Friday, July 19, 2013

Chow Time: Ben's Chili Bowl

The explosion of colorful signs juxtaposed against the neoclassical details of the
 building creates the kind of thrilling discord that makes our wacky tacky hearts
skip a beat...or maybe its just too many hot dogs and chili.

When discussing long-established Washington, D.C. institutions, The Smithsonian very quickly springs to mind.  Well, after just two short days in the nation's capitol, it became clear that there are institutions and then there are INSTITUTIONS!  Ben's Chili Bowl is a Washington INSTITUTION.

The founder of Ben's Chili Bowl, Ben Ali

In the same location since 1958, Ben's is a favorite of just about everyone.  Among the usual monuments, museums, and mausoleums, nearly every recommendation we received for our trip included a stop for a "Half Smoke" at Ben's. 

The "Half Smoke," a smokey, grilled link in a natural casing,
is clearly the favorite here .  Only one sad, little row of regular
hot dogs populates the flat top grill.

There is definitely a well-heeded protocol at Ben's - NO NONSENSE.  Like many culinary institutions of its kind, Ben's expects patrons to know their order before they even set foot in the ever-present line.  The practice of curtness is one with which I've always experienced a measurable level of cognitive dissonance.  On one hand, I love the tradition and the expectation that patrons won't create an undue delay by hemming and hawing and creating special orders; on the other hand, I wonder, "Would a sweet disposition and a smile be so terribly misplaced?"  Just be warned, one thing you will not get at Ben's is a folksy welcome and a tolerance for indecision. 

What you might get is a celebrity sighting.
Mr. President & Mr. Cosby - two of Ben's most famous patrons

Why is it always the people who need it the least get all the freebies?

A contrarian by nature, I have been accused of having difficulty "going with the flow."  When any person, place, product becomes a "big thing," the overwhelming tendency is for me to turn up my nose and turn the other way.  Knowing the code of conduct at Ben's, I overcame my ordinary obstinacy and ordered the standard Half Smoke like a regular.

Ben's famous "Half Smoke" comes with mustard, onions, the eponymous chili, and a side of Utz's potato Chips. 

So dainty...eating with a knife and fork.
I am an inveterate spiller - a trait inherited from my
grandmother.  You could almost always tell what she had
eaten base on the spots remaining on her  ample bosom
(the apple doesn't fall far from the proverbial tree).

Veggie Chili Cheese fries - shared among our crowd.
I preferred the veggie chili to the beef option.

"How did I manage to get it all over my face while drinking through a straw?"
As always, I am happy to visit regional institutions and partake in their famous offerings. The Half Smoke was tasty but maybe didn't quite live up to the hype that it received.  The funny thing is that it never occurred to me until now that ordering a bowl of chili was an option at Ben's Chili Bowl!  I would say that next time I would order a bowl of veggie chili but Ben's felt more like a check mark than a return engagement - a definite must-see, must-eat, must-experience but one time only.

I was hoping that the boomerang formica didn't prove
some kind of ominous foreshadowing...I did not want
 this meal repeating on me.  It didn't.

Sometimes the best part about road trip food is the detox afterward.  As tasty as chili dogs and french fries can be, there is such a renewal in fresh, unprocessed food.  I say this from the safety of my home with a buffer of 2,500 miles between us; this kind of heresy would not be smiled upon by Ben's management (to say nothing of the dedicated patrons).

I echo Ben's sentiments in saying, "Thank You...Come Again."

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


Mr. Tiny


  1. Dude, I can't keep up with you. You're everywhere!

    1. Hahaha!!! I just draw out a few days of experiences into weeks and weeks worth of posts. I always think of myself as a homebody but I guess there is a bit of gypsy in my soul.

  2. So awesome! I'm a spiller as well. I too get it from my Grandmother who use to say, "If you can't eat it, wear it!"

    1. Hahaha!!! Yeah, there are many traits that I wish I could've inherited and spilling wasn't one of them! At least I am reminded of her often!

  3. I'm finding the "must go to" places like this never quite live up to the hype. Example? Pinks hot dogs! Not a bad dog at all, but PCH dog is so much better it's mind blowing. Oh gawwwwwd, now I need one!

    1. You're absolutely right. There are so few places that are as perfect as they are cracked up to be. I'm glad that we went; like I said, however, it was more of a check off the list than a new favorite. I am an awesome enabler; you do need one. Go get one NOW!!!!

  4. This looks my kind of a place! If I'm ever in Washington D.C. this will have to become a priority.

    1. When you make it back to D.C., you should definitely go. It is a great counterpoint to all of the politics. Sometimes one just needs junk food to get away from the "junk." Hahaha!!!

  5. As always so so fun taking these little trips with you! : ) I was smiling big reading along. You'd love White House Sub Shop in Atlantic City!

    Ohh and I tagged you over on my bog! : )

    1. That's it...I must make my way out to NJ ASAP!!! Thanks Jenny!!!