This was originally published Oct. 20, 2000, when Brooks had a location uptown; that location has closed.
“There are three people in the world who know how to make this chili,” says David Brooks.
We are not discussing chili-in-a-bowl chili. We are not discussing anything with beans. We are discussing burgers-all-the-way chili. Chili-dog chili. Is-this-chili-on-my-fried-bologna-and-hey-it’s-pretty-good chili.
“My wife doesn’t even know how,” he says. “She doesn’t even bug me anymore. A sales rep yesterday tried to give me 10 gallons, and I said, ‘No, I don’t want it.’ ‘I know you make your own,’ he said, ‘but I’ll give you this.’ I said no. He said, ‘Can’t I give it to you?’ I said, ‘No. I don’t want it.’ ”
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Good. It wouldn’t fit at this, the second location of Brooks Sandwich House. The original one, at 400 Mallory St. in the North Davidson Street area, opened in 1973. Twins David and Scott have run it since ’91, when Dad - who started making that chili about 40 years ago, according to David - retired.
The pair spent three years looking for a place downtown before finding this one, behind the upscale Sonoma, at Trade and Church.
An Oscar Meyer inflatable wiener hangs over the streetside window. The walls are gray and minorly adorned (there’s a line of ferns on the streetside windows, a mirror behind a little bar area, a poster and a signed Dennis the Menace cartoon); the floor’s a big checkerboard of black and gray; tables are set with little mason-jar salts and peppers, silver napkin dispensers and, on our visits, seasonal decoration in the form of tiny plastic jack-o’-lanterns.
A chalkboard announces the day’s specials - like two hot dogs, an order of fries and a drink for $5, and maybe “#24 devil’s food cake with Brooke Gordon icing.”
Service anecdote No. 1: What’s that? I ask of the Gordon cake, momentarily (just momentarily!) forgetting NASCAR’s No. 24 is the sprightly, country-singer-like-grinning Jeff Gordon.
“Well,” drawls the young man taking orders, close-cut curly dark hair over a country-singer grin of his own, “every time I make cake I try to give it some kind of a name ... This has chocolate icing with M&Ms and stuff.”
So, Brooke Gordon icing is really, really, really sweet?
A few customers laugh. But the clientele is not so narrowly drawn that they all do. There’s a customer in shirt and tie for every one in work boots, a business suit for every ball cap and plenty of skirts. Eric Clapton’s “Layla” follows “Rambling Man” on the sound system, after the one that goes “Come on people now, smile on your brother.” What is that, ’60s stuff?
So there may be a mix of diners and musical tastes, but listen to people ordering and you see a stunning singleness of purpose: Cheeseburgers and hot dogs rule, without question. Grilled cheese? There are a few, but then again, too few to mention. Everything comes “all the way” - mustard, chopped onions and chili - unless you specify otherwise.
Burgers, crusted with a salty tinge, nestle in buns stained generously with mustard, sprinkled with onions, and dosed with that chili - fine granules of meat unsullied by any visible sauce or seasoning, except for a few flakes of seasoning. Delicious, in an organic way: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Fries are moderately wedgy, skin-on, nicely fried and well-salted.
There are other sandwiches - smoked sausage, ham and cheese, livermush, chicken breast, fish fillet, BLT, even a chuckwagon. Clearly, vegetarians need not apply. (The breakfast menu consists of sandwiches on toast, bun or Pillsbury biscuit: sausage and egg, bacon and egg, smoked sausage and egg, livermush and egg, ham and egg, country ham and egg. Monty Python fans may be reminded of the Spam skit, but in fact, you can get just an egg biscuit, and pretty good grits are offered, too.)
Dogs are, as the inflatable hints, all Oscar Meyer all the time; fat and reliable. Bologna is a quarter-inch-thick or so, slashed once to keep it on the grill, from whence it also picks up some color, and is served - no surprise here - all the way.
It’s not just a habit; it’s a calling.
Service anecdote No. 2: We order a bologna sandwich. All the way? asks the counter guy. I pause; I’m splitting it with someone who’s unsure, but says to go ahead and he’ll take the stuff off.
“Please, sir,” says the man at the counter. “Before you take it off, take one bite. Just one bite.”
Evangelism, burger style. Brooks’ does it all the way.