Sometimes you end up moving to a city you once visited on a road trip with friends. In this case, it is a wise idea to correct the mistakes you once made as a weekend tourist, or at least polish your experience about the place up a bit. That’s what I did this past weekend when my friends from Boston came to visit me in my new home. Unfortunately, I was not the best guide. Having moved here only 3 weeks ago and being as dedicated to my job as I currently am, I just really haven’t had too much time to explore the food scene as much as I’ve wanted to. But there are a few things I do know: Brunch is popular. Happy hours are big. Food trucks feed the working masses at lunch time with ironically gourmet fare which is almost always overpriced. José Andrés’s soul is omnipresent. Chinatown is not really Chinese. Southern food exists, but dressed up in its Sunday best. It’s a cosmopolitan metropolis with the same fake-ass Mexican and fake-ass Thai as any other city in America, but it’s also a place where finding authentic Turkish köfte and a decent pho, right across the street from each other, makes one happy to live in the States. And there’s also a place where Bill Cosby and Barack Obama eat for free. It’s called Ben’s Chili Bowl and it has a history. It was around when U Street was Black Broadway, before it turned into Generic Taverns and Pubs and Neon Margarita, Chips and Salsa Hang-Outery Avenue. It had the cojones to stay open during the riots following Martin Luther King’s death and during the drug years that followed that, never ceasing to feed the masses through the good, the bad and the ugly. Celebrities love it and have always loved it. Having survived the gentrification around U Street, Ben’s has become a bit of a landmark and therefore a bit of a tourist spot. The T-shirted crew put up with the picture-taking and the checking in. Prices have raised, obviously, but not to an obnoxious level. And, while the interior of the place has pretty much been converted to some creepy “this is what a diner used to look like” museum, with a flat screen playing Ben’s proudest TV appearance moments, out front is actually pretty chill. Big, very lightly lit, clean, comfy stools and booths.
I went wrong last time because I rushed the place, not really getting what it was about, and sat in the back, right under the LCD projecting Bourdain’s visit to Ben’s. I took horrible Blackberry photos of my chili sausage, not bothering to apply my camera to the situation. It was only on retrospect that I wrote the review and by the time I did, I had forgotten much of the flavors and textures, only really remembering the layers of ingredients and the fact that I was surprised by the Utz instead of fries thing. Now that I live a 5 minute walk from there and can literally have the stuff any night of the week, I put a bit more effort into dissecting both the food and the experience.
We went on a Friday night and luckily it was still too early for a line. I ordered one Original Chili Half-Smoke and one pink lemonade and my friends did the same. It’s pretty simple. They have other stuff on the menu but not too much, which is always a good sign. It’s pretty much chili, all-beef frankfurters, half-smokes (50% pork, 50% beef sausages), burger patties and bread and any combination of these. There are some “healthy options,” like turkey, tuna and veggie stuff, but mostly it’s about the chili and beef combo. Sides are fries, cheese fries and chili fries, cole slaw and potato salad. As we sat waiting for our food, the Neelys (from the Food Network) walked in wearing fancy clothing and were greeted with a bunch of people taking pictures of them. Being more of a Travel Channel type of gal, I don’t really watch the Food Network so I didn’t put too much effort into snapping a good one of the celebz. But I got their backsides….Also while we waited, I went up to the front of the restaurant, where the half-smokes are sizzling away as they stare out the window at U Street. I asked some of the guys behind the counter if they would mind my snapping a few pictures of these real celebs instead. They were very nice and made it quite clear that they would not mind and they even complimented me on my recent gel manicure. At one point, one of them insisted on taking a picture of me, staring longingly at the snausages, which I was just kind of doing the whole time.
When we did eventually get our Chili Half-Smokes (Bill Cosby’s fave), I was pretty excited about my second chance to taste and photograph the stuff – this time with my sporty little Carl Zeiss. The chili dog definitely impressed me more than the last time I had it, when I was satisfied but overall kind of “meh…” about the thing. This time, it really hit the spot.
The soft steamed bun is chewy at the base, light and airy with a faint sweetness to it. On top is the crispy half-smoke sausage, perfectly thick and juicy, with the casing wrapped with great tightness around the coarsely ground, hearty meat inside. Bite into it, pop the casing and feel the juicy meet inside flood out. The half-smoke is spicy, but the smoky flavor of the charred exterior prevails on the palate. This smoke is eased back into a sweet, spicy lull by the chili poured over the top, which is packed with chili powder, cumin and, I think, some sugar, as well as some of the other spices in the traditional Caribbean mix. A thin layer of mustard between the sausage and the chili wakes things up a bit, adding a zesty, acidic zing to the tip of the tongue, before the latter is coated with the deep blanket of flavors from the chili. Some chopped onions add a nice fresh crunch. Served with Utz chips, which are not my fave (I’ve always found them too salty), but I guess I appreciate the sentimental nod to the past, especially having recently become addicted to “Mad Men.”
A great, messy little late-night snack in a landmark, reminiscent of Bartley’s in Harvard Square or the South Street Diner in Boston. For a combination of a good smoked sausage (not a hot dog) with a pretty deeply flavored, real-deal chili I don’t mind paying $5.70….despite what this classic may have cost way back when….