May 1, 2012

Ben's Chili Bowl

Location: 1213 U St NW (U Street, Green/Yellow)
Cost: $10-15, CASH ONLY
Ben's Chili Bowl on Urbanspoon

I've thought for many moons about how I'd write this all-important (hey, it's my mind, I can afford to be a little self-important, right?) first food post.  After all, first impressions are everything, right?  But after sifting through hours of admittedly mediocre ideas, I thought I'd pay homage to how I got the idea for this blog in the first place and post whatever came to mind late at night, in a half-delirious post-call state.

I'm here.  After 4 years of rote memorization, grueling board exams, sleepless call nights, and abusive attendings, I've finally made it to residency.  Give or take 5 weeks.  More importantly, I'm here in DC, and for the first time, I'm claiming part-ownership of this city as a new resident.  Okay, almost new resident.  I'm visiting the city to find an apartment ahead of my upcoming move.  But still, what better way to prove your newfound ownership of a city than to visit its most iconic restaurant?

Ben's Chili Bowl is a literal Washington landmark.  It's true, the building is a contributing property to the Greater U Street Historic District.  It opened in 1958, back when Washington was still a segregated town, and has stood the test of time, including being one of the only businesses open in the area during the riots that rocked the city after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968.

Today, the restaurant is a rock of stability and tradition in a changing U Street community, serving up Half-Smokes and Fries to the huddled masses, be they black, white, or asian, as it so happens to be on this particular day.

The minute I entered the restaurant, I knew I was in for a good time.  After all, it met all the criteria for a truly great restaurant.  Cash only? Check.  Long, serpentine line despite the fact that it's neither lunchtime nor dinnertime? Check.  Greasy grill lined with meat in tube form? Check.  Usher's Bad Girl playing on a jukebox with all the employees singing at the top of their lungs? I think I'm in heaven.

It was 2 in the afternoon, and I was starving after spending the morning visiting one apartment after another.  Making my way to the counter, I ordered up a couple of classics: a Chili Half-Smoke with everything on it (chili, mustard, & onions) with a side of Chili Cheese Fries.  Not more than 2 minutes later, I was presented with this:

The girl waiting in front of me in line said it all: "OMG THAT LOOKS AMAZINGGGGGGGGG"

Oh, did it taste amazing as well.  The chili was nice and meaty with few beans, and had a wonderful kick of hotness that isn't always there.  And the half-smoke sausage was plump, juicy, and had a nice satisfying crunch to it when I bit into the casing.  If I had to do it again, I'd go without the mustard - it gave the half-smoke a little too much unopposed tang.

The chili cheese fries were the perfect complement to the half-smoke.  Yes, they use nacho cheese.  And yes, that is a good thing.  A very good thing.  The cheese rounded out the flavor of the chili, and the fries were able to stay just crispy enough despite being drenched in (what felt like) a pound of rich, gooey goodness.

That meal destroyed me, though.  I went in starving.  I came out limping.  The fries are definitely meant for sharing.  And don't forget to stay hydrated!  The salt kicks in about 20 minutes after your meal, and you'll want water by your side when it happens.

For delivering on the ridiculous amount of hype it had going prior to my meal, Ben's Chili Bowl earns 4.5 Cherries.


  1. I love that place. Really captures the 50's look and feel. Check out their jukeboxes model. It is a wooden tuner.