Taste Bud: Is it chili if there’s no meat?

Does chili inherently have meat? I always thought so. Otherwise, the term “vegetarian chili” wouldn’t exist, right?

This perplexes me. When I make chili — and, boy, do I make good chili — I use a combination of beef and pork. I wouldn’t even think about making it without meat. Here’s why: At what point does this so-called vegetarian chili just become bean soup?

I have a friend named Joanna who urged me to try a vegetarian café in Shelbyville called Harvest Coffee & Café. I was somewhat resistant, as I am a devout carnivore. I worship at the altar of meat because, as you’ve read here before, if nature didn’t intend us to eat animals, it wouldn’t have made them so delicious — and so easy to catch.

But I decided to give in to Joanna’s recommendation when I learned Harvest Coffee & Café has three-bean chili on its menu of organic, meat-free dishes. The challenge? To eat a big steaming bowl of good ol’ meat-based chili, and then compare the two.

That meat chili would turn out to be a bowl from Dark Star Tavern in Clifton. I stopped in with my pal Butch one evening for a beer, and the bartender noted the specialty of the night was homemade chili.

“It’s the owner’s dad’s recipe,” he said.

Set ’em up.

Lo and behold, it was meaty, spicy and hearty. True to Louisville style, it included pasta, but the pasta was more of an afterthought, having been broken into roughly 2-inch-long segments; in fact, it was hardly noticeable. The dark red chili also was packed with big chunks of tomato as well as mushrooms. Now THAT stuff is chili.

Later, when I met Joanna at Harvest Coffee & Café — which, interestingly, is situated in the middle of an antique store in quaint downtown Shelbyville — I got a whiff of the meatless chili while waiting in line to order. It smelled good. Like, really good. Damn.

When I got the big bowl of hot chili, I immediately was taken by the deep, rich brown-red color. Veggie chilies I have had in the past, usually at work chili cook-offs and whatnot, have always been a bit thin. This is why I have always considered them more a tomato-based bean soup than chili. But this? This was real chili. The thick stock carried a hint of chili pepper spiciness but was chunky as chili should be, with carrots, green peppers, black beans, kidney beans and the like.

After a few bites, I had to ask myself: If I did not know this was vegetarian chili and was asked to eat it blindfolded, would I be able to tell? Possibly, but it wouldn’t be as easy as I’d have thought. And as I munched my way through the bowl, I found that, even though I am accustomed to big globs of ground beef and pork in chili, that ingredient wasn’t altogether necessary in this particular chili.

Hats off to Chef Kristina Addington, who also goes by the nickname “The Vegan Temptress.” Hmm.

She also let us taste some of her other soups and salads, such as creamy mushroom soup, spaghetti squash salad, harvest salad and more. I’ll say this: If you go, strongly consider the corn chowder. I don’t know when I’ve ever experienced a fresher, more natural corn flavor.

And of the salads, my favorite was easily the kale crunch, featuring big leaves of kale, walnuts and other goodies. Heck, the only way this salad could have been tastier is if there was bacon in it. Wait, am I allowed to say that?

But I digress. This Taste Bud isn’t about salad or soup — this is about chili, and my original question: Is it chili if there is no meat, or is it just bean soup?

My verdict? The stuff at Harvest Coffee & Café is definitely chili. It’s the real deal. There, I said it, in spite of my inner carnivore. Sigh.

That’s not to say I’m going to change teams or anything — I’m still going to put meat in my chili and in pretty much everything else I make. But I have to admit The Vegan Temptress has forced me to consider other options. Temptress, indeed.

Confidentially, though, if any of my friends ask me to try vegetarian bacon, I’m going to punch them in the nose.