The first Frito pie, according to legend, was assembled in Dallas, Texas, by one Daisy Dean Doolin, the mother of Fritos inventor C. E. Doolin. Asked to come up with recipes requiring her son's corn-chip snack, the story goes, Daisy Dean got the idea of pouring a ladleful of Texas red (a fiery chili made without tomatoes or beans) into a bag of Fritos. And from these humble ingredients, Frito pie was born.
Traditionally, Frito pie was consumed straight out of the bag; however, as the bags got thinner, this preparation became too hot to handle, and today most Frito pie is served school-cafeteria style, in a cardboard nacho boat. As a native Texan, I grew up eating buckets of the stuff. It's standard fare in school lunchrooms, at Friday-night high-school football games, and in Junior League cookbooks across the Lone Star State.
Having grown up on a steady diet of Frito pie—along with chicken-fried steak, taco "salad," tamales, and cheese enchiladas—I was surprised to discover how many people here have never heard of it. Often, they seem disturbed that I grew up eating this sort of thing; with nutritional knowledge being what it is now, nobody but a dirt-poor white-trash family or a child abuser would serve their kids a meal of fried corn chips and meat. But in the Texas of my youth (and across the Southwest, where recipes vary), Frito pie wasn't junk food, it was just food. (You think your regional specialties are healthier? Okay, fried Spam, poutine, and "breakfast sandwiches.")
For such a simple concept, and one executed so flawlessly across the American Southwest, Frito pie is astonishingly elusive in Seattle. It's easier to find authentic jambalaya or biscuits and gravy or nearly anything that originated south of the Mason-Dixon than it is to find even inauthentic Frito pie.
Still, a few places are trying, if only in the service of wink-wink irony (white-trash food, hee-haw!). Along with an extensive sandwich menu, Smarty Pants in Georgetown (6017 Airport Way S, 762-4777) offers two Frito pie options, one for vegetarians and one for carnivores (both $6.50). Surprisingly, the veggie chili is the winner of the pair, boasting a strong roasted-chili flavor and a texture just saucy enough to penetrate the generous heap of Fritos.
A few other Frito-pie attempts merit mention. The cafe at Elliott Bay Book Company (101 South Main St, 682-6664) used to serve Frito pie, but has since "upgraded" to vegetarian chili with organic corn chips ($5.75), a concoction that tastes exactly like it sounds. Matt's Famous Chili Dogs also sells Frito pie in the guise of "chili chips" ($2.95); at the Ferry Terminal outlet downtown (801 Alaskan Way, 264-0446), a disaffected worker slopped out lukewarm, sub-Hormel-quality chili onto a tiny pile of Fritos and topped it with industrial-grade yellow cheese.
Finally, I made my own pie at Mike's Chili Parlor (1447 NW Ballard Way, 782-2808), a well-known establishment in Ballard that now sits on the literal precipice of yet another Mars Hill megachurch expansion. If any place in town should offer Frito pie, it's Mike's, but they don't. However, they don't mind if you bring in Fritos to construct your own. The chili, despite an unappetizing ring of orange grease around the meat, was still was the closest local thing I've found to a true bowl of Texas red.
My conclusion? It's Frito pie, people—make your own. Here's my recipe, but—tradition aside—no need to be a stickler. Any good, spicy chili will do.
First, make the chili: Boil six dried ancho peppers in a saucepan of water for about five minutes. Let them cool, then stem, seed, chop, and return them to the water you cooked them in. (You can also substitute three to six tablespoons of ground dried chilis.) Meanwhile, cut three pounds of lean beef (chuck or top round) into one-inch chunks. Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan and cook the meat in the oil until it's browned on all sides, removing beef to a plate as it's done. Pour off the fat until there are just two tablespoons left; add one finely chopped onion and sauté until softened. Add two to four minced garlic cloves and one seeded-and-chopped jalapeño, and then sauté two to three minutes more.
Return all the meat to the saucepan, adding the peppers and enough pepper liquid to cover the meat by two inches. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 30 minutes. Add one teaspoon oregano, one tablespoon ground cumin, one teaspoon cayenne pepper, and two to four minced garlic cloves. Cook, skimming the fat occasionally, for another 45 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired. Add two tablespoons masa harina or cornmeal to thicken the liquid; simmer another 30 minutes or so until meat is tender.
Assemble the pie: Take a small bag of Fritos (it has to be Fritos; other brands just get mushy) and dump the contents into a container. Add a ladleful of chili. Be generous, but don't go overboard; too much, and the bottom layer of chips won't stay crunchy. Top with minced white onions, cheese, and sour cream or pickled jalapeños if desired.