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Chili Americana: Landmark Chili Parlors

IMG_6647 Opened in 1958 in a former theater at 1213 U Street, Ben’s is a Washington D.C. landmark and an icon of the golden age of chili parlors. Ben’s signature dish, the original chili half-smoke, is a quarter-pound link of the griddled sausage on a steamed bun, with mustard, onions and chili sauce. The chili half-smoke was one the best “chili dogs” I’ve ever had. The meaty coarse-ground beef and pork link reminded me of that Texas barbecue tradition, Elgin sausage.

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The chili came in a Styrofoam bowl with saltines. I asked for the cheese and onions on the side. The chili in the bowl had red kidney beans, it looked like a meaty gravy. Not the best chili I ever ate, but not half bad either.

IMG_6568 Texans are somewhat dismissive of what passes for chili in other parts of the country. But my tour of American chili venues revealed that the chili con carne culture is better preserved in places like Washington D.C. that here in Texas.

Chili will always have a place at the center of the Tex-Mex tradition, but the truth is most Tex-Mex restaurants serve chili gravy on their enchiladas–many don’t even make chili anymore. As for restaurants dedicated to chili in Texas, The Texas Chili Parlor in Austin is about it. Meanwhile, D.C. has the Hard Times Chili chain (more about that one in another post) and Ben’s Chili Bowl–arguably the most famous chili restaurant in the country.

3 comments to Chili Americana: Landmark Chili Parlors

  • aaron pippett

    Casper’s Chili Parlor in Springfield, MO is an awesome chili parlor.

  • Carpetbagger

    Just out of curiosity, have you been to Varallo’s in Nashville? It is a family owned parlor that has been open since 1907. Definitely full of regulars who eat their daily. Todd Varallo is the current captain of the ship and is a great guy. You should swing by next time you are down this way. Btw, love your blog and books.

  • Mark Myers

    I wonder, have you ever sampled Cincinnati-style chili? I’m a native Texan but have cousins who grew up in the Cincinnati area and introduced me to the style, and I have to say, though its not real chili, I like it. Thankfully no beans, but served on top of spaghetti with shredded cheddar and chopped onions. Its has a distinct flavor of cinnamon and cloves. From what I remember being told, a Greek immigrant came to Cincinnati and opened a restaurant, serving a Greek dish he called chili. (If youve ever had the Thursday spaghetti lunch at St Basil the Great greek orthodox church on Eldridge in the Energy Corridor, it’s similiar). The best example of it is served by the Skyline Chili fast food chain in the Cincinnati area, and you can even order frozen chili shipped to you.