The scene: Many of the places I visit that are steeped in history and local color deliver in terms of ambiance but come up short on the food front; while many that serve great food have little to no personality. Fortunately for the many visitors to the nation’s capital, that is not the case at Ben’s Chili Bowl, which offers both a taste of history and some tasty eats.
Ben’s is a Washington institution occupying the middle of a block on U Street in a neighborhood that has seen a lot of ups and downs. The area is currently on an upswing, lined with trendy bars, shops and even day spas, more reminiscent of Brooklyn than most of D.C. With its vertical neon sign, colorful white, orange and yellow exterior, and glassed-in grill area protruding ever so slightly into the sidewalk to display its sizzling wares, Ben’s is immediately recognizable among these newcomers, even from two blocks away. As you enter, there is a counter with seating to the right, rows of booths on the left, and straight ahead the restaurant goes on and on, past the impressive jukebox, with two large seat-yourself dining rooms. An omnipresent line snakes from the register at the front down the length of the main room and back again towards the door, but it moves very quickly with a lot of to-go orders. Even when the line is long, counter service is often available, so if you have time, grab a stool and enjoy the show. Ben’s has traditionally been a photo-op meal stop for many U.S. Presidents, but Obama is especially loved here – a sign on the register reads “People Who Eat Free: Bill Cosby, President Obama/Family, And No One Else.”
Cosby is just one of many entertainers who have dined at Ben’s in its 63-year history. This is a traditional jazz and live-music neighborhood, once known locally as the “Black Broadway.” Ben’s was long the choice of visiting performers like Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole. Pictures of famous politicians and celebrities cover every wall, and there is a lot of wall space. Today the crowd includes every slice of life: local office workers, students, longtime regulars, tourists and even hipsters. And while Ben’s appears to be frozen in time, they have an iPhone/Android app, are 100% wind powered, and ship online orders for half-smokes and chili all around the country. There is a gift shop selling shirts and hats next door, and you can even watch a video of them making their famous half-smokes on YouTube.
The food: Ben’s has a huge menu, displayed over the diner-like open kitchen behind the counter. Just the breakfast section is daunting, ranging from scrapple to salmon cakes, along with more typical hot cakes, French toast and egg sandwiches. Lunch and dinner offer an equally large array of burgers, dogs and all things grilled – there are even vegetarian alternatives to the burgers, dogs and chili for the meatless crowd. But fortunately for the overwhelmed visitor, the decision is much easier than it looks – Ben’s is legendary for its half-smokes, especially when topped with chili.
The half-smoke is a slightly spicy sausage unique to Washington, D.C., and is generally agreed by most publications and foodies to be the city’s signature dish (though there are proponents of Navy Bean soup). It is widely sold in carts and sandwich shops throughout the city, and legend has it that Cosby, Ben’s most famous longtime customer, fell in love with the half-smoke a half century ago while serving in the Navy and stationed nearby.
Speaking of legends, there are three prevailing theories as to exactly what the half-smoke is and why it is so named. Some say it was traditionally smoked less than other smoked sausages, or “half smoked.” The typical recipe calls for a 50-50 split between pork and beef, which some believe explains the half. The oddest theory is that it is spiced halfway to the level of the other sausage product it most resembles, the polish sausage. In any case, it looks like a hot dog, except about twice as thick, has flecks of hot pepper in it, so some bites are spicier than others, and to me it most resembles the spicy sausages of Spain and Portugal, chorizo or linguica, albeit in a more self-contained and not as spicy single-link form.
While explanations may be argued, virtually everyone in D.C. agrees that Ben’s serves the very best half-smoke. It is grilled until just slightly charred, giving the exterior a perfect snap, and after I ordered a follow-up to my first and watched the careful tending of the flat-top grill, I believe this cooking perfection of pulling the sausage at just the right moment is not a matter of chance but something Ben’s does consistently. Then there is the chili. It is a saucy style, with flecks of meat rather than chunks, the consistency of Cincinnati’s famous chili but flavored like Texas beef chili. Served on its own, I think it is too thin and soupy to be eaten as chili, but as a topping for hot dogs, burgers, and half-smokes it works perfectly – especially on the half-smoke. The snap of the skin, the firm texture of the interior and the occasional hit of spice all stand up to and balance perfectly with the consistency and flavor of the chili and make a great, albeit very messy combo. There is no neat way to eat these creations. The hot dog was blander, softer and less crisp, and thus did not fare as well under the chili. Both are traditionally served with mustard and onions, which are very finely diced, and presented on a sheet of wax paper in a red lattice plastic bowl with a pile of ridged potato chips.
Another Ben’s winner is the chili-cheese fries, smothered in the same chili and a gooey nacho-like yellow cheese. The fries are fresh and good, but could be crisper to withstand the liquidy onslaught, yet the more I ate the more I couldn’t stop. While I think the chili-cheese fries at Ben’s could use improvement, they are strangely addictive and a real crowd pleaser. However, the half-smoke, which is excellent, has little room for improvement, except when topped with the house chili, a match made in heaven.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, for visitors to the nation’s capital – there is no restaurant in D.C. this iconic. Ben’s also has a stand at Nationals Park baseball stadium.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 1213 U Street, NW, Washington, DC; 202-667-0909
Source: USA Today