The menu is simple here at Texas Chili Queens: five types of chili served on its own or atop tortillas, freshly made cornbread, fries, rice, or Fritos. There’s the San Antonio, a classic Texas beanless chili where meat is simmered with chili peppers. The El Paso is a spicier version of that, with beans and tomatoes; while the Dallas goes easier on the spice and swaps venison for beef. Houston is repped by a white chili with pork, turkey, and green chilies, while the Austin, naturally, is a lentil-based vegan chili with tomatoes, rich with umami and not too fiery.
Eclat wanted to use lentils instead of "just a substitute for meat" for the trailer's vegan option. Using her fishnet-glove-clad hand to adjust her wig, she laughs, "Besides, what other city would be vegan?"
Edie Eclat is the drag queen persona of Edward Hambleton, the proprietor of the roaming chili trailer. Every day, Edie wears a gingham apron over a t-shirt and skirt, tights, and heels, plus a full face of makeup and the aforementioned wig. It’s a lot of look for the act of slinging chili, but it is all in service for a larger idea of the food truck: a play on the original chili queens who ruled San Antonio plazas in the late 19th century.
Starting in the late 1800s in San Antonio, entrepreneurial young women from the Mexican-American community set up colorfully lit wagons in Military Plaza. Over the course of festive evenings where troubadours and soldiers roamed the streets, the women sold tamales, tacos, and stout, spicy chili from bubbling tubs in the open air to locals and tourists alike. As word spread of San Antonio (and Texas in general) being an alluring tourist destination, the chili queens, as they came to be known, were specifically called out as a highlight. Some people, including writer Gustavo Arellano in Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, have argued that the chili queens inspired the mass production of Tex-Mex products like chili powder, and chili itself, as visitors took their newfound love of spicy stewed meat back with them to New York and beyond, hoping to recreate the bowls at home.
While the city government frequently tried to shut down the chili queens due to sanitary concerns, the women maintained a fairly steady presence well into the twentieth century. This was despite being subjected to increasingly strict requirements, including having to create screened-in structures to serve chili from as opposed to original open air kitchen. The queens were finally shut down for good in 1937 because their dishwashing processes failed to meet the health department’s standards, effectively ending the iconic street parties that marked this era in San Antonio’s history.
"The San Antonio on our menu is the closest recreation" to what was served back then, says Eclat, removing a large Ziploc bag filled with dried guajillo chilies from one of the compartments inside the truck, describing it as "super thick."
Likewise, the Dallas chili is modeled on the venison chili that Ladybird Johnson made for President Lyndon B. Johnson out on their Hill Country ranch. It was a necessary addition to the menu, "because it’s an important part of Texas chili history," says Edie.
The idea for the food truck came to Eclat, who was born in Austin but grew up in Dallas, when she moved back to Austin in the fall of 2012. She organized a Frito pie-centric Thanksgiving holiday potluck at work. In the course of researching chili recipes to take to the potluck, she came across the story of the chili queens. "I thought it would be really fun to have a food truck run by a drag queen and bring back the original Texas street food."
The next step? "I just rolled up my sleeves and hiked up my skirt and opened up a chili truck!"
Texas Chili Queens opened for business in August 2015. In that time, the truck has established a steady business serving lunch at various business parks, as well as weekend bookings at breweries, and various community and school events.
As is to be expected in Austin, there have been few issues with this unconventional concept. "Everyone takes it in stride, plus I’m not making a huge deal out of it," says Edie, who describes one man who approached the truck, but ultimately passed on making a purchase. He claimed that he "wasn’t feeling chili" that day. "He wasn’t rude or anything, but I could tell that if I hadn’t been in drag, he would have bought."
Edie recalls another event, which was heavily attended by local families in Dripping Springs. "There was a guy wearing a baseball cap that said ‘lifetime NRA member,’ and I thought, ‘I don’t want to judge him based on what he’s wearing, just as I wouldn’t want him to do the same with me.’" Turns out, the man’s wife ordered liberally from the menu and everyone came away happy.
Edie Eclat and her chilies have the power to bring people of all beliefs and ideologies together. All it takes is a hearty scoop of chili (ideally atop a mound of Fritos) and a smile.
Lead photo: Melanie Haupt/EATX