Pleasant Ridge Chili is one of those quintessential neighborhood dives that looks like it's trapped in the early 1960s and never bothered to escape. It's the kind of "cash only" throwback that doesn't need to advertise: a constant stream of regulars ensure its long and healthy future, even if it's at the expense of those same artery-clogged patrons.
An old neon sign with a large yellow arrow pointing at the building is the defining landmark of Pleasant Ridge Chili; between that and the 15-foot-high words painted on one brick wall, the place is hard to miss driving along Montgomery Road.
Stepping inside Pleasant Ridge Chili is not unlike warping through a time portal: aside from the CD-playing jukebox, not much appears to have changed. You can pretty well imagine everything being in the same spot 45 years ago. Booths line the length of the east and west walls, with several tables in between. In the back is a U-shaped counter where single diners can sit on bar stools and chat it up with the waitresses as they ring up checks and retrieve plates of food from the kitchen pass-through. And despite the smoking ban, there's still an old cigarette machine tucked in one far corner, the kind where you insert money and pull a long lever.
I've never ordered a four or five-way at Pleasant Ridge Chili, but have enjoyed several of their cheese coneys over the years. The chili consistency is not unlike Skyline's, and it's difficult for me to discern much more of a difference without a side-by-side comparison. There's a slight sweetness to the meat sauce, but how much more intricate can Cincinnati chili sauces really be? True, there are the more obvious distinctions between places like Skyline and Gold Star, but otherwise, I'm hard pressed to note any glaring differences. The question definitely begs an all-out Cincinnati Chili showdown...
We sat down at a booth and were relatively quickly served water. The waitress was single-handedly juggling service among all the tables, yet she didn't appear rushed. I ordered a cheese coney with the usual onions and mustard, along with an order of gravy cheese french fries. My girlfriend chose pancakes, grits and coffee. Like many non-chain chili parlors in town, Pleasant Ridge Chili serves breakfast, hamburgers, double-decker sandwiches, soups, salads and other comfort food classics like pork chops, roast beef and fried chicken. They also have an impressive line of cheesecake, pecan pie and cream pies.
Upon our food's arrival, I realized that during a previous visit, I had ordered the gravy cheese home fries, not the french fries. The crinkle-cut french fry version this time was ok, but I think the home fries are even more flavorful what with their shape, intermittent crispiness and char from the grill, and a healthy dose of grilled onions.
Pleasant Ridge Chili's brown gravy is considerably different from the gravy served at Blue Ash Chili, another dive we haunt; the color itself is a dead giveaway, as PRC's seems lighter. You would think that, like a roux, the gravy would get tastier the darker it turns, yet we thought PRC's lighter-colored gravy had a heartier flavor than Blue Ash Chili's.
The coney was tasty and buried in a tall mound of finely shredded cheddar cheese, but the bun didn't hold up well to the soupy chili; mine exploded into a soggy mess a quarter of the way through, making it difficult to eat without a fork salvaging the effort. Some would argue this comes with the territory; it's still tasty stuff.
Pleasant Ridge Chili serves good grits, but we both agreed that Bluebird Restaurant in Norwood wins the grits contest by a slight kernel. The two restaurants prepare their grits differently: PRC's included butter already pre-mixed, while Bluebird supplies butter on the side.
My girlfriend really enjoyed her pancakes, especially compared to those from Bluebird, but I completely disagreed. I thought the pancakes I'd ordered at Bluebird tasted better. I think the issue between us has little to do with the quality of the pancakes per se: When my girlfriend orders them, she barely adds syrup. I, on the other hand, am a syrup fiend. So, to me, the cakes at PRC seemed a little too dry. We'll see how they are when I order them next time.
Pleasant Ridge Chili is one of the top chili parlors in Cincinnati with consistent quality and competitive prices. It deserves its loyal following. You'll unbutton the top button of your pants when you get home, but a little grease is good for the soul.