Ben’s Chili Bowl – U Street Corridor

15 10 2010

Who Eats Free at Ben’s:

  • Bill Cosby
  • The Obama Family (but he paid!)

-The Sign


Washington D.C. is often cited for lacking a signature dish. We don’t have the cheese steak like Philly, the Po Boy like New Orleans, the BBQ of Texas/Memphis/North Carolina/Kansas City, the pizza of New York City or Chicago, or the chowder/lobster rolls of New England. I mean come on, even Maryland has crabs (yes that was intentional). But what we do have is the half-smoke. The half-smoke isn’t as well known as other regional gastronomies, but that doesn’t mean it should be discredited. It’s very specific to DC, like actually DC, not the “DC” that people from Woodbridge, Fairfax, or Loudon claim. I also mean DC, not Washington, not the District, but the city that isn’t home to the federal government–just ordinary people.

I first came into the contact with the half-smoke in elementary school. I guess by being close enough to DC (and it being the early to mid 1990s) the food service provider for Arlington Public Schools delivered half-smokes. When hot dogs were being offered for lunch you had two options: eat this wavy, putrid, grey footlong hot dog, or enjoy the thick, delicious, reddish half-smoke. I went for the half-smoke every time obviously. Sure they were boiled instead of grilled and sure there was no chili, cheese, or onions, but the seed had been planted. Time went by and they were dropped from the lunch menu, then I dropped the lunch menu and I nearly forgot about them, until I read an article about them being DC’s signature dish. I remember asking one of my friends in college about them, figuring he knew since he was from Fairfax. Wrong. Turns out you go 20 miles down the road and they’ve never heard of them. It wasn’t until the new Nationals stadium opened up and I got my first half-smoke in over a decade. That half-smoke pales in comparison to the ones served at the original location.


DC's culinary masterpiece


It’s just so simple. That’s the inherent greatness of the half-smoke, its simplicity allows it to be enjoyed by people of all social classes, races, geographical locations, provided you eat pork. Every ingredient works together to create this perfect harmony of flavor. The sausage itself is flavorful with this fantastic kick of spice, that’s perfectly accentuated by the onion, that melds nicely with the tang of the yellow mustard (this dish got me to like yellow mustard, if you want proof of its greatness), the cheese provides this excellent counterpart to the other ingredients and keeps them in check, and last but not least the chili. This isn’t chili con carne with the beans, the tomatoes, and all that other stuff. This chili is made for one thing and that’s being put on top of stuff: Half-smokes, hot dogs, fries, etc. It’s simple, meaty, slightly spicy, and is a great accompaniment to the sausage. It completes it all, seals in everything else, and makes the half-smoke what it is.

As you can see its served with basic potato chips, which frankly are great after eating this ultimate vessel of flavor. They’re the far less healthy version of a palate cleansing sorbet. They also stay within the ethos of this meal, which is simplicity. Simplicity defines Ben’s from its decor, its menu, its customers. It doesn’t matter what you do before or after you eat here but while you’re in Ben’s you’re just a normal person. This is some of the greatest comfort food I’ve ever experienced and for that I’m thankful.

P.S. When you’re there eating, just take a look around and see just how many people have stopped by this institution over the years.

[Note: These images are not my own, clicking on them will take you to the source website.]




2 responses

15 10 2010

cot damn! this review made me hungry for a half smoke

16 10 2010
cocaine cowboy

do full smokes exist? double, triple, quad smokes? the possibilities are endless, SON.

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