United States of America

Remember the Chilli Queens

Remember the Chilli Queens

A brief, somewhat accurate, history of San Antonio's chilli-in-a-chip-packet phenomenon.

The year is 1836, and the cry Remember the Alamo!

...is ringing out across the nation, laying the foundation for the soon-to-come Mexican-American War and battle for Texas. San Antonio, then a relatively small outpost, begins to rebuild after a brutal battle and the hard work is fuelled by... chilli.

We’ve all fallen in love before and, at some point, have probably fallen in love with a bowl of chilli. Spicy, rich and hearty, chilli comes in many varieties and tops some of the most primo of foods. Quick way to level-up a hot dog? Add chilli.

It doesn’t matter whether you take it with beans, cheese or breadcrumbs, chilli is enjoyed by people all over the world. Well, except for iconic food traveller Anthony Bourdain, for whom it was reminiscent of “a warm bag of crap”. But don’t listen to him on this one—even legends make mistakes occasionally.

In Southern United States, it's a distinct kind of street food that's made all the more amazing when you know the history of San Antonio's chilli godmothers.

A band of women boldly named the 'Chilli Queens' once made their way to Alamo and set up shop in its open air market. While mostly Mexican, there were some African American and First Nations women in their band, and together they served up their grandmothers' secret chilli.

Dressed in colourful dresses, singing songs, and usually accompanied by roving musicians, they would fill the square with song and spice, offering their homemade chilli to a hungry city.

For decades, this band of Queens served their chilli daily from the market, providing a cheap and hearty meal not just to the people of San Antonio, but to travellers who caught wind. Tales of the Chilli Queens were featured in newspaper articles and travel guides, they were mentioned in several novels, including O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi and Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and soon chilli was spreading across the nation, becoming a popular fixture on menus coast to coast.

Sadly, resentment and racism towards Mexican culture forced the Chilli Queens out of business. The city government predominantly to blame after they passed an 1918 ordinance that banned street vendors from selling food. However, the Chilli Queens' legacy lives on as a San Antonio street staple, slightly reinvented. Enter the Frito Pie.

At some point someone started serving chilli in a chip packet, giving birth to the Frito Pie—a charmingly lowbrow culinary combination that sees corn chips paired with their natural chilli allies. Like yin and yang or Simon & Garfunkel—they're naturally better together.

No one seems quite sure where this originated. Some say it was a man on his lunch break at a convenience store while others reckon it was the Doolin family (inventors of the Fritos corn chips brand). There's even talk of the Frito pie originating in the 1960s thanks to a woman named Teresa Hernandez who worked at the Woolworths lunch counter.

What we can all agree on, however, is that this is a distinctly southern American culinary invention, and a San Antonian street snack for the ages.


A beloved, if basic, BBQ joint with multiple locations across San Antonio.

As well as offering a delicious Frito Pie topped with chilli and cheese, you can also get the 4 Horsemen burger here, famously dubbed the ‘Hottest Burger on the Planet’ by Man vs Food.

A classic burger joint where you can catch a band while you munch on your chilli.

This is where the purists will tell you to go, find them at any sports stadiums or fairs around the city.

Get Informed

Five-Alarm-Chilli comes from 5 different sources of heat: jalapeno, chipotle in adobo, chili powder, cayenne, and ancho.

Words Roberto Serrini

Photos Roberto Serrini

Tags: bbq, chilli, fritolay, Texas, United States

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