I sat at the bar in Mogambo, at 50 Pasteur Street, District 1. A very blond woman of a certain age sat primly two stools down from me and ordered a bowl of chilli con carne. The uniquely American dish was served in a Vietnamese claypot; a nod to its present kitchen, though not its origin. It was a thing of beauty. A shimmering, creamy brown sauce made a pool at the surface of the culinary offering. A rising peak of beans and spiced minced meat thrust up through the centre, promising savoury delight in the dark depths below. The mysterious lady added fragrant chopped onions; stirred in tangy cheddar cheese; crushed some corn chips between manicured hands and let them flutter down into the stew.
Now I happen to think that the chilli con carne at Mogambo is about as good as it gets in Saigon. But beyond that, there is a special connection between a place called Mogambo, the country Vietnam, a very blond woman of a certain age; and a bowl of chilli. Interested? Well first let me tell you what chilli is and what it ain’t.
All the world knows (or should) that chilli con carne did not originate in Mexico, though it relies on the chief crops of Mexico. Earliest extant written references are from Texas and date from the mid-19th century. Here we find a custom of pounding together dried beef, suet, salt and crushed red chilli pepper. The resulting mass was then molded, pressed and dried into the shape of a brick and would keep for months. It could be used by homesteaders in winter, cowboys on the cattle drive, or gold seekers to California as a savoury addition to beans or other vegetable foods, or could even be eaten plain and uncooked while on the march. These “chilli bricks” were often referred to as “American pemmican”, a comparison to a staple of the plains Indians of that day.
Later in the same century it evolved into the chopped or ground meat stew, often with red beans, that we are familiar with today. Virtually every region in the United States and parts of Canada has its iteration. Texas still holds fairly close to the original, usually without the beans or tomatoes. In Ohio and other Midwestern states they are known to make it with Middle Eastern spices and serve it over pasta (shudder!). The whole country serves chilli dogs — a hotdog in a bun with chilli poured over it. It’s a thing impossible to eat without making a mess. And delicious, too. You can also be on the lookout for chilli burgers, chilli fries, chilli rice, chilli eggs and even chilli pie.
But, for all its variations, the chilli in California is the most famous, due in large part to Mr Dave Chasen of Chasen’s restaurant in Hollywood. It was at the corner of Doheny and Beverly Boulevards, near Melrose Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. It was a plush, wood-panelled, leather-boothed Hollywood eatery of many uproarious. And its best-known and most-loved item on the menu was chilli con carne. Flocks of film stars came to drink fine booze at the horseshoe bar and eat Chasen’s chilli. The recipe was a tightly held secret. Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of FDR) asked for the recipe and was politely denied but sent a complimentary quart. J Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, proclaimed it the best chilli in the world. Humphrey Bogart and Jack Benny ate it regularly. And to give it the equivalent of a papal blessing, Elizabeth Taylor had it shipped to her on dry ice when she was in Italy shooting the film Cleopatra with Richard Burton. The record does not reveal whether her paramour enjoyed it as well. And lastly, Chasen’s chilli is generally believed to have provided Clark Gable’s last meal in 1960.
And therein lies my tale. This place called Mogambo is named for one of Gable’s last films, the action taking place in Africa. There are posters of the film on the wall opposite the bar. It also starred the very blond Grace Kelly. The flick was a scene-for-scene remake and relocation of an earlier Gable vehicle called Red Dust, also starring the very blond Jean Harlow. The action took place about 60 miles from here, on the Mekong Delta. And the chilli at Mogambo is as close to Chasen’s as I have ever tasted. So the next time you find yourself at Mogambo, take my advice: If a very blond lady of a certain age sits near you, or even if she doesn’t, try the chilli.