banana squash, organic corn, and organic, alderwood-smoked chickpeas.
Two other standout veggie chilies can be found at Heirloom Vegetarian (1509 West 12th Avenue) and the Wallflower Modern Diner (2420 Main Street). Heirloom’s chili is a mélange of roasted sweet corn, grilled sweet peppers, and black beans, made especially flavourful with the addition of toasted cumin seeds, hot chili flakes, espresso, and cocoa, and simmered for two hours. The result has a definite spicy heat, but executive chef Robert Wilson-Smith says in a phone interview that hot fiends can have the fire increased: “We’re happy to individualize the chili for people and give it some cayenne to punch it up a bit, or give it some hot sauce.”
Wilson-Smith says the cocoa in the chili is inspired by mole sauce. Coconut milk is also added to give the chili a creamy, aromatic note. It’s served with brown basmati rice, corn tortillas, cilantro-lime cream, and a green salad with orange blossom vinaigrette. Diners can also ask for a side of chili at brunch if they want a protein fix but don’t care for eggs or are vegan.
At the Wallflower, chef Nathan Szilagyi is a vegetarian, so it made sense for him to dream up an all-veggie chili. Nonetheless, the chili he created “was hearty enough that it didn’t need any meat in it”, he explains over the phone.
You’ll need a fork to dig into a thick mixture of peppers, celery, onion, corn, black beans, kidney beans, and tomatoes, all amped up with Louisiana hot sauce, sambal, paprika, cayenne, crushed red pepper, oregano, cumin, and maple syrup, for a bit of sweetness. Topped with vegan Cheddar and served with grilled focaccia, it’s quite the meal.
Meat lovers will like the slightly different spin on chili at Yagger’s (2884 West Broadway, 433 West Pender Street). Yagger’s replaces the standard ground beef with chorizo sausage and chunks of organic bison from Two Rivers Specialty Meats. “Bison is an extremely lean meat, so it makes the chili less oily,” says co-owner Dan Wood during a phone chat. “It tastes like a regular chili but with a cleaner taste.”
In addition to the heat from the chorizo, the chili is spiced with ancho chili paste and powder, oregano, paprika, basil, pepper, and cumin. The heartiness of the dish comes from red kidney beans, corn, and red peppers.
“The chili is at a medium spiciness. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a four out of 10. I think chili should have a bit of heat to it, especially if you have a cold beer to wash it all down,” Wood explains.
Wood recommends pairing it with a pint of Okanagan Spring 1516 Bavarian Lager or Whistler Whiskey Jack Ale. Diners also apparently go crazy for the house-made cornbread that accompanies each order of chili. “You see the chunks of corn in the cornbread, and the bread has a great sweetness to it,” Wood says. With the hot bowl of spicy, protein-rich chili, the combo is bound to slake any appetite.