Dan Andelman: “Every city has a restaurant that’s more than just a place to eat, it’s a culinary and cultural institution. And in Washington DC, the most iconic place to meet and greet and eat is the world famous Ben’s Chili Bowl.”
Located on U Street in the nation’s capital, Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of the most legendary restaurants in America. And that’s quite an accomplishment for a no frills, quick service, order at the counter kind of spot, where the specialty of the house is Burgers, Dogs, and Fries, all smothered in Ben’s Famous Chili.
Dan Andelman: “A lot has changed over the past 60 years, but Ben’s Chili Bowl is pretty much the exact same. It was started in 1958 by Ben Ali, and you can still find his wife Virginia in here working, taking photos with customers almost every single day.”
Virginia Ali – Owner, Ben’s Chili Bowl: “We serve comfort food, great homemade chili sauce, and we pride ourselves on welcoming everybody from all walks of life. And we’ve endured 60 years of change.”
And throughout those six decades, Ben’s chili recipe has been a closely guarded secret. But that didn’t stop us from asking Virginia what’s in it.
Virginia Ali – Owner, Ben’s Chili Bowl: “Oh yeah, come on. Yeah, right. Lots of love and some spices.”
Dan Andelman: “Of course they won’t tell you what the chili recipe is, but I’ll tell you what I think, I think it’s delicious.”
Now the place is named Ben’s Chili Bowl, but a bowl of chili isn’t actually what most people order here.
Dan Andelman: “The thing they’re most famous for here is the Half Smoke. So what is a Half Smoke? It’s something you can really only find in the Washington DC area. Basically it’s a combination of beef and pork, into a breakfast sausage that’s very highly seasoned and smoked. Hence, Half Smoke. Half beef, half pork, and smoked, Half Smoke. And of course this is Ben’s Chili Bowl, so what do you do? You get a Half Smoke and you pile on the chili. Remember, when you order your Half Smoke you got to get it all the way. That means chili sauce, chopped onions, and mustard. You need all three.”
Dan Andelman: “Now this is my kind of lunch right here, the ultimate combination. You’ve got your Chili Half Smoke and your Chili Cheese Fries, at Ben’s Chili Bowl. That’s a lot of chili. So let’s break this baby down for you. First of all, the dog itself, the Half Smoke. It’s substantial. This is a quarter pound beef and pork dog. Now the bun is very important, it’s the vessel that holds this baby all together. It is not grilled, it is not toasted, it is steamed, so it’s nice and soft and squishy to the touch. You can barely see it but underneath you’ve got a little blanket of some mustard and some onion for a little bit of contrast of the flavors. Mustard breaks through with the sharpness with a little bit of tang, onions add a little bit of sweetness. And of course, the chili. That’s what this baby is all about. It is blanketed in chili. There’s a lot of history, a lot of love in that chili.”
Dan Andelman: “First thing that comes to you is smoke. Like this is way spicier and smokier than your typically hot dog. Half Smoke is its own thing, its own special sub genre of American sausages. My tastebuds are popping, my tongue is exploding, my brain is just firing all over the place. This is a contrast in textures. Super soft bun. Very crispy snappy hot dog, and just that soft comforting blanket of chili on top. Three different textures, a million different tastes, one happy mouth.”
Dan Andelman: “There are hundreds of museums in Washington DC, but this is like a living museum. I mean look at the walls of this place. Every inch is covered with photos of celebrities and politicians, and musicians. They all eat here.”
Virginia Ali – Owner, Ben’s Chili Bowl: “We have had our fair amount of celebrities. We’ve had a few presidents, but we are all just people, really, and we’ve been grateful for them. But we all just people, we like to treat everybody as our family member when they walk in that door.”
And people who come through the door, come from all over the country. But for locals, Ben’s is more than a restaurant for tourists, and Virginia Ali is more than a restaurant owner.
Local Ben’s Fan: “When you think of Washington DC, there’s kind of local Washington, federal Washington, and international Washington, and there are very few places that bring them all together, and Ben’s does that better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Virginia Ali is the matriarch, not just of Ben’s, but of Washington. It’s rare for a city to have a mom, and Virginia is that mom for all of us here in Washington.”
Virginia Ali – Owner, Ben’s Chili Bowl: “It’s been an interesting 60 years. I have to say, I don’t think I want to trade that in.”
Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U Street NW
Washington DC 20009