The century-old iconic L.A. diner is famous for its chili, and the bean-less Texas-Style Chili is the best of the bunch.
If Barney’s Beanery never existed, where would Janis Joplin have taken her last drink? Where would Quentin Tarantino have written his most celebrated film, Pulp Fiction? Where would Peter Falk’s character have eaten chili, his favorite meal, in the 1970s TV show Columbo?
The nearly 100-year-old famous Los Angeles chili chain became a Hollywood hotspot almost instantly after it opened its doors in 1920. Through the 20s, 30s, and 40s Clara Bow, John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, and Clark Gable were all regulars. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Lou Costello, Donald O’Connor, Dennis Hopper, and the Doors could often be seen sitting at the bar. On some nights, Jim Morrison would be standing on top of it. In the 80s, the Brat Pack–Emilio Esteves, Rob Lowe, Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, and Demi Moore–threw parties there and huddled around the pinball machine.
Over many decades musicians, artists, actors, and performers helped establish the small chili joint as a big part of Hollywood history. With license plates and hubcaps adorning the walls, pool tables and pinball machines scattered throughout, and a motorcycle built into a booth, Barney’s Beanery was never considered an upscale joint. And that is its charm. Celebrity elites didn’t go there to be treated like celebrities. They came for the casual hang, to blend in with not-so-famous regulars. And, of course, they came for the great chili.
Chili is what Barney’s is most known for, and they have several to choose from on the menu, including the original classic chili from 1920 and delicious turkey chili. But for true chili fanatics, you just can’t beat the bean-less Texas-Style Chili which is a nearly perfect chili con carne. If you’re a fan of traditional Southern Texas chili, characterized by its lack of beans and tomato sauce, this is the hack for you. The chunks of chuck are fall-apart tender, and the flavor is something special, created by a variety of chilies, fresh and dry.
After studying dozens of classic chili con carne recipes and the recipes from winners of chili cook-offs from all over the country, I had my own cook-off. Over several weeks I cooked chili in a variety of ways to determine which ingredients are most likely used in the original. I can’t say exactly when Barney’s Texas-Style chili recipe was first created, but a few branded ingredients that have been available for more than 100 years worked very well in this hack.
Before I talk about those secret ingredients, let’s talk about chilies.
We’ll use three types of whole chile peppers, each one contributing a different flavor profile to the pot. The fresh Anaheim peppers added later will provide a mild, sweet flavor and a slight pepperiness.
Right now we’ll work on these dried chilies.
You’ll need dried guajillo and ancho peppers. An ounce of each will do. Guajillo peppers are one of my favorites for chili because they add a slightly smoky, sweet heat that’s great in the pot. Ancho peppers are also good here because of their medium heat, and fruitiness that might make you think of raisins or sun-dried tomatoes.
These are all good flavors that work well together, but we need to turn these crusty, shriveled peppers into something we can use.
The most flavorful part of the chile pepper is the flesh, so it’s time to evict the seeds.
Use scissors to cut the stem end off of each chile. Cut up one side of the chile, then open it up and get all of the seeds out of there. Buh-bye seeds.
Place the seeded peppers on a baking sheet and get them into a 350-degree oven for about 3 minutes.
This roasting will help wake up the peppers and activate great flavors, but it happens fast so don’t go too far away.
When you begin to smell the peppers in your kitchen, they’re done.
Now we’ll soften the chilies with a dose of boiling water.
Let them soak for a good 30 minutes. You can let them sit longer if you want. Dried chilies love a hot bath and are not at all anxious for it to end.
Next, we need to transform the chilies into chile puree. A food processor or blender will do the job.
Add the chilies and about half of the soaking water into your liquefying device of choice. Process the chilies on high speed until they are mostly pureed, then add the remaining water. Continue pureeing the chilies for a minute or more, until they are completely smooth.
Set this important secret ingredient aside for now, and let’s talk about some other important secret ingredients.
Each one of these historic ingredients is older than Barney’s Beanery, and was available to be used in all of Barney’s original secret chili recipes when they were first created as far back as 100 years ago.
William Gebhardt created his chili powder blend in 1894 to use in chili served at his saloon in New Braunfels, Texas. It was the first commercial chili powder sold in the U.S. and was the biggest seller for decades, so there is a very good chance it was used in Barney’s original chili recipes and is still being used today.
Mexene chili powder was created in Southern Texas in 1904, and is considered an important ingredient–perhaps an essential ingredient–in authentic Texas chilis. Because it was bottled and sold prior to Barney’s inception, there is also a good chance that this chili powder is used in Barney’s chili recipes. And especially the Texas-style chili.
The Los Angeles-based El Pato company began producing the spicy tomato sauce in 1905 and was the first company to make canned salsas. Traditional Texas-style chili doesn’t usually have tomato sauce in it, but a little bit of this “salsa” (there are hot chilies in it) adds a lot to the pot. I also found that many chili cook-off winners use this sauce in their recipes. Because this sauce is made in Los Angeles and has been around for over 100 years, there is a good chance Barney’s used it in chili recipes. So we’ll use it here.
