Tolbert's Bowl of Red

Chili, that spicy Mexican stew that Americans love, has too many variations to catalog. Beans-only, beans-and-meat (chili con carne), meat-only, with tomatoes or without, served alone or over rice or over spaghetti (I'm looking at you, Cincinatti). The passion is high on chili recipes,, with chili cook-offs abounding in nearly every corner of the country.

In honor of the Super Bowl, I am presenting the Texas favorite: Bowl of Red. This meat-only recipe was developed by Francis X. Tolbert, The late FRANK X. TOLBERT was a Dallas newspaper columnist, novelist, historian, and a co-founder of the World Championship Chili Cookoffs held each November in the Big Bend village of Terlingua. He also founded Tolbert’s Chili Parlor restaurant in Dallas.

Chili concocted outside of Texas is usually a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing. One of the first things I do when I get home to Texas is to have a bowl of red. There is simply nothing better.
— Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States

Tolbert's fabled Bowl of Red is a simple dish. The recipe is basically beef, grease, chili powder, and garlic. Then there are the rules... NO beans, NO tomatoes, NO onions, NO 'fillers', etc. It may be the only recipe published where the list of things you can't add is longer than the recipe ingredients list. 

Man up and give this a try. It might just become your favorite chili recipe.


  • 3 pounds lean beef, cut into 3/4" pieces
  • 1/8 pound rendered beef kidney suet (OPTIONAL. If you want to, go for it)
  • 1 teaspoon each oregano, cumin powder, salt, cayenne pepper, and Tabasco
  • 3 tablespoons chili powder (OPTIONAL. But, really, don't be shy)
  • 4 hot chili peppers
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped (or more if you want)
  • 2 teaspoons masa harina or cornmeal (OPTIONAL)


Sear the beef in a large soup pot or cast-iron dutch oven. You may need a little oil to prevent the meat from sticking. When the meat is browned, add suet and chili peppers and about two inches of liquid (I use beer, but you could use water or wine). Simmer for 30 minutes.

Add spices and garlic, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes. NOTE: Add more liquid only to keep the mix from burning. Skim off as much grease as you can, add masa harina. Simmer another 30 minutes. Taste and adjust spices, if necessary.

This is a spicy chili, so leave out some of the spicy stuff in the beginning if you have a tender tongue. You can refrigerate overnight, which allows the chili to mellow and you can skim off all the grease.

Garnish with chopped red onion and shredded cheese.

recipesMichael Liss