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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2004 05:42 am

Like it hot or not, Cook’s is the place

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Donna Cook, Goldie Harris, Autumn Cook, and Joseph Cook of Cook’s Spice Rack & Chili
Photo by Nick Steinkamp

The folks at Cook's Spice Rack & Chili believe in adding spice to your life. Not only does this small eatery offer some of the hottest chili in town, it also sells 99 varieties of hot sauce for customers to add their own heat at home.

The restaurant, located in a renovated house on North Grand Avenue, serves a wide variety of food, including horseshoes, fried fish, frog legs, a full breakfast menu, sandwiches, salads, homemade cream pie, and dinner favorites such as ham and beans and pot roast.

But if it's some spice you're craving, chili is the way to go. Cook's offers six varieties, from Donna's Mean Green (fresh ground pork, chicken broth, white beans, green chiles, onions, tomatoes, and spices) to vegetarian (beans, tomatoes, chili peppers, bell peppers, onions, garlic, and spices). The Terlingua Red -- made with beef, red kidney beans, and tomatoes -- is named for the Texas town that's home to a famous world-championship chili cookoff. The Black Pot is a similar version made with black beans.

I tried three samples on my first visit to Cook's: the vegetarian, the Chili Blanco, and the Mean Green. The Mean Green was similar to chicken soup but without the noodles. The broth-based soup derived its kick from the green chiles and spices. If your idea of a great chili is one that's thick and comes with a layer of oil on top, this version isn't for you, but I thought it was delicious. It's a great alternative for health-conscious diners and for those looking for something other than beef, oil, and beans. Although the Mean Green tastes like vegetable soup, once the chiles kick in, it reminds you that this is indeed chili. I also tried the Chili Blanco, which is basically chicken soup with hominy, peas, carrots, and white beans. It was just as tasty. The vegetarian was more like the traditional chili, but without the beef.

There's also a Greasy Pot, featuring large chunks of ground beef, for those who prefer the traditional bowl found at most local chili dens. After all, this is Springfield (dubbed the "Chilli Capital of the Civilized World" by the Illinois General Assembly). All chili here costs $2.09 for a cup and $3.49 for a bowl.

The restaurant's interior is warm and inviting, much like the waitstaff at the family-operated business. Owner Donna Cook, her husband, son, daughter, and two grandchildren all work a variety of jobs at the restaurant, from cooking and baking pies to waiting tables. The family purchased the house 10 years ago and spent five years turning it into a restaurant, doing all the work themselves, from pouring a concrete driveway to hand-stenciling a Southwestern pattern along the dining-room ceiling. Wreaths of dried red peppers and posters of peppers hang on the peach-colored walls.

Although nothing warms your soul like a hot bowl of spicy chili on a cold day, customers come to Cook's even in the summer for the chili. "We sell it all year round," says Cook's daughter, Goldie Harris. For the bravest, a "hot basket" is offered, featuring a variety of hot sauces to add more heat to the bowl. An eyedropper containing capsaicin extract (Pure Cap Hot Sauce) -- billed as 100 times hotter than a jalapeño -- is dispensed only by the staff because of its intensity and warning label. And some customers can't get enough of the stuff. "We've had them in here just sweating, sitting on the floor, in tears, gasping for air," Harris says. Some customers -- among them local chefs -- come in to purchase spices and bottles of hot sauce, which line one wall of the restaurant.

But there's more here to enjoy than chili. Other soups, such as vegetable beef and turkey and rice, are offered daily. Harris says that the pork-tenderloin sandwich is very popular and reports that an Auburn couple comes in twice a week for their favorite dish -- eggs Benedict.

Cook's Spice Rack & Chili is located at 910 W. North Grand Ave.; 217-492-2695. Hours: 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri., 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat., 6 a.m.-1 p.m. Sun.

Chocolate shop

There's a new place in Petersburg where you can satisfy your sweet tooth. Costa's Fine Chocolate, owned by Ken and Ginny Costa, is open on the town's historic downtown square in the former National Bank of Petersburg drive-up facility at 118 E. Jackson.

Costa's offers a variety of homemade chocolates imported from small chocolatiers in Boston and Minnesota. The couple says they selected "old-fashioned family businesses" from which to order their inventory, which includes 90 choices of chocolate.

The candy is available per piece or by the box. Also available is a variety of fudge, including cranberry-nut and pumpkin pie, 10 flavors of caramels, sugar-free candy, toffee, chocolate-covered stemmed cherries, and Sangamon River rocks (chocolate pieces with a colored coating that resemble pebbles).

The couple is new to the candy business. Ginny is a former school-bus driver and frame-shop owner, and Ken was security director at New Salem until retiring recently. Ginny says they decided to open a business that makes people happy. "I think we get excited about what we have," she says, noting that the couple may even begin making their own candy one day.

Costa's Fine Chocolate is open 10 a.m-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. The Costas say they plan to expand those hours and stay open seven days a week during the holiday season and possibly after that. The phone number is 217-632-0017.

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