Many cities have urban food legends built around them. Los Angeles is no different, with the most well-known controversy surrounding the creation of the French Dip sandwich, variously claimed by both Philippe’s and Cole’s. Less well known, but still interesting and delicious, is the chili size. This is a true Los Angeles creation, although like many things, there are several slightly different stories regarding the history of the chili size.
What is known for sure is that the chili size was developed in Los Angeles at a place named Ptomaine Tommy’s. In business from 1913 until 1958 at 2420 N. Broadway, Ptomaine Tommy’s was the largest and best known chili parlor in town. Reportedly, movie stars such as Mae West and Mary Pickford were regulars, devoted to Tommy de Forest’s chili. Other newcomers like Chili John’s in Burbank (established in 1946 and still in business) have sprung up since then with their own version of the chili size, but Ptomaine Tommy’s was the original.
Tommy de Forest, a local restauranteur, claimed the invention of the chili size in the 1920’s. His specialty was hamburgers, so he looked for a way to make a different burger for his diners. As the legend has it, he had a few ladles that he used to spoon the chili into bowls. When a customer wanted straight chili, he used the large ladle and the order was served. On the hamburger, however, he used the small ladle, calling that “hamburger size”. And finally, he came up with a variation, serving the larger amount of chili over an open faced burger and then covered it with cheddar cheese and chopped onions. This open-faced sandwich was henceforth referred to as “chili size”, and sold for 20 cents as opposed to the chili burger for 15 cents. Soon, people all over Los Angeles were asking for a chili size, or sometimes ordering just the straight chili in a bowl as a “bowl of size”. By the time Tommy de Forest closed up his restaurant in 1958 due to financial difficulties, the chili size was a popular item all over the West Coast.
It is not hard to find a chili size in Los Angeles these days. Like many other dishes, there are variations on it all over town. It is the quality of the burger, chili and toppings used that makes the difference between a passable chili size and a great chili size. For many years, I have been in search for the best chili size. I’ve tried diners, burger joints and even the chili size that Bob’s Big Boy has. In Los Angeles, the best chili size seems to be found in San Pedro, right at the Los Angles Harbor, at the Gaffey Street Diner. The Gaffey Street Diner, a fixture in San Pedro for many years, has paid homage to this Los Angeles dish by making them fresh, big and delicious.
Gaffey Street Diner’s Chili Size starts with a nice, thick beef patty grilled on the flattop. A sesame seed bun is toasted slightly and then the bottom is placed on a large platter next. A more than generous portion of house-made chili is ladled over the burger patty, bottom bun and platter, enveloping both with the rich, delicious flavor of the chili. On top of the hot chili, fresh shredded cheddar cheese and chopped onions are placed, with the cheese melting nicely over everything. Finally, the top bun, which has been split in two halves, is placed not on the burger patty, but over the chili at either end of the platter. The texture of the beef patty, crunch of the onions, softness of the bun and the sharp tang of the cheese all combine to give a nice variety and wonderful mouth feel. With the melting cheese and the bun soaking up the wonderful chili sauce, this is not a sandwich, but a knife and fork meal with delicious flavor.
Although the invention of the chili size is not as hotly debated as the invention of the French Dip is, the usual elements of it are. Some claim chili with beans is not the “straight chili” that Ptomaine Tommy used, while others claim it needs the beans to cut the richness of the chili. Either way, it is a dish that is a true Los Angeles invention and one with a storied past combined with a delicious present.
Gaffey Street Diner 247 North Gaffey Street San Pedro, CA