Obviously, you can’t have chili con carne without the carne.
Get a 3-pound chuck roast and slice it into 3/4-inch cubes. They don’t have to all be exactly 3/4-inch, of course. Just get ’em in the ballpark.
And don’t get rid of all the fat. Leave some nice chunks of fat on the meat so that it can melt down and enrich the chili.
Brown the beef in a pre-heated pot over high heat. A cast-iron Dutch oven like this one works great.
Only add one-quarter of the beef at a time so that the beef browns quickly and evenly.
Remove each batch when it’s done before adding more.
When all the beef is browned you will have a nice reward at the bottom of your pot.
The caramelized beef drippings cooked onto the bottom there are called fond, and this fabulous stuff will make everything you now put into this pot taste better.
Just look at what it does to the next three ingredients…
First, add a little oil.
When it gets hot, add the chopped Anaheim chilies, onion, and garlic.
Ah, now look at the color.
The peppers, onions, and garlic have picked up the flavor from the bottom of the pot and are a beautiful caramel color.
Just cook them for a few minutes or until the onions begin to get translucent edges.
When that happens you can add the beef back to the pot, along with the chili powders, brown sugar, salt, pepper, and cumin.
Prepare for your final additions by combining the beef bouillon with a cup of very hot water. Let it sit for a bit, then stir until it dissolves.
Also, add the corn masa to a couple of cups of room-temperature water.
Got a whisk? This is a good place to use it.
Now for the grand finale. Add everything that’s leftover, including the beef bouillon and corn masa solutions, to the pot.
Add chicken broth, beer, tomato sauce, apple cider vinegar, lime juice, oregano, and pureed chilies. Get in there everybody.
Bring the chili to a simmer, and keep it there for about 3 hours, or until the meat is tender.
Your house will begin to smell great and it will be absolute torture not to plunge a spoon into the pot, but the chili needs some alone time now. Check it on it periodically, give it a little stir, along with some quiet support.
After three hours, you can indulge. Serve up a bowl of chili, topped with Cheddar cheese, chopped onion, and tortilla chips on the side.
Totally worth the wait.
— Todd Wilbur, The Food Hacker
Barney's Beanery Texas-Style Chili Hack
- 1 ounce dry guajillo chile peppers
- 1 ounce dry ancho chile peppers
- 5 cups water
- 3- pound chuck roast, sliced into 3/4-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onion (1 medium onion)
- 1 cup chopped Anaheim green chilies (2 peppers)
- 4 teaspoons minced garlic
- 3 tablespoons Gebhardt chili powder
- 2 tablespoons Mexene chili powder (or McCormick)
- 2 1/2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 large Knorr beef bouillon cube (or 2 small beef bouillon cubes)
- 1/4 cup corn masa
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 cup lager beer (such as Budweiser)
- 1/3 cup El Pato tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
- Shredded Cheddar cheese
- Chopped onion
On the side
- Tortilla chips
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Using scissors cut off the stem end of each peppers, then cut up one side so that you can open the pepper up and dump out the seeds. Place the seeded peppers on a baking sheet and bake for 3 to 4 minutes. Don't let them get too dark. When you can smell them, they're done.
- Boil 2 cups of water (microwave or stove top) and pour it over the peppers in a large bowl. Let the peppers sit there and rehydrate for about 30 minutes. Stir them around once in a while.
- When the peppers are soft, transfer them to a food processor or blender along with the soaking water, and puree until smooth. If using a food processor add half of the liquid at a time. Set this puree aside for now.
- Heat up a Dutch oven or large pot over high heat. Add one-quarter of the cubed chuck and brown it. When the meat has browned, remove it to a bowl and brown the remaining beef in 3 small batches. Don't rinse the pot when you're done browning the beef, and pour 2 tablespoons of oil into it. When the oil is hot add the onion, green chilies, and garlic to the pot and cook for 5 minutes or until the onions begin to soften.
- Add the meat back into the pot, then stir in the chili powders, brown sugar, salt, black pepper, and cumin. Cook for 3 minutes.
- Heat 1 cup of water to boiling in your microwave oven or on your stove top. Dissolve the bouillon cube in the hot water.
- Whisk the corn masa into the remaining 2 cups of water (room temperature) and add it to the chili.
- When the beef bouillon cube has dissolved, add the bouillon to the chili along with the chicken broth, beer, tomato sauce, vinegar, lime juice, oregano and pureed chilies.
- Bring the chili to up to a gentle simmer and let it cook uncovered for 2 1/2 to 3 hours or until it's thick and the beef is soft. Add another 1/2 cup of water to the chili as it cooks if it becomes too thick before the beef is tender. Serve with shredded Cheddar cheese and chopped onion for topping and tortilla chips on the side.