Burgers stand out in a sea of chili

November 26, 1998|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Hard Times tries hard to appeal to the varied tastes of American chili lovers. That includes the Texas purists who want all meat and no beans, the spaghetti-loving nonconformists of Cincinnati, and healthy eaters from all parts who prefer a meatless variety. There's even a seasonal turkey chili for those who can think about eating turkey after today's meal.

Started by brothers Fred and Jim Parker, this chili-parlor chain is franchised by the American Chili Management Corp. There now are seven restaurants in Maryland and Virginia, including the newest outpost in Columbia, which opened in June.

Decorated with lassos, horseshoes and other cowboy paraphernalia, the restaurant has the look of an old sepia photograph. It's done in earth tones with the kind of no-nonsense practicality that suits its name.

At Hard Times, you can decide for yourself which chili you like, without shelling out a dime. Just ask for a sampler dish of the four chili variations: Texas, Cincinnati, vegetarian and turkey. Spoon some on saltines and then order your favorite. (Be sure to ask for beans if you want them.)

One taste might be enough, though. That's the way we felt about the herb-stricken turkey chili, which had so much sage and thyme that it almost tasted dirty. The Texas-style chili was wet with meat juices, mildly seasoned and full of coarsely ground beef. Made from an "authentic and historically correct" recipe, the meaty Texas chili will round up its share of fans.

My friend preferred the taste of the chunky vegetarian chili made with peanuts, green bell peppers and jalapenos. Unfortunately, he ordered it "five-ways" before he knew what that meant. Translation: 1) chili, 2) spaghetti, 3) beans, 4) Cheddar cheese and 5) onions. It arrived looking like an unappealing plate of pasta with watery sauce.

Spaghetti is Cincinnati's contribution to the world of chili, along with a sweet dose of cinnamon. It's an unusual combination, and it's prepared expertly at Hard Times. The chili is simmered for a long time and left to sit so that all the varied flavors blend into one harmonious whole. Be warned, though. Don't order the Cincinnati variety unless you are open-minded. If you are, do as the Ohio natives do, and order it with the works (five ways).

While chili dominates the menu at Hard Times, it doesn't quite hit the culinary bull's-eye. That honor belongs to a perfectly cooked, hand-formed burger with fabulous flavor. It's made with the same beef that goes into the Cincinnati chili -- top-grade, coarsely ground meat that's never been frozen. The roll was stale, but the accompanying coleslaw was freshly made, and thin, skin-on fries were fantastic.

Beef isn't the only meat on the menu, however. Chicken is available on sandwiches, pasta and as a topping for a salad of romaine and iceberg lettuce.

The best way to enjoy Hard Times may be at the bar, with some spicy appetizers and a pint of beer.

All the finger foods are worth a try -- crisp Texas wings with tangy hot sauce; greaseless, crunchy jalapeno poppers dripping cheese; and pale, batter-dipped onion rings, so sweet they must be Vidalias.

To go with them, there are 10 microbrews on tap. Our waiter demonstrated impressive first-hand knowledge of the beers, giving each enthusiastic endorsement.

Another kind of beer makes a perfect dessert at this chili parlor: mahogany-colored, honey-sweetened root beer with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But if you'd rather end your meal with a fork than a spoon, frozen peanut butter pie, fudgey Oreo pie and sophisticated lemon-blueberry shortbread are all suitable alternatives.

Hard Times

8865 Stanford Blvd., Columbia

410-312-0700

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa

Prices: Appetizers, $1.95-$5.95; entrees, $3.95-$6.50

Food: **1/2

Atmosphere: **1/2

Service: ***

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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