BEN'S CHILI BOWL | 1213 U Street NW Washington DC 20009.
"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. 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.
If you're not in DC, but are near Los Angeles, Skokie, Fairfield Connecticut, or Mobile Alabama, look here for info on America's other great hot dog places.
Back to the top.