No trip to Washington D.C. is complete without a visit to the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street in Shaw. Founded in 1958 by Trinidadian immigrant Ben Ali and his American wife, the place has been serving chili, chili dogs, half smokes and milkshakes to a very dynamic crowd of people since then. The place has tremendous history behind it too. Back when D.C. was officially segregated and U Street was known as “Black Broadway,” many of the original jazz kings (Ellington, Davis, Nat King Cole) would stop for dinner after performing at the local clubs. During the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Ben’s stayed open in order to feed both police officers and firemen AND activists, in hopes of easing the frustration of both sides with good, comforting food. After this difficult period, things got even worse and the area became known as a drug-haven but still Ben’s stayed open, faithful to its local regulars. The construction of the U Street Metro stop in the 90’s and the resulting gentrification of the neighborhood lead to the number of Ben’s employees to grow and the restaurant started to make more revenue than ever.
It really has stood its grown through difficult times and now it is visited regularly by celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Chris Tucker, as well as many U.S. presidents, most recently Obama.
The place is simple but crowded. A very long line of folks ordering behind a long bar. A modest menu of 6 signatures and 9 sides, untouched for decades. Fountain drinks, among them my favorite Pink Lemonade. A friolater for fries, a few tubs of homemade cole slaw and potato salad. A wonderful grill which can hold around 100 sausages at one time peeking out the window at U Street, crispy sausages drawing people in with its sizzling hypnosis. And a sign that lists the restaurant’s star guests who are welcome to dine for free: Bill Cosby, The Obama Family.
The signature thing to get here? Ben’s “original chili half-smoke,” a one-quarter pound smoked sausage made up of 50% pork and 50% beef. It is place onto a warm bun and topped with mustard, onions and Ben’s famous chili sauce, which was inspired by the founder’s Trinidadian heritage. This thing was originally invented by Ben himself in 1958 and became Bill Cosby’s favorite in the early 60’s. The meat is wonderfully crispy, with a nice tight casing squeezing in the juicy, flavorful, smokey pork and beef inside. The chili is very spicy with a ton of beautiful herbs mixed in there – salty, savory and sweet with a beautifully comforting, warm, mushy consistency. Not the best photo, the one bellow, but better than nothing…