Now, when someone says “chili dog,” I bet you think they are all the same. They might be good on a summer day with a beer, or at a ball game, but they can’t be as amazing as let’s say, a good steak. And I’m going to tell you flat out, that you are mistaken. Unless you’ve had a chili half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street in Washington D.C., you might think a chili dog could be bland, or even gross. But once you’ve tried one, you’ll understand that a chili dog can have nuance of flavor, levels of spiciness and smokiness working together to create the perfect combination of flavors.
Firecracker and I were visiting pals Maggie and Patrick in our nation’s capital, and when they asked what my “must do” things were, I said “we’ve got to go to Ben’s Chili Bowl.” I’d heard such great things, and I’d already seen the museums and memorials more than once. We went to the Spy Museum, which while interesting, isn’t worth the $18 price tag in my opinion. I liked seeing an Enigma machine, and real Cold War spy gadgets. If you love that era of history, it’s a must see. After waiting outside in line on a chilly day, Ben’s Chili Bowl was the obvious choice for lunch that day.
So we hopped on the Metro. Ben’s is right across the street from U Street Station on the Green Line, with a cozy old storefront that speaks to its 50 years of service. It’s practically a neighborhood monument, and everyone goes there, from Joe Senator to Joe Sixpack. We got there just in time, as the line from the counter doubled back. A short while later it was out the door. And it was worth every minute. The wait wasn’t too bad, perhaps 15 minutes from getting off the train to first bite. I was surprised by their extensive menu- if chili dogs ain’t your thing, there’s plenty to choose from. I’d heard great things about the “half smoke,” a kielbasa-sized spicy sausage popular in the D.C. area, so I had to have one. The name is shrouded in mystery for they are not smoked. Waiting in line gives a good feel for the neighborhood. We were all entertained by a sign in back that read “List of Who Eats Free at Ben’s: Bill Cosby. No One Else!”
When a cook took my order- 2 chili dogs, 1 chili half-smoke, chili cheese fries, and a chocolate shake for me & Firecracker to feast on- he said the shake would take a minute, and he delivered it to our table. If you have 6 or more, you can order from the back. We were just three- Pat missed out on this culinary extravaganza, but he had taken us to Old Ebbett’s Grill for fantastic sweet oysters, and terrific American classic entrees, so he deserved some rest. The three of us were all amazed at the depth and flavor of Ben’s chili. There’s a reason it’s called Ben’s Chili Bowl and not “Ben’s half smokes and hot dogs.” The chili is fantastic, rich and spicy in flavor with a deep smokiness that speaks to some serious simmering on the stove.
Saying they slather the dogs and half-smokes with chili is an understatement. They masterfully pool the chili in the hefty bun atop the link, getting as much as physically possible without overflowing. They’ve got it down to a science. It is perfection. This is the best chili dog I have yet tasted, and I defy you to name one better. The Spicy Redneck at Crif Dog may still reign as the best hot dog, but this is the best chili dog. Nothing else I’ve had is even close. How does the rest emasure up? They also know how to make chili cheese fries that are both crisp and soggy at the same time. I don’t know how they did it. Soaked in cheese and chili, some at the bottom were still crisp. And the shake may have been a tad too thick but the flavor was tops.
So if you visit D.C. for business or to visit our nation’s heritage, you owe it to yourself to stop by U street for a chili half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl. You will not regret it. Just remember, unless you are Bill Cosby, you will have to pay. We got 2 dogs, a smoke, a large chili cheese fries and drinks for $21. A bit pricy but these aren’t little Sabrett’s, just look at the photos. And they are worth every cent!