“OUR CHILI WILL MAKE A DOG BARK” reads the legend on the illuminated menu over the hotplates at Ben’s Chili Bowl, in the U Street neighbourhood of Washington DC. It’s been doing the same since Ben Ali first opened the doors in the summer of 1958 and has survived both the ’68 riots (and the areas subsequent dereliction) and then the construction of the city’s Metro system during the 1980’s.
So what makes Ben’s survival story possible ? The food. Given a few hours free on a Saturday morning in DC – my first visit to the city – I passed on taking in The White House and The Capitol, and headed straight to the U Street Metro station, which Ben’s stands direct opposite of.
It was crossover time, when the breakfast menu shuts and the dinner menu kicks off (one of the busiest times of the day at weekends apparently). The way in which short-order services operate in the US never ceases to amaze me, whilst I awaited my order at the counter, there was a constant blur of cooks and servers the opposite side as both breakfast and lunch orders were cooked, plated and delivered.
I’d gone for what Bill Cosby – one of the only 2 people who get to eat for free at Ben’s – recommended; The Chili Half-Smoke. A pork/beef sausage, grilled then split and filled with onions and mustard, wrapped in a steamed bun and topped with the house chili (plus a side of fries to mop up any remaining chili). When I say “topped” I really should say “almost drowned in”, negotiating the route from plate to mouth without chili making a b-line for any nearby item of clothing is a skill that I’ve yet to acquire.
To carry this drenching off, Ben’s chili has got to be good and it absolutely deserves its reputation; hot and smokey, with soft and juicy chuck in the mix. The mustard in the centre of the split sausage is still able to cut through the flavour to remind you it is still there and deserving of your attention. The bun just about hangs on until then end (no mean feat considering what it has to cope with), leaving those fries to do their clean-up job on the inevitable spillages.
The damage ? $11 including a large soda (plus the cost of another return flight to DC when I get the withdrawal symptoms, which I expect to kick in the very moment I’m back at Heathrow).
Incidentally, the other person other than Cosby who gets to eat for free at Ben’s ? Barack Obama, who stopped in for a half-smoke of his own just a few days before his inauguration in 2009 and just a few months before Ben himself passed away in October of that same year. The family continue to operate the restaurant (and the newer venture, a bar located next door).
Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213, U Street N.W. Washington D.C., USA.