When I moved to Austin from Virginia in the first grade, I learned what it meant to be Texan from the cafeteria at my public elementary school. Chicken fried steak, pecan pie, King Ranch casserole, kolaches, and my favorite—Frito pie.
Frito pie, for those unfamiliar, is anything but a pie. I suspect the gussied-up name was intended to disguise what it really is: a mess in a bag. But what a delicious mess. Traditional Frito pie is simple: Texas chili (beef required, beans optional), shredded cheddar cheese, and a smattering of raw white onions lain atop the contents of a flayed Fritos bag. Eaten with a spoon and at least a few napkins, it's the go-to snack for many a football tailgater, served alongside chili dogs at most Texas concession stands. A good tailgate spread will offer a few other fixin's as well: sour cream, chopped tomatoes, and sliced jalapenos if you're feeling fancy.
Though many Texans claim that their friend's cousin's grandmother came up with the dish, the less charming truth is that it originated from the Frito-Lay corporate test kitchen in 1949 for inclusion in a Fritos-themed recipe booklet. In the early 1960s, Frito-Lay printed the recipe for Fritos Chili Pie on the back of Fritos bags and eventually it became commonplace throughout the Southwest. In the 1990s, I'd put aside my homemade lunch when Frito pie was being served in the cafeteria line at school. I'd sit satisfied by the salty, crunchy meal, thinking my transgression would go unseen by my mother until I'd look down and inevitably see a splotch of dark red chili on my T-shirt.
Memories of those stained shirts shot through my head when I heard that the newest bar on Geer Street—The Accord-ion Club—stated its plans to take on Frito pie. Housed in what used to be part of La Costeña market, the bar is narrow but not cramped. The simple shotgun style is actually a welcome contrast to its expansive, warehouse-like neighbors in the area.
I walked in recently on a chilly day to try their version of this cold-weather classic. Manning the bar on a Monday afternoon, owner Scott Ritchie smiled when I mentioned my Texas roots. George Strait sang "Amarillo By Morning" as I ordered the Frito pie—it's called a Frito bag here, but no matter: I felt halfway home.
Ritchie served me a Fritos bag cut down the side, containing pork chili made from green New Mexico Hatch peppers, along with cheese sauce, onions, and sour cream. As a former Californian, he became a true green-chile convert through his in-laws, who are from New Mexico. When he and his wife, Talitha Benjamin, decided to open the Accordion Club, they brought the goods to Durham. They ordered a pallet laden with 1,700 pounds of flash-frozen Hatch chiles, which should last them well through the summer bar rush. Ritchie teamed with his brother-in-law, Aaron Benjamin of Gocc-iolina, to create the green chili stew. It's also available in a bowl and comes served with a tortilla.
As I sat to eat, I was skeptical about the pork in the green chili, about the deviation from tradition. Why does North Carolina insist on putting pork in everything? Don't they have beef cows somewhere in this state?, I grumbled to myself, before taking a sip of cider and taking a bite. Spicy, tangy, but not overpowering. I took another bite. The silky chili ran over the curly corn chips. A welcome burn began to articulate in my mouth, and any remaining skepticism vanished. It was good, y'all.
The beauty of the Frito pie is in the increased surface area for corn to crunch against chili. This viscous green chili has far more room to coat the chips than the oversize kidney bean and beef chili I remember from high school football games. I was so enamored, I wondered if I even needed the cheese sauce or sour cream. Upon further reflection, I always need the sour cream. I'd have added another spoonful of raw onions and subbed plain shredded cheese for the nacho variety. Still, this Frito bag/pie is bar food at its best—tasty, cheap, and available until 2:30 a.m.—a gustatory option that Durham desperately needs more of. Even as I tried to pause to savor it, the contents of that small bag disappeared within a few minutes.
I chatted with Ritchie some more, pleasantly reliving the brightness of the pepper and pork in my mouth. I left warmed and sated, without a red chili stain in sight.
This article appeared in print with the headline "All That and a Bag of Chips."