When’s the last time any chef used the words Brunoise and Texas caviar in the same sentence? Turns out more recently than you might think, and right in our own backyard.
Mark Yuwiler, the owner of Petaluma’s Chili Joe’s cafe, is explaining a popular Lone Star state condiment best known for being a favorite recipe in 1970s women’s magazines. It’s traditionally made with canned beans, chopped onions, jalapeños and a little Rotel to class it up.
The classically trained French chef who’s worked at spots like the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco has re-envisioned the caviar-free tortilla chip dip with a mix of heirloom Santa Maria pinquito beans, black eyed peas, and carefully diced — or Brunoise cut if you’re a chef — jalapenos, red peppers, celery and red onion. It’s topped with a zesty lime vinaigrette atop a bed of leaf lettuce. In other words, he’s making it into something you’d actually want to eat.
That highbrow-lowbrow juxtaposition of classic comfort foods gussied up with top-shelf local ingredients and a culinary master’s touch is exactly what’s making Yuwiler’s tiny chili cafe such a hit.
Having given up his starched white chef jacket for a brown work shirt and apron, he’s found his bliss at the bottom of a chili bowl.
Yuwiler and his wife, schoolteacher Wendy Travis, opened their dream restaurant in a tiny standalone building last summer. It happened to be on their 10th wedding anniversary, Yuwiler says, though they kind of forget that bit as the doors opened. Since then, it’s been a runaway success with customers coming back week after week for his LA Street Chili doused tamales, chili cheese tater tots, charbroiled burgers, hot dogs and ever-rotating list of regional chili favorites from San Antonio to Cincinnati. And yes, there many, many kinds of chili which Yuwiler is happy to explain and frequently adds as specials to the menu.
“I was French trained and I love fancy food, California cuisine and all the wonderful stuff we have around here. This is heaven for cooks and eaters. But what I wanted to do was recreate something nostalgic, something retro but not contrived,” Yuwiler said. Raised in Santa Monica, he remembers a time when chili cafes were familiar —and economical — family eateries. In Santa Rosa, Ingram’s Chili Bowl reigned supreme for nearly half a century until its closure in 2000.
“LA is the home of chili cheese fries, chili burgers,” he said. “I grew up eating different styles, and I remember the fun I had going with my dad to all the cool places. In terms of comfort food, you’ve got mac and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, but chili is up there as as a top five, for sure.”
That kind of humble grub has pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur, relegated mostly to home kitchens where it’s made with canned ingredients, hamburger and prepackaged seasoning. “You just don’t see it anywhere. They’ve all disappeared,” he said, adding that the few restaurants that do serve it usually use frozen or canned versions.
Yuwiler treats his chili more like Boeuf Bourguignon than the skillet chili most of us are familiar with at home. He carefully seasons and braises the meat, toasts the spices, and uses plenty of Petaluma Creamery cheese, heirloom Rancho Gordo beans and sweet white onions. His sous chef Martin Perez also does double duty, working in a high-end restaurant at night and by day at Joe’s.
“By night he does fancy Italian, by day he makes chili,” says Yuwiler, whose small staff do everything from bussing to dishes.
Yuwiler says his customers of all ages appreciate the familiar tastes. When asked if he has a children’s menu at the restaurant, he says, “Here, the entire menu is a kid’s menu. Its for little kids and big kids.” The idea is to appeal to everyone’s inner child.
Prices are generally moderate, like the heat in his dishes. Yuwiler says that’s what the whole “Joe’s” restaurant genre is all about. For him a restaurant with the name “Joe’s” in it meant you’d be well fed, you won’t walk away hungry and you won’t go broke.
Burgers and hot dogs those have a significant spot on the menu too. But don’t expect mushroom burgers or Western burgers with bbq sauce. Instead, his burgers have a clear point of view. He’s also included a crowd-pleasing lineup of beers, including Texas favorite Shiner Bock, Sonoma wines and canned sodas.
What’s most important, though, is that customers feel like family and know that when it comes to chili there is no wrong way to eat it or make it.
“Chili is whatever you want it to be. It’s like coming into our home and being family,” he said. As long as your family knows how to do a proper Brunoise.
Chili Joe’s Chili, $4.75/9.75: Just like mom’s, but way better. Made with ground beef, heirloom beans, toasted spices and tomatoes, this is classic family-style chili.
Topped with onions and cheddar and served with a side of oyster crackers. Mark’s workhorse chili is available with turkey or meatless. “This is every mom’s skillet chili, and a big comfort thing to a lot of people,” Yuwiler says.
Green Go Chili, $13.95: Also a specialty that’s not always on the menu. A riff on chile verde, a green chile made with tomatillos, his has ground turkey, beans and peppers. It’s a lighter, brighter chili with strong Southwest influences.
Frito Pie, $4.50: What could be more unsophisticated than a bag of Fritos topped with thick LA-style chili, cheddar cheese, sweet onions and pickled jalapenos? Not much, and that’s the beauty. A Southwest classic. “So it’s kind of sleazy, but it’s when it’s good, it’s really good,” says Yuwiler.
Santa Fe Carne Adovada, $13.95: This special chili isn’t always available, so if it’s on the menu, grab it. Pork shoulder is slow-cooked in a velvety red chile gravy has sweet spices and a deep, complex flavor of the southwest. Traditionally made without cumin, its more like a comforting stew topped with fresh cotija, fresh jalapeño, and cilantro. Served with a side of beans and tortillas.
New MexiJoe Hamburger ($9.95): Though the Big Boy-inspired Valley Joe Burger is the top seller, this charbroiled beef patty is topped by mild Hatch and poblano peppers, slab of flame-charred sweet white onion and enrobed by melty Jack cheese that caramelizes around the edges. Served on a solid potato bun that holds up to the handful inside. The Valley Joe ($8.95) is an homage to classic cheeseburgers, grill-seared and topped with American cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce, mayo and their secret red relish on a toasted sesame seed bun.
Doggie Dog, $6.75: No one judges you if you want a little ketchup on your dog here. Classic Miller hot dogs, however, get a San Francisco style dress-up Doggie Diner-style. Topped with Mark’s secret red relish and sweet onions. The ends of the toasted bun are clipped short to expose just a little more of the all-beef weenies.
LA Street Tamale: Sides are some of the most fun at Chili Joe’s, and this is no x-ception. A base of XLNT brand tamales from Southern California made with seasoned beef and masa, they’re topped with thick LA Street chili (no beans, lots of Mexican spices).
Chili Cheese Tots, $4.50: Tater tots fried in rice bran oil for a light, crispy crunch. Smothered with LA street chili and the works. Served in a paper boat.
CJ’s Cornbread, $2.75: Fluffy cornbread dotted with red peppers and green jalapenos “Christmas” style. Whipped honey butter with orange zest brings it home.
Jalapeno Cole Slaw, $2.75: A tart and tangy salad with a base of shredded cabbage, red and green peppers and sliced radish topped with pickled red onions and jalapenos. Lime vinaigrette ties it together with a bow. Yuwiler calls it “the grease cutter”, a bright, crisp salad with just a hint of heat.
Overall: Comfort classics of the homiest sort from a chef who knows how to make some serious grub. A local joint that can sometimes get crowded on weekends, but that’s half the fun.
Details: 312 Petaluma Boulevard South, Petaluma, (707) 971-7537, chilijoes.com. Open 11:30am-2:30pm Wednesday-Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday.