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Ben's Chili Bowl - Washington, DC

Posted by Michael Stern on October 14, 2009

“First it was taxation without representation. Now, it’s taxation without Roadfood representation.” So wrote Rod Hendrix when he sent us a long list of places to help alleviate the dearth of Roadfood listings in the nation’s capital. None of his suggestions was more glowing with praise than that of Ben’s Chili Bowl, which Rod referred to as “Legendary … true D.C. history!”

Melissa Jordan, another tipster also highly recommended this landmark diner as a “tiny, family-run place with a wonderful story behind it.”

With a busy day of meetings and media events to spend in D.C., we prioritized our hit list and put Ben’s at the top, managing to stroll in early in the afternoon. There on the right was the griddle, lined up with ravishing hot dogs and half-smoke sausages, sizzling hot and ready to be bunned, dressed, and topped with chili. We ordered a chili dog and a chili smoke, as well as pieces of just-made sweet potato cake and chocolate cake. The man who took our order told us to find a seat, then shortly brought the food, the dogs each presented in a red plastic basket along with a pile of potato chips, the cake served in a see-through take-out box.

The half-smoke is sensational! A taut-skinned smoky link unique to the D.C. area, it is bigger than most hot dogs, well-browned on the griddle. It is firm-fleshed with an unbelievably luscious character. Frankly, next time we visit we are going to order one plain, just to focus on its smoky essence; but the fact is that the chili with which Ben’s customarily blankets it is sensational stuff: thick, peppery, full-flavored and positively addictive. The whole package – sausage, mustard and onions, and a heap of chili all piled into a tender bun – is extremely unwieldy, impossible to eat without lots of spillage; but that’s ok. Dripping and licking is part of the dining experience.

The big hot dog has plenty of character too. No bland tube steak here; it is hot and spicy and a fine balance for the chili. As for the sweet cakes, they are real home-style dessert: thick layered slices with plenty of frosting. We especially liked the sweet potato cake, which was moist and spicy.

As for Ben’s history, there’s a whole fact sheet on the counter to take and read (or the historical information is available at Ben’s web site). The basic story is that U Street was once known as Black Broadway for all the musical talent that used to perform in clubs along the way. Since its founding in 1958, Ben’s has survived the neighborhood’s ups and downs, and in 2001, its founders, Ben and Virginia Ali, were inducted into the Washington, D.C., Hall of Fame. (Mr. Ali passed away in October, 2009.) In the mid-1980s, actor Bill Cosby made Ben’s a cause célèbre when he held a national press conference on premises to celebrate his #1 rated television show. According to Ben’s literature, Mr. Cosby never stops in without eating three half-smokes. And since Barak Obama's inauguration as President, he also has been known to stop in for a snack.
5 - Overall: Worth driving from anyplace Overall: Worth driving from anyplace

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Reviewers "Must Eats" List

Sweet Potato Pie ($3.00)
Sweet Potato Cake ($3.00)
Chili Cheese Fries ($3.00)
chili smoke ($3.00)
Half-smoke ($2.00)
French Fries ($2.00)
Strawberry Cake ($3.00)
chili dog ($2.00)
A half smoke blanketed with chili: it's definitely the way to go at Ben's, but the half-smoke all by itself is something special, too.
"A half smoke blanketed with chili: it's definitely the way to go at Ben's, but the half-smoke all by itself is something special, too."
Michael Stern





Ben Ali stands in front of the legendary restaurant he created ... that is now run by his sons. Mr. Ali passed away in 2009 at the age of 82.
"Ben Ali stands in front of the legendary restaurant he created ... that is now run by his sons. Mr. Ali passed away in 2009 at the age of 82."
Michael Stern


Half smokes on the griddle await their buns and a blanket of chili.
"Half smokes on the griddle await their buns and a blanket of chili."
Michael Stern


This end-view of a chili dog shows the mustard that is customarily applied before the chili. The dog itself is excellent!
"This end-view of a chili dog shows the mustard that is customarily applied before the chili. The dog itself is excellent!"
Michael Stern


A huge, sloppy and addictive plate of French fries topped with Ben's alluring dark chili and school-bus-orange cheese makes one heck of a naughty meal ... or a good side dish for two or three or four people to share with their half smokes.
"A huge, sloppy and addictive plate of French fries topped with Ben's alluring dark chili and school-bus-orange cheese makes one heck of a naughty meal ... or a good side dish for two or three or four people to share with their half smokes."
Michael Stern


Ben's tasty chili works equally well on their burgers.
"Ben's tasty chili works equally well on their burgers."
buffetbuster


We were lucky enough to be sitting in a booth at Ben's when this sweet potato cake was brought out front, freshly cut. Wow, what a treat!
"We were lucky enough to be sitting in a booth at Ben's when this sweet potato cake was brought out front, freshly cut. Wow, what a treat!"
Michael Stern


The one dish unique to Washington, DC: a half-smoke. They are sold from street carts throughout the city, but there's none better than the one you get at Ben's. The sound of biting into one, as juices burst, is almost as good as the taste.
"The one dish unique to Washington, DC: a half-smoke. They are sold from street carts throughout the city, but there's none better than the one you get at Ben's. The sound of biting into one, as juices burst, is almost as good as the taste."
Michael Stern


Everyone at the table who sampled the moist strawberry cake declared it a winner!
"Everyone at the table who sampled the moist strawberry cake declared it a winner!"
buffetbuster


Half-smokes and chili dogs are served with corrugated potato chips on the side. But we believe it's worth spending an extra $2.05 for a plate of Ben's French fries.
"Half-smokes and chili dogs are served with corrugated potato chips on the side. But we believe it's worth spending an extra $2.05 for a plate of Ben's French fries."
Michael Stern


Ben's serves one of the best sweet potato pies anywhere. It is so good that we plowed into the point of the wedge before I remembered to take a picture. That's why this photo shows only the outer edge. I cropped out the bite marks.
"Ben's serves one of the best sweet potato pies anywhere. It is so good that we plowed into the point of the wedge before I remembered to take a picture. That's why this photo shows only the outer edge. I cropped out the bite marks."
Michael Stern


Ben's signature dish: a half-smoke topped with with chili in a steamed-soft bun. Below the chili and atop the sausage are mustard and onion, of course.
"Ben's signature dish: a half-smoke topped with with chili in a steamed-soft bun. Below the chili and atop the sausage are mustard and onion, of course."
Michael Stern


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