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Aug 25, 2008 09:04 AM

Ben's Chili Bowl ... again and again ...

Ben's seems to be the darling of the Washington Post. Last week, four articles or references on four consecutive days. Wednesday's food section, a half page write-up in Thursday's metro section, a Friday blurb on the last page of the Style section, then the Sunday magazine (which I receive on Saturday) had the compare the differences puzzler between two photographs.

I know that August is a slow news month for newpapers, but are we elevating Ben's Chili Bowl to the status of myth? I have my opinion ... basically it is what it is ... chili and hot dogs and greasy food with a colorful hip storefront (a great photo op backdrop for visiting celebs) and the cachet that comes with surviving in the U Street location for 50 years.

Really, I'd like to go and see what the fuss is about (The Zagats visted last month, good sports that they are), but I'm wondering if the food is worth raising my levels of sodium and cholesterol.

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  1. And the "Sunday Morning" show on CBS did a story on them. Nice interview with Mrs. Ali.

    1. it's good greasespoon food, but it's not a gastronomical experience. dont get your hopes up too high, bc it won't deliver. that being said, it's tasty greasey food

      1. A few years ago, I believe the Post tried to come up with the quintessential Washington DC food, kind of like the Philly Cheese Steak is to Philly, or gumbo to New Orleans, or pizza to New York. They ran a contest and selected (if I recall correctly) the half smoke and Senate beans (or Senate Bean Soup). One of the few places that dishes them both up is Ben's.

        5 Replies
        1. re: BigEats

          And fellow hound Johnb was the person who nominated the half smoke, btw.

          1. re: Dennis S

            Thank you, Eats and Dennis, for remembering!

            Since I have some credibility on this issue, or at least history, here is my take on Ben's if anyone is interested:

            My recipe was for grilled half-smoke served on a bed of beans, paying joint tribute to the only unique DC food item (the half-smoke) and, perhaps, the best-known DC dish (Senate bean soup). Ben's really didn't figure in my thinking at the time, but when the Post wrote up the article announcing the winner they gave great prominence to Ben's since it is so well known for half-smokes (I was unaware Ben's does bean soup--is that a fact?). My view of Ben's is that it is somewhat overrated, but at this point it has become so embedded in media lore that we'll never see the end of it, since whenever any food personality or food show comes to town they will almost invariably go there because they all feed off what the others have done before. Ben's half-smoke is fine, but the other items are really only so-so, and the namesake chili IMO is really, how shall I say it, nothing special, and that's a generous assessment.

          2. re: BigEats

            Maybe they should have chosen the jumbo slice, or chicken wings with mumbo sauce. :)

            1. re: 4X4

              See, there's a local meal. I have yet to figure out why every place I go spells the sauce differently. It's either mumbo sauce or mambo sauce or mumble sauce or marble sauce. I've even seen "momsbo sauce."

              1. re: monkeyrotica

                It's mambo sauce. Or at least it was at Wings and Things on 14th street.

          3. Half Smoke + Chili + Shredded Cheddar Cheese + Late Light = junk food goodness.

            I actually went Friday night, but they got a new register.
            So the normal "efficiency" was further enhanced by technology.

            1. Doesn't every town have a beloved local institution serving food from a bygone era? The food is usually just "eh" but it's more about the atmosphere and the people than the food. You got it right. Bens is what it is. Personally, I prefer the halfsmoke at Weenie Beenie or Burger Delight or even the footlong chili dog at Hard Times. And when I want one on-the-go, I hit the guy inside Eastern Market who has them on the rollers. Actually, since I've been buying them from Canales Meats and cooking them at home, I don't spend much time at Bens. But I will be taking my kids there at some point. Just not at 3am on Saturday morning. At least, not until they're of drinking age.

              I'm sure there are some people in Maine who think lobster is overrated. But they still have to try it at least once.

              2 Replies
              1. re: monkeyrotica

                It's funny. There are a handful of places fitting that description in the DC area. Ben's, Vienna Inn, Harry's Bar, Mario's, Beenie Weenie and that place on Bladensburg Road NE near the bus garage. Maybe two handfuls. In Baltimore, they're everywhere!