"No matter if you wait in line at Ben's or just grab a half-smoke from a street cart, it would be a shame to visit D.C. without tasting one."
The half-smoke is Washington D.C.'s signature street food, but nearly impossible to find outside of the D.C. area. By some definitions, it's not technically a hot dog. Otherwise, it has all the traits of a historically significant, regional variation of tubular meat on a bun. It involves a mildly smoked, natural casing beef and pork sausage. The meat is coarsely ground and spicier than a standard frankfurter.
At Ben's Chili Bowl, a D.C. landmark and the most well-known place for a half-smoke, they are grilled on a flat top to a dark crispy char (not unlike the Chicago "Char Dog") and covered in homemade chili, onions, and mustard, served on a hot dog bun. The half-smoke has some really powerful flavors--the combination of the charred spicy sausage, mustard and slow-cooked chili is really incredible, and a big surprise if you're expecting something like a regular old chili dog.
You can also grab a half-smoke from street vendors all over D.C., where they are grilled or dirty water style, served with such toppings as relish, chili, and New York-style red onion sauce. Or make a journey to one of the original half-smoke restaurants, Weenie Beenie, opened in 1950 by local pool shark Bill Staton in Arlington, Virginia.
The first half-smokes were made by Brigg's Meatpacking company in the 1930s or 40s and sold throughout D.C. by street vendors. Briggs, a family business, was eventually sold and the quality of the sausages went way downhill. Many cheaper brands make half-smokes with emulsified meat and don't smoke them, resulting in little more than a slightly spicy jumbo hot dog.
These days the best half-smoke sausages, at least those closest to the original, come from Manger Packing Corp. in Maryland, who supply to Weenie Beenie and a "secret recipe" sausage to Ben's Chili Bowl. For a thorough history, read this fantastic article from 2007 in the Washington City Paper, which delves into some of the theories behind how the legendary sausage got its name.
Ben's Chili Bowl, aside from serving great food, has a fascinating history. Opened in 1958 by Ben and Virginia Ali, their location on U Street was ground zero for D.C.'s infamous 1968 race riots. Most of the businesses in the area closed, but Ben's stayed open as a calm in the storm, serving half-smokes to activists and riot police alike. Throughout the 1970s and 80s when the neighborhood declined, Ben's survived as a community meeting place, and was famously Bill Cosby's favorite place to take his fiance on dates.
Since then, Ben's Chili Bowl has become a mandatory stop for politicians and celebrities. Last year Obama stopped by for his first half-smoke and thrust Ben's in the spotlight once again. I was there a few weeks after the inauguration and the line snaked around the corner. The lettering on the facade was so beautiful I just couldn't resist, even with a two-hour wait. The energy inside Ben's was incredible--soul music blasting, Obama shirts and American flags everywhere, an insane mix of politicians, tourists, hipsters and old neighborhood dudes that have been eating there every day for the last 40 years.
The sign behind the counter reads "Who Eats Free at Bens: Bill Cosby and the Obama family" with a hand-written detail underneath: "but they paid."
Barack Obama Visits Ben's Chili Bowl
Ben's has become so popular they recently opened a sit-down restaurant nextdoor, literally called Next Door with a more formal atmosphere and a reasonably priced, Southern-accented menu of she-crab soup, ribs, steaks and seafood dishes. You can even order half-smokes online.
No matter if you wait in line at Ben's or just grab a half-smoke from a street cart, it would be a shame to visit D.C. without tasting one--by far, one of the nation's most unique and historically significant hot dogs.
Ben's Chili Bowl
1213 U Street NW, Washington D.C. 20009 (map) 202-667-0909
2680 S. Shirlington Road, Arlington VA 22206 (map) 703-671-6661
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based illustrator who has a serious thing for hot dogs. Dig his dog drawings? Many of the illustrations he has created for Hot Dog of the Week are available for sale: hawkkrall.net/prints/.