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Petaluma’s Chili Joe’s is all about comfort food

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I was skeptical at first of the reviews on Petaluma’s newest diner, Chili Joe’s. They simply seemed too one-sided, with only excellent reviews, touting the great food, service and atmosphere. All this about a chili, burger and dog joint. But at first step into the restaurant, we’re already seeing promising signs, and by the time we left, we too were all raves about Chili Joe’s.

The first thing that caught our eye upon entering Chili Joe’s were two of the bottles of beer on display. One was Texas favorite, Shiner Boch, which is about as good as it gets when looking for a good chili-pairing beer. The other was Köstritzer Schwarzbier, a hard to find German import black lager that drinks much smoother than it sounds. The second thing we saw was a menu large enough to give even the vegan in your party tasty options, while being easy to understand, although hard to choose from due to so many offerings.

The husband and wife team behind Chili Joe’s, Mark Yuwiler and Wendy Travis, met a decade ago at the former Finbar Devine’s trivia night, an activity they still enjoy today. They would go on to participate heavily during the Moose Lodge’s recent heyday, putting on large dinners and competing in the chili cook-off.

Yuwiler was born in Santa Monica and cooked his way up the coast with a stop at the Santa Cruz pier seafood restaurants while attending university. He received his French cuisine training while at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco, where had the opportunity to chef alongside icons such as Julia Childs and Jacques Pépin. He then made his way to Petaluma, where he helped open Central Market, ran the banquet room at the Sheraton, along with his own catering.

Travis is a third generation Petaluman on both sides of her family and graduated from Petaluma High, as did her grandmother back in 1925. Her 86-year-old aunt still lives on the family farm on Skillman, where Travis picked walnuts as a kid to earn pocket money. In her 30s, she returned to college to earn her teaching credential and has been teaching third grade for 19 years now, currently at Monte Vista in Rohnert Park.

Yuwiler always reveled in all the burger joints that abounded in Southern California during his childhood, which is where iconic chains such as McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Carl’s Jr. and Jack in the Box got their start. But Original Tommy’s was always his favorite, and became the inspiration for Chili Joe’s.

“Even though he is French trained,” says Travis, “Mark has always talked about opening a joint based around comfort food.”

Yuwiler adds, “We looked at a lot of spots over the past few years, but always wanted this one,” he says of their Petaluma Boulevard South location, which previously housed Le Bistro.

“It has just the right vibe to give it that comfortable feel,” Yuwiler said. It also compliments Sax’s Joint across the street, which quickly became Petaluma’s new-nostalgic diner. While redesigning the restaurant after taking over what was Le Bistro, the couple kept the chili parlors of the 1920s and ‘30s in mind, in search of a Normal Rockwell ambiance.

What Yuwiler and Travis have put together is so much more than just a burger and dog joint. Sure, their menu has plenty of burgers and dogs, but Chili Joe’s sets themselves apart by offering a wide variety of chili, which when done right, is every bit as much an American comfort food classic as mac ‘n’ cheese, biscuits and gravy or fried chicken. Although the dish rarely gets top billing these days, Chili Joe’s plans to change that, and from the five chili’s we sampled, it’s well on their way.

“Chili” is short for “chili con carne,” which comes from the Spanish words for chili peppers and meat (carne). Chili was first created in what is now known as southern Texas and northern Mexico as a hearty, nourishing and easily transported meal. It was a mixture of dried beef, suet (hard fat from beef or mutton), dried chili peppers and salt that was pounded together and then dried to form a brick that could be easily boiled in pots on the trail.

The first recipes date back to the 1850s, but unlike other Texas favorites, such as barbecued brisket, chili was created by working-class Tejana and Mexican women. The most famous were the chili queens, who sold a chili-flavored beef stew in “chili joints” around San Antonio. Chili hit the national stage at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where visitors could get samples at the San Antonio Chili Stand. Additionally, because San Antonio, and the Alamo in particular, was such a big tourist destination, visitors helped spread the love of Texas-style chili.

Although Chili Joe’s opened its doors in the spring, due to staff shortages — an ongoing problem in Petaluma — they were not looking to publicize beyond the neighborhood. Since that time, they have worked out the kinks in their scheduling, including the hiring of Martin Perez to help in the kitchen. He runs the kitchen in the evenings over at Café Giostra, so, along with Yuwiler’s catering and banquet experience, the two are no stranger to turning out high quality meals for large crowds. This is important because with an open kitchen, anxious chefs could hurt a restaurant’s ambiance. At Chili Joe’s, the visible kitchen staff seem comfortable and are having just as much fun as the dining room guests.

