By Kristine Hansen   Published Jan 20, 2003 at 5:38 AM Photography: Molly Snyder

Odd as it was, a December rainstorm made a bowl of hot chili seem not only a delicious idea, but necessary. When I entered Café Chili at 5121 W. Howard Ave., the smell of diced, fresh veggies doused with chili powder hit me before I had time to shake out of my wet coat. A man dressed in an apron printed with red chiles smiled and took my order.

Two bowls of veggie chili for me and my dining companion, I replied, and make that to go. Next, I dictated our preferred toppings (cheese, sour cream, onions or jalapenos).

Owner Daniel Kitzrow cooks up a mean chili. And if you like it, go ahead and credit his mom. "When I turned 18 I asked her for the recipe," he says. "But for the last 20 years it evolved into mine." At the urging of his friends he began cooking for profit and opened the cafe.

His secret weapon? Letting the chili steep for a while to absorb its flavor. "I don't serve it ready unless it's simmered for at least three hours," says Kitzrow, a former employee of Milwaukee Electric Tool Co. before his operations were relocated to Mexico.

Here are two noodle options: rice or rainbow rotini. Order in a cup ($2.50), bowl ($3.75) or bread bowl ($1.50 extra) and then specify the level of spiciness you desire: mild, medium or wow.

And for the diners with eternal hunger, there's a gallon of chili ($30) requiring a 24-hour notice.

Aside from chili, customers can order sandwiches ($1.75 to $3.75) -- tuna salad, egg salad, ham salad, chicken salad, cheese and peanut-butter-and-jelly -- with a side order of chips ($.75). Sandwich orders are served with a side of coleslaw or Grandma's Potato Salad, and a pickle spear. Bread choices are white, wheat, rye, croissant or wrap.

As for hot meal items, there's a plethora of "dogs:" regular ($1.75), jumbo ($2.50), Chicago-style ($1.75), jumbo Chicago-Style ($2.50), Vienna ($1.25), brat ($2.25) and Italian ($2.25).

Kitzrow also hosts a commuter-friendly environment with a 12-ounce cup of Alterra Coffee for $.50 from 7 to 10 a.m. weekly. Otherwise it's $1.25. There are also coffee concoctions like Heath Mocha (16 ounces, $3.50) and Peanut Butter Mocha (16 ounces, $3.50) available all day.

Every other day a woman comes to the café to bake scones, muffins, coffee cakes and biscotti and they're packaged and put out for sale. Milwaukee's own Black Bear soda products ($1.25) are available, as well as juice, bottled water, milk (chocolate, too!), hot chocolate and chai tea.

Kitzrow's created a slick, but casual, dining atmosphere with large windows and no-fuss tables and chairs. In one corner are two matching plush burgundy chairs with a small table in between.


Later this year the café will host a chili cook-off in which the winner's recipe is a special to the Café Chili menu. "They can call their friends and say their chili is being served down the street," says Kitzrow.

As for Kitzrow and his friends, you could say they're true chili fans. "I and all my friends like chili year round," he says. Ever more the reason to open up your own kitchen and launch a culinary dream that's had many years to simmer.

Café Chili, at 5121 W. Howard Ave., is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday. The café is closed on Sundays. Call (414) 321-8870 for more information.