If you’re from Southern California you can understand my obsession with Tommy’s Chili Burgers. Their tomato-less chili con carne is very unique to the SoCal Region, often found smothered on anything you can imagine—from fries & hot dogs to burgers.
The Original Tommy’s was opened in 1946 by Tommy Koulax. The original location is still standing on Beverly and Rampart Blvd. in Los Angeles today (as well as 30 other family owned locations). A favorite of students from USC, who often line up in droves after a night out.
Tommy Koulax hit the jackpot with his top secret chili recipe. His chili sauce is a tomato-less chili con carne, that’s spiced and seasoned to perfection – it’s thickened with flour to create a creamy, thick chili sauce that’s very unique to Southern California Chili Sauce (Pink’s & The Hat are other famous restaurants serving this style). My copycat recipe comes very close to replicating Tommy’s in taste and texture. Mexene Chili Powder (purchase here) and Gebhardt Chili Powder (purchase here) are two amazing chili powders that are must haves for this recipe if you want the chili to taste great.
Reverse engineering this recipe was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve encountered as a chef. The cult following of Tommy’s Chili is so strong that entire forums exist to share tips and tricks to replicate this spicy treat. After desperately trying them all (with great disappointment) I had to jump through many hoops to deliver this amazing copy directly to you! I even went so far as researching the origins of chili con carne, chili powder, and chili dogs to help me determine what techniques and ingredients Tommy would have been using at the time he created this magical chili sauce.
Below is a timeline of events that helped me piece together my copycat recipe for Tommy’s Chili:
1860 to 1930’s – The many “Chili Queens” such as Martha Garcia and Sadie Thornhill open up food stands and introduce the legendary dish chili con carne in San Antonio, the Chili Queens are credited with popularizing Mexican American cuisine and are the foremothers of what we know today as Tex-Mex
1896 – William F. Gebhardt, the inventor of the chili powder, started selling bottles of his concoction and called it Gebhardt’s Eagle Brand Chili Powder. In 1908 his company published a cookbook, Mexican Cooking, in an effort to introduce and educate the American public about Mexican food – the book included several recipes for chili con carne
1906 – John Walker develops Mexene Chili Powder in Austin, TX – it becomes one of the most popular chili powders in Texas and the recipe has stayed the same for over a 100 years
1914 – Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island Wiener Stand – opened in Fort Wayne by three now-unknown Macedonian immigrants, serving a fatty pink hot dog with a “peppery-sweet” coney sauce on a soft bun – this appears to be the very first rendition of a chili hot dog
1917 – American Coney Island – opened in Detroit by Constantine “Gust” Keros, serving a hot dog on a steamed bun with loose chili (a Greek-inspired meat sauce), mustard, and chopped onions
1936 – Chasen’s – opened by Dave Chasen in Los Angeles and served the most famous chili “Chasen’s Chili” loved by Elizabeth Taylor, J. Edgar Hoover, Clark Gable, Eleanor Roosevelt – the recipe uses Gebhardt Chili Powder
1939 – Art’s Famous Chili Dog Stand – opened by Art Elkind in Los Angeles, started by serving two main items hot dog with chili and tamales with chili, his chili is the thin, saucy type – appears to be the first person to serve chili hot dogs in California
1939 – Pink’s – opened as a pushcart by Paul and Betty Pink in Los Angeles, they served a chili dog accompanied by mustard and onions on a steamed bun – the chili was thickened with beef fat, browned flour and water which “stretched” the portions during the depression and created the unique texture and flavor which is synonymous with California hot-dog chili sauce.
1946 – Tommy’s Hamburgers and Hotdogs – the original stand was opened in Los Angels by Tom Koulax, the original stand sold hamburgers, hot dogs and tamales topped with chili – Tommy’s chili is California style – a tomato-less chili con carne thickened with flour and water, very similar to Pink’s. Later known as “Original Tommy’s Hamburgers” because of all the Tommy’s knock off restaurants that popped up in Los Angeles
Browned Flour to thicken the chili, this gives the chili a bolder flavor and keeps the chili a nice dark color when thickened
My version on the left and Original Tommy’s Chili on the right. You can clearly see that Tommy’s version has a much higher fat content. I used 80/20 Ground Beef and didn’t want to add any additional fat – I browned my flour in a dry pan and mixed it with water. Tommy’s probably creates a brown roux using beef tallow and flour.
Gebhardt Chili Powder (purchase here) and Mexene Chili Powder (purchase here) have been around for over 100 years, they are a must have if you want to replicate the recipe. Chili powders are all so unique and so many of them have different spices and proportions, it’s important to have the right chili powder for this recipe. I did try using one or the other, but I got the best flavor using a combination of both chili powders.
Chili Cheese Fries made with my copycat of Tommy’s Chili.