The Chili Size: a Los Angeles Original

delivering chili size

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

Ed Simon

About Ed Simon

Ed is a native of Los Angeles who loves food and food cultures. Whether he's looking for the best ceviche in Colombia, the best poke in Hawaii, the best tequila in Jalisco, the best Bun bo Hue in Vietnam or the best Taiwanese Beef Roll in Los Angeles, it's all good food! He also loves a good drink. He's had Mai Tais in Hawaii, Bourbon in Kentucky, Tequila in Mexico and Rum in Jamaica. His wine escapades have taken him to Napa, Sonoma, the Willamette Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley. And he's had beer all over the world! Music is another of Ed's passion, writing and interviewing many classic rock, rock and blues musicians. Getting the great stories of road experiences from them is a particular delight. Traveling also fits in with Ed's writing, exploring all over to find the most interesting places to visit, even in out of the way areas.
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15 Responses to The Chili Size: a Los Angeles Original

  1. Leroy Craven says:

    Ptomaine Tommy’s at 2420 N. Broadway,

    As I remember it, in 1956, was just down the street from the Starland walk in theater, on Saturdays we would go to Ptomaine Tommy’s before the kids matinee at the Starland. According to an old newspaper article from the Los Angeles times View part four Thursday, December 26, 1974 I have Tommy De forest came from the Midwest. De Forest had been a law student at a Midwestern University, but came to Los Angeles about 1912 and opened a six stool lunch station that stood in the street on North Broadway near 22nd. When World War I broke out he joined the Navy and after the war he came home to Los Angeles and started a hamburger and chili stand a block from where his wagon and stood a few years before. He prospered at that location and a few years later opened what became ptomaine Tommy’s on Broadway near Daly St.

    I had somewhat of an inside source of information my uncle, a young high school student attending Lincoln high school, worked there early in the morning, before going to school. Unfortunately, he was a teenager and never paid much attention to the recipe for Tommy’s chili or steak size.
    With my uncle told me was that Tommy hired a lot of off-duty Los Angeles policeman who worked there as waiters and cooks. Things that I remember there are in fact that in the front window, was a miniature lunch wagon that De forest had started his business with. Further, as you walked in on the west side there was a bar that as long as I can remember was never open. On the wall inside the bar and in the eating area were photographs of movie stars and famous athletes, boxers and race horses.

    The floor was always covered with sawdust and there were no tables or chairs just a long fountain type U-shaped arrangement with barstools one went to the left the other went to the right in the middle in the front as you came in was the cash register where you paid. Above where you were eating you can see where they were cooking the beans, in large cauldrons just above into the rear of where you were eating. The cauldrons were stainless steel and look like the style used in the military to hold large quantities of food my guess was about 300, two 500 pounds each. There may have been more but only two were visible patrons from the service floor. My uncle told me that the restaurant opened around three in the morning to the workers, who came in and started cooking beans in those large cauldrons.

    I remember that the restaurant always had male waiters, in white aprons and hats, each waiter was assigned a certain number of patrons stools at their station. Each station had a large bowl of chopped onions, the bowls were about 1 ½ to 2 feet wide and were always ceramic, I remember the color being light green. The bowls sat in a large chrome ring that was bolted to the service area at that station. Each bowl had a metal cup and when you were served your size you would ask if you wanted onions? If you said yes he would turn around grab the cup fill it with chopped onions and immediately turned back to you and pour them all over your size.
    According to my uncle, the restaurant was patronized by workers from the nearby General Hospital, the after theater crowd from downtown and the fight crowd, some of them coming in in suits, tuxedos and evening gowns.

    On August 10, 1958 ptomaine Tommy’s closes doors, forced to sell the property to satisfy creditors and a week later he died. Many people said he died of a broken heart.

    I’ve read a lot of the purported recipes for ptomaine Tommy’s chili size, all I can tell you is that he did use beans, I don’t remember any kind of sauce being on them, of course I always ate the hamburger size, which was served on an oval plate not round, and you could not see the hamburger patty, because of the mounds of beans covering it.

    I know that the beans were dry, when they first started cooking them early in the morning, and I surmised that the cauldrons were filled with hot water, salt, and any secret ingredient that De forest may have put in cauldrons. It was my understanding he was the only one who had the recipe and closely guarded it.
    The only thing I can assume is that, while in the Navy during World War I, he perfected his recipes and brought them back to Los Angeles after leaving the service. Cooking cauldrons look similar to those on naval ships,, and would cook all day long.
    Further, I know initially he started off with a steak size which was made just like a chili size – hamburger size, by using a oval dish and covering the steak with a large quantity of beans, and onions if you want them. From what I understand the chili size – hamburger size was more popular than the steak size and so he was noted for the chili size – hamburger size.

    I don’t know if there is a difference between the chili size and hamburger size, I always thought they were the same, but I was young at the time and didn’t pay a lot of attention to that. So, I have nothing to add to the recipe of the fact he did use dry beans, cooking and large cauldrons and added salt in his seasoning to the mix which cooked all day.

    I don’t remember anything else being on the chili size – hamburger size other than beans and meat,
    and no buns.

    Yes, I can truly say I was born in East LA
    I lived on Johnston St., Lincoln Heights

    • Jon says:

      Yup, Dad, an SP locomotive engineer, used to take me there as a kid…lived in Elysian Valley on Eads St, now under I-5 and then Cabot.

      • Ed Simon Ed Simon says:

        When I was younger, in the late 80’s I lived in Santa Clarita. Saugus Cafe was a favorite place for me for breakfasts and lunches. Several times when I was there, I’d hear the locomotive on the tracks next to San Fernando Road come to a stop and idle when I was eating there. A few minutes later, the engineer would come into the cafe, order something (maybe their Chili Size?) and sit at the counter with a cup of coffee. When the order came out, the engineer would take his bag, head back to the tracks and a few minutes later I’d hear the locomotive start moving again. I always enjoyed seeing that. I wonder if some of those times, that was your dad, Jon?

  2. Ed Simon Ed Simon says:

    Great memories and wonderful info Leroy. How I would have loved to try one of Ptomaine Tommy’s chili sizes! Thanks.

  3. Jubal says:

    My stepdad was in the air force in Nevada in the 1950’s. He introduced me to the chili size in the early ’70’s in Walla Walla, Washington at an old style diner. I have found a lot of “modern” places don’t even know what it is. Glad to see classic culinary art being preserved.

  4. Debra Keller says:

    I was a youngster living in the Glendale/North Hollywood area in the ’50s and ’60s and remember the Chili Size from Bob’s Big Boy fondly. I think that’s all I ever ordered. That and an orange soda. Even today I make my own at home (moved to the southeast and they make their chili with noodles here).

  5. Robert Jackson says:

    As a teenager living in what is now known as “Atwater Village” the spot for a “size” was a dive called Algemac’s, whee they served it with cheese and copped raw onion, but no bun or brad of any kind.. Bob’s Big Boy was ccosidered a “good boy” place, too wimpy for me and my friends. Ptomaine Tommy’s was considered somewhat distant and besides it was an “adult” place, not a teenage hangout.

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  7. To Larry Craven – Having been born and raised in Los Angeles and growing up on Darwin Avenue, between Daley Street and Workman Avenue, in Lincoln Heights, in the Northeast Section of Los Angels, Lincoln Height was never East Los Angels, East LA was everything East of Soto! Loved your,stoll down memory Lane, especially about the Starland Theater, .25 Cents to get in for a Double Feature. Ptomaine Tommy’s Chili Size smoothered with chopped onions served with a French Roll and Butter, with a Fountain Coke, it was heaven!

  8. Scott McCloud says:

    Sambo’s, a Santa Barbara startup, had a chili size that was to die for.

    • Bill P. says:

      For an interesting take on the Chili Size, try Eggs Incognito for breakfast at Shakers (Glendale and South Pasadena). It’s hash browns and eggs covered with chili. I’m a California boy born and bred, but I live in Boston now, and I miss Eggs Incognito so much that I trained a cook at the local greasy spoon to make them for me.

  9. Lynn Amos says:

    Thank you so much for this article. My father referred to the meal only as, “Size” and I never could find any reference to, or history for, it. Very likely, he enjoyed it at Ptomaine Tommy’s as a young man in Los Angeles. Modified in our family through the years, it is still a favorite meal at our house!
    Lynn Amos
    San Antonio

  10. Ron Garrison says:

    When the Dodgers first came here in 1958 they played at the LA Memorial Coliseum. Across the street was the Nighthawk, a walk up one room bungalow whose specialty was the chili size. Far as I can recall that’s all they served. You could get a size or a double size. No tables, seating at a U shaped bar only. When your order came the waitress would ask if you wanted onions. She’d say tell me when to stop, and begin heaping onions on to your plate. And I do mean heaping.

  11. Carol Feldman says:

    The chili size I remember was in a restaurant called JoJo’s in Morton Grove, a northern suburb of Chicago. A great charcoal grilled burger was served in chili, topped with raw onions and cheddar cheese. They were always busy so we never understood why they closed, unexpectedly. Never saw it in another restaurant, but I personally make great chili and actually I’m making it for dinner tonite. Maybe it came from California but I’ll bet it came from Chicago or New York.

  12. Jim Morrell says:

    I entered USC in 1953 and graduated 1958. 5 to 6 of us drove to Tommies as much as once a month to have Chili Sizes. At that time, they had wooden tables and benches. Once I drove 60 miles from Corona to take my future wife there. We all-loved the food and atmosphere. It was only just now that I knew he closed the same year I graduated. A terrible loss to Socal.

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