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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!

              2. Well, their 50th anniversary celebration was quite a community event - block party, concert, and all. Everything but free food. And, yeah, after Obama's VP announcement, it was a slow news weekend.

                1. My original post was a mildly cynical take on all the publicity, and not an indictment on Ben's, because Ben's is what it is. But I think the fact that many people are rooting for a small family business to succeed tells us something about the restaurant scene in DC. Well, what it tells me in any case is that Washington is constantly in search of its roots. Any roots, please! To me, the half-smoke is a consolation prize ... it's hardly unique to DC. Anyone over 45 from Baltimore will remember Pollock Johnnies ... they were polish sausages, but they tasted very half-smokey if I remember right. And also heart-burn inducing. Anyway, I digress.

                  It would be nice if the Washington food community would include more family-run ethnic or specializing restaurants, authenticity with just enough hip-ness. Mandu kind of comes to mind. But how about Slavic? Russian peasant food without the pretentiousness of caviar and vodka? Scandinavian? For heavens sake, a pan-asian noodle joint would be great in Adams Morgan -- another express-meal equivalent to Amsterdam Falafel. Mount Pleasant street has some empty store-fronts, and rents shouldn't be too high. These are the places we locals can go on a weeknight when we're too tired to cook.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: MartinDC

                    ASs a businbeess traveker I hunt out hot dog and hamburger places ...over the past six mionths I have been to Pink's in LA, a place in Denver that I can;t remember, Capital in New Britain CT, A little place in Butler PA that was good...the list goes on...and all warrant inclusion in the chowhound forum for their region...but for sheer purity and taste Ben's half smoke was the best I tasted...it was grilled hot, the roll was fresh, the chili was meaty and had flavor and the atmosphere and service on my two visits was great.

                    Most overated...Yacco's in Allentown PA, and if you want really greasy and bad...try Ruts Hut in New Jersey...oh and the worst...The Original Essies in Pittsburgh which is living on borrowed time...flat out bad and what i went to to get there made it even worse.

                    Ben;s is the best so far...at least for me...and the short time I have left for living this way

                    My problem is my friends in Gaitheersburg wonder where I go every few weeks when I say I am going out for lunch...but it's worth the trip.

                    1. re: sodagirl

                      if you're ever down in north carolina, stop at hap's grill in salisbury. terribly delicious chili dogs and chilicheeseburgers and they carry cheerwine.

                      what did you think of pinks? i thought their chili was awful, but i had fun eating the other dogs.

                  2. I didn't find it anything special and thought it was overpriced for hotdogs and fries. I think we paid close to $60, including tip, for 6 hot dogs, 2 orders of fries and some drinks. Very salty.

                    1. The fuss is because it's an African-American institution that has come up and survived in a neighborhood that has thrived and fallen and thrived again. And for 50 years! That's the stuff of legend, hot dogs aside. IMO, that's fuss-worthy.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: biscuit

                        biscuit has it right. Ben's survived the riots of 68, survived the disruption of putting in the METRO, and has survived thru good times and bad. It is also a local gathering place for all kinds, street people to politicians. It is also fairly central to the DC political scene since it is only a couple of blocks from the Wilson Building, so the local politicos are always in there. Any place that survives for 50 years should be celebrated. BTW, love the half smokes, never try to eat anything else there.

                        1. re: dinwiddie

                          Performers at the Howard used to visit Ben's which, after midnight, was the heart and soul of D. C.'s Harlem in the '60's. The Howard, Republic, original Bohemian Caverns, Duke's Shoeshine stand and others are long gone but Ben's still survives. Dinwiddie and Biscuit are right. Perhaps many people think of Ben's as chili dogs today but once upon a time it was a social landmark, too and very much a part of U street. Everything changed in '68.

                          Ben's was recognized by the Post, by Beard and by others not only because of it's half smokes and chili. It is very much an icon of a D. C. that survives from another era. When you walk through the door that feeling is still there. In some respects it is almost all that is left from then.

                          Ben's Chili Bowl is that extraordinarily rare restaurant where the experience is part of the attraction. You cannot separate its history from what it serves. If you do, you will not capture what it is all about.