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Ben's Chili Bowl

1213 U St. NW, Washington, DC - (202) 667-0909
Posted By Michael Stern on 3/31/2015 4:04:00 PM
Ben's is a landmark, a tourist attraction, and a place President Obama has been known to go when his wife isn't looking. We hold none of that against what is, in fact, a terrific chili-dog parlor in the nation's capital.

When you stroll in you wills see a griddle on the right, lined up with hot dogs and half-smoke sausages, sizzling hot and ready to be bunned, dressed, and topped with chili. We recommend both the regular chili dog and the chili smoke, the latter made with the half-smoke sausage that is unique to the area around DC. It is a taut-skinned smoky link bigger than most hot dogs, firm-fleshed with an unbelievably luscious character. It is especially good blanketed with Ben’s chili, which is thick, peppery, full-flavored and positively addictive. The whole package – sausage, mustard and onions, and a heap of chili all piled into a tender bun – is extremely unwieldy, impossible to eat without lots of spillage; but that’s ok. Dripping and licking is part of the dining experience.

The regular hot dog has plenty of character too. No bland tube steak here; it is hot and spicy and a fine balance for the chili. As for dessert, there are fine cakes, served in thick layered slices with plenty of frosting. We love the sweet potato cake, which is moist and spicy.

As for Ben’s history, there’s a whole fact sheet on the counter to take and read (or the historical information is available at Ben’s web site). The basic story is that U Street was once known as Black Broadway for all the musical talent that used to perform in clubs along the way. Since its founding in 1958, Ben’s has survived the neighborhood’s ups and downs, and in 2001, its founders, Ben and Virginia Ali, were inducted into the Washington, D.C., Hall of Fame. (Mr. Ali passed away in October, 2009.)

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Scorecard

5 - Overall: Legendary - Worth driving from anyplace
Overall: Legendary - Worth driving from anyplace
chili dog
Sweet Potato Cake
chili smoke
Chili Cheese Fries
Half-smoke
French Fries
Sweet Potato Pie
Strawberry Cake
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Reviewers Photos [Upload Your Photos]

Half smokes on the griddle await their buns and a blanket of chili.
"Half smokes on the griddle await their buns and a blanket of chili."
Michael Stern





This end-view of a chili dog shows the mustard that is customarily applied before the chili. The dog itself is excellent!
"This end-view of a chili dog shows the mustard that is customarily applied before the chili. The dog itself is excellent!"
Michael Stern


A half smoke blanketed with chili: it's definitely the way to go at Ben's, but the half-smoke all by itself is something special, too.
"A half smoke blanketed with chili: it's definitely the way to go at Ben's, but the half-smoke all by itself is something special, too."
Michael Stern


We were lucky enough to be sitting in a booth at Ben's when this sweet potato cake was brought out front, freshly cut. Wow, what a treat!
"We were lucky enough to be sitting in a booth at Ben's when this sweet potato cake was brought out front, freshly cut. Wow, what a treat!"
Michael Stern


Ben Ali stands in front of the legendary restaurant he created ... that is now run by his sons. Mr. Ali passed away in 2009 at the age of 82.
"Ben Ali stands in front of the legendary restaurant he created ... that is now run by his sons. Mr. Ali passed away in 2009 at the age of 82."
Michael Stern


Everyone at the table who sampled the moist strawberry cake declared it a winner!
"Everyone at the table who sampled the moist strawberry cake declared it a winner!"
Cliff Strutz


Half-smokes and chili dogs are served with corrugated potato chips on the side. But we believe it's worth spending extra for a plate of Ben's French fries.
"Half-smokes and chili dogs are served with corrugated potato chips on the side. But we believe it's worth spending extra for a plate of Ben's French fries."
Michael Stern


Ben's serves one of the best sweet potato pies anywhere. It is so good that we plowed into the point of the wedge before I remembered to take a picture. That's why this photo shows only the outer edge. I cropped out the bite marks.
"Ben's serves one of the best sweet potato pies anywhere. It is so good that we plowed into the point of the wedge before I remembered to take a picture. That's why this photo shows only the outer edge. I cropped out the bite marks."
Michael Stern


Ben's tasty chili works equally well on their burgers.
"Ben's tasty chili works equally well on their burgers."
Cliff Strutz


A huge, sloppy and addictive plate of French fries topped with Ben's alluring dark chili and school-bus-orange cheese makes one heck of a naughty meal ... or a good side dish for two or three or four people to share with their half smokes.
"A huge, sloppy and addictive plate of French fries topped with Ben's alluring dark chili and school-bus-orange cheese makes one heck of a naughty meal ... or a good side dish for two or three or four people to share with their half smokes."
Michael Stern


The one dish unique to Washington, DC: a half-smoke. They are sold from street carts throughout the city, but there's none better than the one you get at Ben's. The sound of biting into one, as juices burst, is almost as good as the taste.
"The one dish unique to Washington, DC: a half-smoke. They are sold from street carts throughout the city, but there's none better than the one you get at Ben's. The sound of biting into one, as juices burst, is almost as good as the taste."
Michael Stern


Ben's signature dish: a half-smoke topped with with chili in a steamed-soft bun. Below the chili and atop the sausage are mustard and onion, of course.
"Ben's signature dish: a half-smoke topped with with chili in a steamed-soft bun. Below the chili and atop the sausage are mustard and onion, of course."
Michael Stern


After finding Florida Avenue Grill not open for another hour, we headed over to Ben's for a half smoke breakfast, which includes eggs and your choice of home fries or grits. The chili does not come with it, but the friendly waitress was happy to include a generous portion on top of the half smoke.
"After finding Florida Avenue Grill not open for another hour, we headed over to Ben's for a half smoke breakfast, which includes eggs and your choice of home fries or grits. The chili does not come with it, but the friendly waitress was happy to include a generous portion on top of the half smoke."
Cliff Strutz



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