Chili U: Not Feeling the Heat in Libertyville

Chili U restaurant.

If there’s one thing you expect from chili, it’s full flavor.

I’m talking mouth explosion, folks. The kind that will make me forget every other chili I’ve had before; that will encourage me to eat well past the “full” stage. That’s what great chili evokes.

Sigh. I had high hopes for Chili U. Don’t get me wrong—the food is fine. It’s just kind of ho-hum, middle of the road, nothing to get excited about, but filling and fairly tasty. I just wish they weren’t so afraid of spice…or seasoning, for that matter.

Barbie’s in the Bathroom!

Barbies in the bathroom at Chili U.

The restaurant itself has a very cool design, and if you ever find a more awesome restroom (both the men’s and women’s rooms have Barbie tableaux set in the wall), I’d be surprised.  We loved the exposed brick, textured woods and funky lighting, although I know that the looooong hallway that separates the two dining rooms has got to be a nightmare for the food runners.

There is table service at night, but at lunch, you grab a menu, find a seat and then hop up to give your order at the bar. Since it seemed silly for all four of us to order that way, I wrote down our choices and handed it to the bartender. Wouldn’t it be easier if they had an order form at the table, or better yet, made the investment in servers? That was a bit off-putting.

In a Pickle

The appetizers arrived, and we buckled down to the task at hand. Fried Pickles ($7) were thinly sliced dills coated with panko breading, “lightly” fried and served with creamy chipotle sauce. These were a hit, but the breading to pickle ratio was off; a thicker slice of pickle would have been perfect. Sweet Potato Fries ($3.50) were on the soggy side.

The Quinoa Salad ($11), tossed with roasted pumpkin seeds, scallions, chives and red pepper, drizzled with Creole mustard dressing and served on a bed of butter lettuce, looked beautiful but needed the punch of acid (more vinegar, or a squeeze of lemon) and some judicious seasoning. Quinoa is such a sponge; it’s the black hole of grains. Whatever you toss it with gets soaked up, and it needs constant refreshing.

Chili Time

African Chicken Chili at Chili U. You can’t go to Chili U without trying the chili, and they all sounded so promising. You choose your “foundation” first: mashed potatoes, macaroni, angel hair, hash browns, various permutations of rice, or green beans and onions for the starch conscious.

Next, pick a chili. For variety’s sake, we opted for the Midwest ($9), a ground sirloin and pork chili with “house secret” seasoning; the African Chicken ($13), which featured roasted chicken and wild mushrooms in a creamy tomato-peanut butter sauce; and the Thai Shrimp ($16), grilled garlic shrimp atop a red and white bean chili with red curry, tomato, coconut milk, mushrooms, onions, ginger and garlic.

Optional free toppings (sour cream, cheese, jalapeno, scallions, olives, red or black beans, etc.) and “Extra toppings” (caramelized onions, 50 cents; cubed avocado, caramelized bacon chips or a fried egg, $1.50) are piled on top of your chili masterpiece, and the eating begins.

The Votes Are In

The verdict? The Midwest Chili had good flavor and lots of meat, but not much spice. Even our heat-averse friend added Tabasco to perk it up. The African Chicken was loaded with poultry, but it could have used more peanut butter to balance the very tomatoey sauce. The grilled shrimp on the Thai chili were terrific, plump and perfectly cooked and seasoned. The chili itself, however, could have used more coconut milk and a stronger hand with the Thai seasonings, like ginger and lemongrass. Again, the overall effect was tomato.

The sandwich menu was very appealing, so we tried the Spicy Bahn Mi Meatball ($9  pictured at top) Redemption came with the huge slab of Texas Sheet Cake ($6), the Lone Star State’s ode to chocolate and confectioner’s sugar, drizzled with chocolate sauce and served with a dish of vanilla ice cream.

I’m hoping that they hear the customers’ feedback on the lunch “service” and bring in some servers. It will make the whole experience better.

 2.5/5 stars (B-)

 

Chili U

547 Milwaukee Ave.

Libertyville

847-549-3152

www.chili-u.com