Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Visiting DC: Ben's Chili Bowl

Famous Ben's Chili Bowl
This past Friday, after being pummeled with an unexpected snow storm that was only supposed to be a dusting of the fluffy white stuff, we took off on a much delayed flight bound for DC. DC in March is a quick little break from a winter that has just about overstayed it's welcome. Everybody's kind of sick of soups and stews and it's time to start thinking of asparagus and radishes. But yeah, that's a ways off, and it's time for that much needed minibreak to a place where the museums are free, the metro is clean, and everything's so darn architecturally stern. Oh, and about ten to fifteen degrees warmer... that's a plus too.
Those amazing half-smokes
Every trip to DC is incomplete without a ritualistic trip to Ben's Chili Bowl. I won't give you the historical rundown that you've seen on every travel show having any focus on the nation's capitol, except to say that the little restaurant opened by Ben Ali and his wife, Virginia, in an old silent movie theater building in the Shaw neighborhood of northwestern DC is one of the city's greatest treasures. It's history is one of a single place of calm in the center of civil unrest and racial oppression. And I absolutely love it. The bustling vibe and hints of southern hospitality outflowing from a fantastic staff, not to mention the savory, salty and garlicky aroma circling the interior of a restaurant with decor original from the 1950s, instantly melt away back aches and stresses of a day packed with either too much work or maybe a touch too much sight seeing. It's the kind of restaurant where you walk in, get in line, and it feels like you've been there before, even if you've never had the pleasure.
Beyond what meets the eyes, I will tell you that the food here is absolutely delicious. So what do you order?
Milk Shake
A milk shake: The Bigger Half always orders a milk shake with his food. My stomach hosts a violent revolution against my lower half when I mix too much dairy with too much grease, but it doesn't seem to phase him at all. And so he sips and sucks on a striped straw until the sweet, thick ice cream treat topped with whipped cream and a cherry has met the bottom of its plastic vessel. On this occasion, he ordered the vanilla, but I hear tell that you have to go for the chocolate. Just passing it on...
Chili Cheese Fries
Chili cheese fries: In many cases, I forgo messy fries for clean fries and the option to dunk in my own sauces. Not at Ben's. Here, the chili cheese fries are a must have. They're topped with a generous slather of their signature chili. Let's take a deeper look at this wonder of culinary comfort. It's thick and meaty, devoid of the assumed bean base that many chillies have, and has a deeply savory and touch sweet, cinnamon spiced flavor that only dissipates with a slow build up of subtle peppery heat. The texture allows one to still detect individual pebbles of meat with the more saucier portion of the chili thin enough to lovingly spread and soak into all those fries (or whatever it may lay on). The cheese is not anything special... just a typical whiz product, but boy does it suit that chili beautifully. And the fries? Well, they're just average fries, but the perfect vessel for the saucy, earthy chili and creamy unnaturally yellow-orange cheese.
Chili Half-Smoke
Chili half-smoke: Unlike the situation with the fries, where the actual potatoes are just your vehicle for moving sauce from basket to gullet, the sausage that lays in a simple steamed bun is truly something special, and different from any other sausage you would find in other regions of the country. It's a huge dog, about a quarter pound of meat, with a snappy skin that keeps the meat especially juicy for your first bite. The meat is very salty and lightly smokey, a coarsely ground combination of beef and pork, intensely satisfying from first bite to the very end of the half-smoke. Add that wonderful, savory, sweet, juicy, peppery chili, a slather of tangy mustard, a sprinkling of raw zesty chopped onions (just to break up a lot of the fairly heavy flavors), and boy are you in heaven. It's the best meal you can possibly have to break up a full day of sight seeing.
I dream about the Ben's half-smoke, smothered in chili in a plastic basket in front of me, sitting in a room full of folks, all sizes, shapes and colors, and a jukebox playing anything from hip hop to the Temptations. And it's a good dream. You should go there if you're going to DC. And if you're not going to DC anytime soon, you should make plans.

Ben's Chili Bowl
1213 U Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009

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