The half-smoke is a slightly spicy sausage unique to Washington, D.C., and is generally agreed by most publications and foodies to be the city's signature dish (though there are proponents of Navy Bean soup). It is widely sold in carts and sandwich shops throughout the city, and legend has it that Cosby, Ben's most famous longtime customer, fell in love with the half-smoke a half century ago while serving in the Navy and stationed nearby.
Speaking of legends, there are three prevailing theories as to exactly what the half-smoke is and why it is so named. Some say it was traditionally smoked less than other smoked sausages, or "half smoked." The typical recipe calls for a 50-50 split between pork and beef, which some believe explains the half. The oddest theory is that it is spiced halfway to the level of the other sausage product it most resembles, the polish sausage. In any case, it looks like a hot dog, except about twice as thick, has flecks of hot pepper in it, so some bites are spicier than others, and to me it most resembles the spicy sausages of Spain and Portugal, chorizo or linguica, albeit in a more self-contained and not as spicy single-link form.
While explanations may be argued, virtually everyone in D.C. agrees that Ben's serves the very best half-smoke. It is grilled until just slightly charred, giving the exterior a perfect snap, and after I ordered a follow-up to my first and watched the careful tending of the flat-top grill, I believe this cooking perfection of pulling the sausage at just the right moment is not a matter of chance but something Ben's does consistently. Then there is the chili. It is a saucy style, with flecks of meat rather than chunks, the consistency of Cincinnati's famous chili but flavored like Texas beef chili. Served on its own, I think it is too thin and soupy to be eaten as chili, but as a topping for hot dogs, burgers, and half-smokes it works perfectly - especially on the half-smoke. The snap of the skin, the firm texture of the interior and the occasional hit of spice all stand up to and balance perfectly with the consistency and flavor of the chili and make a great, albeit very messy combo. There is no neat way to eat these creations. The hot dog was blander, softer and less crisp, and thus did not fare as well under the chili. Both are traditionally served with mustard and onions, which are very finely diced, and presented on a sheet of wax paper in a red lattice plastic bowl with a pile of ridged potato chips.
Another Ben's winner is the chili-cheese fries, smothered in the same chili and a gooey nacho-like yellow cheese. The fries are fresh and good, but could be crisper to withstand the liquidy onslaught, yet the more I ate the more I couldn't stop. While I think the chili-cheese fries at Ben's could use improvement, they are strangely addictive and a real crowd pleaser. However, the half-smoke, which is excellent, has little room for improvement, except when topped with the house chili, a match made in heaven.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, for visitors to the nation's capital - there is no restaurant in D.C. this iconic. Ben's also has a stand at Nationals Park baseball stadium.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 1213 U Street, NW, Washington, DC; 202-667-0909; benschilibowl.com/
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a BBQ contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.