The judges are ready, the votes have been counted, and the winner is… not that much of a surprise, actually.
If there is one food that most captures Toledo's spirit, it would have to be the chili dog. It's a sturdy food, solid, and hard-working. It's simple and down-to-earth -- but then it's topped with a spicy sauce, a bit of look-at-me flamboyance that gives you an unexpected kick in the pants countered by a hint of untapped depth. There is more going on there than meets the eye.
All that, and it is served in a bun, so it is the ultimate casual food that can be eaten on the run.
No wonder they're so popular here. It seems like there is a chili-dog joint on every corner. When President Obama came to town, he didn't stop at an Italian restaurant. He didn't even try the lake perch. He headed straight for a chili dog -- two of them, with mustard, onions, and cheese.
Because of Toledo's affinity for chili dogs, if not a downright obsession with them, The Blade held a contest to definitively determine (at least for this week) who makes the best sauce in town.
RELATED STORY: Here's how our contest worked
We went to nine of the best-known chili doggeries in the area, from Sylvania to Walbridge. We asked for a cup of the chili they use on the dogs. One place wouldn't sell it to us, even when we asked for "three chili dogs; hold the hot dog and hold the bun." So we bought three chili dogs and scraped the chili off of them into a container.
We took our samples of chili to the teaching kitchen for the culinary arts students at Owens Community College; it's also the kitchen for the student-run Terrace View Cafe. There we met our three eager and apparently hungry judges: Gretchen Fayerweather, a chef and teacher at Owens; Tony House, chef and co-owner of Burger Bar 419; and Chad Lowry, a firefighter and paramedic at Station 18 in Toledo, and also an instructor of emergency medical services.
Why a firefighter? Who knows more about chili dogs than firefighters?
To keep the contest fair, we provided our own hot dogs and buns. We also asked the judges if they minded eating chili that had already been scraped off another chili dog, and they all said it would be fine. These are chili dogs we're talking about, after all. We probably could have dropped them on the floor and it would have been OK.
Not knowing which sample was made by which restaurant, the judges quietly and thoughtfully tried each one, grading them on a scale of 1-25. They also wrote down comments about each sample
The results revealed a clear winner: Tony Packo's. The area's best-known chili dogs turn out also to be the area's best -- at least on this day and in the eyes (and palates) of our three judges.
Second place went to Rudy's Hot Dog, which is probably the area's next best-known chain. Chili Jack's Original Chili Mac came in a close third.
"That is so cool," said Tony Packo, Jr., when told about the results. "That is the best news I've heard."
Mr. Packo is the son of the original Tony Packo, who opened the first restaurant with his wife, Rose, in 1932, at the height of the Depression. The chain now has five restaurants in the Toledo area.
"I think being recognized by the professionals that [judged] it and being honored this way is really, really cool. It makes me feel good. And the staff that works at Tony Packo's, they deserve the recognition because they are the ones that make it work," he said.
Mr. Packo was also quick to give credit to Bob Bennett, owner of TP Foods LLC, which bought Packo's earlier this year.
The secret of the restaurants' success, Mr. Packo said, is that his father took his family's tradition of Hungarian cooking and Hungarian spices and used them in foods that were enjoyed by Americans.
Toledo, he said, has "turned into a chili dog mecca.… I think we have a lot of people who have devoted their lives to this product. If you go to Rudy's or you go to the Original [Coney Island] Hot Dog, they have devoted their lives to it."
The recipe for Tony Packo's hot dog sauce has been a closely held secret for 80 years, he said, and he declined the opportunity to reveal it. If people want to make it at home, he suggested they buy it in a can that is sold in grocery stores.
But he did give up one part of the secret: lard. "Lard is the vehicle for bringing out the flavors of the spices," he said.
It's all a matter of timing, he said. "Lard first, then the garlic, then the meat, then the spices."
Although some people try to stay away from lard for reasons of health, it is a form of fat and fat is vital to any hot dog sauce. In fact, the judges deemed some of the contenders did not have enough fat in them, and as a result were too dry. Others were judged too greasy.
It's all a matter of balance. For people who are worried about lard and are looking for a healthy meal, perhaps chili dogs are not the way to go.
Contact Daniel Neman at: email@example.com or 419-724-6155.