The first thing we reached for after placing our drink orders was the Daily Specials menu, which consisted of three chilis – San Antonio Bowl of Red, Santa Fe Carne Adovado and Green-Go Chili Verde. Because the special chilis change regularly, we ordered all three to get a robust sampling of Yuwiler’s chili-making skills. We also ordered the New MexiJoe burger, the Doggie Dog, and a couple of bowls of vegan chili from the main menu. For starters and sides, we could not resist the Texas Frito Pie, Original Street Tamales, CJ’s jalapeno cornbread, Rancho Gordo beans, fries, chili cheese tots and jalapeno slaw.

To give each item its due regard would fill several pages, but rest assured, it was all excellent. And for those concerned about spice, there is only as much as you want, so have no fear. The three chili specials were distinct and delicious and because I could not decide on one, simply put all three into one of the three varieties of house-made tortilla and manufactured a little slice of heaven. The vegan chili was a real surprise as it was just as good as any of the meat chilis, and got even better as we dropped in tater tots. We have heard great things about the turkey chili so will surely return to give that a try. And of course there is the flagship Chili Joe’s Chili, which could hold down the menu all on its own.

As embarrassed as I am to say it, this was my first go at Fritto Pie and I am now a convert. Diners who have had it elsewhere agreed this one was on par with the best they have had before. The Gordo Beans, also vegan, tasted like they had bacon in them thanks to the addition of roasted peppers. And the jalapeno slaw (also vegan), is crisp and fresh, with a bit of sweet and a bit of spice, and was the perfect palette cleanser between bites of chili, burgers and dogs.

The New MexiJoe burger is topped with flame-roasted Hatch and Poblano peppers, Petaluma Creamery Jersey jack cheese, flame-charred sweet onions and green onion-garlic mayoli, and is wrapped in a custom-made potato bun. The patty was superbly seasoned and is also available in turkey and vegan options. Simply put, this burger is excellent, and at under $10 is a total steal. Other burger options include the Chili Joe (topped with LA street chili, which is more of a “condiment” chili than a “bowl” chili), and the Valley Joe, an old-school cheeseburger.

It was music to my ears to hear that Chili Joe’s uses Miller Hot Dogs, which are my favorite. They are made exclusively of beef brisket, which is the same cut of beef used for pastrami and corned beef. If you do not like hot dogs because of how they make you feel hours after consuming them, you need to try a Miller dog. Paying homage to San Francisco’s famous Doggy Diner, the Doggie Dog is topped with secret red relish and diced white onions and reminded me of childhood visits to that diner across from the San Francisco Zoo. Other frankfurter options include the Chili Frank (made with LA street chili) and the Old School Frank, topped with a dill pickle, sweet onions and tangy yellow mustard.

The ingredients are sourced from local food purveyors such as Golden Gate Meats, Petaluma Creamery, Gordo Beans, Clover Sonoma, Franco American Bread and Willy Bird Turkey. Yuwiler hand selects his veggies from various farmers markets because he wants to make sure he offers up the best available to his customers.

They plans to add more veggie items to the menu and always welcomes customer suggestions. Chili Joe’s offers gluten-free buns and because the fries and tater tots come from a dedicated fryer, are cooked in rice bran oil, and are free of any coatings, are also gluten free.

“We’ll do whatever a diner asks for,” says Travis, who has seen more low-carb requests lately for dogs wrapped in lettuce.

Currently Chili Joe’s is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but they are currently polling their regulars about extending their hours, and about possibly offering brunch, with breakfast tacos, burritos, huevos rancheros, as well as possibly an upscale, yet simple dinner menu, backed by Yuwiler’s French training. They also plan to expand into the yard next door in the spring, creating a mini-beer garden and music venue. But for now, they’ll package your meal to take to nearby Walnut Park if you feel like dining outdoors.

“It’s only 100 steps away,” Travis quipped. “The guests have been absolutely fantastic. They are a big part of why Chili Joe’s is so much fun.”

With no plastic cutlery or large-screen TVs, a simple nostalgic look, and friendly no-rush service, Chili Joe’s has brought a modern-day Rockwell experience to life.