Nate Anda answers my question with a question. "Does anybody really know the answer to this?"
My question for the chef is simple: what's a half-smoke?" Though the sausage has been ingrained in Washington's culinary culture for decades, pinning down how they came about or even what they technically are is an exercise in conjecture and personal bias, a bit like asking "what came before the Big Bang?"
Yet the half-smoke is one of the city's most iconic dishes, right up there with the jumbo slice. (Since the jumbo slice is little more than a euphemism for greasy, shovel-sized slices of pizza shoved in so many drunken mouths in Adams Morgan, we're going with the half-smoke.) And no matter what you call it, it's delicious: a smoky, fatty, coarsely ground sausage that beats the pants off any hot dog.
Roughly speaking, a half-smoke is a coarsely ground and smoked half-beef, half-pork sausage seasoned with red pepper flakes. But if you ask five chefs how they make their half-smokes, you'll get five answers. Half-smoke lover Scott McIntosh, the co-owner of 13th Street Meats and the recently opened Meats and Foods, describes them as a cross between a kielbasa and a jumbo hot dog. Jason Story, the co-owner of Three Little Pigs Charcuterie and Salumi, who only had his first half-smoke in 2010, compares them to a Colombian chorizo due to similarities in their respective spices.
The recurring words, however, are smoke, spice, and snap. True to their name, most (but not all) half-smokes are smoked before further cooking, imparting a signature woodsy flavor. They're made with wide-diameter hog casings which impart a more sharp and tactile snap than a hot dog's casing, usually more delicate sheep. But "the only thing that everyone agrees on is the red pepper flakes," McIntosh says. And even there you'll find variation; Story prefers bright Aleppo and dark, fruity pasilla chilies to the standard red pepper flakes you get at the grocery store.
McIntosh reckons that half-smokes came into existence in DC during the 1930s and '40s and "almost instantly became a proprietary thing," even without common consensus on a recipe. He conjectures that they "hit at the right time," shortly before the fast food boom of the '50s. "If half-smokes happened in the 60s they might not have caught on."
Today you can find half-smokes everywhere from street carts to butcher shops to trendy restaurants du jour to, most famously, Ben's Chili Bowl. Ben's has been slinging chili half-smokes to tourists, locals, and the likes of President Obama since 1958, and they make the most quintessential version: a charred spicy half-smoke topped with homemade spicy chili, mustard, and diced fresh white onions, all in a hot dog bun. The cool, crisp onions and sweet mustard bring some balance to the sausage's smoke and fat. It's one tourist attraction that's worth the trip.
Yet despite Ben's success and political clout, it's not the oldest half-smoke in the region. That honor may go to Weenie Beenie in Shirlington, which opened in 1950. Obama hasn't eaten there, but the place did inspire a Foo Fighters song of the same name. And Weenie Beenie serves a half-smoke that doubles as a hangover helper—they top theirs with fried eggs.
These days, new school DC chefs are tackling the half-smoke concept from the ground up, playing with the ratio of beef to pork as well as toppings.
McIntosh's half-smoke at Meats and Foods uses more pork than beef in order "to get the nice tender texture and fat content they needed." Story similarly uses a higher level of pork fat, which melts better in the mouth. Their efforts make for especially silky sausages that still have plenty of brawn.
Some chefs prefer half-smokes topped with mustard and onions; others with chili; and some with all three. McIntosh at Meat & Foods goes for onions, beef chili, and shredded cheddar that's been seared on the griddle to create "delicious, salty shards of crispy cheese." Story's goes more minimalist, focusing on whole spices that he toasts and grinds immediately before stuffing into the sausage to maximize their flavor. He then smokes them in a drum smoker for four hours.
Others go in wholly different directions. Nate Anda, the chef behind Red Apron and The Partisan, includes a pickled half-smoke as part of his charcuterie offerings. He brines his half-smokes in vinegar, sugar, and red pepper flakes, imparting the traditional flavor through the brining process. (Anda thinks the brine allows for the "depth of flavor of all the ingredients to work together" in a more potent way.) The resulting flavor is pleasantly familiar but with an unmistakably sour finish.
Then there's Nathan Beauchamp, who at Fainting Goat has developed a goat version. "Goat is super lean, leaner than beef," Beauchamp explains. "My half-smoke is three parts goat to one part pork and spiced with cayenne and red chili, onion powder, garlic, and fennel." It's then topped with a violet wine mustard, a vegetarian red pepper chili, and charred green onions.
That's a lot of stuff for a supposedly simple sausage, but it's all in service of the goat, whose gamey flavor brings a special depth. "I didn't want to overcomplicate the flavor too much with other heavier things," Beauchamp says. "I wanted the goat to shine through with a little bit of heat."
New York has its hot dogs. The South has its barbecue. DC, somewhere in between, is all about the half-smoke. "Each city needs those quintessential dishes," Story tells me, and the half-smoke "belongs to DC." As the city's restaurant culture comes into its own more and more, the half-smoke's profile rises along with it. And it's a sausage we could all do better to know.