When my friend, Mack Aroni, asked me if I wanted to go to the Hard Times Café and Cue with him, I was taken aback.
“To play pool?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, “to eat dinner.”
I thought Hard Times was just a pool hall, but Mack assured me that it was a lot more than that. Hard Times, he told me, is also a full-service restaurant with all the pool tables in a totally different room. That sounded pretty good to me, so I agreed to go.
Hard Times is on Massey Boulevard, near Kmart and Tractor Supply. I couldn’t tell how large it was from the front, but was amazed when I went inside. We entered through the glass doors and into a gigantic room, which had been partitioned off into smaller dining spaces. We were met and ushered into a small section to the left that held 10 to 12 booths. We were handed menus and asked for our drink orders.
There was a special on “tall premium” beer so I got one. While our waitress went to get our drinks I looked over the menu. Hard Times is essentially a sports bar and it specializes in chili, wings and burgers. The menu had appetizers like jalapeno poppers and fried pickles along with chili nachos and “corn dog nuggets,” which were Nathan’s all beef mini corn dogs served with a variety of dipping sauces.
Wings were available with or without bones in a bunch of flavors: original Texas, chili lime, honey barbecue, old bay, sweet red chili or teriyaki.
Burgers were made from Angus beef and came with blue cheese, bacon or chili. There were also sandwiches and salads most of which contained chicken, either grilled or fried.
And, of course, there was chili. Hard Times prides itself on its chili and the menu states: “Our recipes are authentic and historically correct versions of the Chili created on the turn-of-the-century cattle drives of the Southwest and in the Cincinnati Chili parlors of the Midwest.”
Four distinct version of chili are offered at Hard Times:
Texas Chili — the only non-tomato-based chili, made from ground beef cooked in its own juice, using a turn-of-the-century family spice blend and recipe.
Cincinnati Chili — finely ground beef with a tomato base and sweeter spices including cinnamon.
Terlingua Red — named for the Texas ghost town that hosted the first Chili cook-off. It is redder in color and spicy.
Vegetarian Chili — Soy flakes cooked in a tomato base with fresh mushrooms, onions, green peppers, jalapenos and peanuts.
Well, each of the chilis sounded good to me, but it was hard to choose among them.
“Let’s ask for a sampler,” Mack suggested.
Our waitress brought over a small pan with four round cups in them. She placed the pan on a mat with the description of each of the chilis under the corresponding cup.
The look, texture and flavor of each of the chilis were quite different. The Texas chili was beefy, almost smoky, and mild without the tang of any tomato. The Cincinnati was quite fine and smooth, more like a sauce, with a distinct sweet cinnamon taste. The vegetarian was spicy and flavorful with chunky pieces of peppers and onions. And the Terlingua red was bright and fiery with a nice heat to it.
After tasting each of the chilis, we quickly made up our minds. Mack chose a 3-way Chili Mac, which is your choice of chili and cheese over spaghetti. Mack picked the Terlingua as his chili. The Chili Mac also came in 4-way, which adds onions, and 5-way, which adds onions and beans. I have heard about this way of serving chili, but had never seen it on an actual menu.
I got the Polish Cowboy which was grilled kielbasa topped with barbecue sauce, Cincinnati Chili, fresh-cut fries and coleslaw. It was served with onion rings.
While we waited for our food, Mack told me to check out the rest of the restaurant. Along one side of the large dining room was a great big bar. And at the back was another huge room full of pool tables. The atmosphere was very lively with loud music and people playing pool and having fun.
Our food came when I got back to our booth. My order had a bit of a mix up but our waitress took it back to the kitchen for a quick repair and was apologetic. It is hard to describe the blend of flavors in my sandwich. The kielbasa was slightly sweet, the barbecue sauce was hot and tangy, the chili was smooth and cinnamony. On top of it all was a mound of crunchy and creamy coleslaw.
And perched on the very top were two french fries. It was a unique combination and I thoroughly enjoyed the competing flavors and textures. The onion rings were huge and there were plenty of them.
Mack’s chili mac was just what he wanted. The Terlingua chili had a nice spicy flavor and there was enough of it to cover the spaghetti. It was unusual (at least for around here) and he dug in.
I had hesitated to go to Hard Times when Mack invited me, but I had a complete misconception about the place.
It is a friendly place where I would be comfortable taking anyone in my family, young or old — especially if they love chili.
Anne Chovey is a pseudonym for a Herald-Mail writer who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.