"Which wouldja like to try?" booms the smiling guy in the cowboy hat, brandishing a handful of tiny ice cream sampling spoons. Like a magnet, the sweet scent of caramelizing garlic fused with dusky cumin and earthy chili powder pulls you into a minuscule storefront that is Tub's Fine Chili & Fancy Fixin's.
In black-rimmed pots behind the ordering counter sit seven chilis to sample. Will it be the chili made with whole roasted chicken and 20 cups of garlic, slow-cooked to a burnished gold then pureed into the sauce with a dash of tequila? Or maybe the "Smokin' Pig" chili. A lean pork haunch that's been dry rubbed with seasonings, smoked over hardwood for eight hours then hand-chopped and scattered into an unctuous spice-laden sauce freckled with black-eyed peas?
This is serious "cookin' " as the menu, written in mock Southwestern cowboy dialect, would tell you could it talk.
Tub's might easily be written off as a gimmicky city slicker, with a cute professionally designed logo, Disney-ish Old West ambience (cowboy lariat-embellished stools, seats shaped like saddles, old westerns flickering on a flat screen), and chilis served in edible bread-like "tubs."
But there comes a moment in every meal here when you set down your fork to consider the many ways Tub's chilis differ from the typical heartburn-inducing goo sometimes used to resuscitate low-grade hot dogs.
I had just such an epiphany over a "tub" of the Steak Town chili. It came loaded with marinated grilled meat chunks that stood out against a galaxy of seasonings driving the flavor of a grease-free sauce.
"We don't add the char-grilled steak until last," Rick Hodges reveals.
But the chili base gets a long, flavor-marrying simmer. So you get the richness of slow cooking coupled with the directness of charred meat off the grill.
The tubs aren't just a fancy-Dan design element, either. Composed of corn and wheat flours, they're as brilliant a match with chili as sugar cones are with ice cream.
The tortilla-size flatbreads, similar to thick Greek-style pitas, get toasted on a cast-iron dome of Hodges' design. The toasting creates both a bowl shape and a crackly brulee-like interior that keeps the chili from soaking through.
Powerfully seasoned as Tub's chilis are they're not tonsil-scalders. But Hodges is ready for fans of the burn. A few drops of his TNT sauce, a habanero-infused oil, packs pure powerful heat without the intrusive flavors that a hot sauce would add. You can also gild the lily with a side order of sour cream, cheese or onions.
Corny as it sounds, the Cowboy Pizza, a tub bread grilled flat then covered with any chili selection, oozing with melty cheese and a scattering of onions, is a spectacular success. Kids love it and for them the menu also includes pasta -- with or without chili.
Tub's doesn't shortchange vegetarians, either. The Cattleman's Pass, sweet with corn, chunky vegetables and three kinds of beans, may be the Southwest's answer to a wonderful Tuscan minestrone.
For Hodges, a Culver City native and entrepreneur, experimenting with chilis has been a sideline passion for many years.
But friends who sampled his progressively intricate experiments with roast turkey chili (now called Turkey Drive) kept insisting he should go commercial.
With the pitfalls of the restaurant business in mind, Hodges opted for a small place that's totally devoted to chili where you'll often see his wife, Margie, and daughters Lucy and Chelsea helping behind the counter.
Hodges and family hope to clone Tub's, perhaps even franchise.
But for now this sweet place is your basic family-run enterprise, albeit one that's made serious strides turning lowly chili into an art form.
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Tub's Fine Chili & Fancy Fixin's
4263 Overland Ave., Culver City, (310) 559-8827. Price: Chilis in three sizes: small, $4.99; medium, $6.99; large, $8.99. Cowboy pizza, $5.99. Extra garnishes (cheese, sour cream, onions), 49 cents each, or all three on a fried tortilla, $1.29.
Chili of your choice, Cowboy pizza
Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot and street parking.