One of the most beloved regional specialties of Washington, DC is the half-smoke sausage and there is perhaps no better-known vendor than Ben's Chili Bowl. Open since 1958 on U Street, Ben's Chili Bowl has been serving half-smokes smothered in their signature chili since day one. Made famous by comedian Bill Cosby in the sixties, the chili half-smoke has continued to draw crowds of locals, tourists, and politicians in huge numbers. At the original U Street location, the shop typically sells 600-800 half-smokes; on a busy day, that number can balloon to 1,000.
As explained by co-founder Virginia Ali, the dish itself is simple. A quarter-pound sausage made from an equal blend of pork and beef is grilled to charred perfection, placed on a softly steamed bun and topped with mustard, onions, and a whole lot of homemade beef chili. It's the sort of greasy spoon fare that makes for a loyal following. Eater DC has called the dish one of the most iconic in the city, and Eater DC readers have voted Ben's a "last meal" destination and a top place to take out-of-towners.
Eater DC editor Missy Frederick explains the special place Ben's Chili Bowl holds in DC:
If DC has one iconic food, it's the half-smoke: it's unique to DC and can be found everywhere from the hot dog carts lining the National Mall to more upscale restaurant purveyors like Red Apron. But it's hard to think of the half-smoke without thinking of Ben's. The restaurant is a piece of history that has stood the test of time, and remains a popular destination for locals, tourists, and anyone with a 3 a.m. craving. And now that Ben's is expanding to places like Arlington, the ballpark and the airport, more and more people are getting introduced to the iconic dish."
Below, the elements of the Ben's Chili Bowl chili half-smoke:
1. The Bun
When it comes to the hot dog buns, Ben's keeps things simple. The bun is not prepped at all prior to use, other than the time is spends in the steamer drawer. Not to say that handling the bun is not without technique. The counter workers must be careful not to break or tear the bun, which gets very soft from the steaming. (Apparently "losing" or breaking buns is quite common when the restaurant gets busy.)
2. The Sausage
At the heart of the dish is the famous half-smoke sausage. This style of sausage is iconic in DC, and it's made from an equal blend of pork and beef. Due to the sheer volume of sausages used at Ben's, they've outsourced their sausage making to a Baltimore company who creates the sausages to their specifications. Ali says the spices that get blended with the sausage are a secret, only allowing that the sausage is "nicely seasoned."
While some DC customers have been known to order their sausages split, Ben's default is to leave the sausages whole while grilling them. The sausages are grilled until they reach what Ali calls a "nice brown." If a customer has ordered the sausage split, the counter crew will slice the sausage and grill it a bit longer. (Ali finds split sausages to be too dry.) Because of the quantity of sausages being sold, they're continuously added to and taken off the grill.
3. The Condiments
There are two condiments that come standard with a chili half-smoke: French's yellow mustard and chopped white onions. The mustard is applied immediately after the sausage is placed in the bun. It's a generous portion, with a thick spoonful of mustard added to the entire length of the sausage. The chopped onions, which add a needed crunch to the dish, are added next. Some customers will also request cheese, although that is not how the half-smoke is typically served.
4. The Chili
Finally, the sausage is topped with the namesake creation of Ben's Chili Bowl, the chili. Ali explains that there are three different chilis on offer at the restaurant, including a vegetarian chili and a con carne. The hot dog, however, is topped with a chili that was crafted to function as a sauce. Ali says the chili recipe is held closely, but reveals that to make the chili, lean ground beef is simmered for hours with onions, a "very, very little amount" of tomato paste, and another secret blend of spices. There's also a method to the way the counter workers apply the chili to the hot dog. Using the large serving spoon, the chili is applied down the middle of the sausage with extra care being taken to avoid soaking the bun. "We don't like the chili going all over the bun, running down its side." The resulting chili half-smoke can be eaten without utensils, assuming there are plenty of napkins around. Completing the order is a serving of potato chips.