By Chris Shaffer

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — On these cold, “character building” days of winter — like the ones we’re experiencing right now — where the forecast can drive our disposition down even deeper than the temperatures, we can take solace in knowing that there is a place in downtown Minneapolis that serves warmth by the cup or by the bowl.

“We simmer it and the flavors come together, a little cheese, a little sour cream, some Texas toast and you can’t go wrong especially on a cold winter day.”

Tim Mahoney and John Stein are two of the owners of The Loon Cafe on First Avenue in Minneapolis, where chili is much more than just “something on the menu.” It’s actually quite a few things on the menu.

To hear the two men talk about chili is akin to hearing wine snobs discuss pinot noirs.

“Thirty-seven years ago we were looking for an identity, something unique, and chili became that item,” Stein said.

And if chili was going to be “their thing,” they had to do some homework.

“We did some investigative kind of stuff,” Stein said. “My partners went down to Texas and the Southwest and hence came up with a couple of different kinds of chilis.”

The five different bowls born from that fateful excursion have grown to seven over the years, one for almost every pallet. And each of them have stories behind them — music to a storyteller’s ears.

“The Chicken Chili, our old chef “Ski-Dad,” this was his recipe,” Mahoney said.

“Ski-Dad” has since moved back to California — which we think just happens to be the Ski-Dad capital of the world — along with his colorful personality, but thankfully he left his recipes behind.

“There’s chocolate and peanut butter in there,” Mahoney said.  “It has a unique flavor to it that’s almost addicting.”

And then there’s the story of the Pecos River Red.

“There was this old article in the Star Tribune where you could write in about a certain food and a researcher would find the place and get the recipe and put it in the paper. And they went down to this little hole in the wall place in New Mexico and that’s how we got Pecos River Red,” Mahoney said.

The Pecos comes in hot, medium and mild, and even if you haven’t been to The Loon Cafe, you may have already tried it. It’s also served at Target Field and Target Center.

And then there’s the Pinto Diablo, which according to Mahoney “is more of your traditional ground beef, green peppers and veggies. And just enough spice, Minnesota hot, and just enough sweetness to make it feel like mom made it.”

Round it off with the vegetarian chili — which isn’t without bite — and the newest chili item on the menu: the Turkey Chili.

“It’s lean ground turkey, with white beans. It’s actually good for you,” Mahoney said.

Variety is the spice of life, they say, especially at The Loon Cafe.

“When you get tired of these, you can go to the Chicken or the Dirty Pork or the Pinto. There’s enough to make you happy,” Mahoney said.

Chris Shaffer