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.
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.
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.